I rarely admit this, though some of you know, I have a terrible weakness for advice columns. It started when I was a kid, reading Ann Landers in the newspaper everyday (and then Dear Abby when Canadian newspapers decided that the Landers column was too US-specific and switched the sisters – which was a bit of a downer since Landers was the marginally more progressive of the two). Although neither are writing any longer, the Dear Abby column does persist (written by “Abby’s” daughter now) and there are many more syndicated offerings out there on the Internet: Annie’s Mailbox, Dear Margo (written by Landers’ daughter), The Advice Goddess, Since You Asked, Dear Prudence and of course, Savage Love.
Daily, I read Dear Abby (out of long-time habit) and Since You Asked (not for the advice which is generally poor, but for the reader’s advice that floods into the letters section) – but on Thursdays I do the rounds of all – including Dear Prudence and Savage Love which only publish once per week. It’s the motherlode of advice days, and it always gets my mornings off to a later start than usual. I figure though, that as far as addictions go, this one is pretty damned harmless.
But it’s a strange one – yes? Wanting to read about the problems of others? Because the problems are far more interesting than the advice ever is. It’s the same impulse which fuels the watching of daytime talk shows with their endless misery parades. The need to feel superior over those whose problems you don’t share, or the need to be confirmed in the issues that you do share the odd time you stumble across a life somewhat like yours. Looking at the overwhelming letters that come into Since You Asked, the superiority/judgement impulse and the empathy response are about equally split among readers. Of course, this depends on the letter. Today’s letter about people who are having trouble keeping their house clean elicited far more judgement from readers than empathy.
I can admit to having both responses to the problems of others. It feels good to empathize, but it also feels good to judge – as both of these seem to indicate a security of place in the world. (Of course, we all know that judgement indicates a frailty of place more than anything – it just masquerades as strength). Of course there are much more benign motivations – curiousity, entertainment, a passive study of human response – but they aren’t the driving force that takes me back to these columns week after week.
Oh, the Internet – great facilitator of neuroses and angst – not to mention gossipy chatter. I’m just glad I’m not one of *those* people who feels the need to actually write to advice column. 😉