How the advice columns got me through 2020


The first thing I do, when I put my hand on Sunday New York Times, is to quickly browse the business and style pages to reach “Work Friend” and “Social Q’s” – the advice column for each section. I’m not sure what attracts me so much about family disputes over wedding invitations and office gum dramas, but I find myself devouring published queries (and the responses that accompany them) every week.

And I know that my thirst for advice is not unique. Since the dawn of magazine and newspaper publishing, readers have flocked to advice columns that provide advice on everything from things in life like asking for a raise and analyzing a legacy to relationship dilemmas as if a difference. of political outlook could be the loss of a long term love.

“People don’t want to be alone. Advice columns are stories and people are looking for stories about how to be good,” Jennifer Peepas, the advice columnist behind Captain Awkward, told Mic. Plus, she rightly points out, people sometimes just read them for the schadenfreude: (“It was a train wreck! Thank goodness it’s not me!”) “But I think that a lot of people are just [thinking], ‘I’m trying to be a good person and I want to verify that I am. Here are stories where I don’t need to be vulnerable but where I can see myself. ‘”All of those feelings, needless to say, swelled as COVID-19 hit its peak.

The advice columns have served as a port in the storm for many people trying to make sense of the past year. The COVID-19 pandemic – one of the most earth-shattering events in modern memory and history – has brought with it trauma, confusion and heightened levels of uncertainty, paving the way for quite a collection previously unexplored problems that humans around the world are now facing. with.

S. Bear Bergman, a writer whose “Ask Bear” column has appeared on Bitch Media, HuffPost and his own soon to be relaunched website, says the advice columns don’t just make readers feel less lonely, especially during difficult times collectively. – but also provide the solutions they are looking for without having to ask for them themselves. “It’s helpful to see that we’re not the only ones struggling,” he told Mic. “It is rewarding to read about other people’s problems. We are grappling with so many [issues] it seems overwhelming and complex, so if anyone has a three step solution to make it less of a problem, it’s incredibly calming. “

And then there are the broader discussions sparked by the advice columns – which author Joanna Scutts once pondered may actually be more helpful than providing answers to individuals. In a 2018 Medium article, Scutts wrote that the advice column is about “reader voyeurism and moral theorizing.” Unlike self-help books or therapy sessions, the advice column is a public conversation [that] invites readers to empathize, judge, laugh and learn. “

In a way, columns are some of the oldest forms of written entertainment – and many, like Captain Awkward or the popular Ask A Manager blog – are now even full-fledged publications, not necessarily associated with a specific medium.

Of course, the advice columns wouldn’t be what they are without the people who submit their usually very personal queries. But what is it about advisers – who are indeed strangers – that attracts the public so much, sometimes even more than the advice they might get from friends and family? Alison Green, the columnist behind Ask a Manager, notes that anonymity in submitting queries is a key factor. “You might not feel comfortable giving it all to your friends and family,” she tells Mic. “There is a call for the advisor to be an impartial arbiter – although we all bring our biases to it. But we have a very transparent record.

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And, Peepas adds, the people closest to us often feel too close. “Sometimes the stakes are very high when it comes to talking to people very close to us,” she says. “We already know what they’re going to say or can guess what they’re going to say so sometimes you just want an outside opinion. Sometimes you just want an outside person to tell you that you are not crazy.

When asked if their work has a new resonance during a global pandemic, the advice columnists I spoke to mentioned a change in tone in the questions asked. While still dealing with similar themes – how to properly address family members, ideal ways of navigating work situations – the questions asked seemed more pressing and confusing, trying to understand an equally general new world order. intensely than trying to explore particular scenarios.

“The stakes have skyrocketed [during the pandemic]”says Peepas, noting that, while before COVID-19, an argument with a family member could not necessarily result in a relationship changed forever, family feuds over vaccine positions, for example, seemed to have a lot more. of weight. ”I wrote many versions of ‘you are allowed to save your own life. [by getting the vaccine] and don’t have to make everyone around you feel exactly like you about things. ‘”

COVID-19 has certainly changed the nature of the long-popular workplace-themed advice columns. “I can follow the entire evolution of the pandemic in my Ask a Manager inbox,” says Green. “When a lot of people were working from home, I got a lot of questions about micro-managers who were freaking out about everyone who was working. Then, when the offices started to reopen, I started getting panicked letters about people who didn’t want to go back. Lately, I see a light at the end of the tunnel because all these questions of interpersonal awkwardness come up. “

But the events and circumstances of the past year have also brought to light a glaring problem in the chronicle world: the general homogeneity of the chroniclers. While the origins of the advice column are somewhat obscure, public consensus attributes the beginning of the form to a certain John Dunton, the publisher and editor of Athenian Mercury, a magazine launched in London in 1691. According to the Medium article written by Scutts, legend has it that Dunton asked his male friends to answer readers’ questions in a section of the publication, and then finally launched Ladies’ mercury in 1963 as a way to “separate boards by gender.” Although it folds after four issues, the new publication directly led to the creation of the column as we know it today: dominated, primarily, by advisers.

As women gained the right to vote and entered the workforce en masse at the turn of the 20th century, the forum grew into a women-centered forum. From Dear Abby to Ann Landers, “Tell Me About It” by Dorothy Dix and Carolyn Hax, some of the most recognized names in the industry throughout history, and today, have been owned by white women.

“My audience is distorted by white and women, but not entirely,” says Peepas, a white woman herself. “I think there are a lot of trans, non-binary, gender nonconforming, non-white people reading it, but I would say the audience generally leans towards people who see something for themselves in you. “

“I certainly get a fair number of questions about love and romance that specifically relate to browsing gay and trans related topics,” says Bergman, a trans man, confirming the idea that advice seekers tend to drift to advisers who remind them of themselves. “I do [also] get a lot of questions that have religion as a theme and I think that’s because I’ve written and talked about Jewish and Jewish identity and values ​​and religious practices. “

Clearly, many topics, themes and segments of the population feel under-represented in the media. Still, things seem to be changing, as the idea of ​​representation takes center stage in cultural conversations of all kinds, no doubt the result of large-scale movements like Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and Americans’ disposition to fairer and more egalitarian justice. system.

“We are there and we understand”, tell us the Dear Abbots of the world.

John Paul Brammer, who is Latin, for example, took his popular advice column “Hola Papi! of the LGBTQ site of Condé Nast Them, turned it into a book and now runs it on its own Substack platform. Dan Savage, meanwhile, focuses on sex counseling in his nationally-released Savage Love column, which is also a podcast.

Some columnists themselves argue for the need for advice givers to be more diverse than the one-way typography we’re used to. “There’s something cultural going on about who we’re prepared to replace in this advisory role,” says Green.

“The reach will expand,” says Peepas. “There will have to be a lot more people who are not nice white ladies in the cities with MFAs and a really good shoe collection.”

Will we need as much advice as we have needed in the past 15 months? Probably. As intense as the navigation assistance we needed during COVID-19 was, the world is still in constant motion, orbiting technological advances and cultural activities that humans will always feel overwhelmed by. And who doesn’t need a little help in life?

After all, we’re not just looking for guidance, but the kind of personal connections that strengthen our sense of belonging. “We are there and we understand”, tell us the Dear Abbots of the world. And that’s the best advice we can get at times like these.

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