This morning I’m thinking about advice.
I give advice quite often. I’m a teacher, so my students ask my opinion on — well, everything they think I’d be willing to talk about. They ask about English, of course, about what advice I can give them to improve their writing, or which book I think they should read, or how they can raise their test scores or their grades. But also, because they like and trust and respect me, they ask about their lives, and they ask for my opinion on that, too: what do I think about dating. What do I think about partying — read, drinking and using recreational drugs. What do I think about college. Sometimes they ask me about whatever nonsense they can think of just because the longer they keep me talking, the less actual schoolwork they have to do that day. And knowing that, I generally let them distract and derail me, because I think they have every right to take a hand in steering where the class goes, and if they want to waste a day, they probably have a reason for wasting the day; I think their reason for wasting the day probably has more behind it than my reason for wanting to go ahead, which is generally, “Because I thought we would.” When it’s a more serious reason — they need to prepare for the AP test, for instance — then I’m less flexible and they don’t push as hard. It works out.
Anyway, that’s just in my job. I also have friends who are younger than me and who are newer teachers, and they ask me for advice because of my experience. I keep this blog, and in the process of expressing my opinion on matters, I almost always give opinions that lean towards advice, that at least indicate what I think people should do, if not tell them outright. My wife asks me for my opinion, though that doesn’t actually come out as advice, I think; just my opinion. I don’t think I’m smarter or wiser than her, so I don’t tell her what to do. (I’ve given her teaching advice, but not much because she doesn’t need it. I give her writing advice on the once-every-five-years occasion when she has something she needs to write.)
Also, since I am a white male American, I do have my mansplaining moments. (I actually talked with a guy on Facebook who doesn’t believe that mansplaining happens, nor manspreading. Called them things that feminists made up to insult men. I don’t know how people can be that oblivious. Especially with manspreading: have you ever been on public transportation?
What I wanted to do today is to give some advice to the advisers. Because I know I’m not alone, but I have recently become more aware of my bad habits when it comes to advice; I think other people should be more aware of their bad advice habits, too.
The first is the mansplaining tendency. (I also manspread, but I’m a teacher, so I don’t generally share space with other people — I sit behind my desk or in my Lecturin’ Chair at the front of the room, while all my students are in their individual desks facing me. I also don’t take public transportation. When I do, I sit as compactly as I can. I think I probably forget to do the same in shared seating like at movie theaters and such, and if you’ve sat next to me and had less space because of me, I’m sorry. Feel free to punch me in the kneecap.) This is the sexist version, but there are a thousand versions that have nothing to do with gender: I am far more often guilty of teachersplaining than I am of mansplaining. I try to explain things all day long, so I slip into the habit and end up explaining things to people who don’t need the explanation — one of the best was early in my teaching career when I found a funny passage in a book, read it out loud to my wife, and paused halfway through to explain a word. The look she gave me before she very dryly — and very patiently, though still at the far edge of that patience — said, “I know what it means, Dusty,” has stuck with me ever since. But though I don’t explain things to her very often (I do sometimes, but it’s more like I’m talking out loud, or trying to make things clear in my own head, and it only sounds like I’m explaining something condescendingly — so like if she said, “Do we need to take the car in to the mechanic?” I might say, “The guy who fixes engines? Sure, we can do that.” It’s not that I’m explaining to her what a mechanic is, it’s that I’m clarifying that the car needs a tune-up and not that we need to take it to Firestone to get new tires. It’s a dumb example, but fitting, I think. I’ll ask my wife. She knows better than me.), I do it all the time to my students, and to other teachers, and to almost anyone who will give me the space to ramble on about what things mean or how they work — like my very kind and patient readers on here, because the only thing I do as much as teachersplaining is definitely blogsplaining.
This problem is also exacerbated by the fact that some people really do need the explanation. That dude who thought that mansplaining wasn’t really a thing needs a lesson in what mansplaining is and why men do it. Americans need lots of patient explanation from people who have been other places in the world and understand more about how the world works outside of these four walls — I mean, borders. (No, I mean walls. Also, Mr. Trump could really use some explanation in how walls work, and how they don’t.) White people need some –racesplaining? Colorsplaining? — if they hold any of those beliefs about white people being oppressed. And so on.
But it is a problem, nonetheless, when people try to explain things that don’t need explaining. It’s condescending and insulting, and it wastes huge amounts of time — especially because lots of people probably just wait it out, the way most women do with most men. Aware that they’re being condescended to, unwilling to turn the current discussion into a fight about said condescension when the condescender is just trying to help. But that’s the thing: help is not always necessary, and when it’s not necessary, it is actually a burden. A simple analogy: if you’re trying to climb out of a pool, and someone crouches down on the lip and tries to haul you out, that person is much more of a hindrance than a help because they’re in the way of you leaping out of the pool and onto the lip like a beached whale, and there’s no way they can get enough leverage or enough of a grip to actually lift your weight without simultaneously giving you an atomic wedgie.
So think of that. Think of whether or not someone needs your help, and if they don’t, maybe just try to stay back and out of the way.
That’s probably the best advice I can give to myself and to those others who give too much advice: not everyone needs your (my) help. People who do need help don’t need it all the time. Sometimes a person who is talking about a problem just needs to talk it out, just needs to express their thoughts in order to vent emotional steam or to clarify exactly what should be done, because thoughts are amorphous but words are definite, and so the process of putting things into words often makes the thoughts more clear.
In case you didn’t understand why people talk.
(See how annoying that can be?)
When someone just wants to express their feelings, all you need to do is listen, and make clear that you are listening, that the person is being heard. That’s actually all you need to say: “I’m listening. I hear you.” Express an opinion: “That sucks. That sounds really hard.” Maybe even a hope: “I hope it gets better.”
And how do you know if they actually want advice? It’s easy: they will ask. If you are listening and they know you are listening, and they want to know what you think they should do, in my experience they will almost always reach the end of their thoughts and then say, “So what do you think I should do?” That there is your signal to leap into advising action. Go nuts. Say everything you think. It’s your time to shine.
Then there’s one more thing you need to remember, especially if you are a parent or a teacher or someone of authority giving advice to young people: advice is not instruction. You can give advice, you can be heard and understood — and then the person you gave the advice to may do exactly the opposite of what you told them they should do. They will do it consciously, fully aware that what they are doing is not what you advised, and that you would probably disapprove of their actions. If you’re lucky, that simple act of defiance is not their actual goal, but even if it is, there’s nothing you can do but take it. I mean, if you are an authority figure, you can punish them for not listening to you; but that’s not going to go anywhere useful. If what the young person did was stupid, I would maybe say I was disappointed that they did the stupid thing I told them not to do, but since they already knew that when they did it, it wouldn’t be a strong point.
Young people make choices. They do so based on what seem like reasonable criteria at the time. You telling them that their choice was wrong, based on entirely different criteria, is not going to matter, unless they also think their choice was wrong; and then the best thing you can do is try to help them figure out better criteria. So when I threw a party in high school and WAY more people than I invited showed up, and they wrecked my house, I didn’t need to know my mother disapproved of what I did; I already knew that. I didn’t need to know that what I did was wrong and stupid; I already knew that. What I needed was a way to ensure that having fun with my friends did not turn into an open invitation to people who were not my friends to come and screw up my fun. I needed to be able to stop people before they came into my house, and say, “Go away, you are not welcome.” I did in fact learn to do that, though not because my mother helped me work it out.
I think the best thing we can do for young people is be as honest with them as we possibly can, and try to help them find good criteria for decisions. Try to get them to have a plan in case things go wrong. Help them to know what to do in an emergency — seems like good advice regardless, since emergencies come up even when we don’t make bad choices. We can’t stop them from doing wrong things, or from making bad choices; all we can do is try to help them understand what went wrong, and how to deal with it afterwards. They’re going to learn from their mistakes, and not from our advice.
Which means maybe we should stop giving it.
Maybe I should stop giving it.