In Defense: Advice Columns

Why we find comfort in the soft, sticky, hidden parts of people that live in advice columns.


Advice columns are my guilty pleasure. I often hide and hoard this little hobby of mine because I get no shortage of grief about it, so sharing it here seems infinitely unwise. But it’s time I—we, fellow “Ask Amy” addicts and “Dear Prudence” patrons—came out of the darkness and announced our own furtive fetish: I love reading advice columns.

They’re so sexy and tawdry and deliciously voyeuristic! And why shouldn’t they be? These pieces mirror the best part of fiction: that intimate window into someone’s secret dilemmas, their behind-the-curtain lives, but with that compelling dose of reality that powers biographies and documentaries and Making a Murderer. I love the tantalizing adrenaline of spying camouflaged by the safety of my computer screen. I savor the sweet schadenfreude of knowing what other people did last night.

And the questions are all anonymous! Oh sweet anonymity, like a masquerade mask, cloaking the whole business in clandestine intrigue. Why must one write anonymously? Only because his secret is too extreme, too profound, too unimaginable to share with his loved ones. Or his lie is a crime to protect his closest family. Or it is a truth bubbling forth from a long-repressed place, clawing its way to the surface, threatening to upend his very existence. Or his co-worker is really being a douche about the shared fridge and the signs in the break room have totally failed. The answers are even better: sweeping, detailed, lengthy dissertations on our most-worried subjects, like marriage and family and abuse and sadness and change and children and self.

I read varied columns to luxuriate in their distinct voices: there’s “Ask Polly” (Heather Havrilesky), who dispenses heartbreak salves in a conversational, motherly tone, packing big problems into manageable plans with distance and deftness. There’s “Captain Awkward” (Jennifer Peepas), queen of tolerance and boundary-setting and scripting difficult conversations with difficult people. There’s the sadly-discontinued “Dear Sugar” (from Wild author Cheryl Strayed) advice-giver emeritus of long-form long-distance counseling, whose guidance was so profound and poetic it became the bestselling Tiny Beautiful Things. And there’s my personal favorite, “Dear Prudence,” whose comparatively-brief, straightforward, good-humored voice has magically transcended a recent hand-off from long-time Emily Yoffe to its new guru, Mallory Ortberg.

But most of all, the pleasure comes not from the judging or the lurking or the gloating, but from identifying with these strangers. It’s the comfort of seeing that everyone aches and obsesses and overthinks and underprepares. It’s hearing about imperfections, growing pains, concerns, regrets. It’s falling out of love and wondering whether people love you; it’s navigating how to be closer to some people and further from others. It’s guilt and lies and the so-true-truths-we-don’t-want-to-be-trues. It’s promises and loss and hopes and failures. It’s all the little things—the tiny beautiful things—that we get wrong, that make us human, that make us happy. It’s nice—so nice—to glimpse the soft, sticky, hidden parts of other people and know that you’re not alone.