Basically, all advice ever given has the hidden disclaimer “Your mileage may vary, you do you,” attached to it. Even if the writer doesn’t come out and explicitly say it, it’s implied. If enough people read a piece, someone will stumble upon it that will find the contents of the piece unhelpful. It’s expected.
Happens to me all the time when I’m on the other side of things, reading what other people have written. And if I read something on the Internet that doesn’t work for my life, I find it’s best to just shrug and go on about my business.
Or if it jostles something interesting loose, I might find myself writing something down the road, inspired by the internal tug of war I feel. Usually this isn’t in the comments of the original post but in my private journal or perhaps in an essay I end up posting.
But most of the time? I just move on. I know that I can mentally disagree with any given author. And that it’s no big deal. That they’re not writing about me. And that there’s always that hidden disclaimer: “Your mileage may vary, you do you.”
However, when I started writing for a larger audience, I found it utterly remarkable how often some readers need this to be restated.
In online writing, if the author of the piece doesn’t include a caveat to that effect, if enough people read it, at least one commenter will say it themselves. And usually more than one commenter — since a high number of commenters don’t review existing comments before adding their contribution (a much higher proportion than I would have predicted prior to having a larger platform).
And often even when an author does include that disclaimer in their piece, many will miss it when skimming through the piece. And will comment as above to add it. Again, sometimes multiple times.
“Do what works for you!”
“To each their own.”
“This won’t work in every case.”
Of course it won’t. Of course it doesn’t. Absolutely of course. Hashtag not all [fill in the blank]. Alrighty dighty.
I don’t think this phenomenon is going to change any time soon. We live in a world where it’s easy to feel defensive about one’s choices. And a world in which many are quick to criticize us for being different than them. So it’s easy to take things aimed at a general audience quite personally when they don’t apply to our own situation.
Writing Qualification and Disclaimers Is Its Own Art Form
There’s no easy prevention method when it comes to people taking the things you write personally.
I’ve read too many pieces where the author spends half of it mollifying the anticipated insecurities of those who would encounter it. The result was often disappointing on two accounts:
- An otherwise good piece was rendered quite tedious and nearly unreadable.
- In spite of conspicuous and positively gratuitous amounts of disclaimers, people still took things personally and complained.
Essentially, taking great pains is quite painful and doesn’t seem to do what it aims to do.
Beyond a quick disclaimer, there’s not much to be done. It was one of hardest tasks when I set out — learning to write a bit of qualification into contentions made in the pieces, even provide an occasional disclaimer, in such a way that it would register with most readers but wouldn’t bore people to tears.
I became obsessed with how great writers had tackled this issue and began to pay close attention to how they managed it.
And about a year ago, I ran an informal contest among my closest friends looking for their favorite famous quotes that basically say “different strokes for different folks.”
I couldn’t pick one winner. There were too many good entries. But here are the top four submissions I received, listed alphabetically by the original author’s last name:
1. George Box
All models are wrong, but some are useful.
-George Box, industrial statistician
2. Clayton Christensen
There is no one-size-fits-all approach that anyone can offer you. The hot water that softens a carrot will harden an egg.
3. Percival Everett
You have to be careful about what you fix….If you irrigate a desert, you might empty a sea. It’s a complicated business, fixing things.
-Percival Everett, The Fix
4. Carl Jung
The shoe that fits one person pinches another; there is no recipe for living that suits all cases.
Hearing the Secret “For Me”
And this doesn’t just hold true for formal advice or strangers writing on the Internet. It’s also something important to keep in mind when people in our lives give us unsolicited advice. As I wrote in an earlier piece:
…there’s always an unspoken “for me” tacked onto the end of the judgments we make about other people.
Aloud he said, “Your writing is too personal.” But what he really said was “Your writing is too personal for me.”
You have to listen very carefully to hear them, but those words are basically always there. For me.
Like Chinese fortune cookies are always appended with “in bed” or “between the sheets,” depending on who you spoke to about it first.
“For me.” It was always there after his words. I just didn’t hear it.
I won’t make that mistake again.
Your mileage may vary, you do you! And rock the heck out of it while you’re at it (…but only if you want to, I’m not the boss of you).
And I’ll endeavor to do my best not to take it personally if you do take it personally. To shrug my shoulders and go on about my day.