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How do I tell Ms. Busybody to button it? Add to ...

The question

One of my children has an out-of-town sports event coming up. A wonderful, good friend, whose child is also active in the sport, asked whether I’d like to share a condo for the weekend with her and another friend of hers. I said sure, but now realize that the other friend is one that drives me nuts. She is constantly and presumptuously giving out unrequested advice – about everything. What we should be doing with our kids, the best way to cook something, even where I should get my hair cut. It doesn’t stop. I don’t even know her well, but she clearly feels that she knows what I need. I’m thinking that a whole weekend in a condo with her will drive me around the bend. Is there a nice way of asking for the free advice to stop?

The answer

I’ve said this before but “unrequested” a.k.a. unsolicited is, IMHO, the lowest form of advice.

Me, I get paid to dish out advice. Plus, people ask. But it never ceases to amaze me, the energy civilians have for stuffing opinions, movie recommendations, fashion tips et cetera down each other’s throats, without invitation, on a strictly pro bono basis, like you stuff a mail box with circulars, flyers and coupons. (At least with those you get a discount.)

Unsolicited advice can be hard to know how to deal with. Me, I tend to be a fan of the vague, non-committal statement, at least initially: “Food for thought!” Or even something confusing (just to torture the busybody interlocutor and send a bit of a hint): “Things certainly seem to be moving in that direction.”

But some pesky self-appointed advisers won’t let it drop there. I recently read a blog by a certain Pamela Jorrick, who’s home-schooling her kids. While shopping for groceries she bumped into someone she hadn’t seen for years. Upon learning she was “still” home-schooling her kids, this “friend” opened with:

“You know, I don’t really agree with what you’re doing.”

“Well, we’re pretty happy with it,” Ms. Jorrick replied evenly.

But the friend warmed to the topic, opined as to how the child would never learn to solve real world problems unless she went to a “real” school, and on and on. Ms. Jorrick tried to change topics politely, but her friend was like a dog on a bone. As she wrote: “It seems the only thing that would have made her happy was for me to say ‘Why, you're right. I'm living my life in a completely wrong way and ruining my children! I'm leaving my shopping cart and running out now to go sign my kids up at school this instant!’ ”

In such extreme cases (and it sounds like you’re going to be facing one in that condo), how you handle it depends on your assessment of why the advice is being dished out. Ask yourself: In what spirit is this person giving her $0.02?

For example, my mother (like most mothers, I suppose) is a veritable fountain of unsolicited advice. Since my 20s, I’ve had psoriasis, leaving me with gnarly nails. Since then, also, my mother has been dropping off pamphlets and newspaper clippings on new cures/lotions/pills to help cure my “fungus.”

“Mom, it’s not fungus, it’s psoriasis, and as far as I know it’s incurable,” I have been telling her for literally two decades. But I don’t mind, really, because I know her advice comes from a place of love and concern (sorry, I know I sound like some kind of holistic healer/yoga instructor, but I couldn’t think of another phrase).

So if it seems like this woman is trying to be helpful, then a “food for thought”-type response should suffice. If she persists, remain unfailingly polite. Look upon it as a test of self-control. Patience is a virtue, and an especially useful one for parents. Here’s a chance to cultivate a bit more of it.

If, on the other hand, you decide she’s using her “advice” as a passive-aggressive way to criticize you (especially when it comes to your kids – and it never ceases to amaze me how blithely some people will push the bad mom/bad dad button), you’re well within your rights to push back.

Example: “I think my kids have turned out just great.” Or: “I think my hair’s fine the way it is.” Draw a line in the sand. Be as pointed as you want to be.

Then if she continues to persist, ramp it up a notch. Be, as always when it comes to establishing personal boundaries, firm yet polite. (After all, dishing out advice may be such a reflex at this point she doesn’t even know she’s doing it.)

Try something like: “Listen, I appreciate all the advice, but if you don’t mind I prefer to do things my way, whether it be getting my hair cut or raising my children.”

That ought to get her to clam up.

What have you got to lose? Sure, it might cause friction among you three ladies. On the other hand, you’re doing the advice-disher an (unsolicited) favour. And maybe your other friend too.

If this (self-proclaimed) agony aunt is annoying you, odds are others are peeved too. Your friend and everyone else might secretly be applauding, fist-pumping and mouthing “thank you” in the background.

David Eddie is the author of Damage Control , the book.

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