“Everyone do two cartwheels. Try to stay on the line in the turf,” said the coach in my freerunning class. Freerunning involves a lot of going upside down while your feet leave the ground. We practice on soft surfaces in the gym before trying flips outdoors on the concrete.
Third in the queue, I did my two cartwheels, one on my right side and one on my left.
“You’re tilted off center for some reason.”
“Hm?” I glanced at the man who had spoken. He had finished his cartwheels just before me. I didn’t recognize him.
“Oh, I just noticed you were tilted off center for some reason,” he repeated with a kind of half-chuckle, as though it was a funny thing, or he was embarrassed to tell me.
Blank look. “Yeah, I’m not surprised. The second one was my off side.”
It took me a moment to figure out what he was trying to do because I’d literally never seen this man before. He was giving me feedback.
It was like being compelled into an unsatisfying handshake without an introduction. No, “Hello, how are you? My name is such-and-such. What are you working on?” Two cartwheels into our relationship, he was ready to solve my problems.
Later in class, I was working on my dive roll, which I’d learned the week before and sort of forgotten how to do. It was rough. It can take a few tries to remind your body how to do a new skill.
After two attempts, he interrupted again. “Your back isn’t rounded enough.”
“No shit, Sherlock,” is what I wanted to say but did not, because it is far too clichéd. Instead, I said, “Cool.”
He went on looking at me sideways, explaining the defects in my dive roll. “Ok, cool, cool,” I kept saying without looking at him, a gentle shut-down that almost never works on people who are determined to ignore your cues. When he didn’t get the message, I walked away to a different part of the gym to work on something else.
With a few minutes left in class, I asked the instructor to help me out with my aerial. I started by practicing a snappy one-handed cartwheel. Eventually, if I work on it enough, I’ll progress to doing it without my hands touching the ground.
“He probably can’t do this,” I thought in the pettiest way possible.
What’s Wrong With Unwanted Advice?
Afterwards, as I fumed in front of my laptop screen while bathing my ears in driving industrial beats, I dissected everything that went wrong:
ONE, I did not want his advice. I did not ask for it. I did not give any indication that I wanted his opinion. Because…
TWO, I don’t know him. He doesn’t know me. He doesn’t know where I am in my training. He doesn’t know what I’m working on or what I value. Without an existing relationship, he had no context in which to deliver his feedback. Which means…
THREE, he interrupted my focus. Twice. He disregarded cues about whether and when I might want his feedback.
FOUR, special bonus: My cartwheels were definitely better than his. Although if we were friends and he had a good eye and we were in the habit of sharing feedback with each other, this wouldn’t have mattered.
As an isolated incident, it was annoying. I don’t know anyone who loves being interrupted by strangers giving them advice they didn’t ask for. Lots of people don’t even like unsolicited advice from their friends. So let’s all agree that it was a douche move on these grounds alone.
However, let’s also consider:
FIVE, this is a gendered phenomenon. In my extensive experience as a feminine presenting person, men tend to do these things to women more often than women do this to each other.
“Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they’re talking about,” writes Rebecca Solnit. “Some men.”
How to Give Advice the Right Way
I take another class each week with several other regular students, a mix of men and women. Although the coach is very good about giving feedback, we also share advice and ask each other questions:
Where do you put your foot? • Your hands look good from here. • How do you do that so fast? • When I learned it, this is what helped me. • Can you show me how you do that move? • Don’t worry, it took me three months to figure that out.
These interactions are a world away from a stranger telling me what is wrong with my cartwheel.
Good feedback is built on the rapport and trust that develop when you see the same people all the time.
It works because we know and care about each other.
We respect each others’ process and don’t interrupt focus.
It’s NOT gendered. It’s reciprocal—everyone participates because everyone has something to offer.
I’d like to think, though I don’t know for certain, that if a new guy showed up to this class and started giving women unwanted advice, he’d either learn to do it correctly by watching how the other men behave, or he wouldn’t last long.
Subconsciously, the man in my freerunning class probably wanted to demonstrate his knowledge and helpfulness. Given his age and size, it’s likely that people assume he can’t do things. As bullshit as that is, it’s not an excuse for turning to the closest woman and telling her what she’s doing wrong.
But here is what angered me the most: he seemed otherwise pleasant. I might enjoy being in class with him if he weren’t telling me what to do. When men create these mini-patriarchies, I respond with emotional armoring. These men are deer overgrazing the egos of women, eroding the hillsides and throwing the whole ecosystem out of balance.
I’m tired of it.
Men, you’re better than that. If you want to give me advice, you either need to convince me to take your class, or you need to convince me to be your friend.
And as my friend, you’re going to have to accept that I have just as much to offer as you.