Skip to content

How to give unsolicited advice (if you really must)

McKinley Valentine — 5 min read
How to give unsolicited advice (if you really must)
"Your children are fine without your advice and suggestions" -- sign at an NYC playground, via Erik Nauman

On this page

Today’s unsolicited advice is that no one likes unsolicited advice, and most people are very bad at giving it usefully.

I probably have less tolerance than average, but no one likes it.

Sometimes you have to ask yourself, “is it more important to tell them this thing I know, or more important to not make people feel really annoyed that I exist right now?” (For example: If they are describing the symptoms of ovarian cancer and don’t seem aware of it, then it’s more important to tell them the thing. Or their job application has spelling mistakes in it. But it’s probably not something as important as that, right?)

On social media, most of the time when someone shares a problem or mishap, they’re actually sharing a story

It might be a low-key joke of the “look what over-the-top awful thing happened to me” variety. People do a lot of self-deprecating “I’m so broke” or “I’m so vague and untogether” posts, but they actually usually are on top of their situation, and they’re sharing it because sharing stories is what people do.

Responding with your own story creates connection and engagement. Responding with advice separates and distances. It’s not just that they don’t want advice, but they actually don’t need it — they’re handling their shit but they don’t describe that part because it doesn’t add to the narrative. If there’s ANYTHING humorous in the telling, this goes triple. It’s a joke. Don’t respond to jokes with serious advice.

Unless someone says “Does anyone know…?” “Can you recommend…? “Help me!” they are probably sharing a story. Don’t give them advice. Reciprocate with your own related story if you want to.

The other reason people are bad at this is because the advice people usually give can be found on the front page of google. If someone has a problem, you can trust that they have googled it, and they know all the 101 advice. It’s really condescending to give people that advice.

You know that it’s obnoxious to, say, tell one of the scriptwriters of Star Wars who Lando Calrissian is? Because they’re an expert? Everyone is an expert on the first-page of google / wikipedia entry of their personal problems. So it’s just as obnoxious to give a problem-haver first-page-google advice as it is to give an expert obvious advice.

Replace whatever you were going to say with “Have you tried googling it?” That’s how you sound when you give obvious advice.

I want to make clear that I get how tempting this is.

I know a lot about skincare (more than the first page of google) and when I see women in pharmacies about to buy garbage products full of irritants, I have to clench my jaw to avoid warning them off it. Or teenagers being ignorant on public transport. They do not want a 30-year-old stepping in and saying “If you like Wolfmother, you should really give Led Zeppelin a try” NO. It’s really unacceptable, right? I shouldn’t do that! GOD I want to though.

So I get how much you want to. I promise that I understand so hard. But you mustn’t. It ruins people’s hours by making them jumpy and irritable, and it makes them like you less. If you do it all the time, when people get a notification from you, their shoulders will automatically start to go up around their ears. You don’t want people to think of you that way! I don’t want people to think of me that way!

If you gotta say something on social media, post it on your own wall instead of commenting

I tell you the one thing that's good about Facebook? You can go to your own wall and post a general PSA about skincare, Led Zeppelin, or whatever, and it is 100% okay and non-obnoxious. This is the way to get out your advice-giving urges without making people’s skin twitch.

The other way is to ask. This is 100% allowed and cool and respect-worthy. “I’ve had a lot of success developing a regular exercise habit, can I tell you what’s worked for me or are you not wanting suggestions right now?”

I really believe it’s 98% of the time out of a belief that you can improve their lives, not out of wanting to show off your superior knowledge or anything like that. (Okay, maybe 94%, with 4% ‘needing to feel needed’.) Many dearly beloved friends fall for the giving-advice vice. But look, it doesn’t work. You won’t be improving their lives, you’ll be making them slightly worse. Sorry. That’s just how it is. Is that what you want to do? Really think about if you want to make someone’s life slightly but measurably worse for half an hour, and have them like you slightly but measurably less. Cause that’s what you’re doing. (Please note this isn’t directed at anyone specific, but if you’ve been feeling like it’s directed at you, well — that probably means you know you do this and you should stop.)

If someone says they are travelling to a place, they are not asking for recommendations

If you want to give them recommendations, you gotta ask first. And if your recommendation is the major tourist attraction in the area they’re visiting, just no. You don’t get to say it. People visiting Cambodia have heard of Angkor Wat. They are not going to miss out if you don’t suggest it. Similarly, they know not to drink the water, how to avoid simple scams, and all the other advice that’s on the first page of every Lonely Planet. Unless you have some real, genuine insiders’ knowledge, just post it on your own wall.

Last advice on travel advice giving: you gotta give some evidence of why they should do what you say. “Go to x because they have a seven-storey library with sliding ladders on rails” is good. “You gotta check out x!” without further details is just pushing people to have the same travel experience you did with no justification, just because you did it. Maybe if you happen to know you are extremely similar people this is okay. Otherwise it’s just you wanting to re-live and talk about when you travelled. Which is okay! But just… tell the story of that, as a worthy story in itself, don’t turn it to advice and push it on people.

I have a lot of pent-up feelings about this okay,

But yeah:

  1. Ask first.
  2. Post it to your own wall.

God I hope this works.

You know what, point 3, I’m giving a free pass to every reader to say ‘okay stop giving advice please’ in person and to delete all instances of unsolicited advice from their social media without apology or explanation. You’ll be improving the environment for all of us — including those of us who feel strong urges to give unsolicited advice and need reminders that we shouldn’t. Help us keep our urges in check!

This piece was originally published in my newsletter, The Whippet. Subscribe to get the next issue in your inbox!

Unsolicited AdviceEQ & Interpersonal


Sign in or become a Whippet subscriber (free or paid) to add your thoughts.
Just enter your email below to get a log in link.