'You should eat healthier foods'. 'You should recycle'. 'You should forgive your friend for her transgressions'. Have you encountered what I call 'you-should' people? Are you one yourself? In other words, the kind of person who offers unsolicited advice, regardless of the other person's values or interests. What are they after and why are they so insistent on what they think you should do? Because I reach my conclusions by induction - observing first and evaluating second - I don't assume anything about the people who engage in 'you should' behaviour. In some situations, the advice can be perfectly benign, such as when someone loves a particular movie and declares: 'You SHOULD see The Lives of Others! It is the best movie I've seen in years!' The goal in this piece, however, is to examine the nature of those who offer unsolicited advice, not calls to share a value.
Earlier this year, an old friend of mine came to Sydney to visit me. We hadn't seen each other in nearly a year and so it was a great opportunity to catch up and show him around my beloved new home city. Over breakfast on his last day in Sydney, he did the one thing I dislike most in other people. He intoned that I should recycle, offering apparently valid reasons for doing so, including the oft heard 'saving the planet' we get in the media every day. I replied that there may be good reasons not to recycle, which he rejected out of hand. I wasn't going to argue with him about the merits of recycling - and that is not the point of this article - but I did say that it was my choice to make if I deemed it worthy of my time.
I think this example highlights the issue quite nicely: moral superiority. The you-should person assumes his advice is appropriate, regardless of the situation. Uh oh! There's that word 'assume' again. It's a sneaky devil, despite the age old view that one ought never assume. We all know the rest of the expression. This problem extends much further than assumption, though. The you-should person is not assuming anything. He knows his views are correct, and therefore his advice is not advice at all. It is self-evident truth.
Here's another more recent example: another friend of mine ended a long time friendship with someone he'd known since high school. He described to me his reasons and I was aghast at the transgressions of the other friend. I told him he was right to end the friendship, under the circumstances. Along comes another friend who says to my friend: 'You should forgive Mary!' (not the real name). What has the you-should person done here? Aside from the matter being up to my friend to decide, the you-should-er has failed to grasp the context.
Aha! Now we're getting somewhere. People who offer unsolicited advice are dropping the context. They are so wrapped up in their meddlesome ways that they don't see others may disagree with them. Did you-should ask my friend why he broke with Mary? Did my old friend ask me if I thought recycling was worthwhile and why? In 1972, when Richard Nixon was elected to a second term of the Presidency in America, Pauline Kael, a famous movie critic for the The New Yorker, was incredulous because no-one she knew voted for him. That alone speaks volumes about Ms Kael - and about all the you-should people out there.
What's the answer to this annoying problem? In keeping with my blog theme, I can easily say that it is far better to remain positive whenever possible. Also, the context of the advice giving is vital. Is the you-should-er engaging in moral ultimatums? Or is the advice gentler, even if unwelcome? In the former case, I simply tell the you-should-er that I prefer to make my own decisions. If he insists, then I tell him the conversation is over. I don't raise my voice - ever. If the advice is something I might do anyway, then I'll gently tell the other person I appreciate the concern, but I will consider the matter on my own.
What if you are a you-should-er? If so, my gentle suggestion is that you examine why you engage in that behaviour. Perhaps you do have good advice to offer. Fair enough, but the manner in which you advise others is worthy of a make-over. If I were my friend, I would have suggested reading materials or evidence that recycling is a worthy activity. If I were indignant about someone I know dropping a friend, I would ask what Mary did to deserve it. In other words, I would engage the other person or, where necessary, just leave him alone.
Recalling my first post: your life is your own. So is your mind. When others intrude, it's annoying, but your reaction to unwanted advice speaks volumes about you, too. We would all do well to consider the context and act accordingly.
But really, you should see The Lives of Others. It is that good.