Dear Pannie: How advice columns got me through 2020

Maxine McCrann
Life

The first thing I do, when I get my hands on the Sunday New York Times, is quickly leaf through the business and style pages to reach "Work Friend" and "Social Q’s" — each section's advice column. I'm not sure what it is about familial conflicts regarding wedding invitations and in-office gum-chewing drama that appeals to me so much, but I find myself devouring the published queries (and accompanying responses) on a weekly basis.

And I know my thirst for advice isn’t unique. Since the dawn of magazine and newspaper publishing, readers have been flocking to advice columns that provide counsel on everything from life stuff such as asking for a raise and parsing out an inheritance to relationship quandaries like whether a difference in political perspectives could be the doom of a long-term love.

"People don't want to feel alone. Advice columns are stories and people are looking for stories on how to be good,” says Jennifer Peepas, the advice columnist behind Captain Awkward, tells Mic. Also, she aptly points out, people sometimes just read them for the schadenfreude: (“That was a train wreck! Thank goodness it is 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 double-check that I am. Here are stories where I don't have to be vulnerable but can see myself in.'" All of these feelings, needless to say, swelled as COVID-19 peaked.

Advice columns served a port in the storm for many people trying to make sense of the past year. The COVID-19 pandemic — one of the most collectively life-altering events in modern memory and history — brought with it trauma, confusion and increased levels of uncertainty, ushering in a whole compendium of previously unexplored issues that humans across the globe are now dealing with.

S. Bear Bergman, a writer whose column “Ask Bear” has appeared in Bitch Media, HuffPost, and on his own soon-to-be-relaunched website, says advice columns not only make readers feel less alone — especially during collectively trying times — but also provide solutions they’re looking for without having to ask for themselves. "It's helpful to see that we are not the only ones struggling," he tells Mic. "It's validating to read other people's problems. We're grappling with so many [issues] that feel overwhelming and complex, so if someone has a three-step solution to making it less of a problem, it is incredibly soothing."

And then there are the larger discussions sparked by advice columns — which author Joanna Scutts once mused may actually be more of the point than providing individuals with answers. In a 2018 Medium article, Scutts wrote that the advice column is “about readers' voyeurism and moral theorizing. Unlike self-help books or therapy sessions, the advice column is a public conversation [that] invites readers to empathize, judge, mock and learn."

In a way, the 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 publications in their own right, not necessarily associated with any specific news outlet.

Of course, advice columns wouldn’t be what they are without the people who submit their typically highly personal queries. But what is it about the counselors — who are, effectively, strangers — that attracts the public so much, sometimes even more than the guidance they might receive from friends and family? Alison Green, the columnist behind Ask a Manager, notes that the anonymity of submitting queries is a key factor. “You might not feel comfortable laying it all out to friends and family,” she tells Mic. “There’s an appeal to the advice giver being an impartial referee — although we all bring our biases in there. But we have a very transparent track record.”

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And, Peepas adds, those closest to us often feel, well, too close. “Sometimes, the stakes are really high when it comes to talking to people really 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 you’re not crazy.”

When asked whether their job felt newly resonant during a global pandemic, the advice columnists I spoke to mentioned a change in tone within the queries posed. Although still dealing with similar themes — how to properly address family members, ideal ways to navigate work situations — the questions posed felt more urgent and confused, trying to understand a general new world order just as intensely as trying to explore particular scenarios.

"The stakes went way up [during the pandemic]," Peepas says, noting that, whereas pre-COVID-19, an argument with a family member might not necessarily result in a forever altered relationship, familial spats about vaccine stances, for example, seemed to carry much more weight. "I wrote a lot of versions of 'you're allowed to save your own life [by getting the vaccine] and don't have to make everyone around you feel exactly like you do about things.'"

COVID-19 certainly changed the nature of workplace-themed advice columns as well, which have long been popular. “I can track the whole evolution of the pandemic in my Ask a Manager inbox,” Green says. “When a lot of people were working from home, I was getting a lot of questions about micro managers that were panicking about everyone working. Then, when offices started reopening, I started getting panicked letters about people not wanting to go back. Lately, I see a light at the end of the tunnel because all those interpersonal awkwardness questions are coming back.”

But the events and circumstances of the last year also highlighted a glaring issue in the advice column world: the general homogeneity of the columnists. Although the origins of the advice column are slightly murky, the public consensus attributes the start of the form to one John Dunton, the publisher and editor-in-chief of Athenian Mercury, a magazine that launched in London back in 1691. According to the Medium article penned by Scutts, legend has it that Dunton asked his male friends to answer readers' questions in a section of the publication and then eventually launched The Ladies' Mercury in 1963 as a way to “segregate the advice by gender." Although folding after four issues, the new publication directly led to the creation of the column as we know it today: dominated, mostly, by female advice givers.

As women won the right to vote and entered the workforce in droves at the beginning of the 20th century, the forum became a female-focused one. From Dear Abby to Ann Landers, Dorothy Dix and Carolyn Hax's "Tell Me About It," some of the most recognized names in the industry throughout history, and today, have belonged to white women.

"My audience skews white and female, but not entirely," Peepas, a white female herself, says. "I think that there are a lot of trans, non-binary, gender non-conforming and non-white people that read it but I would say that audiences usually skew towards people that see something of themselves in you.”

"I definitely receive a healthy number of love and romance questions that are specifically about navigating queer and trans-related topics," says Bergman, a trans man, confirming the idea that advice seekers tend to drift towards counselors that remind them of themselves. "I do [also] get a lot of questions that have religion as a theme and I think it is because I have written and spoken about being Jewish and Jewish identity and values and religious practices."

Clearly, there are a lot of topics, themes and population segments that feel underrepresented within the medium. Yet, things seem to be shifting, as the idea of representation takes the front seat in cultural conversations of all sorts, undoubtedly the result of far-ranging movements like Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and Americans' disposition towards a fairer and more equal justice system.

"We're here, and we understand," the Dear Abbys of the world are telling us.

John Paul Brammer, who is Latino, for example, took his popular advice column ¡Hola Papi! from Condé Nast’s LGBTQ site Them, turned it into a book and now runs it on his own Substack platform. Dan Savage, on the other hand, focuses on sex advice in his nationally syndicated Savage Love column, which is also a podcast.

Some columnists themselves are advocating for the necessity of advice givers to be more diverse than the one-lane typecast we're used to. "There is something cultural going on about who we are willing to deputize in that role as advice giver,” says Green.

"The scope will expand," Peepas says. "There will need to be way more people who are not nice white ladies in cities with MFAs and a really good shoe collection."

Will we ever need as much advice as we’ve needed in the past 15 months? Probably. As intense as the navigational aid that we craved during COVID-19 has been, the world is still in perennial motion, orbiting around technological advances and cultural pursuits that humans will still feel overwhelmed by. And who doesn’t need a bit of help with life?

After all, we're not just looking for advice but for the sort of personal links that reinforce our sense of belonging. "We're here, and we understand," the Dear Abbys of the world are telling us. And that is the very best advice we could receive in times like these.