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Why People Can Give Vague, Unhelpful Social Advice

It can irk people who are struggling with their social skills when they get vague, generic advice such as:

Suggestions like this can be frustrating to hear, 1) because they're too broad and easier-said-than-done to be of much use, and 2) they can make people feel dismissed and like no one gets what they're going through ("I have Social Anxiety Disorder. Why do people act as if it's something I can just get over by flipping a switch so I can 'relax and be confident'?")

A few readers have asked me why people give this type of well-intentioned, but not especially helpful, advice, so I'll quickly explain some of the reasons behind it:

They don't know what to say, so they throw out a cliched suggestion

Some people aren't sure what to say when someone is talking about a problem they're facing. They feel uncomfortable and on the spot to give a "good" response. They guess they should reply in some sort of helpful, supportive way, but aren't sure how to do that, so they go with the first platitude that pops into their head.

They want to help, but they don't understand your issues or aren't very good at giving advice, so they say something generic

Other people purposefully want to help you with your problems, but they don't know about social skills, and how to teach them, as much as they think they do, and have little to offer but trite ideas. Some well-meaning people's default response when they hear any problem is to try to give advice, even if they don't have anything valuable to say.

They've always been socially savvy, and aren't able to articulate what they do to be successful

Many people with good social skills learned them naturally as they grew up. At this point everything is unconscious and automatic for them. If they walk into a party, join a conversation, and within minutes are laughing and getting along with everyone, they're not thinking about most of the dozens of polished sub-skills they're using. If you asked them how they chat to everyone so easily, they'll mull it over for a second then say something like, "Um... I'm just having fun and enjoying the moment." In their experience reminding themselves to relax and have a good time may feel like what makes the difference between a great and okay time at a party, so they believe it's a useful suggestion to give to someone else. Things like their refined conversation habits and body language are so much a part of them they would never think to bring that up.

Similarly, if someone's always been socially confident, they may been able to calm down simply by thinking, "Ah, don't worry so much!" They have no idea what real social anxiety is like, and think what works for them will have the same effect on you. Or someone who's always been charming and broadly appealing will tell you, "Just be yourself". Their default "self" naturally gets good responses from people, so they think it's decent advice.

People who used to be awkward can also get like this years and years down the road. Eventually the skills they worked so hard to comprehend and master start to run in the background, and they can be as prone to tossing out platitudes as the next person.

They're knowledgeable enough to give you good social advice, but are trying to boil everything down to one overarching principle

It takes a quite a while to properly explain how to do most skills. Someone may be able to do that, but they either don't have the time sit with you for hours and break everything down, or they think it would be better to tie everything together into a succinct nugget of wisdom. The problem is if you try to reduce hundreds of small concepts into a sentence it often becomes general to the point of being meaningless.

They're knowledgeable enough to give you good social advice, but don't feel like doing much to help

Instead they'll give you a quick, hackneyed suggestion and hope that satisfies you.


Try not to take banal social advice personally

If it makes you feel any better, realize that people are often unhelpful when they're trying to give advice about all kinds of topics, not just interpersonal skills. If his friend asks him how to dance, a talented dancer may say, "Just have fun and feel the music." A veteran cook may say something hopelessly non-specific like, "Just experiment". And it's not just with social problems that people can say something that seems tone deaf and unsupportive. Most people who have experienced a loss can tell you about some of the accidentally-insensitive comments they've gotten about it.