You need Botox,” said a friend — more of an acquaintance, really, a woman I’d met twice before — some months ago, eyeing my forehead critically. We were in the bar at the Palm, and along with the smell of scotch and strong aftershave, I felt bowled over by a rising sense of panic as she trilled, “I’m going to my Botox doc right now — come with me!” There was a commanding note in her voice that left me quaking, and not only at the prospect of the needles: I realized I was yet again in a situation where advice had morphed into something more imperious, thanks to a well-meaning person I barely knew. So I begged off, and ran for the train station as fast as my boots could carry me.
In an age of advice/criticism, should one be insulted at such a comment, or search for gratitude for what is doubtless kindly intended? It’s one thing when relatives get invasive, like my friend G.’s — she had to rejigger her alarm system when her husband’s parents started letting themselves in at night to drop off unwanted groceries. But what of overly involved friends? M., who lives on Rittenhouse Square, has a male acquaintance who once gave her a glossy coffee-table book on how to apply makeup (insulted, she tossed it in the recycling bin); this same guy recently offered up some unsolicited tips regarding her dog’s behavior. Another woman I know had a cleaning lady who liked to redecorate while she was at work, leaving helpful notes about why she’d rehung the paintings.
You might blame reality TV, where every aspect of subjects’ lives is open for review, critique and intervention. Or even the Internet: If we’re living in a society where there’s essentially no privacy, where people can Google Earth your house and see the boxwoods you’ve planted in your backyard, why shouldn’t relative strangers opine on said shrubbery, or how you’re raising your kids, or the color of your kitchen cabinets?
“That reminds me of my neighbor when we moved in,” says D. resignedly. “My husband and I were schlepping boxes when the neighbor came by — we thought to welcome us to the neighborhood. But instead, he wanted to discuss our fence. While we were still holding onto these heavy boxes, he proceeded to tell us that we needed to replace our fence because it was ugly. I guess that was our ‘Welcome to Gladwyne’ experience.
“Actually, that was the first and the last time we’ve seen him,” D. adds.
“I have this thing I do when this happens, because I hate unsolicited advice,” says our neighbor P., a public-relations executive. “It happens to me on the golf course a lot. Whenever someone offers up advice because they ‘know’ how to help me, I usually say, in singsong, ‘Aaaah–la–la.’” That clearly takes some balls to pull off, but P. says it usually shuts down advice-givers, who, one guesses, are a little scared of P.
I’m still searching for a deflection technique of my own. John and I weren’t sure what to do when our neighbor, whom we love, called a couple of months ago and told us that a team of window washers would be arriving at our house at 9 a.m. on Friday. So we shrugged, wrote out a check, then admired the clean windows Friday afternoon.
We had to admit, the house looked a lot better.