I’ve been reading advice columns lately. Pretty nerdy thing to do, but I find them incredibly interesting. I love seeing the difference between therapy (what I do) and advice giving (which, as much as folks want me to, is not really what I’m supposed to offer). It’s fascinating what the variety of advice columnists will say. Beyond my sheer curiosity about what people struggle with and the many ways someone can attempt to help them feel better, I am also keen to understand the trends in thought that inevitably are revealed through the advice column medium.
One of the most disturbing trends in thought I am increasingly seeing is that people are frequently writing in to have an advice columnist solve a problem that appears to have its root in a refusal to say, out loud, what is bothering them. People seem terrified to actually talk to each other. This is troublesome. Especially since people are notoriously horrible at predicting what someone else is thinking, guessing someone’s intentions or otherwise knowing what is going on inside someone else’s head. Since people are too afraid to ask, it results in all sorts of silly miscommunications.
Now sometimes people can have malevolent intentions. If there’s some random person running at you with a knife, shouting, “I’m going to kill you!” You’ve got enough info. Run! Get away! For goodness sake, don’t stop to talk. Pretty much the rest of the time though, when we guess what someone is doing, we will only have part of the picture. We will have what they are saying, what we heard them say (notice that those can be 2 different things), what their intentions are and what we think their intentions are. We have our feelings about the situation and we also have our shared history.
Shared history can be helpful sometimes. For example, when I go over to my best friend’s house for dinner, our shared history helps us cook for each other. She knows I hate olives, so she doesn’t usually serve me olives. She’s allergic to wheat, so I don’t make batch of bread or pasta to share.
Shared history can get us into trouble though. Because, you know, people change. So sometimes what we liked last year is different than what we like this year. Or perhaps our opinions have shifted or grown over time into a new perspective. It’s possible that someone is trying out something new in their speech, dress, opinions, religion, political views, or general approach to the world. Occasionally, people express their thoughts and feelings in a way that is different from the other people they interact with.
It’s a great service to communication to ask rather than assume. If someone is doing something you don’t understand, it is a great start to try to talk about what is going on. Resist the urge to make all sorts of assumptions about what they mean, and how they’re secretly out to hurt you. Instead, ask what’s going on. Feel free to set boundaries as needed, and, obviously, please don’t keep yourself in an abusive situation. Most of the time (at least according to Dear Abby and her compatriots), we get scared and shut down when we would be better served by talking it out. Let me know how it goes.