“Nibbing in and Nibbing out”
In the midst of a troublesome pandemic, a torrid political season, and a turbulent time in race relations I have been thinking about a phrase my Mom used to use but which I do not hear anymore:
Mom usually said this to me when I was sticking my nose into something that wasn’t any of my concern. Or offering opinions on subjects I didn’t know anything about. Or basically pushing in to an area I didn’t belong.
It might have been when I was offering opinions on how she could improve something she was cooking. I would offer my much appreciate observations on an item she was knitting. Mom was usually very patient and gentle and kind. But if I crossed the line she would tell me to “nib out.”
I got the message even though I didn’t really know the meaning of the word “nib”. So, just for kicks, I recently looked up the word and here’s what I found:
Definition of nib
2a: the sharpened point of a quill pen
b: PEN POINTalso : each of the two divisions of a pen point
3: a small pointed or projecting part
Wait a minute! Those definitions don’t have anything to do with offering my opinions or interfering with another person’s business. Then I looked a little further and found this in the Urban Dictionary:
Ah! There it was. Mom’s meaning —and my warning.
I have spent a great deal of my life nibbing in other people’s business. That was my job as a lawyer, but it’s also a dispositional inclination. I want to help. I think I know. So I often offer advice, help, or opinions. When offering unsolicited advice to my children during their growing up years I would often tell them, “People pay me for my advice. You guys get this for free!”
But to paraphrase the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, “There is a time to nib and a time to refrain from nibbing.” But how do you know which is which?
Sometimes, it’s clearly a time to nib. You see someone precariously teetering on the edge of cliff and you reach out to pull them back to safety. You could have thought “I’m sure if they needed me to save their life they’d ask me.” But no, they were teetering without understanding how close they were to the edge. If you had “minded your own business” they would have plunged to their death. As you pulled them back they let out a huge sigh of relief and said “Thanks for saving me!” You nibbed right.
There are also clearly times to nib out. Someone is poised to take an action you think unwise. But you don’t have a relationship with them and they haven’t asked for your advice. You could rush right in, where angels fear to tread. But what are people like that called (at least according to the old Elvis Presley song)? Fools!
But what about those unclear times? When nibbing may be called for but you have hit the pause button because you don’t know if it’s “any of your business”.
Your friend is contemplating a career move. They are using you as a sounding board, but they haven’t asked for your advice. They talk. You listen. You have opinions. You think they’re making a mistake. Should you speak up? Psychologist and author Dr. Dale Atkins says we should ask three questions and answer them honestly:
- Am I getting involved for them or for me?
- Is the other person happy even though what they are doing wouldn’t make you happy?
- Will offering advice risk the relationship and, if so, is it worth the risk?
It’s also helpful to have a “default” setting. A way to “lean” when you’re unsure. For me, after many instances of nibbing in, when I should have nibbed out, my default setting is to nib out. At least until I’m asked to nib in.
So that’s my advice for you today. But wait a minute…..maybe I’m nibbing in by offering this advice.