Filed away in my vast catalogue of Deep Dark Fears, subfolder Internet-Related, is the dread of discovering myself as the antagonist in an advice column letter.
During one especially rough period in a years-ago job, I had to stop reading Alison Green’s excellent work advice column Ask A Manager. I was irrationally anxious that I’d come across the untenable situation I was in, neatly recounted so that Green could rule against me. The mere sight of a “34F” (my current age and gender, not my bra size) in a Reddit advice post often gives me a momentary flash of alarm before I read on and confirm that no, I am probably not the writer’s soon-to-be sister-in-law who’s demanding that her pet ferrets replace the groom’s nephew as ring-bearer.
I’ve been an online advice addict for years. Procrastinating on prepaid internet in my university library in the mid-00s, I trawled through years of archived Dear Prudence and Since You Asked columns on Slate and Salon, respectively, then Savage Love and Heather Havrilesky’s Dear Rabbit. I read Havrilesky on The Awl as Ask Polly and then followed various members of the Awl/Hairpin/Toast Extended Content Universe to later advice-dispensaries at bigger sites. (I never went through a big Dear Sugar phase, somehow.) And now, of course, there’s a glorious array of internet sages, from ¡Hola Papi! to the crowdsourced, democratized blob of solicited advice in the queasily addictive annals of advice subreddits, from r/AITA to r/relationships.
I have relished the gossipy thrills of reading about people’s awful mothers-in-law (so many!), and gulped down tough and tender counsel for more existential dilemmas as I wrestled with my own. I studied the carefully worded scripts some agony aunts and uncles offered for delicate situations — as a neurodivergent person who’s not always great with social cues and emotional perspective, I found these perspectives were useful ways to build empathy and a better picture of what’s “right” in a range of situations. And a few years ago, I wept over hundreds of almost identical posts and letters from people wondering if they were “allowed” to break up with a good person whom they loved in order to give them both a better chance at happiness. (They are, and so was I.)
It’s addictive, and it’s certainly worth remembering that, as Slate’s current Dear Prudence writer Daniel Lavery cautions me, “advice columns are about entertainment, not just moral instruction.” But as the overflowing inboxes of any prominent advice columnist prove, there’s never any shortage of people clamouring for both.
“People write to advice columns for all kinds of reasons but probably a big overarching reason is the desire to narrativize a problem they’re having,” explains Emily Gould, a novelist and a recent-ish addition to Slate’s parenting advice column . “‘Asking for advice’ is a form. Within that form, you can tell a story.”
“You’ve got characters, you’ve got conflict, you’ve got a distinct point of view in terms of who is asking the question and how reliable a narrator they are,” she says.
I wonder when we will collectively admit that the dominant short fiction forms of the 2020s are r/AITA posts and online advice column letters
— Emily Gould (@EmilyGould) September 16, 2020
Even when we’re not actively wrestling with a specific thorny problem of our own, it’s natural to look for ourselves in other people’s stories, to seek out the characters we identify with and pick a side, because stories are — say it with me — how we help make sense of ourselves and others.
But whether or not we are literally the nightmare coworker or clueless bridesmaid, what do we actually get out of devouring these dilemmas? Can they actually teach us, as Havrilesky’s collection of advice letters and answers promises, ?
It still counts as reaching out
Slate sex advice columnist Stoya, who began doling out expertise “on Tumblr in the 2010s” armed with her experience in adult entertainment, says simply that advice columns are “a great way to learn.”
“I came of age reading Dan Savage,” she tells me in an email. “His column ran in a local Philadelphia weekly paper, and it tackled so much of the reality of communicating about sex, which I wasn’t able to find books covering at the time. He’s obviously critiqueable, but I learned a lot from him about moving on when something isn’t a match, which I think has served me well and comes up in my own work for Slate.”
And there’s a more fundamental benefit to being in the audience for these shared problems: They connect you to the people sharing them. Yes, you get to peek into their lives, anonymously and consensually and safely, but they’re also putting a little something of themselves into yours.
“I certainly have loved reading [advice columns] because I enjoy — and these are a series of sometimes-contradictory impulses that coexist perfectly peacefully together — how reading about other people’s problems can simultaneously make me feel safer, smugger, smarter, less alone, vindicated, implicated, challenged, inspired,” writer Lavery of Dear Prudence tells me. “I suspect plenty of other readers share those reactions, although I can’t speak for everyone. It’s not merely rubbernecking, I suppose is what I mean to say.”
“I think the online world has played a big role in normalizing mental health support and just discussions around mental health in general.”
“Even if you’re just reading [online advice] and not taking part in any discussion, it can fulfill that desire for social connection that we all have, even if it’s a passive one,” says Dr. Brad Ridout, deputy chair of the Cyberpsychology Research Group at the University of Sydney (the same institution where I ignored assignments to binge-read Dear Polly). Ridout, who has a doctorate in psychology, is currently focused on developing a social network with Australian youth counselling service Kids Helpline where young people can access anonymous, text-based support from qualified counsellors.
“Social media, in general, not just online advice, has played a huge role in normalizing help-seeking behavior, especially when people can do it anonymously,” Ridout says. “I think the online world has played a big role in normalizing mental health support and just discussions around mental health in general.”
Help getting help
Sure, some people will literally write to an advice columnist (or put an amusing or chilling novella on Reddit) . And to be clear, there are so, so many situations that a few hundred words of advice from a nice middle-class white lady (as so many of the most beloved advice columnists are) can’t hope to resolve. From debilitating mental health or financial issues, to abusive relationships and serious legal liability — columnists’ inboxes are stuffed with horror stories alongside lighter etiquette questions.
“I’ve become an accidental expert at identifying abusive dynamics in all kinds of relationships, which means a ton of people write to me about their abusive relationships, easily 100 [times] the number of letters about it that appear on the site, and I spend a lot of time just hoping and wishing and praying that the people can get away safely and that nothing I said will make it worse,” says Peepas of Captain Awkward. “Some of them write to me years afterward to tell me they are safe, and I cherish those, because most times I’ll never know.” (She also has a category of emails called Above The Captain’s Paygrade, for letter writers whose troubles are more systemic than personal: “Fully half my inbox could be solved with affordable housing policies and sufficient food aid, so nobody has to live with the worst people they know in order to survive. This is not an exaggeration.”)
For those heavier problems, while a columnist (or comment section) may have kind, blunt, and useful advice about how to cope, a responsible pro will recommend consulting a qualified professional for further support in the longterm, whether that means couples counseling, individual therapy, or formal legal advice.
“We’re bombarded with images of people, you know, having everything together and an antidote to that is showing us that not everyone does have everything together, and it’s OK to discuss the more ugly parts of life.”
These resources are not accessible to everyone (though they should be) and “get therapy” is not the answer to all problems either. But reiterating this message wherever appropriate feeds back into the normalising of seeking that support, and not just for the letter writers. As Ridout notes, “It can be a lot easier to take advice if it’s directed to another person.”
What’s more, he says, reading the warts-and-all anonymous letters and posts can act as a counterweight to the shinier, curated versions of life we see people post under their own names. “We’re bombarded with images of people, you know, having everything together and an antidote to that is showing us that not everyone does have everything together, and it’s OK to discuss the more ugly parts of life,” he says.
How to be your own agony aunt
I asked the columnists what they’d say to me and my fellow advice addicts, constantly lurking in the internet’s fretful corners, in search of that soothing rhythm of dilemma and solution, or possibly an answer to a question we haven’t asked yet. More than one advised that we try to DIY.
“I think most of these people are writers, whether they understand themselves to be writers or not, and they might enjoy doing an exercise that I long to assign to writing students: Write a short story in the form of an advice column, with a question and an answer,” says Gould.ma
Peepas says the advice-column letter form is so powerful, it can sometimes be part of the solution without the columnist ever throwing in their two cents. “Some of the best ‘fan mail’ I get is someone saying ‘I wrote you a whole long letter, and then I realized what I needed to do and did it, thank you!’” she says. “Yes! You told your story and it showed you how it needed to end. Good job.”
“You can imagine someone is asking you about the situation,” suggests Stoya, “or you can imagine that you’re commissioning your favorite advice writer to tackle this person’s question and imagine what they might say.”
“There’s a lot of sameness to the texture of many people’s lives right now — sameness alternating with badness,” Gould says. “I like to imagine that the ‘learn how to tell your own story’ aspect of it is helpful to other people. Sometimes, it is helpful to me.
“Just getting it down on the page can be enormously helpful. No matter how — or indeed whether — somebody answers you.”