How to give advice on the internet without being an utter menace

If you don’t think you need to read this post because you’re always giving Good, Helpful Advice as a Good, Helpful Citizen, this one is for you. I’m sure you probably mean well, but it is with a heavy heart that I must inform you that you’ve likely annoyed the hell out of someone at some point or another. Probably more than once. Maybe it’s a regular pattern of behaviour. This post is for you.

And if you’ve ever been in that situation where all you wanted was to make a funny post on the internet about your cat drinking water from the toilet, to be deluged with links to cat fountains and lists of various germs that may or may not live in a toilet, this post is for you, too. Just leave the link there.

Here is a guide to reply menace behaviour, and how to just not be that menace.

Why is unsolicited advice so annoying?

At best, it is draining and exhausting. Most people just want to post in peace. Unless you’re on Quora or the specific questions-focused forums, the general function of social media and the internet is not asking for advice about every little thing. Maybe it’s just venting. Maybe it’s saying something funny.

Remember Clippy from Microsoft Office? You’re just trying to write a letter, and this insufferable little paperclip is popping up constantly with his vapid googly eyes and awful eyebrows and that fucking condescending smirk and his horrid little bendy body and oh god the colour of that speech bubble, like slightly worrying vaginal discharge, and the “it looks like” why is it so passive aggressive why- Sorry, I lost myself there. In short, Clippy was an irritation, and you’re giving someone’s notifications tab the vibes of using Word in 1997, which nobody wants to go back to.

At worst, it makes someone feel stupid. This is particularly pronounced if you’ve decided to shower advice on neurodivergent people. It can dredge up memories of unhelpful teachers trying to “correct” you because they think you’re fucking thick. Thank you for telling me to use a ruler before underlining a title, Mrs Dobson, I never would have thought of that myself, for I am but a big ol’ dunce.

An advice reply can feel that way. It feels like you think I’m so dim-witted that it never would have occurred to me that you can buy harissa in a supermarket when I mentioned making a small batch of emergency harissa.

There is a gendered element to this, too. Mansplaining is something which most women on the internet have experienced fairly frequently. It is exhausting. It is patronising. It is the background hum of patriarchy.

You might not personally be mansplaining. Maybe you’re not even a man. But those who have been on the receiving end of mansplaining are sensitive to it. Your attempt to help can come across as mansplaining, and throw you straight into the draining and exhausting pile.

If you are offering advice to a woman, be aware of this context. Be extra rigorous in checking that your advice will be in any way helpful or welcome.

Anyway, that over, and a few weirdly specific grudges aired, let’s get on with a little checklist of Clippy behaviours, and how not to do them.

Is someone asking for advice?

Study this carefully:

?

This is a question mark. When it appears in a sentence, it means a person is asking a question. If it is not there, it means they are not asking a question. A question is an invitation for a response, and perhaps a request for advice. If someone’s asking a direct question, they are soliciting advice. In this situation, advice is probably welcome – although please work through the other points in this post to make sure you’re giving helpful advice.

When someone is not asking a question, they probably do not want advice. This means, you have not been invited to give it. Your advice is not welcome. No matter how much you think there’s a solution to their predicament or they could do things a little differently, you’ve not been invited to share your advice. So don’t.

Is your solution helpful now?

Sometimes it’s clear someone has a question. The question mark is in the post. Is your advice helpful to the current and specific situation that they are asking about? If it isn’t, then don’t bother. Here’s a few examples of relevant and irrelevant advice.

“I keep getting [specific error message] in Windows! Why is this happening?

You might think to yourself that this person should be using Ubuntu, because you think Ubuntu is much better. However, that advice isn’t going to solve the immediate problem of the error message in Windows. Unless, of course, what you’re advising them to do is wipe their PC, download Ubuntu, create a bootable flash drive, boot it, install and configure all the settings, and obviously read all the documentation – all to resolve the specific error message they were asking about.

Argh! My gas supplier is ripping me off with estimated usage!

Gas heating is bad for the environment and expensive. There’s good solutions to ending our dependence on gas, such as loft insulation and heat pumps. That’s not what this person is asking. Getting insulation and a heat pump installed isn’t going to solve the immediate problem of the gas supplier assuming this person is heating their house to tropical levels and spending all day gently sous vide-ing themselves in a hot bath. Unless, of course, what you’re advising them to do is find £15,000 and a builder, check everything is legally compliant, fill out any relevant paperwork and undertake home renovation work – all because their gas company is ripping them off.

With this example, note that there is no question mark. So any intervention sincerely advocating for heat pumps is doubly unwelcome.

What you’re doing when wading in with advice such as this is expressing an opinion instead of giving helpful advice. You’re welcome to your opinions, but when someone is asking for specific advice, it is not the place to share your opinions. So just don’t.

Did you just google that?

Sometimes you don’t know the answer to a call for advice, but you know how to google it. So you do, and respond with “hey, I don’t know if you know this, but here’s an answer I found!” You send this person the very helpful advice that you found by searching for it.

Here’s the thing: you are not the first person to have thought to type this question into a search engine. The first person to do that would be the person asking random strangers on the internet for advice. If the answer to the question can be found within the first few pages of a search with your preferred engine, then it’s probably not the answer someone needs, because they’ll have checked for that too.

You don’t have anything useful to add, and that’s okay. Go about your day.

Is there a minor grammatical error that you want to correct?

Just don’t do that, Mrs Dobson. If you understood the meaning of a post which used “their” instead of “there”, then the meaning is clear and there’s no need to correct it. All you’re doing is making someone feel stupid and small for no reason whatsoever.

Has someone already answered the question?

A cool feature of the internet is you can see what other people have said about the post. A less cool feature of the internet is that outside of office suites, no website has the functionality of making a comment as “resolved”. This means you’re going to need to do thirty seconds of detective work to check if the question has already been answered. Scroll down from the post, and look for someone else saying what you were going to say. You might even find a comment from the original poster saying “I figured it out!” If it’s been said or solved, you don’t need to say anything!

Handling ambiguity

Sometimes things are not as clear-cut as I’ve made out. For example, I used question marks in the section headers, and I’m not asking for advice. Or sometimes, it can be unclear if there’s a request for help or just a vent. Here is something you should say to someone in these situations, before going ahead and offering advice:

“Would you like advice?”

If they answer “yes”, then go at. If they don’t reply, or say “no”, then this is a situation where your intervention is not welcome.

If you have something really relevant to contribute based on personal experience, in these situations – and these situations only – your reply may be welcome. Begin by saying that you have had the same experience. Then, acknowledge how that makes someone feel, because chances are someone is venting out of frustration, or simply sharing a funny anecdote. Finally, add something which you found personally helpful and implemented in your own life. For example:

“The exact same thing happened to me. My boyfriend was constantly correcting me on minor things, and it was the most annoying thing in the world. I dumped him and never looked back.”

In this example we see first an acknowledgment of personal experience. Then, an expression of sympathy and the feelings involved. Finally, some useful advice that you applied successfully.

One final treat, for those of us receiving unsolicited advice

Obviously, please feel free to share this in case of unsolicited replies. But sometimes, you’re probably not in the mood for dealing with this. Here is an image of Clippy with a speech bubble coming out of his mouth to make it look like he’s giving the advice if you reply to the reply with it.

A picture of Clippy, the ghastly MS Office paperclip, with a speech bubble coming out of his mouth

I don’t know the provenance of the meme. I first encountered it in a tumblr post which has been sitting around in my screenshots folder for years and I can’t even find the original link because searching tumblr is a pain in the arse.

Thank you for reading thousands of words of unsolicited advice. Please implement it in your life.

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