The appropriateness of unsolicited advice.
Aug 04, 2019
We have all seen it: an obviously pregnant woman smoking a cigarette, drinking a beer-or both. The sight is upsetting, and perhaps you feel compelled to act. But assuming the woman is not carrying your child, or is not your daughter, sister, or best friend, what do you say?
Answering this question might be easier in a personal rather than professional setting, as one concerned cocktail server found out the hard way.
A cocktail waitress put her job in jeopardy when she interfered with the drink order of a woman having cocktails with friends.[i] She assumed the woman was pregnant after overhearing her say she was “14 weeks along,” and decided to make a bold move. Instead of serving the woman what she ordered, she had the bartender make her a virgin drink.
The bartender must have been a talented mixologist, because the woman apparently did not notice the bait and switch as she and her girlfriends ordered additional rounds, even “getting rowdy” according to the waitress. But at the end of the evening, the conscientious cocktail server was busted by the bill-which (accurately) listed the woman´s drinks as “virgin.”
The waitress fessed up when questioned about the stealthy swap-out. When the supposedly pregnant woman asked if she had ordered a non-alcoholic cocktail, the waitress admitted she had not, but assumed that since she was pregnant, she would want one. This was after assuming the woman was pregnant in the first place, and not “14 weeks” into a new job, relationship, exercise routine, or diet.
Were there other ways the server could handled the situation? Asking about the pregnancy would be awkward, as would offering alternative drink selections. But the mocktail switch-out illustrates a moral dilemma that raises a very practical question: when should we offer pregnant women unsolicited advice?
Pregnant Women and Unsolicited Advice
Sherri Gordon, in a piece entitled “What to Say to People With Opinions About Your Pregnancy” (2019) examines the all-too-common scenario of people feeling compelled to offer unsolicited advice to pregnant women.[ii] She begins by recognizing the temptation to bombard pregnant women with “helpful” tips about how they should handle their pregnancy, and lives after delivery.
Why motivates people to speak up? Gordon acknowledges the unfortunate “sport” of online mom-shaming, but also recognizes that many women genuinely want to share their own pregnancy experiences, while others want to share vicariously in the excitement of the impending birth.
Gordon also advises pregnant women about a variety of graceful ways to weather the uninvited onslaught of shared “wisdom.” One of the interesting points she raises is the reality that in their quest to be helpful, it is as if “people sometimes forget that there is a person with feelings attached to that protruding belly.” Why do we behave like this? Research has some answers.
Close Relationships and Unsolicited Advice
Bo Feng and Eran Magen (2016) examined the phenomenon of unsolicited advice in “Relationship Closeness Predicts Unsolicited Advice Giving in Supportive Interactions.”[iii] They recognize that although giving advice is commonly one of the hallmarks of supportive interaction, it may not always have positive results. They note that it can sometimes harm both the advice recipient, as well as the relationship.
In their study, they examined participant responses to friends who expressed discontent, but did not ask for advice. They found a link between relational closeness and providing unsolicited advice, specifically, that participants were more likely to give unsolicited advice to friends they felt closer to. They also found that such advice was given very early on within the interaction in about 70% of the cases.
But what about offering advice to those who do not express discontent? Like the pregnant woman indulging during girls night out? Apparently, it depends on receiver receptivity.
Unsolicited advice is commonly given, even expected, by certain people, such as medical professionals. But is it ever well-received?
Stephen A. Buetow (1999) investigated the question of whether a general practitioner should offer unsolicited advice to patients who smoke.[iv] He suggested that before offering antismoking advice, a practitioner should first assess patient receptivity and readiness for change. The same rationale might apply to other settings.
So before you propose a healthy entree selection to your pregnant co-worker the next time the two of you are out to lunch, consider whether your well-intentioned pearls of wisdom will also be well received.