Seeking Good Advice

This week's post is written by Sooth Intern, Daniel Sude. Daniel is a Ph.D. Student in Communication at Ohio State University and holds two Master's Degrees: an M.A. in Psychology from the Culture & Self Lab at the University of British Columbia and an M.A. in the Social Sciences from the Rios Conformity, Attitudes, Threat, and Self Lab at the University of Chicago.

Let’s say that you want to know whether you’re going to like a restaurant. You ask one friend and they rave about how good it is. You ask another friend and they rant about how bad it is. You go online and you see mixed reviews:

  • “I hated this restaurant! The food was overcooked and they wouldn’t know a good pizza if it bit them! I had to wait forever to be served. The waiter was rude!”
  • “I loved this restaurant! This pizza was delicious and everything was cooked just right! We were served promptly and the waitstaff were very polite.”

Useful? Useless? Would you eat there?

    In this situation, you had a relatively simple question and you sought advice. However, there was confusion about what “good advice” would look like. On Sooth, where we handle more complex life advice, I tend to look at good advice as something that simultaneously helps you to clarify your goals and that helps you to gather the information that you need to pursue those goals.   

    In this particular example, your goals are a collection of idiosyncratic food preferences. If you were to sit down and write it out, you might clarify them in this way:

  • I hate fruit and meat on pizza; love properly smoky eggplant on my pizza!
  • I like crisper, crunchier crusts, I don’t care if they’re not “New York style”!
  • I just want an authentic experience!

and so on . . .

Just as in life decisions, these concerns address a range of very specific expectations concerning ingredients, recipes, and cultural associations. It is personal and, when it comes to how things taste, subjective. Different people have different sensitivities to different flavors. It is difficult for anyone to predict an individual’s personal experience. Think about the last time you were at a wine tasting and tried to identify which berry, if any, you could smell in the wine’s “nose.”

You may actually just want “the best” pizza, by which you mean anything that knowledgeable critics celebrate as superior. Often when seeking life advice we don’t see the nuance and just want to make the “best” or “right” decision.

When seeking advice on Sooth, your situation probably registers as more complicated than deciding whether to try a new pizza place:

  • You may register it emotionally as a conflict in desires or a sense of being lost in indecision.
  • You may register it as strong need to establish simplicity, to establish order.
  • You may simply want to better justify a decision that you’ve already made.

At the same time you may have numerous preferences that it can take you a while to identify and articulate. These preferences may occur so rapidly and be so intuitive to you don’t even think about them. They may also change with fluctuations in your emotional states, your recent experiences.

In a recent situation on Sooth, an anonymous community member asks whether to stay in his/her old job or seek a new one. In sum, they like what they’re being paid but don’t like the social experience. They were feeling isolated and angry because of a recent social struggle, making them want to leave. But because of a major expense, wanted to stay.

In writing to the Sooth community, you dip into the complexity of your situation. You feel through your emotional experience – which can be quite intense. You notice your arising preferences, sometimes slippery and shifting. You may even start to reach a conclusion. Even the mere process of asking on Sooth brings you clarity; then, there’s an extra benefit from reading the responses of other people.

Other people can help us to consider what is "normal." This is a loaded term, for many of us:

  • Sometimes we look at something “normal” as something that is generally functional, adaptable, and “good enough.”
  • Sometimes the “normal” decision is irrelevant to us. We have particular needs to fulfill in a particular situation.
  • Sometimes, there is no distinct “normal” – there are indeed multiple common responses to our situation.  People disagree.
  • Sometimes, departing from the norm – doing something outside of the normal – feels wrong to us and fills us with doubt and apprehension.

We are influenced, psychologists suggest by both descriptive and prescriptive norms. We identify a descriptive norm when we think to ourselves, “well, most people would do this.” We identify a prescriptive norm when we ask ourselves – “What do other people think is the right thing to do?” In the case of our pizza place example, one concern was authenticity. Authenticity captures both descriptive norms (did people really eat that kind of pizza) and prescriptive norms (is this type of pizza somehow better? Is it more refined? More flavorful? More distinctive?).

In asking for advice on Sooth, we get feedback that can inform our sense of the descriptive norm – what do other people actually do? – and the prescriptive norm – what do people think that we should do? But why would we care?

Let’s take another recent example in the Soothstream. In gist, a wife is frustrated because her husband won’t communicate. She is wondering whether this frustration is reasonable. She asks – “is this just how most men are?” – comparing her situation against a descriptive norm. If Soothers were to agree that this is just how most men are, it may be unreasonable to expect her husband to be different. At the same time, if most men are like this, the situation is not her fault. That can be both a pacifying and an unsettling discovery.

But what if, in asking the Sooth community, she finds that other people have faced and overcome the same problem. They may share with her a common practice for improving martial communication. They may share an extremely useful descriptive norm.

Our advice seeker is also considering prescriptive norms. She wants to know whether she is justified in seeking change. Does she have a right to expect her husband to grow? Is better communication a necessary part of a good relationship? Is she ignoring the way that her husband expresses himself through his actions, rather than words? Other Soothers weigh in on these deeper questions – present their arguments, their experiences, their preferences, and help her to look at her own in a new way. They may highlight something that she has noticed but not considered. They may strengthen her reasoning. They may occasionally call attention to gaps in her perceptions.   
In asking for advice on Sooth, we are able to dig deep. It can be a humbling experience. It can also be affirming. Our problems are problems. Our confusion is justified. If choosing a pizza place is hard, solving a relationship problem or choosing to leave a job is orders of magnitude harder. But, despite this complexity, we can learn. We can grow. We can make wise choices. This first step is asking for advice; it's looking fully at our problem. Then, as we consider each Soother’s response, we can go forward with greater clarity, confidence, and openness.

In a later post, I’ll approach these issues from the perspective of someone giving advice – reaching beyond our own perspectives to help others to find clarity. See you next time!