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On the Giving and Taking of Advice

April 21, 2013, 3:56 pm

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The mother of us all: Pauline Friedman Phillips, aka Abigail “Dear Abby” van Buren

Ten years ago, in the midst of a conversation, a colleague temporarily lost her temper at me. “Please stop giving me advice!” she snapped. “I don’t want any advice. I just want to talk about this!”

Needless to say, I was shocked and a little hurt. But upon further reflection, I had to admit that a flaw in my socialization had been usefully uncovered.  My friend had not asked for any advice, and yet I had offered it anyway. Why?

The giving and taking of advice is so ubiquitous in university life that it defines whole categories of activity that blur the line between personal and professional. In graduate school, members of my cohort gave each other advice, and it was often at least as good as the advice we got from faculty. Since I became a college teacher in 1990, giving advice has been an explicit and expanding professional responsibility: I give advice to students, to colleagues, to departments, and to administrators.  Faculty governance, something that is highly valued by many of us, is usually a highly structured and ritualized form of advice-giving rather than actual governance.  For example, in most universities, prior to the granting of tenure by the Board of Trustees, all positive decisions in a tenure case are a form of advice — strong advice perhaps, but advice all the same.  Indeed, the T & P committee at Zenith, my former stomping grounds, is colloquially referred to by its function: it is called “Advisory.”

Recently, my neighbors at NYU gave their president some advice: hit the road, Jack! The Board of Trustees responded with their own advice to the faculty.

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Students ask me for advice every day, and have done so for 22 years:what courses to take, what major to pursue, what to write an essay about, which internship would be appropriate or whether to go to graduate school. Once a student asked my advice about joining the Secret Service (I said, Go for it! He passed the exam with flying colors and now wears a curly wire in his ear.)

Long after they have established their own careers, some students still ask my advice, just as I continue to ask one of my graduate mentors for her views about important professional decisions.

The older I get, the more younger colleagues I have who are in need of various kinds of advice (otherwise known as mentoring.) As an editor, I give advice to young authors. People write Tenured Radical asking for advice, while readers are also known to give unsolicited but sparkling advice in the comments section and on Twitter:

OK, Grumpy Cat feels that way about everyone, not just me.

But in all honesty, giving advice is not only a professional skill. I have a background in advice that preceeds my academic career. I grew up giving advice. I come from a family of advice-givers, a group of people who are rarely able to listen to someone else’s problems without offering a few helpful hints. We have whole telephone conversations where we give each other advice. It’s what we do, just like the Kennedy family played touch football and bonked Hollywood stars.

Eventually I made something of this annoying skill set by starting this blog. Some of the most frequently read posts at Tenured Radical advise people about the job market, tenure, what to do, how to dress, what to see, and how to mingle with the natives at history conferences. These posts have become so popular that last year I was invited to Midwestern Funky Town to talk to Ph.D. candidates about how to prepare for alternative careers, and I am doing it again in the fall at one of the top history programs in the country.

When you are paid to do this, I think it no longer counts as advice: I think it is called consulting. Phone lines are open.

Interestingly, however, no one ever asks my advice about the nature of giving and taking advice! So without further ado:

Pay attention to whether a person is asking for advice, or simply wants to tell a story about a difficulty, frustration or dilemma. As I discovered with my friend, not everything is an action item. If you are unclear whether someone wants advice or not, to avoid being yelled at, ask them.  You can be so blunt as to say: “Are you asking for my views about this, or do you just want to vent? Which would be fine.” If you are telling your woes to another person, and you don’t want advice, it is good to clarify that from the beginning so that your listener can just repeat comforting phrases like “Poor you!” “That stinks!” and “What a bastard!”

Many people say they want advice, but they actually just want to be validated. In order to be aware of the difference, you have to listen very carefully and not let your mind rush ahead to formulate advice (a character flaw of the chronic advice giver) before the person has even finished speaking. If you sense that validation is what is actually being asked for, the way to find out is to say: “It sounds like what you know what you want to do already.” If you are the advice seeker, and what you want is validation, say so. I had a friend in college who handed me a term paper to read and prefaced it by saying: “My therapist says it would be devastating to me to hear any criticism at this point, so after you read it, tell me how very much you liked it.” I did.

People who say inane things in a declarative way do not want advice. The more inane the declaration, the more aware you should be that your advice, wanted or unwanted, will fall on deaf ears. Don’t give it. Graduate students who announce things like, “I want a tenure-track job but it will have to be in New York or Chicago;” undergraduates who confide, “If I don’t get into Yale Law School, I don’t want to go anywhere;” university executives who say, “My administration is an open book;” and senators who say weird things about the female reproductive system in public — these are all good examples of people who are living on another planet. They could use advice — but will they profit from it? Probably not. Save your advice for someone who cares.

Whenever possible, seek several sources of advice; at least one should be negative. I’m always surprised when frustrated academic job seekers tell me that no one ever told them before they went to graduate school that the academic job market is verplunkt. There are so many people teaching today who would tell you that: the academic job market has been more or less verplunkt since I was a senior in high school almost forty years ago, so how did you miss meeting one? It is the case, however, that individual proffies give bad advice: more than once I have had a student who was encouraged to go on in some un-bustling intellectual specialty by a single, well-meaning mentor.  Get in the habit of asking two, or three, or four people for their advice about your educational choices and crucial career moves.

Just because someone doesn’t like you doesn’t mean that they are giving you bad advice. I know this seems perverse, but it’s true: I can think of all kinds of good advice I got from people at Zenith who didn’t like me, some of which I unfortunately ignored. The obverse of this is, just because someone is your friend doesn’t mean they are giving you good advice. All advice is worth evaluating in this way: what is Professor X’s motive in offering this advice? And does the advice make sense? If it seems terribly wrong, then why? If it reinforces what I think already, should I review my own position?

Just because someone gives you advice you don’t want, doesn’t mean they don’t support you and wish you well.  In fact, it could mean just the opposite: think Suze Orman, who is always tearing people to shreds even as she is setting them straight. I have been in a number of situations in which a person in, as President 41 once memorably said on teevee, deep doody, interpreted unwanted advice as unsupportive or even a terrible betrayal. Consider just for a minute that the advice might be correct, that you are forging on unwisely, that there are better choices than those you want to consider, and that you have temporarily lost perspective of your own best interests.

Readers — what’s your experience with advice?

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