A strange realisation came to me a couple of years ago. There are very few people on this planet from whom I actively seek advice about personal decisions. I can count those people on the fingers of one hand, and still have a thumb spare. It’s not for lack of friends or confidants, or for lack of trust. So what’s going on?
A few possible explanations. For one thing, my decisions and deliberations are my problems. We all have shit to deal with, and I know most of my problems don’t add up to a hill of beans compared to most people’s. And it takes time and patience to explain the initial position behind any decision, an indulgence too much to ask of people with busy lives and problems of their own.
But more than these reasons, most people are just really bad at good advice. Most of us tend to give advice based solely on our own experiences and world-view, without stopping to consider whether one size really does fit all. The few friends whose advice I would seek on the really thorny problems will either tease the decision out of me by asking perceptive questions, or talk about what they would do or what others in comparable situations have done, and let me draw my own conclusions. They are smart enough to know that I’m not really asking for advice, so much as another perspective.
I’m not short of advice, though. People give it to me all the time, even though I don’t ask for it. I’m naïve enough to believe that at heart most people want to help, to share what they consider to be their personal wisdom. This is usually what’s going on when we make recommendations from our own limited, narrow experiences. ‘Don’t miss the temple at wherever’, ‘you simply must do yoga’… blah blah. As if there were not an almost infinite number of other worthwhile options that we did not try, if we’ve even heard of them. Or it allows us to show off a bit. Imparting our words of wisdom gives us a chance to feel useful and smart. ‘I did this, so you should too, then we can congratulate each other on making such a wise choice’.
The often over-confident know-alls who dole out unsolicited advice never pause to think about the person on the receiving end. What are they really like? What makes them tick? How are they different from me? And different they certainly are. Experience, environment, genes, conditioning – all combine to make each of us unique. No, we just plunge in and start dishing out the opinions.
Trying to figure out what’s going on behind the impulse to foist advice on others, I recall Oliver Burkeman’s excellent article about ‘Life Choice Evangelists’ – people who feel the need to bug others to make life choices in the same way they have. You know the sort: when are you going to get married? …have kids? …get a proper job? …become vegan? …stop flying everywhere? Burkeman’s conclusion is that people who do this are really seeking reassurance that they’ve made the right decisions themselves. (Don’t know anyone like that? Then I’m afraid it’s probably you!)
Burkeman is probably right that when your family and acquaintances cajole and drop hints that their life choices would be best for you (for everybody), they are actually revealing their own insecurities. But in other non-Western cultures, the same life choices may represent institutions much more deeply embedded in the fabric of society and economy. Not marrying and having offspring may mean having no one to work your fields and care for you in later years. Hence the genuine bafflement of so many non-Westerners when they hear I am single and childless.
I am increasingly aware of the pervasiveness of casual, unsolicited and, crucially, impersonal advice that we bandy around daily. It’s part of our language, our stock phrases and expressions. You should, why don’t you, if I were you, in my opinion, I reckon, my 2 cents’ worth, IMHO … (Note I am not talking about expressing preferences or thoughts about third-party matters: politics, art, philosophy – all of which are the proper subjects of opinion. I am talking about sticking one’s oar into other people’s affairs.)
Other phrases like “it’s a shame that,” or “it’s a pity that”, are also judgemental and quasi-evangelistic, even if we don’t use them in their literal senses nowadays. (Non-native English speakers are sometimes caught out by such phrases, as I found out to my cost when I off-handedly wrote in an email to a Korean contact “it’s a shame you can’t speak on the phone…”. They took it literally, as an accusation of shameful behaviour, and got upset. It took me a long time to explain the idiomatic use of the phrase and I’m still not sure they got it). When we say ‘it’s a shame that…’, what we are really saying is that the other course of action – the one that didn’t or will not occur (the ‘counterfactual’ to use the jargon) – is somehow better. In other words ‘I wouldn’t have done that if I were you… you should do it my way’. Of course, we don’t really spell it out like that, even in our own minds, but that is what ‘it’s a shame that…’ statements communicate.
But even so … What’s the problem? Who cares? Let the know-alls spout off. Just ignore them, nod and go your way. And yes, that’s usually the best response. Or when confronted with a full-on Life Choice Evangelist pestering you that their way really is the best, do as Burkeman suggests and agree vigorously with them, before exiting their company as quickly as possible. Those are my usual tactics. But as I have become sensitised to this phenomenon, I start to notice this kind of judgemental language in my own thinking and speech. And I’ve resolved to root it out and replace it with something more constructive. So, rather than telling, what about … just asking?
In an interview for the On Being podcast, poet and philosopher David Whyte talks about the concept of ‘asking the beautiful questions’. “The ability to ask beautiful questions, often in very unbeautiful moments, is one of the great disciplines of a human life. And a beautiful question starts to shape your identity as much by asking it, as it does by having it answered. You just have to keep asking. And before you know it, you will find yourself actually shaping a different life, meeting different people, finding conversations that are leading you in those directions that you wouldn’t even have seen before.”
A beautiful question is a notion that’s been kicked around by various writers and thinkers. Some talk about it as a way of asking revealing getting-to-know-you questions. The kind of questions that you are encouraged to ask on a date or of people with whom you wish to form a stronger connection. And maybe this leads to profound insights for some people, although these kind of hypothetical scenario-based questions range from the trite (What would constitute a “perfect” day for you?’, or ‘Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?’), to the plain silly (‘Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die’? … really?).
But these uncontextualised, supposedly ‘deep and meaningful’ conversation starters are not at all what I take to be beautiful questions. No doubt they have their uses, but for me (and, I’m guessing, for Whyte) the true beauty of a question lies in its appropriateness to an evolving conversation and its participants. Timing, phrasing and intent are everything. A beautiful question could invite the respondent to think about their situation in a new way, or foster the trust necessary to share candidly and without fear or judgement. It gets at the heart of the matter under discussion and cultivates empathetic connection. It will be about the respondent, not about showing how clever or attentive the asker is. It will be spontaneous, not formulaic or pre-written like interview questions.
This is a powerful notion, when allied with the resolution to resist putting forward your own opinion. It’s something I haven’t always been good at in the past, asking questions and listening to the answers. Then asking more questions. And of course, if your interlocutor also practises the art of asking questions, you will have ample opportunity to put forth your thoughts. And then that’s a conversation.
So in my own speech I will strive to ask the beautiful questions, although I’ll settle for just intelligent ones. Let’s see where it leads. Shame on those who would tell you ‘it’s a shame that… [anything]. And do me a favour and shove ‘should’ where the sun don’t shine.