Ask America

Why are we so obsessed with advice columns? We just want to become the best version of ourselves that it is possible to be.


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I read advice columns. A lot of them. “Ask Polly” on The Awl. The Washington Post/Slate’s “Dear Prudence.” “Dear Sugar” on The Rumpus was a staple until it disappeared last spring. Philip Galanes’s “The Social Q’s,” Chuck Klosterman as “The Ethicist,” and John Hodgman, all in The New York Times, are regulars. Dan Savage in The Stranger makes for a raunchy (and often eye-opening) change of pace. The list goes on and on.

I’ve always been bookish, so there’s something a little embarrassing about admitting to being such an avid fan of what is surely a voyeur’s playground. I have an advanced degree in literature. Shouldn’t I be reading Dante’s Inferno? (Don’t tell: I’ve never read it.) Instead, I click manically around the Internet, looking for more advice columns to have at hand for when I need a break from work. Or, if I’m being honest, just as a fix if I’ve gone too long between readings.

If I really wanted to justify my fixation, I could put my degree to good use and argue that advice columns play a role a similar to literature. Both take to heart Tolstoy’s famous declaration that “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” by delving into the drama at the heart of the human condition. Except where the leisurely pace of a novel allows for in-depth exploration, advice columns are well-matched to the digital age. Short and to the point, they introduce a crisis and resolve it, all in the span of a few paragraphs.

That may go partway to explaining why the form’s popularity has exploded. There’s a column for every question, whether related to ethics, etiquette, or the existential. There are columns for parents, adolescents, sardonic hipsters, and every other self-defined subset of people. New ones pop up all the time. They appear in local and national newspapers, on websites and blogs. 

The genre depends on a strange convention: that journalists, rather than trained psychologists, are deemed qualified to dole out advice in response to our most private questions. We readily accept that tradition, despite our era’s trust in training and narrow specialization. Maybe because we’ve been doing it that way for centuries.

At first, there were “agony aunts,” anonymous writers who took on the guise of trusted older women who could give relationship advice to the young and love-struck, in “letters to the lovelorn” columns. That was an import, brought over from England sometime in the 18th century. Nathanael West picked up on the tradition in Miss Lonelyhearts, his 1933 novel about a man who takes over the titular column while his own life falls to shambles.

The range of topics has broadened since then. Now they include all manner of personal distress, but the core of the advice column has stayed the same: Human relationships, whether with others or with ourselves, continue to baffle. Sometimes the stakes are high: A man is witness to domestic abuse. At others they’re low: A grandmother takes offense at her grandchildren’s manners. No matter which, every person who writes in for guidance is trying to figure out how to live. 

The real question is what’s in it for the rest of us? Are we no more than incorrigible peeping toms, looking into other people’s lives without any threat of their problems infecting our own? Some degree of schadenfreude is certainly at play, too. In the face of so much agony and confusion, our own lives, with their myriad but trivial irritants, don’t seem that bad.

But there has to be more to it, for me and the countless others who read these columns. There’s a pathos to the advice column that can be accessed better than in any other arena of our current media landscape. An immediacy, too. Those sending their dilemmas for public inspection are not professional writers (that we know about, anyway). They are not mediated by editorial constraints, as in traditional journalism, or budgetary considerations, as in movies, television, and publishing. They are real people allowing the rest of us into the darkest corners of their psyches. And they do it because they are afforded real anonymity.

It’s a medium that thrives on anonymity, for both columnists and those submitting questions. There’s a practical reason for that: Columns often pass from one pseudonymous columnist to another, each taking on the persona created for that particular forum. “Dear Abby” and “Ask Ann Landers,” the two syndicated columns widely credited with moving what had been a longstanding but marginal element of newspapers into mainstream popularity, have been written by at least two writers each, most famously by Pauline Phillips, who recently died, and her twin sister, Esther Lederer. But Lederer took over from another writer, Ruth Crowley, and Phillips passed “Dear Abby” along to her own daughter, Jeanne. 

That practice of a column passing seamlessly from one writer to another while still maintaining its brand identity is more façade than fact these days. The original agony aunts may have hidden their identities, but “Dear Abby” and “Ann Landers” gave Phillips and Lederer celebrity status. Even though “The Ethicist” and “Dear Prudence” have been penned by different authors (including Lederer’s daughter, Margo Howard, who served as the second Prudie), each columnist’s real name now features prominently. Emily Yoffe, the current Prudie, even makes videos in which she directly addresses the camera. So much for anonymity.

That fiction of a nameless wise man or woman solomonically adjudicating troubles also points to why advice columns are so beloved: It allows readers to play at being experts. There’s a secret part of all of us that thinks we could do what advice columnists do. We’re all convinced we have the answers to other people’s questions.

I’ve learned how false that sense is. Rather than confirming my own perspective, the columns I read have shown how little I know. I’m as sure of my opinions as the next person, but in the face of so much unhappiness and need, I draw a blank, unable to answer half the questions I encounter.

The heart of the matter, then, lies elsewhere: It’s the anonymity of those submitting questions that’s really important. These regular people struggling through a problem, whether mundane or complex, remain unknown to all but their immediate circles, even when they do identify themselves. Their names, if they appear at all, are empty signifiers, standing in for anyone who might be struggling with how to address a child’s bully, or what to do when you find out about a partner’s surprising sexual kink (Be warned: This one is quite graphic).

That urge to hide one’s true identity isn’t hard to understand. Some people are exposing their deepest secrets — a fear of never finding love and partnership, or an affair that’s destroying a relationship. Others are just ruffling the surface of social interactions — objecting to socializing with coworkers, or wondering how to handle accidentally seeing someone else’s love letters. No matter the scale of the problem, the person is working toward a solution, and so may not want to publicly announce herself.  

The act of submitting any question takes a leap of faith, an act of bravery. The unfolding of personal problems that is on display week after tortured week attests not just to the many ways human beings can make each other miserable, but how desperately we try to improve ourselves.

There is something touchingly aspirational about that hope, which makes it particularly American. The idea that with the right advice, from the right person, we can become the best version of ourselves that it is possible to be.

When a young woman writes in to Heather Havrilesky’s “Ask Polly” column torn between staying in her safe job or setting out to become the writer she always wanted to be, or the man who talks of wanting to “make his mark,” they are expressing a deeply-held American belief in the power not just of the individual, but in the ability of every person to align the image they have of themselves with the reality of their lived lives.

Reading advice columns allows us to buy into the idea that the issues aired not only have solutions, but that once they are addressed, the lives lived by those lonely, desperate, or confused enough to reach out to a stranger in a newspaper or on the internet can be perfected.

It’s a fantasy that is quickly dispelled. Read enough of these columns, and you begin to puncture the shiny veneer of American idealism and get to the real, messy business of life.

The problems brought to advice columns, no matter how simple they seem, are never easy to address. Families can break apart and friendships ruined over something as trivial as a misread email. It’s hard to break the social code that demands we stay quiet, not ruffle any feathers. It can be awkward to talk about sex and money and feelings.

The people who submit to advice columns want to do just that. They try to make their lives more livable. Some may fail. Others may crave public acknowledgement of their struggles. They may not like the advice given to them. They may be bitterly disappointed when they don’t get confirmation of their own beliefs. But they are willing to take a step many of us avoid.

As much as the American self-image depends on the idea of straight-talking, cut-through-the-crap honesty, the reality is far more timid. We don’t really value frank communication. Instead, we demand that everyone fit in with the group. That’s true at work, in our social lives, and in intimate relationships. As a result, we fear rocking the boat, because the repercussions can be real and devastating.

So we fall back on the formulas that allow us to avoid confrontation: that it’s easier to ignore problems than to address them head-on. That some people can’t be reasoned with, some situations are better left alone.

What advice columns show us is that sometimes we have to be brave enough to try to right situations that are wrong. Writing into an advice column is only the first step, but week after week, in forums small and large, people do just that. They allow the rest of us a glimpse into their experience, because they believe their lives are worth improving. The advice is in the asking. 6 May 2013 


Michal Lemberger is a writer who has been recently published in Salon, Tablet, and Narratively, among others.