Sunday, 14 December 2008

Why Do People Always Tell Me What To Do?

I'm sure we have all been on the receiving end of phrases such as "What you should do is...", or "What you need to do is..." and "You must do...". Just listen in to any mobile phone conversation on public transport, in the local bar, at the office, in fact any social situation and you will hear someone telling someone else what the should do with their lives.

Often this well intentioned advice it is simply a bad social habit. A habit that is based on the assumption that what is good for one person has to be good for another.

How does it happen? Well, in some ways the root of the problem can lie with the 'YOU' because it can be your lack of clarity about what to do in situations that leaves a sort of 'advice vacuum' which many people love to fill, and this is how people can take advantage of you.

Because the world is packed full of information our brains can't cope with every little detail. So in order to manage this we all rely on what social psychologists call heuristics. These are 'rules of thumb' or mental short cuts that we use to save us having to work things out from scratch everytime we come across them.

Just imagine if everytime you saw a naked flame you had to investigate it in detail to find out it hurt you when you touched it! To save having to do this 'our rule of thumb' mechanism writes a little module in our brain which says 'flickering red and orange things are hot and dangerous'

We use things like this all the time. 'people in white coats are knowledgeable', 'high price indicates quality', 'red sky at night shepherds delight'

These 'short cuts' represent our cumulative experience of life which we then use to explain why things happened in the past and what will happen in the future. That's why a person who is always telling other people what to do is so quick with advice. Rules of thumb are useful but they mean that we trade off accuracy of thinking for speed of thinking. They are helpful generalisations but they can be wrong. Social psychologists Tversky and Kahneman identified three types of shortcut.

The Availibility shortcut. These are shortcuts that we use to say 'the more we aware of something the more we think it can happen to us'. e.g. If the news is always reporting burgalry then we think there is an increased chance of it happening to us'

The Representativeness shortcut
used to determine how ‘typical’ something/one is. e.g. 'all men/women are like that'

The Anchoring and Adjustment short cut
e.g. using self as a basis for ability to use a computer. My knowledge and keen interest in computers 'must be shared by everyone else'

People who tell us what to do, people who take advantage of good natured people, people who take advantage of you at work make use of these 'shortcuts'. For example, 'a messy desk means you are badly organised', 'I think this particular report is important therefore everyone else will','s/he's the Technical Director they've go to know what they're talking about' etc

Usually our 'rules of thumb' have worked successfully in the past and so we assume they will be valid in the future. This is a trap! The problem is that our 'theories for success/failure' become taken for granted and we presume that they appropriate for everyone else's circumstances too.

Another factor is the position that the advisor takes in relation to the advised. The adviser assumes that they are knowledgeable and the person they are advising is lacking in some way that needs to be improved. This general approach is characterised by people such as Virginia Satir who derived behaviour typologies such as The Blamer, or Eric Berne who talked about Persecutors.

People who utter phrases such as 'you must' also give an indication of the extent of their self-awareness. Which is very little. They are unaware they are advising from a set of assumptions. They are prescribing solutions rather than working with the person they wish to help to uncover alternative options and ways forward.

There is, of course, a judgement to made as to context. In situations of grave danger then it might be very appropriate to tell somebody that they must do something. In general social situations though this is rarely the case.

You might try this sometime if ever someone you know is being insistent with their advice. You might ask them 'should I?', 'must I?' Remember the context though. If someone has responsibility for you then they have a certain authority to insist on things. That said, developing your self confidence and getting clarity on what you should do independently helps keep things in balance.

Another classic situation in which people tell others what to do is known as The Double Bind in which instructions to another person are known as 'injunctions' (not to be confused with the legal term meaning to stop somebody doing something. The playing out of a double bind is subtle and complicated and makes use of meta or abstracted messages between the people involved. This means that that the content of statement such as 'You really should go and see your sick Grandmother' not only carries the primary injunction there is a secondary injunction that 'you should visit her because if you don't I will think you are a bad person'

One other very interesting thing about people who are always telling you what to do, is just that. They are very good at telling you about the 'what' and are remarkably silent about the 'how'.

And the most prolific place to see this? Business and Marketing blogs. They tend to be full of Normative advice on the assumption that they all know better than you.

Try The Huffington Post for 50 Office Phrases You Should Never Use

No Bull's 26 phrases you should never use in writing

15 places you must put your keyword phrase an the why behind itfrom Niche Bot

39 Phrases Everyone Should Know How To Use

So if you are asking the question, Why Do People Always Tell Me What To Do?
check for 'short cuts' and check which 'mode' they are talking to in. Start paying attention to the nature of the advice rather than the content of the advice.

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