Thoughts on giving advice

Recently I watched a person ask for advice and then, one by one, shoot down the various reasonable, actionable, easy-to-follow suggestions that well over a dozen people gave him. Most of the advice-seeker’s arguments for why he couldn’t follow some piece of advice or another sounded like lame excuses. In the middle of all this, one of the people who had given a suggestion got exasperated and said he couldn’t understand why anyone kept giving this guy advice.

Giving advice seems to be an activity many people are attracted to, regardless whether they receive feedback indicating their advice was followed or even seriously considered. It’s a phenomenon that powers much of the internet! I don’t know why that phenomenon of advice-giving exists, but here are some of my guesses:

  • It makes us feel like we are experts at something.
  • It shows others that we are helpful and therefore worthy of the space we take up.
  • Requests for advice present a kind of puzzle, and the problem-solving muscles in our minds enjoy hammering away at puzzles. (Each excuse for why a piece of advice can’t be followed presents a follow-up puzzle!)
  • We imagine we are turning a sort of dharmic wheel; good advice can be extremely valuable, so by our giving it to someone for free the universe (or maybe even the advice-seeker himself in some cosmic way) now owes us a reward.
  • It scratches an obsessive compulsive itch to put things to order.

It also seems strange that someone would ask for advice and then give every indication that he isn’t open to anyone’s suggestions. Here too I have my guesses for why this happens:

  • The request for advice is really a request for validation; the person actually wants to hear “Don’t worry, the way you’re doing it right now is just fine. You shouldn’t actually change after all.”
  • Each suggestion presents a kind of puzzle; solving it means finding a way it can’t be followed. The problem-solving muscles in the advice-seeker’s mind enjoy hammering away at all the little puzzles people are giving him.
  • The advice-seeker intuitively knows what the right course of action is to resolve the situation he’s in, but for whatever reason (fear, laziness, etc.) does not want to take it. So he asks for advice as a way to prove to himself he is taking steps toward resolving his situation. Then when the advice starts to pour in, he shoots it down so that he won’t actually have to take any steps whatsoever–but it will feel like he at least tried.

These two sets of biases–those of the advice-seeker and those of the advice-givers–complement each other, creating a feedback loop. That is where the phenomenon gets its power.

(This of course doesn’t mean all requests for advice are fraudulent or that giving advice is necessarily a waste of time.)

Tantrum Twins: a very short story

Little SW was throwing another tantrum at the store.

“Oh Justine,” said her mother, calling her by her middle name as she always did when she felt overwhelmed and ready to give in, “What do you want?”

Without a break in the screaming, SW gestured vaguely toward the aisle of equalizers, levelers, boosters, and safety nets. Her mother sighed and went to work, dutifully sweeping items off the shelves into her shopping cart, which was already filled to the brim with items from nearby aisles. As newly added items slid off the pile and onto the floor, red-faced SW shrieked and stomped even louder, picking the items up and hurling them at her mother and random passersby.

Most of the passersby looked appalled, but weren’t sure what if anything they should do. So they idly just wished SW’s mother would keep SW quiet.

Al, who was about the same age as SW, stood watching. Young Al was transfixed on SW with a mixture of seething hatred and smitten adulation. Seething hatred because he was simply returning the hate-filled look SW had given him, and adulation because whatever SW was doing to get her way seemed to Al to be working.

Al used to have an aisle in another part of the store where he’d have liked his father to be clearing the shelves into their cart. They were items few people sought out but which Al could articulate strong reasons for wanting. He’d forgotten all about that now. Now it was SW’s tactics that consumed him. She was getting results!

So before long Al tried out his own sort of tantrum. Instead of screeching incoherently the way SW did, he focused on making objectionable noises and gestures: he yelled racial epithets; he Heiled Hitler; he goose-stepped around doing his best impersonation of the Nazi bad guys he’d seen in movies; he pointed out that Jews–Jews!–had stocked the shelves (indeed, many of the people who worked in the store were Jewish); and then he rolled on the ground in a fetal position and wept loudly about how he and everyone like him were being systematically eliminated–he had no children of his own after all, so it seemed his legacy would end with him–and how if it had been SW being eliminated people would care but since it was him nobody cared and people ought to be more alarmed about that kind of inequality don’t you know.

Al’s father Mr. Trite, normally aloof and indifferent, saw at this moment an opportunity to look caring and supportive: he marched over to SW’s shopping cart and ceremoniously picked out one or two of the items she’d demanded. Then Mr. Trite made a show of putting them back on the shelf–though if you noticed his sleight of hand you’d see the items remained in the cart.

SW and her mother did not notice the sleight of hand, and both of them became totally enraged. They jabbed shaking fingers at Al and Mr. Trite, shouting “Devil! Demon! Vile scum!” They tore their hair and rended their clothes.

At this, the passersby got excited, for something primal was awoken in them. What before had been a disturbance in the outskirts of the store was now an all-consuming melodrama, and the crowd could not resist playing along by joining one side or another. Those generally inclined toward equalizers and safety nets took SW and her mother’s side (though some still mumbled quietly that SW should tone down her shrieking) while those interested in different aisles took Al and Mr. Trite’s side (though they weren’t sure what to to make of strange little Al and mostly tried to pretend he wasn’t there).

We don’t know how this story ends. SW might get what she wants though it seems doubtful. Al is happy just competing with her tantrum-for-tantrum, and winning that competition is all he wants now; the aisles he used to long for are gathering cobwebs.

Movie review: “Accidental Courtesy”

Normally I don’t see movies close enough to when thy are released to even fathom reviewing them, but this time I saw the 1.5 hour documentary “Accidental Courtesy” on PBS’s Independent Lens website apparently just a week or two after it came out. It’s made by Matt Ornstein and is about Daryl Davis, the black man who befriended dozens of Klansmen with the result that many of them left the Klan.

Davis is an interesting guy to start with: a prolific keyboardist who has seemingly played with just about any iconic American musical act you can think of, from Chuck Berry to the Tonight Show band. But his hobby is particularly compelling: meeting and befriending Klansmen in an effort to answer his lifelong question “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?”

The documentary doesn’t get hung up in the semantic details of what hatred is and what it really means, and I wouldn’t say it provides any meaningful insight into the Klansmen’s point of view either. So, racism itself goes unexamined. Instead what I love about the movie is the way it champions Davis’s ethos of being willing to sit down and listen to people you disagree with, and to separate the person from the idea. “If you’re talking,” Davis says, “you’re not fighting.”

You can see how seriously Davis takes this ethos in a scene where he is sitting down with Black Lives Matter activists. They are disrespectful and uncivil to him–a striking contrast with the smiling, accommodating white supremacists he talks to at other points in the movie who are obviously moved by his charm–and yet Davis never drops to their level. He sits like a boulder, insistent on two-way dialog and mutual understanding. Even while being cussed at and stormed out on, he extends a hand of friendship and says “Let me walk with you.”

I empathize with Davis because he doesn’t seem to get offended by anything–or if he does, he doesn’t let it sour his disposition–and he doesn’t even hesitate about stepping off whatever reservation to which he might be said to belong. He’s interested in seeing up close the people who tend to get vilified from afar, and he knows there is always the potential to change people’s minds or at least make a friend.

Technically, the movie is nicely done (some poor audio quality here and there can be forgiven) and even has some subtle visual themes that support the subject matter. To some degree the movie is a series of vignettes in which Davis sits on one side of the screen and some Klansman or neo-Nazi sits on the other, punctuated occasionally by scenes of Davis playing keyboards, but the rhythm and motivation is established well early on, so these odd rendezvouses and the lack of context around each one doesn’t feel too contrived.

I highly recommend this movie; it left me thinking and feeling inspired.

Watch the movie here:

Why is A-natural a minor key?

In other words, why does the aeolian mode (i.e. the “first” mode, and basis of the standard major scale) begin with the third rather than the first letter of the alphabet when there are no sharps or flats? DuckDuckGo could probably tell me but I’d rather wonder out loud here.

My total guess is that when Western music was being codified, most songs were written in minor keys, and so at that time ionian–not aeolian–was considered the “first” mode.

Some of my music posts have received comments from people who seem rather informed, so maybe someone can fill me in.