UNcommon Courtesies & UNsolicited Opinions

"No one cares what you think. No one is interested. They are going to do what they are going to do." --Anne Lamott, speaking in Seattle April 2010 

Last night I had a dream in which my sister-in-law told me she was moving in with an old friend of hers. I immediately stated that this was a very bad idea and proceeded to list all of the reasons why.

I didn't get more than halfway into my list before she got pissed off and walked away. I was stunned. I was just trying to help. But it didn't matter. She didn't care what I thought. She wasn't interested. She was going to do what she was going to do.

As soon as I woke up I knew what this dream was showing me. It was a mirror.

Yesterday afternoon someone had done something very similar to me and I had reacted unfavorably. I was pissed and ranting to my husband. "I didn't ask for HER opinion. I JUST needed a Yes or No answer. How ARROGANT can you be?" Etc., etc. [I also sent an email response that was borderline snarky and left me feeling a little sick to my stomach and ashamed of myself.]

The fact is, I wasn't wrong. It IS arrogant to give your unsolicited opinion. And yet, I do it ALL THE TIME. I do it to my kids. I do it to my friends. I do it to my husband.

Partly it comes from a good place. You see something you think they don't. You want to help.

But it also comes from a not-so-good place. A place of arrogance. A place of smugness. A place of "I know better and I'm going to tell you what you should do."

And the thing is, rarely does someone listen to an unsolicited opinion.

Unless, of course, it is dolled out with a liberal dose of courtesy.

This is also a good way to go when you find yourself on the receiving end of well-meaning, unsolicited advice. Kill them with kindness as my mother would say.

My husband and I just started re-watching The West Wing and one thing that really strikes me about the show is how deferential they all are to The President and how genuinely polite he is to everyone. Third World Dictators, Republican Senators, his Secret Service men and everyone on his staff. He is a true American gentleman, so much so that sometimes it feels like we are watching a period piece and not a modern-day television show.

It is a politeness borne of a different age. Borne partly of an age of hierarchy and place, which no longer exists to such a large degree - thank goodness - but also of genuine respect for the Office of the President and the weight and responsibility that carries.

It is a respect that ended not so long ago I believe. With Dan Quayle and Rush Limbaugh and the 1987 abolition of the Fairness Doctrine and the rash of reactionary talk radio that ensued. And yet it is a politeness in which one does not drown one's true and honest feelings. When asked for his opinion The President gives it, openly, honestly, and with a preternatural kindness.

For those of us who struggle with speaking our truth, I think this might be a secret weapon that we can use to our advantage.

I've been trying it out on my kids and it is amazing how well it works.

Normally when I ask them to do something I get a grunt or "in a sec" or blank airspace. But when I remember to use my "Pleases" and "Thank yous" I often - not always, but often - get the "Yes, Mom," that I am looking for.

It doesn't just work at home. No more awkward exits from a playground conversation. A simple, "Won't you please excuse me," makes it swift and painless.

Answering an important phone call when in the middle of another event, goes from rude to downright graceful with a simple, "I am terribly sorry, but I do need to take this call."

Turning down a dinner invitation makes the one who invited you downright giddy when you say it like this, "We would love to, such a treat, but alas... a previous engagement. What a pity." (Queen Elizabeth in "The King's Speech")

And in the face of unsolicited advice a simple, "Thank you so much, I hadn't thought of that," leaves the advice giver awash in pride and with nary a clue that you have no intention of taking their advice. 

Even better, it doesn't cost you a thing. In fact, it may save you a day or two of regret over that snarky email you sent. Doh!


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