Unsolicited Advice Culture
by KATRIN HIGHER
There has been a certain increase in volume among my acquaintances and friends, as well as peers and strangers, where the casual sharing of advice and normal human interchange of ideas of yore has been replaced with a commanding flood of unsolicited or bash-one-over-the-head-with advice mania. Why has everyone become a self-help guru/mother/father/best friend?
The last few years have been filled with “You Shoulds,” “You Shouldn’ts,” “Why aren’t yous” “Stop this, stop that," “Get pregnant now." It is to the point where I now look at sugar and wonder if it’s going to send me to the ER if it happens to be refined.
The origins of “giving advice” are not exactly clear, but culturally and anthropologically speaking, it makes sense that elders give others in their groupings some sage life-advice as a way of passing on the traditions that help everyone live smoothly. But our frantic modernity has created something that is pathological in its flogging insistence of what one should or shouldn’t do, buy, eat or wear.
Dear Abby was started in 1956 by Pauline Phillips and the current syndicate describes the column as “well known for sound, compassionate advice, delivered with the straightforward style of a good friend.” Ah, a good friend you say!
Advice columns have their merits. It can give the lost soul some comfort to hear words of blanket facebook quote-like wisdom or uplift. But it looks to me that it’s gone the way of explosive capitalism and advice-giving hubris. After Dear Abby, we got Ann Landers, then advice columns in all of the lady mags and even Playboy. Here’s how to solve your problems, everyone! The dawn of Oprah turned this ethos into a worldwide brand. This is not an Oprah-bashing article mind you, but her show took strident advice-giving to capitalistic heights. Each special expert guest told you how you need to be living, or else, also you must buy this and that or else. They are like insidious infomercials disguised as care-giving.
YOU NEED TO HAVE. I need to have this or else, or else WHAT?! As a result of this advice-on-steroids culture, we end up questioning our own decisions and worth according to the journeys of other people as default, instead of listening to ourselves and perhaps the select group of people you have learned to trust over time.
It makes sense that the commodification of giving advice would arise quickly with the increase in technology and communication; it is the perfect advertising strategy. You must click on this and do as these gorgeous rich people did or else you will rot, hurt others with your ugly rotten face, and ultimately die alone while leaving everyone disappointed especially your lover and mom. Please work out and meditate while doing yoga and drinking grass juice at the same time as having a child before 30! Oprah and her Drs Oz and Phil, the media, self-help books, and now the internet have created Advice Monsters swarming around in our day-to-day lives.
I hear it from strangers while waiting in line, from casual acquaintances, good friends and family which, is fine, though annoying, and from anything and anyone in between. The gamut runs from “You should really go Paleo” to as invasive a comment as “You really shouldn’t wait so long to have children…wait…you’re not even married yet?!” It is as though everyone has become a mother from the 1950s waiting in the wings for their daughter to meet the strapping young man at the Sadie Hawkins dance. Stand up straight! Posture! You have to marry him or you’re worth nothing! If you don’t do this, my life will actually have no meaning! Wait...
I crowdsourced this theory of mine, reaching out to friends and peers, asking them whether this is something they noticed and the particulars therein. Not only did literally everyone I ask emphatically respond with a resounding YES, they all had several particulars to choose from. The majority noted that most comments and advice centered around: diet, exercise and weight; but circumstantial advice is given especially during pregnancy and motherhood, as well as to those, like me, who are in their early 30s and as of yet or forever, child-free.
Personally, I do not want to go Paleo or quit sugar even if that did help you. I will not be going gluten-free thank you very much, and yes, even though I happen to be 33 years old, I am not going to “just have a baby and not think about it” (this has been said to me by two baby-boom aged people as well as a few people my age or younger (!)).
So why do so many folks become these insistent life coaches? I sometimes share helpful tips, sure, and it is a normal part of human nature to impart small quips of everyday successes onto your friends in a reasonable manner like: “Hey I tried this lip gloss, it’s great!” However we have entered this hyperbolic and seriously boundary-crossing territory which I can only attribute to a blend of media saturation and one’s insecurities desire of control and validation.
It is a way for someone to feel justified in their (perhaps expensive) choices, in making them feel less alone. There is an illusion of power when you insist that this stranger you meet in the Quinoa department should not be eating gluten: “Do not eat gluten for I am the goddess of this Whole Foods and shall save you, dear child! (Speaking of child, do you have any? I hope you’re not feeding them sugar I –).” In reality they are crossing a line into territory that is zero of their business. The power you wield regarding this privileged and lucky version of your life is not going to work on everyone; quite the opposite in fact.
We all have so many varying, complex and interesting needs that do not fit into a set world order and manner of living. The yoga-pant wearing Oprahtic sages, the bearded bartenders telling me to not drink beer, think they are doing us favors, but really, we feel invaded and guilty about not being enough or not having enough or doing the wrong thing. My life doesn’t work according to your script and as a good friend once said “keep your eyes on your own paper.” I don’t know if I believe that you just genuinely care about me, person sitting next to me at this weird dinner party.
Aren’t we evolved enough now to really start looking at boundaries more closely? To mind our own business especially when it comes to the bodies and the small or giant life-choices of others? We have simultaneously turned into a more open-minded culture (good) to a boundary crossing group of lifestyle dictators (bad). I don’t mind if you tell me I have to try this new chocolate bar, but I do mind when you tell me I better start having children or the alternative will be that I die unfulfilled, alone and full of moths.
Katrin Higher is a contributor to This Recording. This is her first appearance in these pages. She is a writer living in Astoria. You can find her twitter here.
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