Sometimes you just have to take the fork in the road
My advice? Have an opinion
From nightmare to inquiry
I was lying awake in bed at 4 a.m., unable to sleep, irrationally contemplating the dawning of yet another day of more national uncertainty. The snatches of sleep I had been able to grab were torn with nightmares. In one, I was in a small boat in a splintered jade sea, and it was taking on water amidst fearsome waves of doubt with their frothy, ragged crests and black abyssal troughs on all sides. I willed myself out of the inevitable destruction of that tiny vessel and woke up staring at the ceiling which was deeply shaded in the early morning gloom.
Seeking some sort of perverse solace in the company of likeminded worriers, I tried to will small, cold, comfort out of the abundance of evidence that millions of my fellow passengers on this still dark side of the globe were likewise ill at ease, restless, and fretting over the coming events leading up to…and extending beyond…November 3.
As is my custom when left alone with my untethered thoughts, I wondered how I could turn my overladen, anxiety burdened skiff of sleeplessness into something of value. Something tranquil and reassuring. Perhaps some words of advice or an opinion piece focused on common sense and rational actions to damp down the existential fears so many of us share?
Opinions or advice?
As dawn approached, my thoughts, wandering without form in the darkened room, abruptly turned Socratic: What was the premise or initial state of my “do-good” intentions? Is there a fundamental difference between advice and opinion? Do I write opinion pieces or advice columns? Do I offer advice, or simply share opinions?
The safety of opinion
When I share my opinions, I have the luxury (and safety) of knowing their effects will not be significant; they are merely reflections of my life experiences, with no potential to do harm. I have not earned such a great position in life that my opinions weigh favorably or unfavorably on anyone’s scales.
The risk of advice
In those times when I’ve given advice — something I rarely do — I’ve done so only after considering the consequences of that advice. Even when I know my advice has a sound foundation in experience and knowledge (as limited and esoteric as both are), offering it feels like I’m pushing the receiver out onto a high wire with no net below. In the back of my mind there is always the nagging question, “What if I’m wrong?”
“In the back of my mind there is always the nagging question, “What if I’m wrong?””
It is this very possibility of being terribly wrong in the assumptions (my opinions of my knowledge) that formed my advice that cause me to hold off on offering advice about persons or matters I have not actually encountered. Plato touches on the perception of “true opinion” in “The Theaetetus,” a dialectic on the nature of knowledge. I mention it here not to recommend it for casual reading (I’ve done that for you, you’re welcome), but because, after 2,400 years, old pug-nosed Socrates still has something to offer us.
Is there a link between opinion and advice?
Which brings me to the question that, like the dawn, greeted my sleepless self: Is opinion a requisite for advice?
On this last point, my wife and I had, the night before, disagreed. She posited that the giver of advice must first have an opinion which informs him or her of how (or if) to proceed when asked for advice. In this scenario, it is not enough just to have experience with the topic up for advice, but to have formed a high-confidence opinion of the experience sufficient to offer reason-based advice. Experience + opinion of the experience = advice.
I countered with my belief that advice depends solely on the depth of knowledge of, or experience with, whatever is the subject of the advice. Experience/knowledge + objectivity = advice.
Note I am not talking about the quality of advice, just the underlying assumption that advice is demonstratively quantitative — its content can be validated or proven false.
What weight do we give experience and knowledge?
That is not to say that experience does not exclude the rise of an opinion, nor does the gaining of knowledge preclude the construction of an opinion. My position (I am careful here not to conflate “my position” with “my opinion”) was simply that when asked for advice on a topic or problem with which one has prior experience or knowledge, it is sufficient to draw on that experience/knowledge in offering advice.
My wife countered that one cannot experience something, or learn something, without concurrently forming an opinion about the experience or knowledge gained, and, therefore, when asked for advice, the response is necessarily a blend of experience and informed opinion.
And yet, I suggested, one’s opinion — positive or negative — of a person, experience or of knowledge, may cause one to either: 1. shy away from offering any advice — at least to couch the advice in cautionary terms based on a negative opinion of the experience; or, 2. offer the advice colored with enthusiasm derived from the positive opinion of the experience.
Let’s talk about flying
For example, if I, as a pilot, am asked for advice by someone who is thinking of taking up flying, I am inclined to speak unambiguously about the process and expense of learning to fly. They have asked for advice, and so I want to respond objectively. As much as I love to fly, and had actually enjoyed the learning process and was able to afford getting my pilot’s license, it would be unfair for me to unbalance the facts of the realities in becoming a pilot with my opinion of how wonderful it was to learn to fly.
However, if I am asked for my opinion about learning to fly, I will blend both the facts of the process and the expense with the enthusiasm I had for the experience. In the first example, opinion and advice are decoupled; in the second, they are reconnected.
Does the difference really matter?
But isn’t this all just semantics? I’m not sure. In daily practice, when we give advice we rarely stick to an objective path; we lay pavers of opinion — wittingly or not — into almost every response for advice. In common practice, “If you want my advice…” differs little from “If you want my opinion….” It’s hard to consciously decouple advice and opinion when put on the spot, especially in social situations that may well be charged emotionally or influenced by alcohol (or both), ending up in, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts!” a threadbare meme if there ever was one.
“If you want my advice…” differs little from “If you want my opinion….”
And yet, if there is a difference between advice and opinion, which of the two is more legitimate to share? If there is no difference, what legitimacy does my advice have if it is merely grounded in an opinion which may, of itself, be rooted in a falsehood, a decades-old fallacy assumed by me to be true? Conversely, how legitimate is my opinion beyond the realm of my mind? Why do we seek opinions, and why do we give them?
I am caught up in the conundrum of opinion as a partner to advice (my wife suggested the two ideas are more like cousins than an inseparable couple). Is the knowledge that ostensibly underlies advice also a requisite bedrock for opinion, or can opinion stand alone on a foundation of experience?
Certainty of opinion is a trap to avoid
This is exactly why scientists are very careful as they proceed along the path leading from hypotheses to theory to law. All that we think we know is just all that we know now. Be careful in assertions of absolutes, because although the scientific community will tell you that there are things that can in fact be shown to be incontrovertible, such absolutes are reserved for the (relatively) rare laws. What is at first hypothesized to be true, once put to the rigor of testing, may prove false. Certainty of opinion is anathema to scientific exploration; that is, interpretations are always subject to being revisited — whether it be at the Planck scale or in consideration of the future of the Universe, or in deciding whether to paint the living room pale blue.
“The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions.”
The literature on opinions is deep, vast, and incredibly nuanced, although some cynics are wont to say, “Opinions are like assholes: everyone has one,” which, to my mind, sounds like an opinion from an asshole and is completely unhelpful in guiding my thoughts on opinion vs. advice. Perhaps Leonardo da Vinci had it right: “The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions.”
Friends to the rescue
An informal poll
Looking for a variety of contemporary views on the topic, I reached out to my Facebook community — a relatively tight-knit, yet pleasantly diverse association of former colleagues, long-time friends, neighbors, news media, business, entertainment, government, medical, and science professionals, artists, writers, photographers, and just plain nice folks from every corner of the country.
At the top of my post, I wrote, “The issue here is not about political opinion as it is shouted on a daily basis, but rather about the smaller operational opinions we run into like what do you think about such and such a car, desktop vs. laptop, Keurig vs. hand-pressed coffee? Opinions about paint schemes for a living room, or whether to attend a public or private school. Opinions about life choices large and small.”
And then I asked for responses to the following questions, giving my friends the option of replying offline to my email:
- In your daily life, are you an unprovoked opinion offeror, or do you give opinions only when asked?
- Do you seek opinions with the honest intent to use them in your decision-making process?
- If asked for an opinion (non-political), do you give it? Or do you prefer to pass?
- When asked questions couched in moral or ethical terms, do you offer your opinion, or do you leave the question hanging and move on?
- Do you think opinions have mattered in your own life? And here I’m not talking about the sort of playground taunts or mean-spirited opinions about personality or body, but about your life choices, your career, your parenting or your lifestyle choices (books, movies, games, sports, hobbies, etc.).
- Conversely, do you believe the opinions you have offered have influenced those to whom you gave them?
I was heartened by the number and depth of the responses, and of their candor. Of the two dozen replies — evenly split between online and offline — I’ve selected eleven that cover a range of actions, from considerate reluctance to voice an opinion to a wholehearted embrace of the value of giving and receiving opinions. With one exception (for reasons of length), I’ve not edited any of the responses (save for typos) in order to preserve their authenticity and candor, and to demonstrate that while the initial questions centered on opinions, many of the responses verged on, or actually stepped over the line into advice.
Richard S.: “I think opinions, especially unsolicited ones, generally have to do with the offeror’s ego. Instead, it’s often more helpful to withhold any opinion and pay attention to the other, who may not actually be seeking my help to find a solution. The need to fix something (by forcefully offering an opinion) can obscure deeper considerations, or just drive over someone who is actually working through things on their own just fine thank you. I’m guilty too, though, especially when something touches a strong emotional pole. I try to temper my advice with a caveat that this is _my_ experience/advice/divine wisdom but that it should be taken only if it makes sense to you in the light of your experience. On the other hand, if you’re asking about wall colors, I’ll defer to my daughter.”
Carter M.: “I only give opinions when asked, and often with major reservations. I’m too conscious of the fact that my opinion, “You should paint the room blue,” may be at odds with what the other person desires, “I think green would be good.” So I kind of approach opinion-giving with the Socratic method, “What do you want the room to feel like?” to either draw out my opinion or at least help the other person work through theirs. And I never give my opinion on a topic I’m unfamiliar with. I just feel like that’s the height of arrogance. I’m comfortable with, “I don’t know.””
“And I never give my opinion on a topic I’m unfamiliar with. I just feel like that’s the height of arrogance. I’m comfortable with, “I don’t know.”
Pam H.: “When I’m asked for advice, I offer it when the question is asked if I feel comfortable with the subject. I’m not afraid to admit that I have no idea when the question is asked, if that’s the case.”
Art E.: “I would not give my opinion on important questions, unless I am asked for my ideas. I tend to give options for the problem rather than opinion. I know what I think may not be the best solution. I always think when someone gives me their opinion, what is their agenda? I try to figure out was it an opinion or was it a fact. Not always easy to establish.”
“I try to figure out was it an opinion or was it a fact. Not always easy to establish.”
Lauren A.: “Starting with “in your life”…yes, yes, no, yes, depends on how close to the person I am — if my daughter, yes.”
Inge J.: “It always depends entirely on the circumstance. There’s no one size fits all here. So I’ve no idea how to answer.”
Lillian W.: “I’m very hesitant to give my opinion even when asked. It makes me uncomfortable and I usually err on the side of too few words, and then maybe don’t make myself clear enough. I prefer to give opinions, when asked, to friends in a face to face conversation rather than to acquaintances on text or online.”
Mike A.: “I think asking this question in a public forum will only get you replies from people who perceive themselves as hesitant to offer opinions. Strongly opinionated folks, unless clueless, would be hesitant to declare themselves as opinionated. There is a negative connotation in many people’s mind to being opinionated. That is probably why you offered the off-line reply option. For myself, it is very contextual. If I am Chairman of the Board I will be the last to offer my opinion and it would be a synthesis of the previous ones. If I am a Board member, I will offer my opinion very early, assuming I am confident that my opinions are valuable. I have too often seen discussions steered by the earliest opinions in what I consider the wrong direction to not want to affect the direction of a discussion. In more social situations (opinion of movies, restaurants, etc.) I am more vague as I am very aware of the subjective nature of those judgements.”
Mary H.: “I’m one who seems to be bombarded by people’s (friends, family members and even total strangers) opinions on what I should be doing with my life now that my hubs passed… total irritation … I just stare at them and if I’m not too irritated just say that’s interesting… if irritated I do an eye roll… so I’m not one to offer my opinions to others as when I have they don’t listen anyway so I move on.”
Sharon W.: “Certain opinions offered to me have changed aspects of my life. I think a lot of it depends on who the opinion offeror is. My creative writing professor in college encouraged me to write poetry when I’d mainly written prose, and her opinion was correct. I am a much better at the former than the latter (In my opinion). I offer opinions when solicited, and often they have to do with my profession, with parents seeking guidance about their children. And I’m happy to do it unpaid, although it’s not as much an opinion as guidance based on experience, and helping them trust their own intuition.”
“My creative writing professor in college encouraged me to write poetry when I’d mainly written prose, and her opinion was correct.”
Dave D.: “Yes, I give opinions. If someone takes the time to seek out my opinion, I will give it. I feel very flattered to be asked. With respect to moral or ethical opinions, I would not offer an opinion so much as make note that there are (when this is the case) a number of different, valid views on the matter, and that here’s mine, but that your mileage may vary. There are obvious exceptions, of course: I acknowledge that there are such things as Right and Wrong, and that these are unambiguous. But for the majority of things in the middle, I’ll couch my views by also adding, “And what do you think?”
“Some opinions have mattered in my life, and some have not. It depends on whose opinion, entirely. If it is someone whom I greatly respect, then I will give serious consideration to their opinions, especially those that differ from mine, and do some self-searching. If it is from someone whom I do not respect, or who has demonstrated ample character flaws, I typically dismiss their opinions out of hand. In the middle, it’s case by case; I try to “consider the source” and calibrate accordingly.
“I do believe I have offered opinions that have influenced those to whom I gave them. I am privileged to know that this is also a Yes. When someone asks my view in a serious way about something that clearly matters to them, I give it all due consideration and try to provide as thoughtful a response as I can. I have been very lucky to have had the chance to mentor many younger people in my field [the writer is a NASA scientist] (OK, let’s face it, 90% of the people in my field are now younger than I am!), and this continues on a regular basis — I get approached by colleagues who ask to meet with me to have these kinds of conversations.”
What the answers tell us
My sample is too small and the questions are too ambiguous to endow my poll with any statistical value to the replies, and that’s fine and expected. But what the replies tell me is that the notion of holding, offering, or receiving an opinion is perceived as having significant personal and social value among men and women of diverse backgrounds, educations, and age groups. Even the reluctance to share an opinion indicates the intrinsic value that an opinion has to its owner (maybe he or she doesn’t feel like sharing news of that nugget of gold they found in the stream).
What I read into these comments — the opinion I have formed from them — is that people do weigh whether to give an opinion based on how well informed they believe their opinions are, how well-suited to the inquiry the opinion might be, and that their opinions are not just “gut responses” to genuine inquires. To my mind, such consideration of the value of an opinion and its appropriateness to the inquiry, places the bar of opinion at equal elevation with advice.
We all conflate advice and opinion
It is also clear to me that most of my respondents occasionally conflate opinion and advice when replying to requests for opinion. They may not always do so wittingly but rather they extemporaneously blend opinion and advice in their replies out of a sense of what I think of as “information equity,” qualifying their opinions with a nuanced subtext (or actual statement) of underlying experience and knowledge.
Just my opinion
Putting my questions to bed
Now I can circle back to my initial questions — the ones that kept me awake: “Is there a fundamental difference between advice and opinion?” and “Is opinion a requisite for advice?”
With respect to the first question, I believe the answer must be yes as long as the advice is clearly decoupled from opinion, and that is not always easy. This is a point where theory and practice diverge simply because as humans our communications inputs and outputs are so nuanced that they regularly traverse the line between the purely objective reply and the purely subjective reply (if any such purity can exist in the real world).
With respect to the second question, I think the answer must be yes, though it pains me to admit it, so hard over have I been in denying the linkage. Looking back over my years of formal education and the following 50 years of careers in journalism and government, I see the inextricable connection between the duo of knowledge and experience, and the perception (opinion) of both. That is, I formed opinions about what I learned and experienced as I was in the process of learning and growing.
Opinions are organic ingredients of advice
Those opinions, subtle or obvious as they might have been at the time, became organic ingredients of the recipe for advancing along the arc of my life. Only with a concerted effort to decouple opinion from advice for the sake of rendering objective assistance to an inquiry requiring objectivity is it even likely that I could give sound advice absent the backlit glow of opinion. Is opinion, therefore, a requisite for advice? Insofar as opinion is already baked into the recipe of learning and experience, the answer has to be yes.
To sum up, I’ll paraphrase Yogi Berra: “When you come to a fork in the road, split between opinion and advice, take it.”