"Meddle" and "friend" are two words that don't happily go together. Still, we've all commented on matters that are none of our business. Sometimes our opinions shed new light on difficult issues. Other times, not so much.
Which prompts the questions: When is it appropriate to advise without consent? And when is it best to keep your trap shut?
Jan Yager, a sociologist and author of When Friendship Hurts: How to Deal with Friends Who Betray, Abandon, or Wound You, says frivolous advice is never welcome and sometimes dangerous.
"Advice should not be approached lightly," Yager says. "There are too many examples of good-hearted, well-meaning friends that offered advice that backfired, where someone got hurt or the situation escalated."
When it comes to butting in, style is as important as substance: Mincing words is usually better than choking on them later.
"It depends so much on how you do it," says Margaret Gibbs, a clinical psychologist who has studied how friendship changes with age. "I hardly ever tell somebody I think they're making the wrong decision. I ask them if they've considered the alternatives. Be a friend to your friend, and help them rethink an issue."
Both friendship experts agree that offering opinions about a pal's romantic partner amounts to relationship suicide: If they stay together, you're the busybody who threw cold water on their love; if they break up, you're the know-it-all they have to avoid in the supermarket.
So unless you've seen the lover's mug shot, keep your real thoughts to yourself. If asked, find some positive quality to extoll (even if it kills you), or turn the question around: "What do you think? And how do you feel?" Yager says.
Still confused about whether to kibitz or keep quiet? Here are five questions to ask yourself before advising a friend. Our advice: Commit these to memory.
1. Is my friend in physical, emotional or financial danger?
Danger trumps all other scenarios, and when safety is a concern, meddle away. Start with, "I'm sorry, but I have to speak up," and then spill your concern.
2. Can this friendship survive this subject?
Some friendships tolerate frank discussions on anything: money, sex, outcomes of plastic surgery. Other relationships wilt under the heat of any topic more controversial than the weather — and even the weather is arguable these days. Think hard about what subjects are fair game in this friendship, then stick to offering opinions about that list.
3. Is my friend really asking for advice?
Raising an issue is not the same as seeking advice. Before offering wise counsel, determine whether your friend wants input or just a sympathetic ear.
4. Whose problem is it anyway?
Sometimes we project our hurt and history onto a friend's life: Our marriage went south, so we caution our love-silly friend to go slow. Analyze your motives before opening your mouth: Be sure you're addressing your friend's future, not your regretful past.
5. Can I find an "expert" to back up my opinion?
Shore up your advice with facts: studies, books, articles — anything you can buy on Amazon to support your position. Here's the script, "This may not have anything to do with you, but I happened to have found this information and I thought I'd share this with you." This allows your friend to use or lose the information without worrying about offending — or encouraging — your good intentions.