Family interference vs helpfulness
December 29, 2020 4:10 PM   Subscribe

Please help me understand Western Culture and family dynamics. Is it ok or not for family to point out your flaws and give you helpful direction? If not, why not?

My family is Mediterranean. We feel that family is there to help each other and if one needs his flaws pointed out, they are the ones who should do so. Friends don't want to risk their relationship so they won't tell you.

I married a Westerner and they saw my brother-in-law struggling to have a relationship with women (failed) or trying to get a job. He graduated as a Nuclear Engineer but was underemployed as a fast food manager. I wanted to tell him a few pointers like get newer clothes, shower daily and get a good haircut. But they were alarmed and said this would be very hurtful. In my family they would let you know these things. It may hurt but long term it's helpful.

Now my big problem is our teen children. One gets very angry when I ask about her health habits like nutrition or sleep habits. I just really care and want reassurance that she's taking care of herself.

On the one hand, I can be indifferent like my husband's family. Or I can be inquisitive and give unsolicited advice.

It seems that my family is warm and caring in my opinion but to my husband they would be considered nosy and bothersome.

The situation with my bil is rather sad, imho. He had so much potential but to avoid conflict he was left alone.

Is my husband's family typical of American families? There is no conflict at all in their homes which I like but at what cost? In my family there might be conflict and arguments but we're family so we stick together.

Is this the American way? Should I try to emulate this?
posted by Coffeetyme to Human Relations (28 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I don't know about America (I'm British), but one of the best pieces of advice I ever received, ironically enough, was - Never give unsolicited advice.

If the person in question hasn't asked you for advice, then they aren't in a place where they're ready to hear it, or able to act on it. Your comments will feel like bitter criticism of what they're currently doing, and no matter how well-meant your advice was, their defences will go up and they won't take it on board in a productive way.

If, on the other hand, they've reached a point where they've decided for themselves that they need help, and they think you may be a good person to offer it, they'll ask what you think, or at least open up a conversation about the topic in a way that allows you to feed in, and they'll likely be receptive to your advice.

I guess there are limits to that. Sometimes someone really does need some straight talking about the mistakes they keep on making, or some encouragement to try something different to overcome obstacles in their life. But it has to come from someone they trust, and like, and who they don't feel is criticising them. That won't necessarily be someone they're related to - in fact that can often make it even harder, if they already feel like they're often criticised or type-cast by their family as Someone With Problems. Your teenage kids, for example, are at a stage of life where they're trying so hard to break away from being their mother's babies, to be their own people who don't need constant nurturing. So what feels to you like caring concern might feel to them like an unbearable level of inteference in their age-appropriate attempts to break away and become autonomous adults.

That's my take, anyway.
posted by penguin pie at 4:26 PM on December 29, 2020 [16 favorites]

Firstly, I'm not sure what you mean by "Western culture" if you describe yourself as "Mediterranean" - many would consider the nations around the Mediterranean Sea to also be part of Western culture. So I am assuming that by "Western" you mean "American". If that's the case - there is no one single way that families in America do things. Some think much as you do - that a family can be blunt and frank, but supportive - while others are more reserved. So I don't think this is a matter of a "culture clash" of nations, I think it's more of a culture clash of this one specific family.

Secondly: I think there is a LOT of options in between "being indifferent" and "giving unsolicited advice". The fact that you yourself describe your advice as "unsolicited" may be something to consider - there are some people who need to be ready to receive the advice before they get it, and would prefer that you either wait until they ask you for advice, or prefer that you try to understand why they are doing things a certain way before you tell them to do it differently. For example, suppose I was in a bad job that was making me sad, but I was still determined to stick it out and reach a certain financial goal before quitting. You could tell me many times before I reached that goal that "you should quit because this job makes you unhappy" - but I wouldn't be ready to do that yet, so I would consider your advice to be unwelcome, because you don't have a full understanding of why I am still staying with that job. However, if you asked me instead "I'm curious why you are staying with this job," and then you really listened to me, then you would be able to instead either just listen when I am complaining about the job - because you would know that I have decided to stay with it - or you could instead talk to me about how to COPE with the job.

You seem convinced that your brother in law should have a better job, and the fact that he doesn't have one makes you sad. But - does it make HIM sad? I am not convinced that you have thought about that. Also, has your brother in law asked you for advice?

As for your children - I am curious about how you are asking about her health habits, and if you ask her about anything else that she might be interested in. There is a big difference between you asking her:

"Did you remember to eat your vegetables today? And you're not staying up late reading in bed, are you?"

And you asking her:

"Hey, wasn't today the day you had that big swim meet? How did that go?....Oh, did you have time to eat your whole lunch before practice?"

Do you understand what I'm trying to say? There's a difference between JUST asking about health habits, and asking about your daughter as a person, getting to know what she cares about and asking her about that.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:28 PM on December 29, 2020 [22 favorites]

Why are the only choices indifference versus nosy? I feel like there is a whole range of approaches being overlooked by boiling it down to this.

I think your husband's family is typical of some American families. I also think there is a range of useful versus not-useful/not-actionable advice. It's not that no one ever says these things, but maybe their phrasing is less blunt or their approach is more gentle. Especially when it's a sensitive subject like hygiene or finances.

FWIW I'm American and my family trended more towards "just telling it like it is" honesty. It's been my experience that's often helpfulness wrapped in asshole-ry but I fully recognize I may be projecting.
posted by sm1tten at 4:30 PM on December 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I don't want to speak for all American families, but something that is universally true is that all families, regardless of culture, have quirks, and it's usually a good idea to be aware of them and honor the boundaries of how they function if you are an outsider coming into an established family unit. Something that may be somewhat uniquely American is that marrying into a family doesn't necessarily mean you are truly embraced as a full member of that family like you would be if you were a blood relative. Maybe that's related to our individualistic culture, acceptance of divorce, less religious foundation, etc, but whatever the case, just like yours, this family has a system for how they interact and a set of unspoken rules they follow, and you will likely not be warmly received if you break those rules without good reason. This is especially true if the issue you want to break a culture norm on does not directly impact you, because that can feel particularly inappropriate/offensive.

Take the case of your brother in law - even though you married his brother, this probably doesn't mean you have permission to give him unsolicited advice. In fact, that advice will probably just land as criticism and judgment, no matter how well-meaning, simply because he didn't ask for it.

Within your own nuclear family unit, you have a bit more leeway to decide how you interact with your own kids. That said, being a parent has power, and kids will often take things to heart in ways you do not intend simply because your words have more weight than those of other people, especially when they are going through their teen years and dealing with awkwardness and insecurity, It may help to practice how you broach these topics with your daughter so they feel positive and nurturing.
posted by amycup at 4:41 PM on December 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

I can't speak to other families, but in my family, I wouldn't feel comfortable saying that to my brother-in-law. I might say something to my sister in a similar situation to see if she'd talked to him about it. Even that would be awkward to bring up, though.

As a teenager, I ate my mom's food, so she automatically knew that I was eating nutritiously. (My parents never restricted snacks that I ate occasionally elsewhere, desserts with friends, etc...perhaps this is what you're talking about? I would have found that somewhat intrusive. But I ate the majority of meals at home and took homemade lunches to school.) My parents also expected me to sleep at certain times, which I don't think is unreasonable. I think it's pretty normal to be in charge of the rules in both of these areas, at least to some extent.
posted by pinochiette at 5:05 PM on December 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I would like to respond to your idea that your BIL needs to hear your advice. I wanted to tell him a few pointers like get newer clothes, shower daily and get a good haircut.

Do you think he doesn't know this? That he's not aware of those issues?

In general, most people who are struggling know they are struggling, especially if they are adults. And telling them that they need to work harder, or get a new job, or whatever -- that may not actually help them, it just reinforces their bad feelings about themselves that everyone in the world knows they are screwing up and they can't fix it.

Your BIL's problem is not that he's not showering regularly; it's the reason why he's not showering regularly. And if you want to help him, you might consider what could you do (and not just say) that would support him.

Your children are another matter, and as teenagers they need different kinds of support. But other adults in your life generally know what their problems are.

(This is setting aside the unusual stuff, like where someone has an undiagnosed medical condition that gives them terrible breath or body odor, and someone needs to inform them of that kindly.)
posted by suelac at 5:32 PM on December 29, 2020 [15 favorites]

One thought - in your own family, you can point out people's flaws but what happens next? My guess is that sometimes it works and person changes (maybe gratefully, maybe with resentment), sometime it is just ignored (and forgotten/forgiven or maybe resented or causing hurt).
My guess is that your family is used to more directness, so people are less likely to be hurt - they can see the good intention underneath.

In other families, people hint, they tentatively check out how open the recipient is to advice, they hold back if it is likely to cause to hurt. They still care but they only say things to other adults (especially if the adults aren't their children) if they think it will help and not cause conflict. It's not that never say anything but they say less, they say it differently and they are more likely not to say it unless they think it will be appreciated.

In those families, being direct is unfamiliar, uncomfortable and often perceived as more attacking than intended. So, if you interact in your own style, it will make them uncomfortable because they will not understand the goodwill that your own family would automatically assume. This is even stronger when you are in-law, especially if you are not that emotionally close with family member.

I agree with others who are guessing that there is much going on with your BIL than just the need for shower. But even if it something simpler like someone wearing a color that isn't a good choice, the difference in family styles means that you will be misread if you just say it bluntly as you would at home. If you wanted to tell someone that a dress doesn't flatter them, you couldn't just say it - you would first need to think through whether the advice would be well received (maybe yes if shopping together, maybe no if already at the party) and then say it the language that they would hear as friendly concern not blunt criticism.
posted by metahawk at 6:01 PM on December 29, 2020 [4 favorites]

There's a wide range here, but my family from the East Coast of the US certainly lies closer to your husband's take on things. It's likely that we would ask, exactly once, if the person wanted any advice or help, and if they said no, we would leave it at "okay, I'm here to help if you ever want that."

If the family member did ask for advice I can't imagine using the word "flaws" to them; that would feel unnecessarily hurtful and judgmental. I'd frame it in terms of habits or preferences or how it's annoying but often necessary to step up on one's clothing game for interviews or whatever.

An argument is a sign of something gone very wrong in my family.

I don't think it's necessarily a great way to be. I wish I'd had a bit more directness and ability to handle conflict modelled for me when I was growing up. But just a bit. I still wouldn't want to live in a family where conflict was a regular thing and family members felt free to give me unsolicited advice about my perceived flaws.

I don't think you have to drop your family dynamics and adopt your husband's, but especially where the kids are concerned, you're probably going to both have to adopt a middle road.
posted by Stacey at 6:20 PM on December 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

However you choose to make your point, avoid saying "you should do [whatever]" It's a very loaded phrase that enforces to the person that what they're doing is wrong and bad.
posted by bendy at 7:48 PM on December 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

On the one hand, I can be indifferent like my husband's family. Or I can be inquisitive and give unsolicited advice.

I want to question your assessment of your husband's family as "indifferent." The fact that they're stopping you from saying what you want to your BIL suggests to me that they care very much. I agree with suelac that your BIL most likely knows that others think he should change the things you think he should change. There are probably reasons he's not changing these things, and I doubt that it's because he's oblivious. Even though I'm sure you are coming from a place of love and concern, I think telling him to get new clothes and a haircut has a certain "wow thanks I'm cured" vibe.

Your BIL might need understanding and space to be heard more than he needs to have his "flaws" called out, and the fact that his family is steering you away from your planned course of action is probably their way of showing their care and love based on what they know of him. Perhaps if you could look for ways to mentally reframe their actions as a show of love rather than indifference, you might be able to better understand where they're coming from.
posted by DingoMutt at 7:53 PM on December 29, 2020 [7 favorites]

take your cues on this from the rest of the family.

I have been in situations where my... well, let's call them "less communicative" in-laws were actually super grateful to have me (the Mediterranean outsider) offer some unsolicited advice to a family member. However, I only did that because that person's parent had been talking about how concerned they were, and how they wished that somehow this person could be helped.

But your in-laws are telling you the opposite. They know your BIL better than you do, and they are telling you that for you to offer him these unsolicited comments would not be a helpful thing to do.

Remember in general that criticism is... not actually that helpful, usually. I have had Mediterranean acquaintances and relatives "helpfully" point out things like how pretty I'd be if I just lost some weight. I hope I don't have to explain how that was not helpful.

"Help" is concrete offers like "I can refer you to my great hairstylist if you ever want to try a keratin treatment" or "if you're looking for someone to network with, my friend Bob is an engineering manager who'd be happy to give you a few minutes of informational interviewing."
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:19 PM on December 29, 2020 [9 favorites]

> The situation with my bil is rather sad, imho. He had so much potential but to avoid conflict he was left alone. I wanted to tell him a few pointers like get newer clothes, shower daily and get a good haircut. But they were alarmed and said this would be very hurtful.

Yeah, he may have some significant mental health stuff going on, and the self-care issues reflect that, rather than causing that.

In my family they would let you know these things. It may hurt but long term it's helpful.

If he's got some significant mental health issues going on that you didn't pick up on, and your only take on it is "It may hurt but long term it's helpful.", I think it may be very lucky for everyone involved that your husband's relatives have blocked you from interfering.

Like, maybe he's seeing a therapist but they didn't think it was appropriate to tell you this? Hopefully they've been talking privately among themselves and sort of understand what's going on with him.

Now my big problem is our teen children. One gets very angry when I ask about her health habits like nutrition or sleep habits. I just really care and want reassurance that she's taking care of herself.

She's a teenager. We don't know if they're 13 or 17½. You have not mentioned red flags reflecting significant eating issues. We don't know if she's sleeping in till 10 or till 4, if she's getting a healthy 8-10 hours of sleep or 4 hours. You have not mentioned red flags regarding sleep issues.

But, at worst, there is a chance you've been systematically policing every aspect of her behavior and identity for more than a decade. Now that there is pushback against a submissive-dominant family dynamic and she's asserting a self and identity (as part of healthy adolescent/young adult development) and you're freaking out.

"warm", "caring", "inquisitive", and not "indifferent". "I just really care and want reassurance that she's taking care of herself."

Um, here you're depicting yourself as the wronged party and an utterly victimized saint who was just being compassionate. But, this thing where {you police her behavior/treat her like a young child, she pushes back, you act hurt} can be construed as a pattern of behavior that is referred to as DARVO: Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender.

That's not a good sign. That could actually a really bad sign. (It comes up in unhealthy relationships) Keep it up, and twenty years from now you'll be wondering why they visit rarely and only return your calls twice a year.

I'm not saying it is definitely that bad, but you really need to step back periodically and self-asses. "Was it actually necessary that I police her behavior?" "This thing I did, was it policing her behavior" "If yes, did I do it the wrong way?"

Consider if you had been policing her behavior unnecessarily about clothing, make-up, or lack of make-up: "You're not wearing that, are you?" and then "Why is she angry, I was just being warm and caring?" And consider that there instances where parents do this to their kids in intensely hurtful ways.

So you need to be much more careful. And you need to understand where your daughter's thoughts and feelings come from.

We outsiders don't really know what's led up to the current situation - meaning how much unnecessary or poorly handled policing of behavior has been going on, if any, or if your daughter has significant sleep and nutrition issues.

Probably you need to find a middle ground between your current approach and something closer to your husband's approach. If your daughter's not falling apart or struggling, your husband's approach may be completely fine. And it could mean, in the future, she feels safe talking to him about something when it's really important she talk to an adult she trusts.

You definitely need to be a lot more mindful about how your daughter constructs her sense of self and identity.

You definitely need to be a lot more mindful when your actions and questions are actually policing your daughter's behavior.

You definitely need to consider what your daughter thinks or feels when a "warm" "caring" question is actually policing her behavior.

You definitely need to be a lot more mindful about how you analyze your own behavior.

Worst case, "warm" "caring" questions policing her behavior can lead to short term alienation. Or just permanent adult alienation where she avoids any communication in order to avoid giving you ammunition for further "warm" "caring" questions policing her behavior.

Try EmpressCallipygos's approach upthread. It's compassionate but careful.
posted by sebastienbailard at 1:28 AM on December 30, 2020 [4 favorites]

Is this the American way? Should I try to emulate this?

Just to answer this part of the question: it's some Americans' way. But my family, originally with a Mediterranean background, are way more like you. Unsolicited advice, arguments as a sign of closeness, etc. I like that we are this way and more WASPy passive aggression in other Americans does drive me a bit batty. But like, that's America. People have different assumptions and expectations based on their backgrounds, and you don't have to change that to be American.
posted by dame at 2:49 AM on December 30, 2020 [5 favorites]

My mother's side of the family thought they could say whatever they wanted in an effort to be helpful because we're family and we know we love each other (Americans born in the US, but raised by Lithuanian immigrant parents). For me, this was awful. Although I loved one of my uncles, I basically quit visiting him the last few years of his life because I didn't want to hear any more "helpful" comments about my weight. I still regret not seeing him, but I knew I was overweight and him telling me so only made me want to avoid him.

My mother also thought she could be helpful by trying to police various aspects of my behavior. This drove me away from her. I ended up really limiting what I told her because I did not want to hear any more of her supposedly helpful opinions. As pointed out above, your brother-in-law knows he's not showering. If he's unhappy with his work situation, it's not because he has no idea of how he could change things if he wanted to. That is not the problem.

You don't say how old your children are, but there's a point where they are going to make their own decisions regardless of what you think. Is your daughter surviving on Twinkies and Coke? She knows it's bad for her - your pointing that out won't make her suddenly decide to start eating salads, but it might make her not want to talk to you about food or her health habits. It might even make her decide to hide what she's doing from you. If she wants to eat better and make sure she gets enough sleep, she'll do so. If she doesn't, no amount of your pointing out what she's doing wrong will help.

My family members who did this sort of thing did not cause me to change anything except my relationships with them. I agree that it is not indifference to avoid telling people what they should do. You can let people know you're there for them if they want help without offering unsolicited advice.

I strongly suggest the book, "How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk" for some insight on how to show love without driving people away.
posted by FencingGal at 7:36 AM on December 30, 2020 [6 favorites]

On the one hand, I can be indifferent like my husband's family. Or I can be inquisitive and give unsolicited advice.

As others have noted, there are actually more than two choices. On a different Q, MiraK offered some sound advice, IMHO.

My Al-Anon sponsor has said it is okay to ask if someone wants feedback if (and only if) one is prepared to hear the word no. Sometimes I ask my kid if they want any feedback about X and if they say no, I stay silent. One of the most important lessons I have learned from going to Al-Anon meetings, which are for the friends and relatives of alcoholics, is that I don't actually know the best thing for my loved ones to do.

Sure, my brain tells me that I have all the right answers but do I? Is my own life perfect? Am I a flawless human being? In my case, at least, the answer to all three questions is absolutely not, which makes it easier for me to mostly keep my mouth shut and try to accept my relatives and friends without judgment but with reasonable boundaries to protect our relationships. I know you mean well but everyone does. For many of us, meaning well alone is not a solid basis for loving relationships. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 7:57 AM on December 30, 2020 [6 favorites]

To answer your questions directly:

Is my husband's family typical of American families?

I would say so. It's certainly not out of the range of "average," and most Americans would not consider it unusual, even if their own families don't operate that way. Which gets to:

Is this the American way?

This one is a bit harder to answer cleanly. I can overgeneralize and say that as a whole, American culture is actually much more conflict-avoidant than not, despite its self-image as straight-shootin' and get-to-the-point. But there are also significant regional variations (e.g. Midwest vs. Southeast vs. New York City) in the cultural norms around this stuff, and I think that kind of regional variation is always harder to see from the perspective of a non-American. I can't fairly say that there is THE American way here, at least not along the dimensions that you're focused on.

Should I try to emulate this?

And this one is actually impossible to answer, for us strangers on the internet. You did say you've tried your Mediterranean approach within your in-law family, and it did not land. So keep that feedback in mind.

Does it mean trying to adapt to your spouse's ways is worth a shot? Probably. But it doesn't mean anything more beyond that, in terms of how long you should keep trying it at, or how thoroughly, or in which specific ways, or exactly how long it'll take to achieve any of the improvements you're after. The answers to that will be quite specific to your family, and your own personal characteristics. The only other thing I can say on that, from my own experiences, is that whatever creative adjustments are made will probably take a long time and a lot of trial-and-error to get right. Part of that will be getting good at picking up feedback about what you're doing in a different (e.g. less direct, and less directive) way from what you're used to.
posted by obliterati at 9:52 AM on December 30, 2020 [2 favorites]

Agree with everyone else that this is not as simple as American or not. For example, I'm an American, and my parents give tons of unsolicited advice. But it's also pretty much my least favorite thing about our relationship, and I wish they would stop. I'm going to try to avoid doing the same thing to my daughter when she's older, but we'll see how successful I am.
posted by Ragged Richard at 10:04 AM on December 30, 2020 [1 favorite]

You won't find this dynamic in all American families (quite a bit of variation by region and ethnicity/ancestry) but yes, it's not uncommon in families that come from a WASP or WASP-adjacent cultural background. In my own relationship, as an American WASP with a partner from a family culture that sounds closer to yours, I'm on the opposite side of what you're experiencing—to her, my family dynamic seems repressed, cold, and uncaring while to me, her family dynamic seems intrusive, controlling, and overly dramatic.

Of course, in reality there's good and bad in each approach and I get why you feel like you're being cut off from expressing care and concern in a way that is natural for you.

Very broadly, this kind of family culture values not imposing yourself on others, respect and tolerance for individual autonomy and differences, self-restraint, and keeping the peace. Again this isn't universally good or bad—sometimes people need to be imposed on or hear direct, blunt advice. There are some times when I wish my family had intervened more actively in something. There are also many times when I really appreciated how my family gave me more indirect support and safety to explore or find my own way through something. That doesn't mean that my family was indifferent to me or that they were avoiding conflict to a pathological degree.

On the one hand, I can be indifferent like my husband's family. Or I can be inquisitive and give unsolicited advice.
Your husband's family is probably not indifferent here either, they're just choosing to express concern in a way that's less visible to you or that prioritizes your brother-in-law's ability to find his own way to improving his situation. Among adults, I have yet to encounter a culture where people really love receiving unsolicited advice but it's certainly hazardous in your husband's family culture. Unless you are preventing obvious harm, sharing information or a perspective that is genuinely novel ("you should shower daily" does not qualify), or have a very close relationship with the recipient it can come across as overly critical or judgmental and is best approached with caution. In general, you can expect that an adult is aware of his/her obvious flaws and does not need them to be pointed out. Parent/child relationships are different (giving/receiving unsolicited advice is part of the deal) but others have addressed above how "helpful" comments may not really be helpful.
There is no conflict at all in their homes which I like but at what cost? In my family there might be conflict and arguments but we're family so we stick together.

Heavy repression of conflict is a failure mode in this culture, but we tend to view a having a lot of argument and conflict as stressful, unnecessary, and kind of undisciplined. That said, there is probably some conflict going on—it's just not loud/overt enough for you to pick up on it easily. Emotional expression across the spectrum will generally be more muted in families like this.
Should I try to emulate this?
Maybe. You shouldn't have to completely change your natural conversation style and ways of expressing care and concern—in a cross-cultural relationship, you have to meet each other half way and that goes for your husband's family too. But, paying attention to and emulating some of their more indirect communication style will help them feel more at ease with you, and hopefully they will also come to appreciate some of your directness and inquisitiveness too.
posted by 4rtemis at 12:03 PM on December 30, 2020 [2 favorites]

One more thing. My relatives who were children of immigrants and had this culture of unsolicited advice also had a strong culture of obedience to their parents, even as adults. My aunt once told me how great it was that her mother "let" her travel to take an art class after my parents' wedding. I did the math, and my aunt would have been 32 years old and a college graduate, long past an age when most Americans would feel they needed permission for such a thing.

I'm wondering if this sort of obedience/respect for elders is a part of your culture as well. If so, unsolicited advice from elder family members might seem more reasonable. I'm just guessing here and I realize you didn't mention age, but I think in my family, it was part of that dynamic.
posted by FencingGal at 1:09 PM on December 30, 2020 [1 favorite]

I think you've identified the conflict that stems from different cultures meeting (e.g.). I don't think the "point out flaws model" is ever going to be perceived well by individuals who don't operate under that model, no matter what your intention is.

However, I don't think this other communication dynamic is intrinsically cold and un-caring (although it could be in certain situations). Regarding your BIL, it sounds like there could be a medical thing going on, and it would be an overstep to give medical advice as if you were your BIL's doctor. Moreover, offering unsolicited advice can come across as a criticism of someone's judgement or abilities (or lack there of) or can even be more about imposing the desires of the advice giver on the person receiving advice than providing a helpful solution. Finally, "obvious" and "generic" unsolicited advice is rarely helpful, because if things were that straightforward, they probably would have been done it that way already. Receiving unsolicited advice can also put the recipient in a position where she must do the emotional labor to respond to the advice (e.g.).

In this dynamic, it is assumed that people know themselves and their needs best, and it is primarily their responsibility to live their best life as they define it. Support and care can be demonstrated by active listening, and by building trust and open lines of communication. When in need, people are more likely to reach out to someone they already have a strong relationship with. (Just having a family or friend title is insufficient). Moreover, once a strong relationship is developed, an advice giver may be able to do the "let me offer some advice dance" in a manner where it might actually be well received.
posted by oceano at 2:18 PM on December 30, 2020

in American culture, the only part of Western culture I can speak to with authority, your relationship to your own children, to your spouse, to your other blood relatives, and to relations- by-marriage are four different kinds and levels of intimacy, with as many different implicit rules for acceptable conversation topics and approaches.

you are responsible for your children, so you teach them certain basic things about health, hygiene, grooming, social behavior, sex and sexual ethics, academic responsibilities, financial planning, etc., whether they ask you or not; you tell them early and you tell them often, and you keep an eye on their behavior to see whether they understood and agreed. you don't wash your hands of responsibility and leave it to them to figure it all out by trial and disaster; that's neglect. you don't just have the option to do that, you have to do it.

a husband or a parent or sibling, you criticize if the thing criticized makes it impossible for you to be around them and it's necessary that they change for the relationship to survive. Or you criticize if the thing is so minor you're sure it won't hurt their feelings and they won't mind changing to suit you. Or if they ask.

distant relatives, you criticize if they offer an opening - they ask for personal advice, or they openly express confusion about a problem in their life you're sure you know the solution to.

in-laws, you back off and stop trying to display superiority or start fights under the pretense of "helping." Unless they ask to be told what to do. you always can offer actual help, in the form of job leads or encouraging words or nice clothes on gift occasions, if you want, and if you can do it without humiliating them. but you can't get angry if they decline your offers.

the only people you guide and correct like children are your own children.
posted by queenofbithynia at 4:13 PM on December 30, 2020 [3 favorites]

Independent of cultural background, you can always try the tactic of asking whether people would like advice or assistance. For example, if your BIL is complaining about his job, you could ask whether he would like suggestions or help in finding a better job that he was happier with. If he says yes, great! If he says no, I just needed to vent about my bad day, then don't offer suggestions.

Even people who are open to advice don't always want it all the time. Asking them lets them know that you care and are interested, but also gives them the space to say no if it's not something they need or want or are able to deal with at that time.

With your daughter, I would strongly encourage you to back off with unsolicited advice unless there are dramatic red flags that something is really wrong. As many have mentioned above, this is a key time for her to start defining her own identity and independence, and well-intentioned comments about eating/sleep habits can actually backfire. My mother did this to me with the result that I started buying and hiding junk food, eating it secretly. 30+ years later I still have really bad emotional eating habits I haven't been able to overcome. I'm not blaming it all on my mum by any means, but why give her additional crap to have to deal with in her life?
posted by Athanassiel at 8:20 PM on December 30, 2020 [5 favorites]

There is a difference between being helpful... and being tactful.

Unsolicited advice is very much like politics: great for people who want it, horrible for people who don't. Telling them what to do doesn't help if they aren't ready to do it (and if they will never be ready because they have enablers... well, that sucks too).

I'd recommend against getting involved, esp. with in-laws. If his own family is not getting involved, you probably shouldn't.
posted by kschang at 10:16 PM on December 30, 2020

US citizen here, who has lived in a European country, where people were generally so blunt most Americans would have been offended on a regular basis. I found it refreshing, but if Americans did that to me I would be pissed, mainly because the Americans would not be coming at it from a good place. So in my opinion it's not "worth" emulating unless you're trying to fit into American culture and are surrounded by them. In that case I think you probably have to adapt somewhat to keep your relationship with your husband and in-laws healthy. But it's hard to say for sure, based on a few paragraphs. I'm not going to touch advice on the kids. I have no clue there, and that shit is complicated.

I am going to push back on the BIL advice people are giving. In my experience I have had a great many male friends, relatives and acquaintances who think they don't have to try, re: hygiene and appearance, and yet they absolutely think women must. And women do. On the wildly rare occasions you find a woman who isn't taking basic hygiene steps you would never in a million years not have at least a handful of people telling her that. Yes, BIL sounds depressed. And yes, the economy is hard and better clothes aren't going to be a magic wand. But some guys really, really do not understand how badly a learned helplessness or laziness with regard to hygiene and appearance are actually hurting them. As long as the advice is given with love, respect and a willingness to help, I think it is a net good. OP obviously respects BILs intelligence and capacity. If he says he's happy in his job and not dating, great, take him at this word. I rather strongly suspect this is not the case, however. Be aware: guys like this almost always react like angry teenagers when suggestions are made: rage, sulking, outbursts, avoidance. The knowledge that other people notice how they dress/groom and it matters to other people might or might not bear fruit eventually, but almost certainly not right away and if you're the only one saying it they might just think you're a dick.

The last time I tried to help a good friend was after a year of hearing him bitch about not getting a girlfriend. He was hella smart, and nice looking, but I'm not sure I'd ever seen him without either a stained, stretched, dirty t-shirt with holes in it, or a pair of stained, worn jeans that fit badly. His hair was always greasy and unkempt (long hair is a perfectly good choice for any human but not if it's not clean), he had glasses that were 30 years out of date, and his apartment was so filthy I was afraid to sit down it. Women will often overlook one or two of those problem, but not all of them in sum. After a year of hearing him complain I pointed out that if he addresses one or two of these things, given what a great guy he was, and could afford it, it might be a strategy he could use. His response was that the right woman shouldn't care about any of these things. He earnestly believed this, in spite of the fact that over the years I never once saw him express even mild interest in a woman who was less than very clean and well-groomed, and only serious interest in women who were younger, thin, and quite conventionally attractive. But dudes are generally raised to believe it doesn't matter for them and it hurts them. The longer we maintain this fiction that any sort of conflict hurts them MORE, they are going to stay mired in dissatisfaction and not understand why, or blame it on the wrong things, like women, or a shallow society, or their looks, when it isn't about any of those things, not in the way they think it is. Moreover, when men like this find each other, there's a potential for these behaviors to escalate into something larger and uglier, as they reinforce their worldviews.

By staying silent as friends and relatives, from whom it would be easier to shear that information, we put the burden on women who are dating. On several occasions I've had a guy pester me repeatedly to tell him why I won't go out with him on more than one or a handful of dates. On a couple.of occasions that's worn me down enough to be honest, and no matter how kindly and briefly phrased (and I am always hyperaware of a need to be tactful in these situations) or how much I try to make it about me and my personal needs/feelings, the reaction has bordered on violent.

Not helping someone with the tools to work towards what they want is not kindness, it is abandoning them to flounder in the dark, alone with their desperation and growing anger. This is why I love supportive communities for guys like the male style forums on reddit. They're full of guys helping each other with intentional looks, even when that look is not to their taste, and giving people positive feedback even when they are also giving each other friendly shit. And if anyone crosses the line and says something shitty rather than helpful a bunch of other people whack them back into line. Some things are universal, and those are hygiene and a sign that you respect yourself enough to think about what you put on. We expect it of women, but not men. And why is that, exactly?

I've noticed in the circles I run in that over the last 20 years people have become conflict avoidant to an insane degree, to the point of madness. People think that if you bring up any issues, no one can handle it, and you're automatically calling them bad and awful and that makes you bad and awful. There's a very, very narrow range of behaviour that can be criticized safely, and that is definitely not a world I want to live in. But it's what we have in America, and fighting too hard upstream against that will probably only make you a pariah here.

To be fair, I feel like the US has no true sense of community and that people really don't care about each other here and thus the fear of criticism is somewhat warranted, ie, it's not coming from a good place. Even metafilter is often exquisitely shitty. So yeah, it's the culture. My experience elsewhere is different. The country I lived in had strong social/public support and were far more equal so I think blunt attitudes/criticism weren't seen as so inherently dangerous, and people didn't assume it might be useless advice because the recipient wasn't in a hopeless situation.
posted by liminal_shadows at 5:12 PM on December 31, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I'm a child of immigrants who come from a similar culture to yours and moved to the US when I was little, and we've had so many conflicts around this very thing, starting in my late teens. So, from that very specific perspective, I'd advise you to please try to meet your teenage children where they are and see things from the perspective of the culture that they were raised in (I'm making an assumption from context that they were raised mostly in your husband's culture, apologies if I'm way off).

I didn't perceive my parents' unsolicited advice and criticism, intrusive questions, and overwhelming attempts to help in every situation as loving or caring, although I know now that they mostly meant well - I perceived it as them not respecting me enough to believe that I was a capable person. It felt insulting and belittling. I'm in my 30s now and things have gotten better between us, but we had a few rough years.

This particular cultural difference can be a really difficult one because it affects how you show that you love someone. If you think you're showing love and it's not getting received as such, take a step back and think about how it might be coming across instead, and how you can approach the situation differently.
posted by omnie at 6:22 PM on December 31, 2020 [1 favorite]

As a non American living in America, I think you should leave your BIL alone, but please don’t be distant and uncaring with your children. How you should approach them exactly I don’t know, but I don’t think there’s any reason for you to treat them as independent adults when they are not. Children need support and guidance. It breaks my heart to think that you will force yourself to keep your distance from your children just because that’s apparently a norm in American culture.
posted by redlines at 7:38 PM on December 31, 2020

Redlines, I don't think anyone is suggesting that the OP should distance herself from her children - only that she be a bit more careful about how she relates to her children. You're right that children need support and guidance, but sometimes it takes a little bit of careful thought for a parent to figure out where the line is between "support and guidance" and "nagging".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:13 PM on December 31, 2020 [2 favorites]

As a fellow person with a Mediterranean background whose grandparents emigrated. I am familiar with this dynamic, and it drove me up the actual wall as a child and young adult, mainly because it was rooted in the notion that my elders automatically knew what was right for me and had better ideas about what I should or should not be doing than I did.

I would encourage you to seek the middle ground between, "Giving unsolicited advice," and "becoming totally indifferent" and suggest that you look for ways to demonstrate love and caring and affection in ways that those to whom you direct it like to receive it. Especially the teenager.

So, instead of, "Are you eating enough? Did you take your vitamins? Did you drink your protein shake?" ask, "How is everything going?" and listen, really listen.

I get it. I really do. You have so many good ideas and suggestions and are bursting wanting to help people improve their lives if they would just listen to you! But I'd strongly suggest prioritizing your relationship with these people, with meeting them where they are, before you (very, very occasionally) sneak in the unsolicited advice.
posted by dancing_angel at 11:52 PM on December 31, 2020 [2 favorites]

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