Over the last couple of days I've watched an all-too familiar scenario play out multiple times on Facebook. A friend posts about something she (or he) is doing, or thinking of doing, or has recently done.
Cue the unsolicited advice.
Now, I'm a big fan of asking for advice on social media—consulting the hive mind, as I call it. In the past few weeks alone, I have sought wise counsel on the real identity of J.P. Delany (which wasn't hard to find, if you have power and full access to the Internet, but neither I nor the friend who wondered did at the time), how to get the ink off your skin if you're fingerprinted the old fashioned way (alcohol and baby wipes got the most votes), and whether mango sticky rice is hard to make (the consensus is not really, if you have the right tools and more importantly the right kind of rice). You'll note that these are minor, non-life-changing topics capable of a factual answer or at least an informed opinion and topics on which I had good reason to believe I could receive enlightenment from the members of my Facebook friend roster.
But there are also times when I'm not looking for advice. If, for example, I post—as I did not long ago—that I am without power due to the high winds that came with one of the recent nor'easters, I am probably not looking for advice. I'm looking for a little cheap sympathy, and explaining for anyone who's a chronic worrier why I might not be online as much as usual and might not respond to a question immediately.
Nevertheless, I get advice.
I usually ignore the unsolicited advice, because it is well meant, and occasionally it's actually useful. One person, for example, gave me a link to the page where my power company shows the data about where outages are happening and how soon they'll be resolved, which would have been very useful if I hadn't known it was available. As if happens, I already knew all about that page from previous outages, reported my outage there five minutes after it began, and was checking there on the status of my outage so often that it probably looked to the power company like a small, ineffective, but persistent denial of service attack. My Facebook friend didn't know this. And as advice goes, it was modestly useful and non-intrusive, and tactfully given.
Where unsolicited advice crosses the line from harmless and mildly useful to maddening or even toxic is when someone's post happens to touch on one of someone else's strongly held opinions. What if someone saw my post and replied by telling me I should go out and get a generator? This could go two ways, one of them okay and the other very bad.
Tone matters. “Have you considered getting a generator? I live in an area with frequent power outages, and I have no idea how I got along before I installed mine” is at worst harmless, at best interesting and useful. I might respond by saying that I've considered it, but feel that given the relative infrequency of outages in my neighborhood, I don't think the cost is worth it, to say nothing of the difficulty of integrating a honking big piece of industrial equipment into the landscape. Or I might just let it pass.
“I can't believe you don't have a generator!” followed by detailed explanations of how they work and where you go to get one . . . not so cool. Does this purveyor of unsolicited advice think I'm ignorant of the existence of such a thing as generators? Does he—because it's often a he—think I never contemplate the notion of generators until I'm already a day or two into a power outage? Is he implying that I wouldn't need to complain if I'd installed a generator, and that therefore, due to my feckless, generatorless status, I don't even have the right to complain?
And let's not even get started on what happens if you post about what I suppose you could lump together as life choices. Childcare. Elder care. Pet care. Relationships. Heath and wellness. Most writers have already heard the saying “no passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else's draft.” Except maybe there is an equal: the passion to tell our friends and acquaintances, in public, that they're making bad decisions.
You see it all the time. A person announces that he's about to begin taking such-and-such a medication. Someone will immediately ask if he's aware of the horrible side effects. Someone else will ask if he's tried some other more effective/less problematic medication for his condition (in the process quite possibly jumping to an incorrect conclusion about what ailment the patient has). A third person will denounce both medications as poisons and ask if the patient has tried essential oils/yoga/stuffing live lobsters in his ears to treat the condition. (Don't flame me; I love both essential oils and yoga, but there are things they can't fix.) And before you know it, one man's passing remark has degenerated into a three- or four-way brawl. And if you add in the people who will feel obliged to chime in that the patient wouldn't have his condition in the first place if he had done this or hadn't done that in his past life—enough! Unless you're offering a time machine to enable the patient to return to an earlier stage in his life so he could eat less/eat better/drink less/exercise more/avoid becoming addicted to methamphetamine/refrain from stuffing live lobsters in his ears, just leave alone the topic of how he got where he is.
Note that I'm not criticizing people who respond when someone says something like “I've heard stuffing live lobsters in my ears will prevent migraines—does anyone have any experience with or knowledge of this?” He asked—have at it. But civilly. You're not going to enlighten proponents of otic crustaceans by flaming them, not matter how demented you think they are.
It has not escaped my notice that with this blog I am, in effect giving advice over the Internet. “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself.” I am human, and thus all too ready to inflict my opinions on the rest of my species—especially on social media.
But I'm making a vow to be more aware of when I'm tempted to do so. When I feel that irresistible urge to tell someone else—in public--how she should run her life, I'm going to take a deep breath and count to ten. And then I'll remind myself that if this was someone I knew well enough to offer an informed opinion on what she should do with her life, maybe she'd already have asked me.
You're allowed to remind me of this virtuous resolution when I break it.