It’s November 2018 and Leanne Willen has popped to the store to top up her supply of groceries. So into the shopping cart Willen piles a selection of breakfast waffles, tins of vegetables, a carton of milk and other assorted goods. The mom of four also places a couple of her children in the trolley, for safekeeping. Then, unsolicited, an elderly man walks directly up to her and speaks his mind. And after listening to the senior say his piece, Willen is left fighting back tears.
In fact, this was actually the second time the older man had spoken to Willen and her children that day. Earlier, you see, he had approached the young family and told the mom that her kids were sweet. The man had even had a short chat with them before carrying on with his day.
So when the senior sought them out again soon afterwards in the store, Willen might have wondered just what she was in for. The mother could even have been expecting the worst as the older man spoke his first sentence. After all, Willen wrote on Facebook in November 2018, he began, “I want to tell you something.” And really, the man could have gone anywhere from there.
This random encounter in a store obviously wouldn’t have been the first time that an out-and-about woman had been accosted by a member of the public, either. In fact, entire forums, articles and even scientific studies have been dedicated to precisely the subject of unsolicited advice. And it seems that the act can be more harmful than you think.
Indeed, as online commenters have argued, those on the receiving end of unsolicited advice can often be left with pangs of guilt or stress. Or worse still, it make someone feel under attack or frustrated – particularly if they concern a personal topic, such as parenting. So why do so many of us dole out unwanted suggestions?
Well, psychologists have stated that there could be a number of different motives for people offering up their opinions. The first, of course, is a pretty straight-forward one: they think they’re being helpful. Yes, in some cases the advice-giver might genuinely think that their knowledge will make someone else’s life better, according to Verywellmind.com. Yet these aren’t the only times that opinions come from positive starting points.
For instance, a potential advice-giver could believe that a more introverted person might not be comfortable seeking out somebody else’s help. So, this might naturally lead to someone offering aid before the person has even been asked. And whether the advice in this scenario is wanted or not, there’s no denying that it at least comes from a good place.
But not all motivations are so clear-cut. In fact, psychotherapist Amy Morin told The Cut in 2017, “Unsolicited advice may be an attempt at dominance.” And this suggestion has even been backed up by a scientific study published in 2018 in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. The paper was called “Advice Giving: A Subtle Pathway to Power.”
In the study, the authors argue that offering up opinions in a social context gives people feelings of power. And the paper therefore concludes that people are driven to give advice precisely because they long for that sense of strength.
Or as Morin put it to The Cut, “Telling someone what to do or how to do things differently sends a message that says, ‘I know more than you.’” To prove this theory, then, the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin researchers conducted four investigations. These involved a pair of experiments as well as a simulation and a field study.
And the authors were seemingly left in no doubt about their results. In fact, the paper stated that “the desire to feel powerful motivates advice giving” and that “people with a high tendency to seek power are more likely to give advice…” From this point of view, then, the offering of one’s opinion is a selfish act.
Meanwhile, another study from 1987 hinted at another dynamic coming into play. That year, University of Pennsylvania’s Dana Boatman published “A Study of Unsolicited Advice” in the journal Working Papers in Educational Linguistics. And in it, she argued that gender roles can also influence the parts played by advice givers. Specifically, Boatman addressed the interactions between males and females.
So, it may come as little surprise that Boatman’s paper found that men will offer up more advice more often. However, it also found that they’ll also be more likely force that advice upon women. And this will apparently not change even if the women are in positions of higher power.
Boatman wrote, “… Gender not only conflicts with status and speech situations involving male students, but in fact overrides it. This results in first-year male students giving unsolicited advice to a female of higher status.” And there have been plenty of instances of women suffering at the hands of unsolicited advice-givers.
In 2016 for instance, mother Jessie Maher from Connecticut went shopping in Target with her month-old daughter. And, according to the mom, little Zinnia let her know in no uncertain terms that it was time to eat as the trip was coming to an end. So Maher dropped into the store’s eatery and proceeded to breastfeed her child.
Maher later told Today that things then took a strange turn. The mom said, “I was just sort of minding my own business – just sitting there – when the man turned around and saw me.” The man seemingly had a problem with what Maher was doing – and apparently decided to speak his mind.
According to Maher, the man began shouting at her, asking her to “cover up” and “go somewhere else” to breastfeed. Then when Maher refused, the man apparently started to curse as well as yelling louder and becoming angry. And the unpleasant experience left the Connecticut mom shaking in the video.
Maher later noted on Facebook that the man called her “f**king disgusting,” “nasty” and a “wh*re.” And it was at this point that Maher pulled out her phone and began recording the interaction. The footage – which Maher uploaded to Facebook – shows the man verbally abusing the mom too.
Yet the video fortunately also showed that Maher didn’t have to stand for this behavior alone. In it, Target staff and another shopper leap to her defence and eventually calm the situation down. Maher told Today, “I felt very protected and when everyone stood up for me, I knew nothing was going to happen to us.”
Yet what’s more, it seems that it’s not always men who can’t help but make comments to breastfeeding mothers. Just consider the following incident involving Liz Skelcher, also in 2016. The situation that this mom encountered was actually very similar to Maher’s – but with one significant twist.
This time around, you see, Skelcher was with her three-month-old baby in a Nando’s restaurant in Belfast, Northern Ireland. And, as the mom later told the BBC, the child needed feeding, so the mother “latched her on discreetly.” But this evidently wasn’t quiet enough for some of the other people enjoying their food that day.
Specifically, a trio of women seated at the next table from Skelcher apparently felt the need to speak up. The breastfeeding mother said that the ladies let her know that her act was making them lose their appetite and that they felt it was “disgusting.” The mom added, “… She said she didn’t want to see my breasts when she was eating her dinner.”
Fortunately, though, it seems that restaurant employees were once again on hand to help settle the dispute. In this case, though, it was the manager who seemingly brokered a peace between the two parties. Yet it seems that mothers and children are particularly open to unsolicited advice and abuse from strangers.
In fact, the internet is seemingly full of moms saying they’re exasperated by all the advice they receive from people they don’t know. It’s luckily not always to such an extreme as Maher and Skelcher’s experiences, though. Yet, according to a 2018 article in People, here are just a few of the pearls of wisdom moms have been told.
One mom, for example, was told to dress her baby girl in pink clothes so that others would know the sex of her child. Another complained that a stranger informed her that letting her little one “cry it out” would make the child “less needy.” And it doesn’t stop there.
Some other pieces of unsolicited advice that mothers have decried involved not reading your children bedtime stories, because kids don’t get that they’re made up. Other suggestions included not giving your children plain bits of paper – because that’s “overwhelming” – and biting children back, so they understand the pain. It’s worth pointing out, though, that little of this guidance was actually followed.
All of which is to say, of course, that you seemingly never know what can happen to a mother out and about with her children. And so, when an unknown person approached a mother in a public place – as the elderly man who spoke to Leanne Willen in Target – the mom may have been a little on edge.
For Willen’s part, she related the story of her entire incident in a November 2018 Facebook post. And it seems that the senior actually spoke to the mother and her children twice that day. Of the first instance, Willen said the man “saw the kids and couldn’t resist coming over to talk to us.”
The only comment that the man had to make, however, was how adorable Willen’s children are. He also had a short interaction with the kids before seeming to go on his way. But shortly after, she said, the man “made a beeline back to” them.
“I want to tell you something,” the man apparently said. And then – instead of reeling off a list of stress-inducing unsolicited advice – the senior launched into a personal story. And Willen later stated that the man’s words made her think that he “must have been sent by God.”
So the senior seemingly told Willen about an incident that had happened when the man’s own son had been just five years old. According to the mom’s Facebook post, you see, the man’s offspring had asked his father to help him construct a birdhouse. However, he had dismissed his child because he had been busy with work.
Rather than throw a tantrum, the child had accepted this excuse, though, and simply walked away. But the father had seemingly known that he had broken his son’s heart all the same. And for what, for the sake of work? The man had reportedly then realized that he had been silly and told his boy to come back.
The pair had then apparently trooped off to the hardware store to buy everything they would need to erect a birdhouse. And they’d subsequently spent time together building the installation. It was at that moment in the story, though, that the senior in Target got to the point he was trying to make.
This event had happened 40 years previous, the man reportedly said. Furthermore, he now couldn’t recall a thing about what it was that had initially caused him to turn down his son. It really couldn’t have been that important, after all. He then looked directly into Willen’s eyes and said, “But we still have that birdhouse.”
Those six simple words caused Willen to instantly tear up. And the chance encounter with this stranger even later forced her to reconsider her own priorities. The mother wrote on Facebook, “Even though I’m with my kids for the majority of our days, I don’t always devote myself fully to them.”
Willen continued that a lack of attentiveness can take many forms. It could be putting the minimal amount of effort into shared activities. Or perhaps it’s when you’re nagging the little ones, or even favoring completing various household chores instead of playing with them. In other words, letting everyday life things get in the way of family time.
The stranger’s story, then, served as a reminder for Willen to get back to doing what is really important. She wrote, “This man may never know just how much he stopped me in my tracks, helped me adjust my priorities, and inspired me to slow down and be more intentional with my family.”
So contrary to what other mothers might have to say about listening to strangers, Willen ended her post with a different message. The mom of four said, “The next time a stranger comes to you with something to say, be open to the message. It might change your life!”
And it seems that Willen has really taken the man’s words into other aspects of her life. After all, the writer had started her blog, Life Happens When, back in 2011 when she’d become a full-time mom. But three years later, Willen seemingly realized that other things needed to take priority.
So the mom of four decided to put her blog on hold to focus on her family life. These days, though, the writer still contributes to her Facebook page with uplifting stories. Meanwhile, the writer put it best herself, saying, “Life happens when we make the most of each day.”