Wednesday, February 1, 2017

You Should Be Careful When Giving Advice in English

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, Howard Community College
Columbia, Maryland

Giving advice in English is a dangerous business. “[I]n Anglo-American cultures, advice giving is often associated with criticism, especially when it is unsolicited.” (Houck & Fujimori, 2010, 91) Therefore, it’s a good idea to think carefully about who you are giving advice to because the very act of giving advice puts you in the position of being an expert on the subject. In fact, if I were to give advice, even to a close friend, I would be fairly indirect. As teachers, we might want to make sure our students are aware of all the nuances associated with advice giving in English in order for them to avoid making any pragmatic errors.

Do you see what I was doing there? I was giving advice! But, I was dancing all around it, and I never once used the word “should”. But, why? Why bother doing all that linguistic maneuvering when all grammar textbooks teach “should” as THE strategy for giving advice? Because, like a lot of speech acts, some of which I have written about in previous blogs (A Good Compliment, I am Sorry, but Apologizing in English is Really Complicated, Offers they CAN Refuse, The Art of “Yes, But …” and, Can I Please Borrow your Car?) advice giving is a dangerous business, and our students get it wrong a lot.

Giving Advice around the World

In different cultures, giving advice is a completely different matter. While telling people what you think they should do is dangerously bossy in English, in other cultures, giving unsolicited advice is a sign of “warm interest in others’ well-being.” (Masuda, 1989, 43) That’s right! It’s considered friendly and kind to share your opinion on the best course of action for friends, colleagues and complete strangers in many countries around the world. In Arabic cultures, advice is given as a rapport building strategy. (El-Sayed, 1990). In Japan, speakers give advice to express empathy and solidarity (Masuda, 1989). In Korea, it demonstrates benevolence (Park, 1979). This assertion was anecdotally supported by my two Korean colleagues. The older one is frequently gently chiding the younger one about her weight, and apparently this is totally okay in Korean. I cannot imagine this conversation happening in such a jovial way between two native English speakers, though. As a matter of fact, all of my co-workers, regardless of birth country, know not to gently chide me about my weight, that’s for sure!

In English, you had better Tread Carefully!

Proficient English speakers know that advice giving in English will be perceived as anything but a benevolent, rapport-building act. In fact, it involves careful consideration of the indirectness required by the context and of the language options that best convey that sense of indirectness. Let’s think about indirectness first. According to Hinkel (1994) there are three levels of directness when talking about advice:

Directness Levels


















The most direct advice giving is usually done by an acknowledged expert, like a doctor, a teacher or your mother. If the speaker is not an expert on the topic, he/she may want to resort to a softened or, better yet, an indirect level of advice giving. But, students need to keep in mind that even the softened advice still carries a punch. The other day, after about a week of listening patiently to me whining about how busy I am, my co-worker said, “Maybe you should stop saying ‘yes’ to everything that comes across your desk.” That was pretty direct, even though she was exactly right. It was direct enough that I actually paid attention and turned down the opportunity to present at a local conference.

Our students also need to be aware of the differences between what they tend to do in English and what native English speakers tend to do when giving advice. According to DeCapua and Findlay Dunham (2007), non-native speakers generally use “should” and the cringe-inducing “had better” much more frequently than native speakers, perhaps because this is the language that grammar books teach. As a rule, native English speakers also offered more:

  • alternatives (You might want to think about trying the patch.)
  • elaboration (I mean, you’re having trouble breathing and you feel terrible all the time.)
  • expressions of empathy (I understand what you’re going through.)
  • assertions of individual choice (They are your lungs.)
  • introspective questions (Why do you think you are having trouble breathing?)

In addition, they tend to hedge more.

So what does this mean for our teaching? Well, at a minimum, when we come to the chapters in our grammar books that teach “should” as a modal verb for giving advice, we need to explicitly tell students that we use this mostly for giving self-advice, as in “I really should lose 10 pounds” rather than giving advice to others. And, we should

  1. make them aware of the message of criticism they are sending if they give advice in English in the same way they would in their L1, and
  2. present them with some other language options for giving advice indirectly, if they choose to do so.

DeCapua, A. & Findlay Dunham, J. (2007). The pragmatics of advice giving: Cross-cultural perspectives. Intercultural Pragmatics, 4(3), 319-342.
El-Sayed, A. (1990) Politeness formulas in English and Arabic: A contrastive study, ITL International Journal of Applied Linguistics, 89-90, 1-23.
Houck, N.R. & Fujimori, J. (2010). Teacher, you should lose some weight: Advice giving in English. In D.H. Tatsuki & N.R. Houck (Eds.) Pragmatics: Teaching Speech Acts. Alexandria, VA: TESOL Press, 89-104.
Masuda, V. (1989) People as individuals. In S. Gilfert (Ed.) Cross-cultural Orientation. Nagoya, Japan: Trident College of Languages, 26-46.
Park, M.S. (1979). Communication Styles in Two Different Cultures: Korean and American. Seoul, Korea: Han Shin.

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