Unsolicited (and unwanted) advice
Mark Pullen (3 April, 2007 – 09:27)
The English tend only to give unsolicited advice to close friends and family (or to everybody when they’re drunk). Serbian people, on the other hand, tend to give their frank opinions, and offer unsolicited advice, even to complete strangers. Blunt, scathing and highly critical advice is the norm in Serbia… and what a refreshing change an honest life without diplomatic duplicity and plastic McDonalds’ smiles can be!
I was parking my car near Kalenić Market recently – just minding my own business, waiting for a scooter to pass before backing into the spot – when some old lady (one of those well-dressed, pink-haired old ‘Belgrade dames’) opened my passenger door without warning and proceeded to advise me on how best to park my car: “you don’t want to do it like that, son. You’re angle’s all wrong. Put it into second so you…”
“Excuse me,” I interrupted her in mid-instruction, shocked and a bit annoyed. “Please, close my door … (a pause occurred as I bit my tongue to refrain from telling her to f$£k off!) and leave me in peace.”
About a week after the parking assault, I found myself at Belgrade’s overpriced, overrated (and only) curry house. “I’ll have the Chicken Jalfrezi please,” I told the waitress.
She gave me a funny look and tutted: “that’s a really ‘butch’ curry. You don’t want that.”
I returned the funny look: “yes I do. I really want that one.”
But she was adamant: “why don’t you order a medium hot one and, if you like it, maybe next time you can go for the hotter one?”
“No,” I was getting a bit wound up by now. “I want the one I asked for, unless you don’t have it?”
“Oh we have it. It’s just…you know, that’s a really ‘butch’ curry.”
(Like I’m not butch?) “I’ve tried your Madras and, quite frankly, it’s weak and far too mild. I want the Jalfrezi, please.”
And finally we had acceptance!!
These two negative incidents provided the inspiration for this post. When the topic first occurred to me, I planned to rant (and perhaps rave a bit) about how people here should mind their businesses and display some tact when addressing strangers, blah, blah. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve remembered the positive side of the Serbian tendency to speak frankly and offer unsolicited advice.
Getting a word of wisdom out of many foreigners, particularly those whose knowledge is of value, can be like getting blood out of a stone. It takes time, effort and the establishing of trust before you will here those words “can I offer you a piece of advice?”
The norm in Serbia, on the other hand, is the complete opposite: those same high-level players (be they bigwigs of Serbian politics, business or art) are always eager to offer you their pearls of wisdom and practical advice/constructive criticism. Whether this is an ‘ego’ thing is another matter, but it nevertheless seems to me that intelligent or powerful Serbian people tend to be more inclined to tell you what they think generally, and what they think of you in particular.
So, it might seem insulting (and unaccustomed foreigners may well feel offended), but Serbian candour is something that should be welcomed and not labelled as vindictive. When a Serbian person gives you advice, they usually do so with the best of intentions. They’re not trying to belittle you and your achievements; they’re just trying to help you to improve yourself.
The biggest positive about being sure that individuals are being honest and open when they give their personal opinion (about something they’re neither a party to nor hoping to profit from) is the knowledge that when a Serbian person gives you a compliment it comes from the heart. They’re not giving you a ‘plastic McDonalds’ grin’ just to keep you sweet; they’re not diplomatically trying to avoid offending you. They’re just keeping it real!
Socially, that’s a quality to be admired. Diplomatically and politically it might be an absolute nightmare, but that’s for the Serbian diplomats and politicians to worry about.
Written by Mark Pullen
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