I’ve been reading advice columns as long as I’ve been reading the newspaper. I began by reading Ann Landers in the Baltimore Sun. When living in California and Massachusetts I was reading Dear Abby, further elaborated on by that wonderful John Prine song “Dear Abby”. What better advice can there be then, You are what you are and you ain’t what you ain’t?
Reading the advice column became part of my morning ritual, along with cereal and coffee. I’d spread out the newspaper, and in between jostling the rest of the family out of bed and putting together the children’s lunches, for a few minutes I’d read and escape. Nothing else puts it all in perspective like reading about other people’s problems. Suddenly whatever you’ve been grappling about— the friend who will no longer talk to you, the boss at work who keeps piling extra work on your desk, the sister-in-law who always criticizes your cooking— doesn’t seem all that bad.
Over the decades, doling out advice has become more specialized and includes columns written by everyone from psychics and therapists to social scientists. For middle-of-the-road advice, augmented by clever cartoon illustrations, I read Dear Carolyn (Carolyn Hanley Hax) in the Washington Post. On Sundays I often read the column Social Q’s in The New York Times by Philip Galanes.
Most of the time I read my newspapers online. A few years ago, I started subscribing to the Washington Post’s “Dear Carolyn newsletter.” The column was starting to bore me, (too many similar questions and unsatisfactory solutions), until I noticed the option to add my own comment. But better than adding my own two cents was the opportunity to read what everyone else was saying. The reader response was so much more interesting than Carolyn’s advice. What I’ve observed is that advice giving has become a collective phenomena.
The reader response was so much more interesting than Carolyn’s advice.
A recent example was a question related to a friend enhancing a photo, that included the letter writer, before posting it on Facebook. The letter writer did not want themselves “artificially altered” to appear younger and more attractive than she really was and was uncomfortable with the compliments she’d been getting from well-meaning friends on social media.
The conversation jumped from our attitudes towards embracing youthfulness, to the perils of vanity, to the pressures exerted by social media platforms to look drop dead gorgeous at all times. Others grumbled that the letter’s subject matter was a complete waste of time. Certainly this was not a problem to solve. Just ignore it and move on, was the general sentiment.
Another day and another letter writer was a “Co- Maid of Honor” disillusioned with the behavior of the bride, who had no time to talk with the other “Co-Maid of Honor” in the days leading up to the wedding, who it turns out was trying to cope with the death of her father. The result: the grieving member of the wedding party was “disagreeable.” What to do? How to go forward” Could their friendship survive?”
-The readers reactions varied from: What a useless group of people and why did they bother with a formal wedding anyway? to Well of course you should talk to the bride about how you felt observing it all go down to —-You should reach out supportively to the grieving “Co-Maid of Honor”.
Often the comments go completely off-topic. The writers use the platform to share remarks about a personal event that feels similar to them, they want to vent about. A spouse who repeatedly corrects his wife in front of others becomes the ex-wife who always re-did the Christmas decorations after the husband initially put them up. The commenter shares how happy they are in the present, taking over control of their life. Others comment, providing positive reinforcement. These types of iterations provide further commentary on some of the challenges we all face in sustaining relationships. In our post pandemic world, where many of us still approach in-person interactions cautiously, the online community provides an outlet for many. Are they seeking advice or validation or perspective? For the writer, the topics provide plenty of conflict, rich material for storytelling. Here’s a story I wrote, published by Defunkt Magazine Volume VII that provides plenty of conflict called Tenants on page 33. Here Follow me on Twitter at SN Maril. Thank you for reading.