Dear Pandy: She never listens, what should I do?

Riding the Fung Wah bus from New York to Boston is cheap and more interesting than driving alone. Last week I found myself surrounded by the typical mix of ages, languages, food odors and fragments of music leaking from many earphones. I left my iPod in my bag, choosing instead to vaguely fill in a crossword puzzle and listen to conversations among other passengers.

I was catching drifting snippets when a loud ring and subsequent conversation in the seat behind me eclipsed all other eavesdropping. I established that I was hearing a twenty-something man talking to a co-worker. They seemed to be discussing a big project. He kept asking how “they” wanted the information organized and for what purpose? Apparently, what he had done so far was wrong because his voice sounded more and more anxious. He could do what they were wanting now, but it would take time and he wasn’t sure if he could meet the deadline. Eventually he agreed to try his best. Then I heard his fingers clicking on the keyboard of his laptop. Through the gap in my seats, one up, one back, I could see him take out his cell phone again. This call opened with a few endearments, miss you already, how has your day gone so far, etc. My laptop companion began to share his concerns about all the charts he had to redo. Mid-sentence he cut off, silence, then in a stiff, reedy voice he began to apologize, reassuring her (I am assigning a female gender for ease in posting) that she should have a great day and that she is really great and that he will be great and everything is great, goodbye, love you.

Some might have reached for the earphones. Some might have rolled their eyes and cursed that slightly-too-loud cell phone voice people use as though talking though two cans and a string. Some might have entertained a Mrs. Robinson reverie (he was cute). I imagined myself getting up, sitting next to him, asking a few questions to clarify what I had surmised from his half of the dialogues and then offering him a few thoughts to consider: how to approach the pressing project and that he needed to get a new girlfriend. I had a brief, internal debate on how to overcome the whole “stranger” thing in order to get the conversation started. This kid needed me.

Now and then my superego jumps out of my body and slaps me in the face. Wake up! Mind your own business! Hello! Forty-something women do not approach twenty-something men they do not know and give advice on a love life that may or may not be actually happening according to an overheard phone call. Yes, of course, not. I knew that, didn’t I?

When we lived in Cambridge there was a certain grocery store where I was frequently accosted by wizened old crones. I was a primo target, a young mother with a five year old who sucked his thumb and a two year old who inevitably threw a raging tantrum when denied any product made with sugar. They would wag their fingers and cluck in creaky voices: he’s a little old for that, isn’t he? He’s going to ruin his teeth. He just needs a good spanking. I would lash out, but they would shake their heads knowingly, silly girl.

I don’t want to be an old busybody, but I do have this weird compulsion to give advice. My would-be bus friend was saved by the thinnest line of decorum. Had there been a hint of connection, we could have discussed how to clarify assignments at the onset and how he is entitled to a little support from his significant other.

It is hard to keep quiet when I make my living asking and answering questions. I also tend to be a few life steps ahead of many of my friends as far as the ages of my kids or the phases of my career and they want to know what is in store. So I tell them, with a little of “what I have learned along the way” thrown in. And I am the oldest and most parentified child in my family of origin. And I live with teenagers negotiating significant choices. In fact, I am expected to present collected wisdom (often recycled or referenced) in most areas of my life. I spout whatever prescription comes to mind and wonder how I got here. Did I create this life that suits me or is it coincidence and conditioning?

As I sat wrestling with my concern for laptop kid, I begin to catalogue, from best to worst intentions, why I, or perhaps anyone, might feel motivated to give advice. First and most noble, I hope to connect empathically with another person. It feels right to process past experiences aloud, distilling individual understanding into universal relevance. The second reason is the urge to fix, to help, to engage in human problem solving as a creative process. I might have expertise or be able to resource information. This desire can slip into self-interest when the issues become more compelling than the person or veers on martyrdom if a needy person becomes hooked on your enabling responses. The third and riskiest reason for giving advice is barely submerged hubris. Somewhere there is judgment lurking, whispering: my insight is superior to all, of course everyone wants to know the one way and best way to do all things. I am here to save the day. We don’t like to admit ego but it lies there clucking below the surface just the same.

I know that whatever my motivation, the worth of the advice is deemed by the recipient alone. If support is requested and the seeker is open, if there is trust and credibility in the relationship, two people can share and potentially resolve a personal dilemma in a way that transcends a hierarchal or know-it-all approach. If given to the wrong person at the wrong time, advice is intrusive and disrespectful. It can also impede true discovery.

Still, two weeks later, I think about my fellow passenger on the bus. What if I had started that conversation? Would he have responded like me to the Cambridge cronies: Turn the hell around, crazy lady! Or could I have caused him to reconsider the worst girlfriend ever?

There is one last explanation for my fleeting temptation to interfere in this young man’s business. In giving advice, are we not attempting to shape the story, influencing decisions that will lead to one conclusion more than another? Perhaps my desire to advocate a particular direction is tied to my innate curiosity in wanting to know how the story ends. We become ghostwriters for living narratives in which we may have sway but ultimately no accountability.

Then again, I could have been wrong about everything. This kid could be a whiner who complains incessantly and the girlfriend is doing him a tough love favor by telling him to buck up and pull himself together. I only heard one side of one moment in time. Another danger in determining advice. It is probably a good thing I kept my mouth shut.

21 responses to “Dear Pandy: She never listens, what should I do?”

  1. I have such funny memories of A and W in that grocery store. What is it with old Italian ladies and the propensity to dispense free advice? When we moved here we lived near some senior citizen houses & received no end of dirty looks and free advice — esp re: Molly’s refusal to wear real coats in winter (which began at 6 months and persists to the present).

    I can relate to your story, though, P. Maybe it’s inevitable that we slide into the position of the free advice dispensers. After all, we had to put up with so much crap from all the old people while we were growing up — we’ve earned the right to be a little sanctimonious.

  2. AW says:

    As someone who seeks and often takes your advice, I must say I find it pretty sage. You’re also pretty good at knowing when you’re wrong. So I say: go ahead, let us know what you think.

  3. Dave says:

    I find myself projecting my wishes and regrets about my own life when I give advice. Realizing this hasn’t stopped me from giving advice, though.

  4. PB says:

    Dave – I have been thinking about your comment – advice framed as how we should have or would have done it, hoping to vicariously get it right? So interesting. I do this to and it doesn’t stop me either.

  5. I often phrase advice as “if I were in that situation’. People seem to take it more as a grain of salt, as my humble opinion, not as “Here’s how you should run your life.” It still doesn’t stop me from giving advice, either, but it makes it more conversational when put into hypothetical form.

  6. lane says:

    3 and 4

    the best way to give advice is from the perspective of “I’ve done EVERYTHING right, believe me.”

    This come from being a youngest child (as opposed to the oldest). You can do this, and SEEM serious because you know no one gives a crap as to what you have to say.

    You will notice that Bacon does this.

    “What you’ve got to do is . . .” Without EVER betraying that YOU ARE BULLSHITTING! Because we all are.

    Further more, as the youngest, you’ve been given SO MUCH GODDAMANEDNDDD E E ESDDDD ADIVICE through the years that you just DON”T CARE anymore.

    Your older siblings were no smarter than you.

    And they never really knew you anyway.

  7. lane says:

    “hoping to vicariously get it right?”

    oy vey!

  8. lane says:

    “we’ve earned the right to be a little sanctimonious.”

    1.
    2. – ?
    3.
    4.
    5.

    oldest all.

    Oy vey iz mir!

  9. lane says:

    “We become ghostwriters for living narratives in which we may have sway but ultimately no accountability”

    This is the sexiest possibility, all that oldest/youngest stuff was just funnin’.

  10. PB says:

    Your older siblings were no smarter than you.

    Lane, I adore you, but we are indeed all smarter than our younger siblings.
    And we know you enough to know best.

    (just bullshitting!!!!! What posting is all about)

  11. lane says:

    exactamundo

  12. lane says:

    “And we know you enough to know best.”

    This is the part that’s creepy about the older/younger sibling relationship, the whole family really. As the youngest grows up they start to realize that their sensitive advice giving siblings have been watching them all these years. And in some sense have “known you enough to know best,”

    Alas. we are all prisoners of time.

  13. Gee, Unc, I think you liked this post or something.

  14. lane says:

    Yeah, your dad called today and I was sheepish.

    I fear he’s lurking.

  15. I’ll ask him; I highly doubt it.

  16. lane says:

    no, don’t ask.

  17. Okay. I won’t.

  18. TGW: the secret family reunion, conducted in public and archived for all time …

  19. taryn says:

    Interesting post, Pandora. I kind of wish you had said something just as an experiment, but I love that even the urge to say something led to such a thoughtful, insightful post. I loathe unsolicited advice myself. It brings back painful memories of being an acne-covered teen and having teachers, friends, and parents of friends offer me all kinds of tips and suggestions for how to best achieve beauty (as if I hadn’t already tried every drug my dermatologist could think to prescribe … THANK YOU, dear friend, for finally letting me in on the secret: rubbing toothpaste on my pimples. Your unwanted, presumptious, and utterly insensitive advice is just what I needed today!).

    Too bad my hatred for receiving advice hasn’t stopped me from offering it many times. But hey, at least I don’t walk up to people and point out their worst physical flaws and then tell them how to fix them! (This makes me a good person, right?)

  20. lane says:

    TGW: the secret family reunion, conducted in public and archived for all time …

    I love that about this. It’s so private and public at the same time. Kate and I have this whole ongoing conversation that I, for one, don’t really care if anyone else in our family ever finds out about, and yet, it’s pretty easy to find and follow, and even participate in, the whole thing.

    Family . . .

  21. rh says:

    I often feel the urge to advise someone, not to impart “superior” knowledge, but to relate and make that someone feel as if “I’ve been there before”, or at least someone has, and they too can get through it.