Unsolicited advice comes for free but is seldom appreciated or acted upon.

A few weeks ago, waiting at a crowded airport gate for the boarding announcement of my much-delayed flight, I couldn’t help overhearing several conversations taking place around me. Since we are not a particularly discreet people, this is not at all hard to do. There were the usual disgruntled grumbles about flight delays and the poor quality of the airport and all of that, but what really struck me forcefully was that a fair number of these conversations offered some form of advice or the other, usually preceded by a clear statement of advisory intent, like “Take it from me...”, “Take my advice...”, “What you should have done...” and so on.

Evidently, as a nation, we love to advise others. It may have to do with the fact that we have been advised so much in the course of our lives, but we do it with such consummate ease that we don’t even realise we are doing it.

And here’s the kicker! We usually do so without being asked.

Certainly sharing information or giving one a “heads up” is understandable and usually appreciated. When one tells a stranger not to take a certain route to avoid a traffic jam, or not to use a particular toilet stall since it’s not clean, or that the front tyre on the driver’s side is almost flat, chances are the stranger may actually be grateful for the kindness. However, when one advises a stranger who is nervously buying a sexual stimulant drug at the pharmacy that his sexual problem is more likely to be cured by homoeopathy than the pill he just bought, or advising the lady on an adjacent seat on the train that she should have a child before she’s 30 so her parents can have a grandchild, or advising the doctor one is consulting that the Feng Shui in the clinic needs some work, one is probably violating the other’s personal space.

I believe that the intentions behind unsolicited advice are rarely malafide. In fact, we see it as our responsibility to share our wisdom with others. And when our unsolicited advice is not heeded, as is frequently the case, we are bemused, sometimes offended and often distressed. We resolve never to offer unsolicited advice again but, much sooner than we realise, we are at it again.

One might well argue that, in personal relationships, one should feel free to offer unsolicited advice, simply because such relationships are designed to benefit from such counsel. And this is not entirely untrue. Any relationship structured around learning employs advice as a currency. Relationships such as the ones between teacher and student, mentor and protégé, boss and subordinate, parent and pre-adult child and the like are generally rife with unsolicited advice given and taken. However, what are generally considered relationships between “equals”, like the ones between friends, co-workers, boyfriend and girlfriend, spouses or live-in partners, parents and adult children and so on are not necessarily predicated on unsolicited advice.

I include parent and adult child in the “equal” subset because, even though parents have more life experiences in their repertoire, adult children might not find these entirely relevant to their own contexts and may feel that since they too are adults, they can come to their conclusions based on their own experiences, less extensive though these may be.

Typically unsolicited advice may trigger off a sense of being judged by the other and may therefore raise hackles immediately. It’s almost like the adviser is saying, “Look, I know more than you, so do as I say”. Obviously no one likes to be shown up as less knowledgeable, so it’s not surprising that the first instinct is to reject unsolicited advice, however sound it may be. Also, the dynamics of the relationship may impact on the acceptance or rejection of the words of wisdom, as when a person who feels controlled by the spouse, refuses to heed the latter’s perfectly sensible advice not to drive after drinking. And when the level of emotional dependence, and therefore emotional vulnerability in a relationship is very high, as it usually is (or should be) between spouses, statements of judgement, presented as advice, may produce unintended, but unpleasant, consequences.

On the other hand, solicited advice, as happens in professional relationships between doctor and patient, lawyer and client, service provider and service seeker, raises no such unconscious conflict, provided the adviser stays within the brief. Counsel from a lawyer to wait a few weeks before litigating will be considered perfectly acceptable, but the same lawyer will be violating a boundary if the client is advised to lose weight. Also, it is not unusual for opinions, guidance or suggestions (“advice” by many other names) to be sought even in “equal” relationships, and such solicited advice, whether or not it’s acted upon will usually be warmly received.

Essentially, unsolicited counsel will only be accepted when it comes from a source to whom one has given authority, whether on account of the nature of the relationship or the high regard the adviser’s wisdom is accorded. In any other situation, the more prudent thing to do would be to hold one’s counsel. However sound you think it may be. Until it’s asked for. That’s the best advice I can offer. And, unsolicited at that.

E-mail: vijay@vijaynagaswami.com