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‘Womansplaining’: When strangers give advice, why do we listen?

Gwyneth Paltrow arrives at the opening of the Tracy Anderson flagship studio on Thursday, April 4, 2013 in Los Angeles.

Jordan Strauss/AP

Now if your busybody aunt took you (or your smart, single daughter) aside and offered the unsolicited advice to "get yourself married before the good ones get snatched up," you'd probably grit your teeth, pretend your cellphone was ringing and fume about it later. The nerve! So how come when a mom nobody knows decides to offer her two cents on the marriage mistakes of an entire generation of women – while, not so subtly, bragging about her oh-so-fabulous sons – everyone jumps to attention? Why do we listen to the advice of strangers?

Last month, the mother of Princeton boys called on the girls in their class to, basically, grab them quick before they vanished into the big, wide world and were lost forever. Panic ensued? Was she right? Were young women really doomed to marry down or not at all? (And doesn't this sound vaguely familiar to another man-shortage panic a few decades back?)

Setting aside the questionable advice itself, the idea that strangers feel okay in offering it is less surprising, Atlantic writer Wendy Kaminer observed, than the very idea that we actually listen to it. (And, quite possibly, give it more weight than advice from someone actually invested in our personal welfare.)

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Kaminer dubs it "womansplaining," arguing against this odd and yet long-standing tradition of taking advice from people who don't know anything about you. "What's wrong with seeking advice from strangers?" she asks. "Nothing, if you're seeking practical instruction on practical problems: how to fix your bike, prepare your taxes or roast a leg of lamb." But when and who to marry isn't a five-step plan that matches up to everyone. And then there's the status of those giving the advice: It's fun to love to hate Gwyneth Paltrow, but if we're lapping up her advice, then who's really the punch line here? And it's not just celebrities: It's talk show hosts, athletes, random bloggers and tweeters. Kaminer asks: "Why imagine that writers and TV personalities who have no idea that you even exist can advise you on your personal, professional or ethical quandaries?"

Perhaps that Princeton mom just gave us something fun to talk about for a week or so; maybe no current Princeton student will begin husband-shopping in her premed class. (Though who could blame them, given the endless admonitions about missing their fertility window, outpacing their male peers and so on?) And there are some potentially delicious recipes in Paltrow's new book, if you ever find the time to make them. Even advice we didn't ask for can be useful. But Kaminer point is sound: We'd be wiser to pay more attention to the ones who love us and know us, and be more circumspect with generic advice that comes from rich, pretty and eloquent strangers. After all, the advice that comes in an expensive hardcover on a book store shelf may have some useful nuggets, but it is still about selling expensive hardcovers. Your aunt will share her wisdom for nothing.

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About the Author

Erin Anderssen writes about mental health, social policy and family issues. More


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