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Three Ways to Manage the Meddlers in Your Life

New research suggests how to manage meddlers with three easy steps.

You’re handling your life as best you can, but invariably problems arise that challenge your coping resources. The people who know and care about you are aware of these challenges and, for the most part, are being supportive without overbearing. However, much to your surprise and consternation, a relative calls you from out of the blue, offering what you regard as unwanted and somewhat intrusive advice. You’d like to respond politely, but it’s hard to restrain your annoyance at this violation of your boundaries. Making matters worse, the next time you see this relative in person, you are asked to explain why you didn’t follow that particular advice.

This is just one example of how meddlers can make your life difficult. In other cases, meddlers may step in while you’re in the middle of a conversation with someone, asking what you’re talking about, and offering unsolicited opinions.

As pervasive as meddling is in daily life, there is little empirical research on the topic in psychology. How, then, can you understand what’s behind this annoying behavior and, more importantly, how to respond when it happens to you?

It’s possible to gain some insights from a recent study on gossip by the University of Erlangen-Nϋrnberg’s Nicole Hauke and Andrea Abele (2019). Because gossip invades an individual’s personal boundaries and, one might argue, involves a similar tendency to intrude into other people’s business, research on this topic can help you get into the mind of the meddler.

In particular, Hauke and Abele were interested in “negative gossip,” which they argue can “have detrimental effects on the gossip target’s well-being” (p. 1). According to the German authors, there are two fundamental dimensions to this type of behavior: agency and communion. The agency dimension “focuses on the individual person and pursuit of personal goals (p. 2),” or trying to get ahead by engaging in behavior that undermines another person. The communion dimension focuses on “community and social goals” (p. 2), or acting in the interests of others and trying to maintain or form social relationships.

Meddlers, using this framework, can be understood as engaging in intrusion so that they can assert their own expertise and power. By the same token, though, the well-intentioned meddler may just be trying to help, following the communion dimension, and in the process seeks to foster a closer relationship with you.

It's also important, in the two-factor framework, to understand how meddling is perceived differently by the “actor” (the meddler) and the “observer” (you or the others in your vicinity). From the agency perspective, meddlers may see their behavior as perfectly justified, because they believe they know more than you do. Therefore, it doesn’t seem out of place for them to insert themselves into your life.

You, however, regard meddlers as questioning your ability to handle your own affairs. The communal perspective, similarly, can be understood from these two perspectives. Meddlers, again seeing themselves as well-intentioned, think their behavior will bring the two of you closer together. From your vantage point, by contrast, meddling only becomes a wedge that drives the two of you apart.

Hauke and Abele believe that gossip can pose two types of “threat": identity and reputation. Across a series of experiments, participants were exposed to different types of gossip, and their reactions measured in terms of threat and affect. In an identity threat, people agree with statements such as “I would think negatively about myself if such things are told about me.” In reputation threat, the gossip target would agree with statements such as “I would be afraid that people would form a negative impression of me.”

If you feel that a meddler whose supposedly well-intentioned advice demeans you, this would be an example of an identity threat. You feel, whether rightly or wrongly, that the meddler has decided that you’re incapable of handling your own problems. The reputation threat associated with meddling would cause you to feel that people don't respect you and that you appear incapable of handling your own life. When someone meddles in your conversations, you might feel like you look less popular because the intruding person is providing the implicit message that you can’t hold your own in interactions with others.

The experimental manipulations conducted by the German researchers involved vignettes varying in those two factors of agency and communion. In the “agency-competence” condition, the target of the gossip was made to feel “lacking the relevant skills to solve a difficult task.” In the “communion-warmth” condition, the gossiper told others that the target “had not taken his/her problem seriously.” Participants rated the extent to which they felt identity or reputation threat in these situations.

Additionally, participants rated the person perpetrating the gossip. The findings revealed that the most egregious type of gossip involved situations in which the gossiper told others that the participant couldn’t be trusted or what was called “negative morality gossip.” In other words, gossip that attacked an individual’s integrity created the most pain and anguish on the part of the recipient. This type of gossip also had the strongest impact on reputation threat and affect (emotional reactions). Just as such gossip is indeed infuriating, equally annoying could be the implication by a meddler that you are making a mistake, which could get you into trouble either because it involves lying or some type of cheating.

The gossip paradigm provides, then, a useful model to understand situations in which others question your wisdom, ethics, or social skills. To move from understanding to management of the meddler, the German study suggests three practical steps you can take to minimize your pain and anguish while possibly even improving your relationship with this person:

1. Recognize that there are actors and observers in any situation. From your perspective, another person’s attempt to help you may seem to reflect a belittling attitude. The actor, or the meddler, may truly be acting along the communal-warmth dimension to honestly try to help you out of a jam.

2. Examine whether you’re more worried about your identity or about your reputation. Do you feel that your own identity as a competent adult is being demeaned by the meddler, or are you more worried about how you are seen by others? Meddling can represent a threat along both dimensions, so try to determine which has become your sore spot.

3. Examine the basis for the meddling. It’s easy to become defensive when someone gives you advice, especially if you think that the advice takes the form of the “agency-assertiveness” kind. Rather than become annoyed, take an honest look at whether, apart from the meddler’s approach with you, there may be a germ of truth or even some “communal-warmth” aspects to the advice.

To sum up, meddling creates awkward if not out and out painful interactions with the people close to you in life. Taking these three steps to manage the meddling may benefit you and those people who may be trying to help.

References

Hauke, N., & Abele, A. E. (2019). The impact of negative gossip on target and receiver A “big two” analysis. Basic and Applied Social Psychology. doi: 10.1080/01973533.2019.1702881

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