In a recent online column, a man wrote in to Emily Yoffe describing a particularly vexing pet peeve. Dear Prudence, he writes,
The situation with people answering cell phones and texting during movies is getting progressively worse…I’ve responded to serial offenders by tossing peanut M&M’s at them. In [the] two cases that the offenders said something…I feigned shock and responded with, “Oh, I’m sorry. I can’t imagine why it would distract you from your phone call during a movie.” Have I crossed the line?
In another recent column, an ecologically-minded woman wrote to Judith Martin asking her opinion on whether she had to forgo consideration for the environment to avoid offending a potential mate. Miss Manners, she writes,
I view it as wasteful to take my leftovers home in a container that frequently cannot be used again. My idea would be to take along a clean container inside a clean brown bag with string handles and discreetly hand it to the server along with my half-finished plate. Unfortunately, I tried this strategy without checking with you first and was lambasted by my dining companion, who described me as socially inappropriate. Is he right or am I?
As a quick perusal online will make clear, people have a penchant for publicizing strange things about their lives. And within the forum of an advice column, they not only admit to certain eccentricities, but often sordid dramas about their friendships, marriages, and families that reveal intimate details about the people involved. And their hope, in all earnestness, is that a one-paragraph response from an imperious looking middle-aged woman (advice columns are written almost solely by women) will solve their problem. Why is it exactly that anyone would write to a stranger for advice on a meddling mother-in-law, when family and friends are probably better equipped to offer solutions, knowing, as they do, the people involved in the conflict? And more importantly, why is a mass audience, who will probably never be pelted with M&M’s at the theater, interested in the resolution?
And yet almost every major publication carries at least two or three advice forums by columnists who encourage readers to send them their relationship woes and mother-in-law traumas, subject line: please advise. Audiences lap it up, and with good reason. There is the voyeuristic thrill in learning about other people’s intimate problems, and having a passive, enjoyable vehicle to observe and comment on how other people choose to live their lives. They provide an opportunity to test your own savvy as an advice-giver: Is this the best advice to give, and is this how I would go about solving the problem? And there is the off-chance that a reader will pick up a nugget of wisdom that is applicable to his own life, or learn something that will save him from his own potentially embarrassing social misstep. (Note to self: Don’t crochet a custom doggy bag for first dates.) But the most appealing feature of advice columns is that they give us reassurance that there actually is a correct way to proceed in any given situation, that there are discernible norms that govern social behavior, and they can be pared down into a newspaper-length column in an easy-to-follow, step-by-step fashion.
Publications devote plenty of space to columnists that make their living answering different, more specific questions: How do I save and invest my money; how do I make my cat stop peeing on my bathroom rug; what’s the healthiest way to drop 40 pounds? But these people are ostensibly experts in a field, and readers write to them because of their specialized knowledge. But does anyone really have specialized knowledge in dealing with Style section issues of “relationships, romance and more of life’s sticky issues,” which is how Carolyn Hax of the Washington Post bills her column?
Well, yes. The women who have penned some of the most sought-out advice (Emily Post, Judith Martin, Ann Landers and Abigail van Buren, and their successors) are experts in a kind of social history. Not only have they memorized (and written) tomes on etiquette, social mores, and cultural behavior, they are able to sort out the logic behind the traditional method, what about it is important to retain even in modern society, and how best to apply it. The reader of the advice column frequently doesn’t care about the specific solution to the problem. How often does someone come across a question in “Miss Manners” and think, “I have also been wondering about my psychological aversion to showing my elbows, and whether it is appropriate to wear long sleeves to a cocktail party”? Rather, what they are looking for in the response is more universal. Frequently, the advice-seeker is asking, “Are there rules governing this sort of thing or am I on my own?”
Take another recent “Miss Manners” column, in which a reader comes to her for advice on dating:
Do you have any “rules” for online dating that pertain to determining the person’s character and integrity before continuing the relationship? The whole Internet dating thing is scary to me and this incident makes me feel like my BS detector is broken. What is the real deal anymore? So many men seem to be just looking to hook up.
In her response, Miss Manners tells her gentle reader that she should avoid online dating: “While undeniably making it easier to meet great numbers of people looking for romance, it has, as you say, made an always risky venture even scarier…Before this method, people met through other people, whom they both knew…which offered certain protections.” The advice she is giving is not specific to online dating. The larger message is: Tread carefully where there are no cultural guidelines, and, where there are, follow them closely. According to Martin, since there is no way to socially vet potential romantic partners online, you should stick to the tried and true method of meeting people through socializing with your friends.
No doubt a significant portion of the readership will disagree with her ruling, the smiling newlyweds on eHarmony’s commercial for starters. But once rules are applied to these hazy and imprecise situations, and once the logic behind the tradition is laid out, it is easier for the reader to see what is at stake in his own situation—to see what it is that people have done before in such situations and why, and to determine whether or not he wants to continue these traditions. The advice columnist holds out the possibility that traditions are not simply arbitrary or unconscious, but that they have their reasons and that, in the end, we decide which ones still apply.
That advice columns are so popular as venues for articulating the guidelines and parameters that govern social behavior is an indication of how necessary they are. Americans are socially and geographically mobile, always negotiating the democratic tension between hierarchy and equality. They constantly find themselves in ambiguous social situations, and the impulse to impose rules to make their relations clear and predictable has found one of its greatest outlets in the advice column. In effect, advice columnists are contextualizing and re-affirming traditions for successive generations of readers even as the surface of social life changes dramatically.
This is why the columns seem to repeatedly come back to the same topics: relationships, wedding planning, social invitations, work/life balance, domestic issues. These are the themes that dominate our lives, and they are at the same time the ones most impacted by economic forces, social mobility, and the pull of egalitarianism. The reader seeking advice is usually not demanding a return to more traditional social values, but he does believe that there actually is a way—a correct way—to navigate between the twin dangers of undermining social order and adapting to change, and that Ann Landers knows what it is.
Indeed, the most successful columnists do not merely call for a return to the manners and morals status quo. Emily Yoffe recently received a question concerning the “hook-up culture” of the younger generation. The advice-seeker wanted to know if she could salvage her friendship with a boy she had begun hooking up with because it was damaging the dynamic of her group of friends. Yoffe began by giving the woman the traditional context of the situation: “A young man and woman get to know each other well, care for each other deeply, and then become physically intimate. It used to be that such a course of events often led to a state known as ‘falling in love.’” Yoffe then explains why an older understanding of romance might have prevented this situation, and could explain why the woman is unhappy: “You may not want to acknowledge it, but it sounds as if your sexual intimacy has stirred romantic longings in you. That’s a normal thing to feel, and it’s painful if not reciprocated.” And then she gives her advice, which retains the wisdom of tradition, deals with the current situation at hand, and gives the woman guidelines to apply to her future relationships: “If this young man is truly your friend, you should be able to discuss with him that this no-strings sex has hurt and confused you and that it’s hard to pretend it never happened…. it will be good practice for that looming next stage of your life.”
Advice columnists have taken on a difficult task under the unassuming, take-it-or-leave-it title of “advice.” That question about your co-worker clipping his toenails at work might seem trivial, even silly, but with their answers these writers are reminding an evolving society to stay civilized, serving as public arbiters of social rules, and breaking down generations of tradition into a daily column. Not too bad for a day’s work.
-Alexandra Squitieri is a writer living in D.C. and an avid reader of advice columns.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Kathlyn Ehl
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Jacob Hayutin