The Sunday Salon: Advice Columns

As a little kid, I took a very specific approach whenever I encountered a newspaper. Obviously, the only section worth anything was the Life or Lifestyle section, where I could read about celebrities whose names I had heard somewhere, read the newspaper comics (which was the vast majority of my media diet as a kid), and read the advice columns. Everything else held no interest for me. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution of my youth syndicated two columns—the ever-present Dear Abby and Carolyn Hax’s Tell Me About It, which seemed to be the hipper of the two. As time went on, my parents stopped subscribing to The Atlanta Journal-Consitution, so my advice column reading became limited to occasionally reading The Ethicist in The New York Times. But over the last few months, I’ve started reading some online advice columns that blow the syndicated stuff I’ve seen utterly out of the water, and I’d like to share them with y’all today.

Normally, talking about something so specific makes me want to research the history of the thing, but that’s covered nicely in this article about Cheryl Strayed, the woman behind Dear Sugar. (What an utterly amazing surname. I want to steal it.) I don’t read Dear Sugar myself—not because I don’t like the column, but because several columns are collected in her Tiny Beautiful Things, which I want to read completely fresh.

Dear Abby

Instead, the Holy Grail of online advice columns for me is Captain Awkward, whose URL I’ve been handing out like free candy. An anonymous film professor in Los Angeles by day, Captain Awkward (and her similarly appellated crew) takes questions from concerned souls and answers them like the best nerdy big sister you could ever hope for. She breaks things down with sympathy but not without a critical eye—if the problem might be you, she’ll tell you. Check out this recent column from a teenage boy who wants the Captain to give him a way to make his crush stay away from a friend of his. The answer manages to strike the right tone between “you are an adult” and “you are being an idiot”. She’s also known for what’s one of her biggest tags: Captain Awkward’s Dating Guide for Geeks. (Like many advice columnists, the Captain gets many questions about the strange territory that is the human heart.) Essentially, Captain Awkward’s advice can be boiled down to this phrase: use your words. I’ve been reading Captain Awkward for several months, and it’s been immensely useful to me—the way I tend to translate this into my life is “we can’t work with data we don’t have”. I can’t worry over whether or not that girl might hate me, because I can’t work with data I don’t have. Someone can’t know how I feel about them if I don’t tell them. It’s been very freeing.

My other favorite advice column, Ask Polly, is a little different. Its slug on the Awl is Turning the Screw, and Polly Esther (the pseudonym for memoirist and blogger Heather Havrilesky) can certainly do that. Captain Awkward offers love, grounded in her own experience. Havrilesky offers tough love, grounded in her own experience. Her answers are often longer, more involved, and more personal, turning into essays, but they’re always worth it. I think the best example is the column “Ask Polly: Why Are People Such Assholes?”, in which a woman wonders why everyone who is not her sucks. The question particularly stuck with me, because that’s how I thought for much of my childhood and adolescence: in not being me, everybody else was failing horribly at being a human being. (You see why I like to disassociate from her?) Participating in high school debate with an awful group of people is what beat that out of me; this woman never had something snap her out of it. This is the part that got into my commonplace book:

You must stop trying to teaching people lessons—about themselves, about their sloppy work, about anything. You were not placed on earth to enlighten the masses. I know that sounds a little funny coming from me, the lady who won’t give up the Mr. Microphone for all the cured ham in Spain. But it took me a particularly long time to figure this one out (not surprisingly). When you’re a mature adult, you don’t yell at your friends and tell them what’s wrong with them. You don’t even characterize their behavior. You say something (gently) if they do something that affects you directly, and otherwise you shut the fuck up and accept the kaleidoscope of different perspectives and behaviors that exist in the world. You listen to your friends talk (often in circles), and you gently coax them in the right direction. That is all.

This is exactly what I want out of an advice column—truths to not only answer the letter writer, but also to punch me in the gut and open my eyes a little further. I heartily look forward to Tiny Beautiful Things, as well as Heather Havrilesky’s own memoir, Disaster Preparedness.

I’m home for spring break, and I am determined to be as lazy as humanly possible, which, so far, hasn’t gone well—I woke up yesterday early, cleaned out my parents’ pantry (including a mysterious French spice manufactured in 1992 which had clearly gone rogue), listed my American Vampire collection up on eBay (want to buy some comics?), and made bread. I’m not good at being lazy ever since I trained myself out of the habit, and it’s biting me right now. In any case, I’ll be using the break to sleep, read, write, and make all the food. I have tasked myself with using up all the whole wheat flour in my parents’ house, since nobody likes whole wheat pastries in this house. 

This week’s links:

Do you read any advice columns, be they in a newspaper or online?

2 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: Advice Columns

  1. Ah, I love advice columns. My family is fond of doing a thing where we read the problem, the family weighs in on a solution, and then we compare what we said with what the advice columnist said. To be fair to syndicated columnists, they have way way WAY less space in which to blow you out of the water with their nuanced replies. Also may I recommend Dear Prudence of Slate? She frequently gives hilariously awful advice and then I get to think judgmental thoughts about her.

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