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Advice: It's the one gift we keep on giving


Pink is just not your color. . . . He's a jerk, you could do better. . . . You really should get out more often. . . . I tell you the best way to kill that mouse. . . . Cheer up!

We have all been the victims -- and the perpetrators -- of it. Those well-intentioned life-improvement suggestions commonly known as advice.

Friends, family, even virtual strangers have no compunction about bestowing their pearls of wisdom on whomever crosses their path.

Why do we give advice? And how can we not? Some advice:

Whether the subject is boyfriends or bugs, someone will always know the correct method of extermination. And they will often insist on telling you. It's human behavior at its compulsive best.

"I used to be my friends' worst enemy," says reformed advice-giver Kathy Kinney, 38. "I thought we were all supposed to be perfect. I knew I couldn't be, but I thought you could be -- with my help. I'd call people any time, night or day, to tell them what would look good on them, or to say 'You might want to rethink that hair color. . . . ' "

Advice can come in all shapes and colors, and the motives for offering guidance are as varied as the guises it comes in, psychologists say. Many people genuinely want to be helpful. Some want to feel important. Others want to control their surroundings, while still others want to assure themselves that their way is the right way -- and if they can convince you it is, too, they will feel better.

"People think 'I've gone through all this, I've struggled, now I know, and I'll tell you the right way,' " says clinical psychologist Stan Charnofski, chairman of the department of educational psychology and counseling at California State University, Northridge. Mr. Charnofski has written, "When Women Leave Men, How Men Feel, How Men Heal." (Yes, it offers advice.)

Parents can be especially guilty of advice-giving. By trying to save their children from the pain they have already experienced, they perhaps overdo it by telling their children what to do.

But even parents who know they should know better often find themselves compulsively straightening their adult child's collar or commenting on a choice of mate.

"Even when you don't want to butt in, there's an irresistible need to tell your child something, because you've been in a similar situation," says Elinor Turner, 51, whose children are 23 and 27. "Sometimes you know it would have been better to not have spoken, but things seem to leak out."

From a grown child's perspective, that advice can be grating.

Says Stacy Kravetz, a 24-year-old Santa Monica, Calif., writer fighting for emancipation from her well-meaning parents: "In every conversation, my dad somehow gets in that I should go to law school, that a law degree would be good training. He doesn't seem to get that I've made my decision, that it's not open for debate.

"My mom always says things like, 'I've been looking at pictures, and I really liked your hair when it was shorter and you blow-dried it straight,' " she adds. "I haven't done my hair like that in 10 years. And it makes me feel like she doesn't like it now."

Do men and women differ in their tendencies to give advice? Only in manner and subject, the experts say.

Women, especially mothers, are typically turned to for advice. And women might be better able to give good advice in certain circumstances, because they are socialized to appreciate anguish and doubt, and thus to offer compassion, says clinical psychologist Arthur Kovacs.

Women are also more likely to give feeling-oriented advice, while men, who are trained to be instrumental and problem-solvers, might be more likely to jump in and find practical solutions, says psychologist Susan Krevoy, who has a Beverly Hills practice.

But neither sex has a monopoly on doling out opinions. And those who assert their expertise on everything usually just want to inflate their egos or assuage self-doubt.

"People who always have advice to give have a need to feel powerful," says Rabbi Naomi Levy. "They have a need to change people to be happy, and a need to change their environment in order to live in it."

In fact, the people who are the most in doubt about their own decisions are usually most free with their advice, says Mr. Kovacs. "The people who are most sure of their own existence, who are most secure in their choices, will have the least advice to give," he says.

Advice, especially unsolicited advice, is not only often unneeded and unwanted, it is usually inappropriate.

Says Miss Manners, columnist Judith Martin: "Polite people only have one reason to give advice -- because they've been asked. The reverse is also true. Impolite people give advice because they have not been asked."

It is acceptable to offer advice only when it's about something the person can change, says psychologist and columnist Dr. Joyce Brothers.

If, for example, your husband asks if he is too short for you, it is not appropriate to say, "Yes, as a matter of fact, I could eat peanuts off your head." If, on the other hand, he has bad breath, that's something worth mentioning, Dr. Brothers says, because he can do something about that.

Columnist Abigail Van Buren also says it's important to temper advice. "If a girlfriend asks you how you like her new boyfriend, you should never tell her 'You could do better,' because she may wind up marrying him," she says.

But advice doesn't always have to focus on the negative. Sometimes it can be inspiring or even life-changing.

"The exchange of advice can be a part of social support," says Mr. Kovacs. "It can be a sweet piece of interaction, a valued part of life."

The key is in the delivery.

The best form of advice often comes in the form of listening. Most people already know the answers to their problems, psychologists say. They just need help in clarifying the solution and in learning to trust their gut.

"One of the problems with giving advice, is that people project onto others what they would do in a certain situation, which is not necessarily what is best for the person," says Dr. Brothers.

"It is an awesome responsibility to give advice," says Ms. Van Buren, who has a staff of experts she often consults before dispensing her words of wisdom.

"There is not only one solution, there can be many," she adds, "and it's risky to offer any advice, because you never know the whole story."

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