It came to a head last night, when a sweet, well-meaning friend suggested that I go for a walk.
I’d been prickly all day. Loose where I should be tight, and tight where I should be loose. My feelings were all over the place, and I had no thoughts or facts to match them up to — just a sense that there was a layer of tepid, dirty dishwater between my skin and my bones. It wasn’t fair, but I couldn’t have told you what it was.
When it comes to managing my feelings, I’ve put the bloody hours in. After a couple of decades of trial and error, I know that there is a golden ratio of exercise to meditation, hydration and P-funk playlists that keeps me sweet. But I was on a Whatsapp group chat and responding to a different pal who was talking about her reasons for avoiding a hangover the next day. I said something to the effect of ‘I’m impressed by your resolve. I have been feeling hyper sensitive and deranged with weepy rage all afternoon, for no real reason, and I’m craving a big gin to take the edge off. However, I know that at this stage it will do more harm than good, so I’m trying to breathe deeply, wait until the weekend and make sure I’m cheerful before I booze.’ And Other Pal said, nicely, with a heart full of love, ‘If you’re feeling so rotten, why not go for a walk! That might help!’
The dishwater turned to lava. My urge to bite my nails turned into an urge to peel my hands off.
We give unsolicited advice all the time, but we do not like to take it. I try, very consciously, not to give anyone direct advice unless they have asked for it, but I can’t put my hand on my heart and say that I don’t sometimes blurt it out. When you live on the internet, and most of us do, unsolicited advice is pumped into the air like hot cross bun smell is pumped into Sainsbury’s on Good Friday. I am guilty of it myself. I still feel curdled with shame when I think of the time that a person I barely know talked about how they found Bojack Horseman overrated. I believe I told them that it was the best thing since Mad Men and they needed to give it another six or seven hours to really get it.
During Lockdown, the air has become thick with unsolicited advice. It’s a locust plague of parlour games and banana bread recipes. I believe that we are all feeling especially vulnerable — mostly because of the overwhelming, paralysing uncertainty, but also because the small support structures that gave our lives meaning have become redundant. We like to help, and we like to feel important. At the moment, we can’t be fire drill officers, emergency babysitters, dinner party hosts or running buddies. So we’re inventing functions for ourselves. We need to be the one who has the definitive recipe or recommendation. We need to be needed.
The trouble with unsolicited advice, the reason it turns me into a recalcitrant teenager, is that it assumes some level of ignorance or stupidity on the part of the advisee. Many years ago, when I was young enough and stupid enough to think that this would be a good idea, I tweeted asking for recommendations for a New York trip. Now that some time has passed, I’m able to admit that I probably just wanted to brag about going to New York. But I still remember how That Man Who Replied To Everything suggested the Magnolia Bakery. (We used to frame eras of experience by personal and political circumstances, who was running the country, or who we were living with. Now Women Of The Internet can carbon date their lives by remembering particular periods of Reply Guys.)
A more generous person than me would see this as a sweet and thoughtful response. However, I’m a cow, and I thought ‘Unless a person had been neuralised, there is no way they would not know about the Magnolia Bakery. Why not recommend the Empire State Building while you’re at it? This is a take, masquerading as a give. You’re forcing me to pay attention to you, and you’re not helping me at all.’
Admittedly in that instance, I’d asked for advice. It was hardly unsolicited. I like to think that if it hadn’t been given by a Reply Guy I would have been much more gracious about it. But this is what fills the Information Age with tension. We are living through a time where we feel, falsely, that everything can be known. We’ve had enough of experts because we’re all bloody experts. Why aren’t we in white coats, on the news? We don’t know the facts, but given five minutes and broadband connection, we can get hold of some facts. We are mistrustful, yet desperate to prove ourselves trustworthy.
Let’s return to banana bread. A few weeks ago I made a joke about how this was becoming a trope, a real cliché of the moment. The joke bombed. How do I know? Because my Twitter mentions were filled with people not laughing at the joke but sending me recipes. Over on Instagram, I posted a truly dumb poem I wrote about having a cold sore. Was anyone amused? Did anyone care about my poetic prowess? Hell, no, but they had remedies! You could say I deserved everything I got, and you’d be right. But oh, I wish I was confident and clear headed enough to suggest something bloody obvious and truly believe I was helping! You see, I was just going to pick at the cold sore for a few days and see if it got worse. Thanks, Internet.
I’ve been trying to work out why I find this so irrationally upsetting. Is it because I’m a bossy big sister, I was the ‘clever’ one at school, and that I feel as though my core identity is being undermined? Is this why I have a hair trigger temperament for anything I perceive to be condescending? I want to believe there’s a little more to it than that.
When I say ‘This made me laugh,’ I’m seeking connection. When I tell someone that I’m feeling sad, I’m already feeling alienated, distanced and set apart. I need comforting. I want someone to say ‘Your sad does not need a why. I am going to be with you, until it passes.’ Unsolicited advice is a way of saying ‘You have feelings, and I have fixed them! You’re talking, so I am going to shout over you. Follow my instructions, kill your feelings with fire and walk away. Seriously, go for an actual walk, far from me, until the feelings are no more.’
When I was an agony aunt, I felt acutely aware of the intelligence of my correspondents. No-one writes to an agony aunt unless they have spent some time sitting with their problem, letting it percolate, twisting and trying to find solutions that fitted. I was also aware that I was little more than a fresh pair of eyes. They understood their problems at a phd level, and I wasn’t going to help by saying ‘Have you thought about talking to your sister?’ or ‘You could give up crisps!’ Empathy was my main aim. I still believe that the first response to problem needs to be a confirmation of the problem. You have been living with this for months, sometimes years, I’d say. Your feelings are valid. This is really hard. Deep down, you know the answer, better than I do. I think my job here is to resolve the tension between what you feel you should do, and what you want to do. And maybe, sometimes, you like having the problem because a solution would propel you straight into terrifying uncertainty. Feeling stuck can feel comfortable, too. Perhaps, I’d suggest, you need me to help you to believe that the future is exciting, not terrifying, before a solution can be found.
Of course, the irony is that if you’re offering unsolicited advice, you’re desperately seeking connection too. It comes from an urge that is part of the empathy family. You don’t want to make anyone feel stupid, or cross. You want to feel involved. I believe that we all carry a little piece of pain around with us, a memory of a time when we tried to join in and were turned away. Deep down, we worry that we’re not enough on our own, and so we have to come up with the price of admission. We must present a case for our inclusion. We worry that on our own, we’re not funny or charming or gorgeous enough, so we must pack a fact. Proof that we’re good value.
How many of us have been asked to bring a bottle for dinner, and arrived on a friend’s doorstep with the bottle, and another one, and a sack of Kettle Chips, a tub of hummus and a family sized trifle? Even with my best beloved, oldest friends, there have been times when I’d rather cancel than turn up empty handed. It’s hard to accept that they really, truly, just want to see me, and it’s very inconvenient for them to find space for a giant, unwanted trifle in their fridge?
During this difficult period, I’ve missed my friends and family desperately — and been maddened by them. Everyone is trying to be good value. Everyone is trying to help. We just want to see each other, be with each other, and the remedies and recipes keep getting in the way. I’m longing for connection. I want to know we will simply stay with each other, until it passes. I want us to remember that sometimes the very best way for us to be strong for each other is to be vulnerable together. I can’t wait to be gathered with the people I love the most, in a space where we don’t tell or instruct, but we simply wonder, quietly, together. I hope nobody brings any bloody banana bread.