I wouldn’t start from here

When I was a kid, I read a story about a delivery boy. There was a bit about how Catholics weren’t allowed to eat meat on a Friday, so Friday was the day when he delivered fish to all the local Catholic families. I was so bemused I re-read this bit multiple times, then concluded there must be a typo. Why would he be delivering fish to these families on the one day they’re not allowed to eat it? Clearly that bit was meant to say that he delivered the fish on Mondays, or some other day.

Many years later, I realised: if your mental model for how meals are supposed to work involves eating meat every day, eating fish rather than red meat kind of feels like you’re not eating meat. Even though you’re basically still eating a dead member of the animal kingdom, which many people would still define as meat. The fish-eating on Fridays is part of a long tradition of trying to observe no-meat rules as loosely as possible  (although the story of how Oxford’s Magdalen College reclassified deer as vegetables appears to be a myth, sadly).

And so I dimly began to formulate a new category of advice: advice that only makes sense if you’re already doing things a bit wrong. Advice that is best phrased as: “Well, you shouldn’t really […] but…” As the old Irish joke goes: “I wouldn’t start from here.”

You need more examples? A couple of my older relatives share my hobby of writing pub quizzes, and have repeatedly given me the advice: “You shouldn’t set a quiz question if you don’t know the answer to it yourself.” And I’ve wondered how it’s even possible to write a quiz question if you don’t know the answer yourself. Do you just kind of wonder about the thing, write the question and then hastily find out the answer before you actually try the quiz out in public? (And if so, how did people manage before Google?)

It turns out that this advice is actually really useful if your idea of writing a quiz involves going through quiz books and pulling out questions that other people have written. Because people who do that are tempted to use interesting-looking questions even though they’ve only just learnt the answer from the back of the book, and then sometimes the book is wrong, or the answer is debatable, and the quizmaster looks like a dick because their only response is “The quizmaster is always right,” which doesn’t work when an entire room of people rather than just one person is shouting “But it was the Duke of Wellington!”

But again…I wouldn’t start from here.

See also: the advice to use a hands-free kit to talk on the phone while driving. Well, yeah…if you think it’s OK to make a habit of conducting phone conversations while operating heavy machinery at speed, then a hands-free kit is your best option. But I wouldn’t start from here.

I’ve been trying to think of a snappy name for this category of advice, or category of choice.

Advice for the Already-Wrong
I Wouldn’t Start From Here
Starting In The Wrong Place

Starting In The Wrong Place is kind of pleasing because you can shorten it to SITWP, which sounds like someone with mixed Welsh and Yorkshire heritage is telling you to mend your posture.

I would love to get some contributions to this category, because I suspect there are plenty out there.

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