Are You Always an Expert?

I saw a magazine advice column recently where a professional was wondering how to respond to those who asked for her advice when she wasn’t in her office.

She’s a well-known medical professional in her community, and when she’s out walking, at a store, or even out for dinner, she’s sometimes asked about how to deal with a problem in the other person’s life. And the way she wrote the question suggested she did not welcome such intrusions at those times.

What should her response be, she wondered?

The column advisor gave several answers – ask them to call your office, make an appointment to discuss it, check with someone else – all good ideas, but all aimed at deflecting the question to another time. And perhaps not being given with good grace.

I also am fairly well known in my small village; heck, I have my car deliberately parked behind my house in such a way that my magnetic signs show.

I create and publish our monthly village newsletter. I put my email and cell number in it.

I’m the BOD VP.

I’m out every day walking my dogs, often with friends. I am clearly visible.

It’s not like I am hiding anything that I do professionally, right?

Now, I don’t get swarmed (I’m not a rock star), but sometimes someone will approach me with a question on American grammar or on something relating to the village. It makes sense to me, because just seeing me probably brings up a question they’ve been thinking about but hadn’t gotten around to asking.

Oh, there she is!

Hey, Susan! Got a minute?

Yes. I can also imagine that there are times when it would feel terribly intrusive – say, at dinner in a restaurant with others. That’s clearly private time, and unless it’s an emergency, I might look at the questioner through slitted eyes … OK, no, I probably wouldn’t.

But I don’t know that I’d appreciate it, either.

Sad to say, there were no responses given in that column suggesting stretching a little to respond in a friendly manner to be seen as someone we’d want to consult later for real. If we give that person a reason to like us because we’re friendly, we stand a good chance of them hiring us when they really need us. Why? Because of how they felt during our interaction.

While a brush-off might feel good to the professional – Hey! She’s out of line asking me that here! – even if it’s the wrong time and place, that person may slink away, never wanting to be near the professional again.

Poet Maya Angelou expressed it best, with these famous last words:

They’ll never forget how you made them feel.

All in all, I’d rather folks felt comfortable talking with me than not. If no one asks me anything or shares something with me, especially here in the village, I might never know that there’s an issue that needs to be addressed. And as a BOD member, I like to know what’s going on in our 27 acres, in our different tiny neighborhoods, so that I can help. I’m grateful that others help me and all of us that way!

Are you ever approached in this manner? What are your thoughts here?


Susan Rooks
Susan Rooks
With nearly 30 years’ experience as an international workshop leader, Susan Rooks is uniquely positioned to help people master the communication skills they need to succeed. In 1995, Susan formed Grammar Goddess Communication, creating and leading workshops in three main areas – American grammar, business writing, and interpersonal skills – to help business pros enhance their communication skills. She also leads one-hour LinkedIn workshops (Master the LinkedIn Profile Basics) via Zoom to help business pros anywhere maximize their LinkedIn experience, offering it to Chambers of Commerce and other civic organizations free of charge. As an editor, Susan has worked on business blogs, award-winning children’s books, best-selling business books, website content, and even corporate annual reports (with clients from half a dozen countries), ensuring that all material is professionally presented.

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  1. Occasionally I’ll get the “Can you take a look at my resume?” Or “What would you suggest in this (work) situation?” It’s not an overabundance of queries. It’s not like I have to wear sunglasses and a baseball cap pulled way down as I walk along Queens BLVD.

    Your situation and that of the advice columnist’s, though, reminded me of lyrics from a great James Taylor song, “That’s Why I’m Here.”

    Fortune and fame’s
    Such a curious game
    Perfect strangers
    Can call you by name

    Many people think the mere act of recognizing someone famous lowers the privacy barrier.

    Somewhat related, perhaps, when I’m out and about I do get asked for direction help ALL THE TIME. It’s uncanny, like I have a flashing “Information Here” sign and arrow above my head. Usually it comes from people who are trying to visit a professional’s office in our bustling section of Queens, and they are lost. The street naming can be confusing as sometimes there are avenues, streets, and roads all with the same name.

    And getting asked for assistance has happened in Manhattan, too! What, I’m a bona fide New Yorker now? I feel like responding with “You do know I’m a Red Sox’s fan, right?” Anyway, I pull out my trusted smart phone, and in a few minutes we get them oriented and on there way. And I get back on mine.

    • OK, Jeff, you sure do have me laughing! I wouldn’t expect in a big city — even if I WERE famous — to be recognized. And I sure can see how it is never-ending for some.

      But in that article I read, I just felt sorry that no mention was made of HOW to turn someone away … how to say no without hurting the other person. How we can often help the other person’s sense of sel remain intact, even when we say no.

    • Not sure there is a graceful way that would guarantee not hurting the other person. I was thinking along the lines of “I’m sorry, I’d love to help you, but I can’t right now.”

    • Yes, with maybe something like “let’s set a time to talk” or “give me a call tomorrow” if it’s something you really could/would help with, just at another time.

  2. Great post Susan. I don’t often get in this situation but I can completely understand both sides of it. I think it may depend on the profession. I’m sure a doctor or therapist may have a more distinct reason for saying no to those types of questions. But as a writer and brand manager – I’ll happily field these questions!

    • It’s possible that we can say no and not ruin someone else’s moment, right, JoAnna? How we say no or not right now, how the other person hears it — those for me are what this is all about.

      Would I want to be interrupted if I’m at a private dinner or other experience? No. Even if one part of me might feel flattered, the larger part could feel put on. So, yes, I too can see both sides.

    • Of course it’s possible! That is the definition of setting health boundaries. I’m not great on that topic, but I’m working on it every day.

  3. Difficult to say, even for myself. As I get more and more into one-on-one consulting, I see being interrupted more frequently. I want to help every time. Yes, sometimes it’s awful timing and I’ve responded in ways which hindsight as shown me was not very cordial.
    If I ever get to the place where I’m easily recognized, I want to believe my inclination will be to help. Thinking about it now, it may be best to print up some kind of business-style card that will politely and professionally explain the conundrum.
    I’m hoping in the near future to encounter this regularly. Thanks for making me think.

    • Well, turnabout is fair play, as “they” say, right, John? You ALWAYS make me think with your articles. I don’t remember a time when, after reading one of yours, that I didn’t sit back and say “huh,” I hadn’t thought of THAT!

      Obviously, if I weren’t in a small village, with signs on my car, on the BOD, and visible walking my dogs, I wouldn’t get stopped so many times. But who the heck else is someone going to ask about a grammar question?

      My whole point here — as you saw — is that how we respond is huge. If we’re brusque and quite obviously put-out … it’s unlikely that we’ll ever be asked again by that person, who may also tell several others about the encounter.

  4. Great post Susan. Yes I get approached a lot. Before I moved to NC I worked with a lot of animal shelters try to get dogs adopted. I always tried to help when asked. Sometimes I couldn’t give them what they asked for but often I could help in some way. I always wanted to be there to help yet sometimes it was overwhelming, then I thought about how overwhelmed they were so I always tried to help in some manner.

    • No surprise there, Larry! Those of us who are motivated to help will usually find a way! Thanks!