Instruct, Inform, Infuriate

I very nearly called this blog post ‘Advice for Mothers-in-Law of Either Sex’. The desire to instruct and inform others is something most of us suffer from. Some are able to keep the desire more or less in check because we are afraid of showing our ignorance. Others are less cautious and quite happy to give everyone the benefit of our superior knowledge and wisdom. The trouble is, our generous-hearted instruction of others can be infuriating to those on the receiving end.

I daresay I shall be accused of sexism or worse when I say that, in my experience, men are actually more prone to giving unasked-for advice than women. I have sometimes listened enthralled as someone dug a deeper and deeper pit for himself, laying down the law on a subject about which I happened to be marginally better informed (that’s nunspeak for something less modest). With half an ear, I listened; meanwhile my mind was running along quite different channels. What had suggested to my interlocutor that I was in need of instruction? What had I said or done to prompt this outpouring? What sort of assumptions were at work and why?

I have never fathomed the mystery, but it has made me think about situations in which there is a very fine line to tread between giving instruction/information and infuriating one’s audience. Preaching the homily at Mass, for example, is reserved to priests and deacons, which means that we Catholics only ever hear from our pulpits the male view of the Gospel or Church teaching. At one level, I have absolutely no problem with that, so please don’t think you can sign me up to any dissident pressure group or similar; at another, I do wonder whether the result is that younger women in particular need to make a bigger imaginative leap than their male contemporaries. I remember when I was young being in an agony of laughter at Lavinia Byrne’s ironic description of how to describe oneself as a Catholic woman: ‘I am a child of God, well, son, actually . . .’ It is so true. Theologically, we understand being ‘sons in the Son’, but expressing our identity as sons of God does require a bit of a double-take (for me, at least).

I have, of course, no solutions to suggest and am not even sure that the problem I have identified is a problem for many. It affects me because I spend so much of my time working with Church documents, listening to homilies and dealing with  questions addressed to the community via our vocations portal or other online resources. I am wondering where the increasingly didactic tone of many Church communications is going to lead. Today’s section of the Prologue (vv 14 to 20) is about longing for life and a right use of speech and action which allows us to hear the voice of the Lord. That, surely, is what we are all aiming at. I just wonder whether we need to think more deeply about how we achieve our aim.

I’d love to know your views, but please, no trading of insults or imputing base motives to others (even if I have been a bit hard on the men myself).


15 thoughts on “Instruct, Inform, Infuriate”

  1. I think that thought not only needs to be given to how the message is delivered differently, but also the different ways men and women hear it. Women tend to take things much more personally, and following one very didactic sermon on the sanctity of marriage and the impact on society of broken families, the 2 divorced (through no fault of their own) ladies next to me were angry and upset in equal measure.

    On a lighter note, I do think that all seminarians should have to sit through a sermon looking after a toddler. I know my dads sermons reduced in length after he had to look after mine one Sunday!

  2. Being a 4 x Mother in Law, I decided early on that unrequested `advice’ was not advisable but was always willing to give advice/opinion if asked for it. It seems to have worked as I’ve always had a very good relationship with my “children in law” ( May I say my husband was not always so reticent!!)

  3. This article ramg in my ears as a truth that I have searched for a long time. In my world though I find men and women who want to give their advice. I had long thought that my issues in life came from men, this has prevented me on many occasions putting a barrier between me and God. God has had other ideas I was blessed with giving birth to beautiful and handsome boys. It was the challenge I needed, I thank God for that blessing. They are both young men now, each experience they sent my way began the long and often painful journey getting me ever closer to God. Then this year came the biggest pain I could imagine, a male had through his superiority forced me into a situation of leaving our church. The primary reason was he had divine knowledge of knowing my Calling from God, I say this with my tongue firmly in my cheek. We left the church and through the love and patience of a dear friend we are starting to make a new church family. However, I digressed slightly, it was through this experience that my faith strengthened and I discovered an amazing truth the people I find most challenging are the men and women who for their own reason to not show compassion or love they feel that their knowledge is superior mine and succeed in trampling down the vine so it doesn’t produce fruit. It is only through God’s Grace I have discovered this now comes the difficult part to live in harmony with those that cannot listen to others.

  4. As a male, now retired but formerly salaried instructor, ongoingly irrepressible disher-out of unasked-for information, I — oh dear!– recognise the painful truth of everything you say here…

  5. My Dad has always been a great didact, retired teacher, now widowed and loneliness only seems to increase the urgency for the need to dispense unsolicited advice, sigh! He does know such alot but because of the way he tells, I am usually semi-comatose within a sentence or two.

    I am always drawn to preachers & blogs who/which show rather than tell (and that includes both women & men). The former illuminate, but also include space for the listeneer/reader to to respond and work out things for themselves. There’s more than one way to skin a cat.

    • I sympathize with both of you. Not so long ago I was the recipient of an unending stream of unasked-for ‘advice’ on everything just about everything. I expended so much energy restraining my tongue, it took me a while to register my interlocutor’s desperate need. But even then, I can’t say I found it any easier to keep quiet.

  6. My (somewhat limited) experience is that when faced with a problem many men want to fix it. So when we as capable women express frustration with a situation what we get is advice when we are searching for empathy. Perhaps part of the onus should be on us to articulate that in this instance we aren’t looking for them to fix it for us, just to listen?

    • The situation I envisaged in the blog post was not really one of a problem needing fixing or even being discussed, though I take your point.

      I was really thinking about the kind of unasked-for ‘advice’ one receives when, say, someone looks at your car in a car park and starts to give you a lecture on the kind of tires they’d put on it, the engine oil they think you should be using and so on. In church terms, it can be fascinating to hear from the pulpit how we should live our vocation as women. I’ve already mentioned my surprise at being told by someone, not himself a Benedictine, that he understood Benedictinism better than I do; then having to listen, more or less patiently, while he told me where I was wrong (although I don’t actually remember having said anything at all beyond remarking that monks and nuns should not be confused with canons where the Divine Office is concerned). 🙂

  7. Two thoughts, not connected:
    Dame Felicitas was very eager for a return to the ancient role of female Deacons, which would give them the right to preach.
    The Prioress of Turvey was always asked to preach at the most solemn feasts.
    Never forget that most, not all , men are protective of their status due to fear of the influence of women. !!

  8. Thinking of advice from the pulpit, the sermons I find most helpful (from men or women) are usually those that ask questions rather than give answers, mainly because they make me think for myself but also because words (love them though I do) can alienate and divide….or simply throw us off course in our thoughts. For example I don’t like being offered a terribly ‘matey’ Jesus and a sermon that TOLD me to think of him as being ‘a bloke in the pub’ did, I’m afraid, stop me in my tracks from getting any substance from the rest of the sermon! My fault, probably, but there we are!

  9. As a man, I know that I’ve been guilty of this very thing on occasion. But age has given me the perspective to know that if I resent being given unsolicited advice, than mine is probably unwelcome also.

    I now, wait and listen first. Knowing that if someone needs help, they are more likely to ask themselves when at the appropriate time. It has had a beneficial effect as it has increased my ability to not over react and to take a measured approach to other things as well. Self awareness comes with a price, but one worth paying to keep friends and not making enemies.

    And, being Anglican, I can benefit from the teaching of Women both in and out of the Pulpit. I’ve been impressed by many women in ministry, both lay and ordained. And have been given the benefit of their gifts on many occasions, some of them on this blog.

    I suspect that for many who proffer unwanted advice, there is some sort of anxiety behind it all – wanting to demonstrate our knowledge. It’s perhaps a lack of humility, that elusive virtue which I aspire to. Stephen Cherry wrote about ‘Passionate Humility’ which still rings in my mind and heart two years after doing the book as a Lent Course.

    The most infuriating sentence can be “In my humble opinion” 🙁

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