Blink-And-You’ll-Miss-It Etiquette Lesson #5

etiquette

I gave a reading at Barnes & Noble here in NYC recently, and someone asked a question about the process of giving advice to others that reminded me of a fascinating psychologist I heard on NPR a while ago who said, "All unsolicited advice is self-serving."

As someone who wrote a mammoth book of advice, who usually secretly has, at the ready, some sage tidbit or relevant statistic regarding whatever woe you might be airing, I have taken this wisdom to heart. I am careful not to spontaneously give my opinion, or at least to qualify my opinion as such, unless I'm specifically asked "what should I do?"

Which brings me to the conversational practice I shall refer to as the "You know, You Should" tic. You know what I'm talking about. You tell someone you're trying to save money, they come back with "You know, you should rent out your apartment and sleep in your car for a month." You tell someone you're trying to lose weight, they come back with, "You know, you should cut all refined sugars out of your diet." I was just chatting with Rebecca, a novelist at the writing space where I work, and she reminded me of one of my all-time favorites that authors get: "You know, if you really want to publicize your novel, you should rent a van, drive it across the country, and go on a guerilla tour, reading from your book in every major city."

There is something about the "you know" that seems intended to soften the unsolicited "you should" that follows. The "You Know, You Should" tic is most often the product of your life filtered through the experience of the advice-giver's experience and -- too frequently -- fears. "You know, you should probably see a dermatologist about that birthmark" is most often spoken by someone who is terrified of getting skin cancer herself and, while she may believe their "advice" to be well-meaning, the phrasing is most likely to strike terror into the port-wine-stained recipicient.

When tempted to give unsolicited advice, I suggest trying the slightly formal "Can I offer my opinion?" or even "I have an idea...". "Here's my take on the situation" works, or, if you really can't resist the bestowal of your brilliant opinion, you may use my favorite Lorrie Moore reference, "According to One Woman's Opinion..." where One Woman's Opinion is an as-yet-unwritten book that includes every one of your personal prejudices and ideas.

You know, you should really consider getting back to work now before your boss catches you reading blogs on the clock.

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