Every year, my kids’ schools do a screen-free week. In my house, screen-free day might be more doable. Check that — screen-free hour.
But I like the attempt, and I like theme weeks, in general. They break up the routine and shake things up, and lookee here . . . it’s New Year’s, when everyone has dreams of ripped abs and reading books and the resolve to almost get to February. In that spirit of self-improvement, I’d like to propose another challenge: advice-free week. Seven days of restraint. Seven days of not being able to start any sentence with, “You know what you should do . . . ” And seven days of pain for some friends, neighbors, and relatives.
It means saving your wisdom. No, really, don’t say anything, even though whatever you have is really, really sooooooo spot-on about what I need to do with my career, my kitchen, and especially my kids, because my wife and I never, ever, ever wonder how we screwed them up by not signing them up for floor hockey in 2018.
And if you’re not a parent, your advice is the best. Of course you’d do it better, mainly because you’re well rested. Beneath my defensiveness is pure jealousy about your consistent circadian rhythm.
So, if I may speak to everyone who can’t wait to share, I say with absolute love and respect: Please keep it to yourself. (There might have been an expletive in there.) I’m well aware that whatever I’m doing is not like you would do it, and that kills you because there’s just one right way to do pretty much everything.
I’m not banging on everyone who hears a problem and offers a little help — I’m talking about the people who walk in uninvited. When there’s no sign of doubt or worry. There’s no request for help. If you didn’t know any better, there isn’t any problem. Oh, but there is. These advice givers know. They just have a sense: This person aches for my knowledge.
It’s easy to believe so. “We are relatively self-centered people,” says Robyn Landow, a clinical psychologist in New York. It means we tend to overestimate our skills while also having no clue that we have no idea about the topic at hand. It’s so prevalent that it actually has a name: the Dunning-Kruger effect. Drop that at a party when there’s a lull.
The thing with advice is that it does help someone — it just happens to be the giver. It makes them feel powerful and confident, according to research. The person has to stop and think; then they realize, Oh, I actually do know, says Ayelet Fishbach, the professor of behavioral science and marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business who did the research.
Or at least they think they know. Whatever we say to others is usually what we’d tell ourselves, Fishbach says. Obviously, we’re fans of the advice. It’s our advice. The question is, is it any good? Do the givers have any proof that what they’ve said has ever helped anyone? I’d say, “Probably not.” It’s one of the few areas that Apple hasn’t tracked. (Please don’t start.)
It also doesn’t help that it’s easy to get into someone else’s business. It’s right there in plain sight. Plus, lives overlap. And as Fishbach says, “Where I end and you start isn’t clear.” When it’s relatives, it’s even blurrier. It’s like watching a game and shouting, “We won.” The family is just another kind of team and it’s, “This is how we’ve always treated kids,” which is nothing to step to, “This is how I would do it (even though I don’t).”
Swell. You want to feel good about yourselves and show how smart you are. Maybe you could do it without the words coming out. One idea? Play Spelling Bee in The New York Times. It’s a great time suck and when you get enough words, the game makes a nice show of calling you a genius. And this can happen every day. Problem solved?
The unfortunate reality is that you can’t control someone pressing advice on you. You can merely try to contain them with “Thanks. That’s good stuff,” and then ignore what they say. But that takes restraint — hard to pull off when you’re getting unwanted advice. In a less passive-aggressive way, you could also try, “I appreciate how much you care, but I really just need you to listen.”
That’s a doubly hard one, because sometimes the worst thing you can do is to tell someone to stick to the gift registry. (“Where’s the fun in giving you exactly what you want?” they never ask.) The other obstacle is that you’re asking them to listen, which is great if they can do it. But here’s the nasty secret about listening: It’s boring.
You just have to sit there, and, well, listen while people go on and on about the same problem, sometimes for minutes on end, which can be excruciating and make you want to say, “I don’t want to tell you what to do, but . . . ”
But no. Not that. Let’s try the advice-free week. We’d all learn something. People would get to figure stuff out on their own, and the people who really want to “help” would see that others could figure stuff out on their own. And? “There’d be a lot less talking in that week if we could truly stop ourselves,” Landow says.
That’s a big if, but I think it’s worth a shot.
At least that’s my advice.
Steve Calechman is a writer on the North Shore. Send comments to email@example.com.