Carolyn Hax: Back off on offering unsolicited advice to your sister

Carolyn Hax
Columnist October 29, 2013

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Hi, Carolyn:

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

I usually hold my tongue when it comes to dishing out unsolicited advice, but I’m curious about whether that policy holds when it comes to someone I love.

My sister is a wonderful person in many ways, but she has trouble dating men for longer than a few weeks. I have a few theories: She thinks she comes off as loose and carefree, when actually she exudes how high-strung and sensitive she really is; and her default conversational topic is complaining about other people.

Would a caring sister say, “I know you haven’t asked my opinion, but maybe if you tried to find other conversation topics,” or, “If you let the little things the guy said or did wrong go, you’d find more of what you’re looking for”? Or do I just say nothing, remain supportive, and offer my opinion if she does ask for it?


(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)

Unsolicited

The hold-your-tongue policy holds double for people you love, since they’re presumably the ones you’ll most regret alienating.

I’m also not sure what you’d accomplish with your theories except to put your sister on the defensive. Silence isn’t the only alternative, but what you propose is close to suggesting she change her temperament and personality, when what you want is to actually help her, i.e., minimize pain and maximize pragmatism.

One way to avoid the unsolicited trap and remain realistic is to wait till she complains, then ask her what she thinks went wrong. Ask what she plans to do, how she thinks her actions will be received, etc.

Maybe her lens is too warped for this to yield good suggestions, but, if nothing else, that would tell you her lens is also too warped for your theories to have your intended effect.

Ideally, though, some prompts will get her thinking, plus the ideas will be hers and so automatically less painful. Best of all, you can wade in gently with questions, and back away if it doesn’t work. With blurting out an opinion, there’s no taking it back.

Last thing. While it can be useful to hear about aspects of ourselves that we can stand to improve, I think it’s even more useful (and far better for one’s confidence) to hear about the good stuff that we’d do well to focus on and highlight around others. Right now it sounds as if you can’t see why a guy would want to date your sister, when it might help her most if you could help her see, and cultivate, why one would.

Re: Unsolicited advice:

My sister always gives me some. Infuriating. Many years ago — before marriage kids, etc. — she said to me: I think you should date more. My answer was: Oh, yes, I do, too.

And she was speechless. (If you knew her, you’d know how impossible that is.)

She thought I would argue with her, when by then I was so tired of that. Yes, she thinks we are oh so close. You probably think you and your sister are — when, with questions like that, you probably are not. Just some unsolicited advice.

Anonymous

Yep, that’s the alienation I’m talking about. And if I’m ever in a slapfight, you’re on my team.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Sign up for Carolyn Hax’s column, delivered to your inbox early each morning, at bit.ly/haxpost.

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