A picture of two people from behind, the person on the left is laying their head on the other person’s shoulder, as they look away from the camera.
Credit: Kulli Kittus via Unsplash

Dear friends: you don’t always have to be an agony aunt

By Hanuel Lee

Hanuel is here to give you some valuable advice: you don’t always have to give advice

Humans complain. That’s part of who we are. We remember more negative experiences than we do positive – our brains are just wired that way. Some of our concerns are, let’s face it, fairly privileged, and in the grand scheme of things pretty insignificant. When most of us vent about personal struggles, we are already aware that there are “easy” solutions to our problems. Sometimes all you need is a different perspective. Your tutor hates you? Tough, at least you have one. You’re inundated with work? Good, you’re getting an education.

But humans are social beings – a large part of our venting isn’t because we’re clueless about the privileges we have as students living in a country with a democratic government, public healthcare and free education. It’s because we want to know that we have someone who validates our experiences, a presence that cares enough to empathise with even the most shallow and ridiculous versions of ourselves.

The problem with unsolicited advice is that more often than not it can be hurtful. When I rant to my able-bodied flatmate about something frustrating that happened to me that day as a disabled person, the last thing I want to hear is, “well, at least you can walk” (I wish this wasn’t a true story). Not only is this incredibly patronising, but it made the petty side of me rethink every moment I listened to her complain about deadlines or having drank too much the night before.

I’m sure there have been plenty of times in which I’ve made the same mistake. There has been many a time where my friend was crying on my shoulder about a terrible boyfriend of hers and everything inside of me was screaming, “just break up with him!” But sometimes it’s not the right time or place, and sometimes there are things you should never voice. So why do we feel the need to give advice when a shoulder to cry on is the best way forward?

I can see both perspectives. Sometimes the solution is so blatantly obvious to the listener that you can’t help but advise someone who may not want that sort of support. Maybe you genuinely think the person who’s venting wants advice. Or maybe giving people advice is your love language – trying to help solve a problem shouldn’t be considered a bad thing, should it? 

It depends on the type of concern and the type of advice. Instead of ever entrusting my flatmate with my daily struggles again, I realised that little anxieties like, “What if they think I’m shallow?” or “What if they just don’t care?” were niggling in the back of my head.

Of course, giving unsolicited advice is not an unforgivable crime. In some cases, however, I see it as a red flag. More often than not as a disabled person, a lot of the unsolicited advice I get is about how most of my issues could be solved if I perceive the world with a more positive outlook – I’m sorry, but how will a positive outlook solve the fact that I’m paying out of pocket for taxis and Ubers because public transport is wildly inaccessible? This is just not up for debate – if an able-bodied person tells me one more time that the majority of my problems come from my head, I can guarantee this right now: I will shut down like a venus flytrap.

The moral of the story is this: listen. We all have concerns, some more pressing than others. But if the venter wants advice, they’ll tell you. Most days we just want a caring presence to lend an ear to our problems.


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James Smith

To quote Derren Brown: “Whenever we offer advice, we’re advising our own former selves.”

We hear the groan / moan / problem from our friend, run it through the filter in our brain and out pops the advice we would give to ourselves. It’s inevitable; we’re just naturally biased that way.

I would like to offer a slight extension to the moral of your story: listen to understand, not to reply.

When we listen to understand we are more likely to ask questions, seeking clarity on the finer details, exploring the emotions and feelings that person experienced.

Following a recent conversation with a friend discussing their ongoing issues with their partner, I was thanked for my advice. Curious thing is, I did not offer one single piece of advice. They just got there themselves in the end.