Is Unsolicited Advice Indistinguishable from Criticism?

The good advice (original title: Le bon conseil), by Jean-Baptiste Madou.

Unsolicited Advice as Criticism – Suppose I say: “You should move to Florida!” or “You should quit your job!” or “You eat too much!” or “You hang out with bad people!” In all these cases there is implicit criticism—of where you live or work; or of how much you eat or who you hang out with.

Suppose I put the above in question form: “Why don’t you think about moving to Florida?” or “Why don’t you consider eating less?” This may be a little better, a question rather than a command strikes a different tone, but still, the criticism is implicit if unsolicited. I must think there is something bad about where you live or what you eat.

Now does the intent of the adviser matter? I could advise you to move to Florida because then I won’t have to see you; or I could advise you to quit your job so I can have it. Similarly, I might advise you to stop eating so much because I don’t like to be around fat people; or I might advise you to not have certain friends because I want them. In these cases, I am not criticizing but trying to manipulate you. In fact, what I offer is not even advice in the typical sense of recommending some prudent action.

Unsolicited Advice that is not Criticism – Now suppose the situation is the typical one. I want to share with you some thoughts that might help you. I honestly believe you will live better if you exercise more and eat better, or I think you should quit your job because you have plenty of money and your work causes you a lot of stress; or I think you should not quit your job because it offers more money, autonomy and the possibility of doing more meaningful work than other jobs in the economy.

Of course, if such advice was solicited there is no problem. You ask and I answer the best I can. But suppose you don’t ask? I see you eating poorly, not exercising, contemplating quitting your job, or taking on another one. Do I have any obligation to share my opinion with you? And if I do is this criticism? I think I do have an obligation to share my opinion with you and this is not necessarily criticism, although it could be.

Unsolicited Advice that is Obligatory and Not Criticism– Suppose I don’t tell you what I think and you change your diet or quit your job and it doesn’t work out well. In that case, you might legitimately ask: “why didn’t you tell me your opinion?” or “did you just pretend to agree with me and not give me honest advice?” In each case your point is well-taken. If I saw you about to walk across the country without supplies or into the street without looking, I’m obligated to forewarn you with or without your solicitation. And the same with some radical change in your diet or work or childcare plans.

Naturally, I must respect your autonomy though. You might say “I want to walk in the street and don’t care about looking because I don’t care if I live or die.” Or you might say “Yes I’ll have less money if I quit my job but I’ll have enough and a lot more free time which is what I prefer.” In such cases, I may not agree with you but at least I have discharged my obligation to warn you or give you something to think about. So I am not criticizing your walking in the street or quitting your job. I’m just warning you. Unsolicited advice is not always criticism. 

And the primary reason (or at least it should be the primary reason) I want to offer advice is that I care about you. I may have very good reasons to think you are overlooking something about your new diet or cross-country walk or job choice. You might think, for example, that you are allergic to gluten even though very few people are. Or you might be following the latest diet fad—no fat, no carbs, gluten-free—and I may have good reasons to think such a course isn’t prudent. When I give you advice like: “we’ll nutrition science is relatively new and imprecise so I wouldn’t be too quick to avoid all carbs from your diet,” I don’t think this is criticism. I could also add that I’m glad you are interested in nutrition and that you take it seriously but here is my opinion. And the same with the other situations. It is all well and good to quit your job for something better but I may be obligated to remind you that humans are bad at predicting their own happiness or that jobs may be very hard to come by in the future.

Now it’s true that I think you are overlooking something in all of these cases but this is not the same as criticizing you. I am sharing my thoughts with you and if you take this as criticism this says more about your emotional response than my intent. Let’s say that you’ve announced: “I only eat the diet of paleolithic man!” If you say that I have every right and even an obligation to say: “That’s fine but experts don’t even know what that diet was much less whether its good for you. Thus my advice is that you investigate this further.” This is advice but it is not criticism. 

Consider another example. You tell me you are quitting a well-paying job and I say well maybe you shouldn’t. This is just expressing a thought at this point. Now suppose you say I’m quitting because I’m stressed and have plenty of money to live well without the high paying job. Now you have given me a good reason and you have not solicited my advice. At this point, I go home and think about what you said. I then may say: “My advice is that you quit because it sounds like you are really stressed.” Or I might say: “My advice is that you not quit because you’ll be more stressed without the money.” Or if you say “I’ll be happier at home every day rather than working.” I have the obligation to say “maybe but we are bad at predicting our happiness and people, in general, are happier when they are working than when they are not.” In all these cases I am giving you advice but not criticizing you, at most I am disagreeing with you. In fact, I may applaud you for thinking so seriously and conscientiously about the issue.

This raises the question of whether disagreeing is criticism. And the answer is that sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. Of course, some people only want their views confirmed so they’ll probably consider any advice to be criticism. But if they are concerned with hearing other views they shouldn’t necessarily consider unsolicited advice criticism.

In the end, I think it comes down in large part to the source of the advice. If it comes from persons you know who have your interest at heart, persons who love and care about you, such advice should be taken seriously, although not necessarily followed. Still, we often don’t follow others’ good advice to our detriment.

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2 thoughts on “Is Unsolicited Advice Indistinguishable from Criticism?

  1. Whether or not “unsolicited advice” is criticism or not, I would add that before someone gives unsolicited advice that much listening could be done first.

    Listening is hard to quantify. Listening might be two hours sitting next to someone on a plane, semester with a student, or a weekend with a friend.

    I have found that most of the time people know what they want, but often have a difficult time organizing or discerning their thoughts.

    Asking questions after listening can allow someone to organize and process their thoughts into their actions without the bias of the one listening especially if they are not asked for their advice.

    After two hours listening to someone on a plane or a friend at dinner someone could ask or comment, “it sounds like you are not happy with your job and are thinking of quitting” …. “what do you think would make you happy?” OR “it sounds like you are looking to make some improvements in how you live” “What do you think would be most important or most doable?”

    This would also help to eliminate bias from the listener. Just because I personally might think, “this person should eat more vegetables, weigh less, and be a better person” or “if this person were simply Roman Catholic that would solve all their problems”

    I think listening and asking discerning questions can help people understand their own thoughts and can help in making informed choices.

  2. Very interesting questions, and answers. An old proverb comes to mind: “No one needs advice: for smart people won’t need it, and the fools won’t heed it.”.

    One thing I notice about myself, is that I only accept any advice, or even views, from people I know are smarter than me in some ways, but they must be people I respect. In other words, it seems to me that often there’s ego play at work both for the adviser, and for the advised.

    Some philosophers, such as Seneca, held the view that one should never waste his time by giving advice to people who are “bad learners”. This seems strange, but I think it is true. Some people just don’t get some things. For example, as an ex smoker who quit long ago, I tried to convince my sister to give up, and fast. I tried to paint the worst scenarios for her, such as, imagine you are in hospital with lung cancer, and now you are kicking yourself and saying things such as “How I could have been so dumb and stupid? Now I have not only a death sentence confirmed for me, but a very unpleasant one”. Then, I said, now imagine a godly being appears and says: “you’ll be given another chance: you will return back in time but you must stop smoking immediately if you hope for the rest of the story to unfold differently.”.

    It was all a waste of time. She’s fine, and I hope she will always be, but my point is obviously that smoking is one of the stupidest and dumbest things one can choose to do, etc. I certainly don’t need to say this to someone as smart as you.

    And I was a complete idiot myself, but well, I guess I made some modest improvements.

    Advice might be criticism, but the real question is, is the advice right? Another whole can of worms, I guess.

    Thank you for your article!

    ps. the “second chance scenario”, I am sure is not my own idea, I must have learned it from someone but I don don’t remember from whom. Obviously, not a fool.

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