I Love Miss Manners: Advice Columns as a Cultural Microcosm

Reading advice columns, for me, is a window into our culture, and into the psyche of the people around me. I learn about the anxieties and fears people live with, and how they attempt to deal with them.

Mar 6, 2012 at 3:00pm | Leave a comment

I read advice columns. Lots and lots of them. I’ve never submitted anything to one, because I have plenty of real-life advisors who (mostly) keep me out of trouble, but there’s something about the advice column -- the agony aunt, the etiquette maven -- that I just love. I do always wonder about the selection process for letter writers though; presumably people write to the columnists they follow, but what if you follow more than one? Who do you choose to write to?

It’s partly the personal stories. Here these people are, writing in to a newspaper or magazine with these intimate pieces of their lives, broadcasting them to the public. Sometimes I wonder if they feel a twinge of nerves before dropping the letter in the box, or hitting “send” on their email accounts. No matter how many details are obscured, people must get identified from their advice column submissions.

And sometimes it seems like people actually want to be identified; they’d like the ability to leave the newspaper folded open to the right page, or casually leave the column up in their browser, for someone else in their house to find. I guess “Amy, close the toilet seat when you’re done” carries more weight when Ann Landers tells you to do it than when your partner says it for the 5,607th time.

I definitely prefer agony aunts to all others -- I’m not interested in gardening or home improvement advice columns, or the financial planning ones, although the bug identification one in The San Francisco Chronicle can be pretty entertaining.

I want to read people spilling their guts on the page so a professional will tell them it’s okay, even though a lot of advice columnists kind of fell into the gig. It’s not like you can get a Master’s in Advice-Giving. There’s a combination of psychology, sensitivity, and other skills I am sorely lacking involved in threading through each week’s submissions and deciding which ones to respond to.

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Miss Manners is my die-hard love, because, well, she’s awesome. What I love about Miss Manners is that she kind of breaks the mold when it comes to what people think of as being “polite.” She points out that actually, being intrusive and invasive is impolite, and while that doesn’t license you to be impolite back, you don’t have to sit there and take it, either. She’s the queen of the icy retort that, when viewed on its own, is unimpeachable, but is actually quite cutting.

It’s a reminder that all these fancy etiquette rules people have made up for themselves seem to apply solely to them; everyone needs to be nice to them, but they can do whatever they want. Au contraire, says Miss Manners -- the burden is on you to be polite, which includes respecting privacy and not saying things that are wildly inappropriate. And, she says, it's okay to be outraged now and then; you don't have to be an emotionless automaton. 

Dear Abby is a bit fussy for me these days, I admit. She’s got the doilies and too many cats and a tea tray with suspiciously hard cookies thing going on, and I can’t say I dig it. Either she’s reprinting inspirational letters from readers or offering pearls of wisdom that are about 40 years out of date. Every now and then, she hits one out of the park, and it’s like, woah, there’s an advice columnist hiding under there! Esther, dust the parlour!

She’s sort of this old-school tradition of advice columnists, where she’s not just answering letters but also issuing general advice for readers. I kind of imagine her hanging out at the general store, giving you a sharp glance over her glasses and randomly lecturing you on the perils of pantyhose. Despite my distaste, clearly she has a big following, which makes me curious to know if people find her oddly soothing, in a some-things-never-change kind of way. 

Dear Prudence, now, Prudie tries to be edgy and with the times, and sometimes she gives rock-solid advice. Other times, she makes me facepalm, and she seems to be leaning more in that direction these days. She’s got the nosy interventionist thing down pat, but hasn’t seem to have mastered the more delicate art of balance that Miss Manners has going on.

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While Prudence tends to deal with more adult and risque issues, she seems to have trouble with some things; especially mental illness and sexual assault. Given that history, sometimes I wonder if readers are writing in for a scolding, or for reinforcement of their self-righteousness. They want Prudie to tell them that their little sisters/neighbors/mothers have been Bad Girls who should be punished for doing things like having affairs with professors or falling in love with people much older than them. Or they want Prudie to take them over her knee for a spanking.

Hey, some people are into that! 

Ask Amy, now, she seems to revel in being judgey. People usually write her because they want to be reassured that their judginess is fully merited, and she often indulges them; if you’ve got selfish kids, she’s your gal, let me tell you. She’s also a total prude, so she’s particularly great if you want some good old fashioned ranting about sex, drugs, and rock and roll.

And of course there’s Miss Conduct, who is an absolute delight. I think she’s the closest successor to Miss Manners, because she’s really nailed the whole thing about how being polite includes not being a nosy Parker. And she’s particularly strong when it comes to the body, and issues surrounding bodies being in public, and asserting boundaries. Plus, she is screamingly funny. Seriously, if you don’t read her already, get to it.

This is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the myriad of people writing advice for fun and profit out there, and it's not even a complete list of the columns I check in with on a regular basis. 

Really, many people don't seem to be looking for advice, but an affirmation of what they already believe. They aren’t writing for advice on how to handle a brother’s rebellious children when they come over, they want assurance from an advice columnist that they can butt in on the brother’s parenting, for example. Or they don’t want advice on how to work with a wheelchair user; they just want to know it’s okay to ask intrusive questions about disability. And so forth.

The advice column seems to serve an important role in our society; a neutral third party arbiter who has no real stake in the outcome of the advice offered. And I think there’s something reassuring about that, whether you genuinely want advice or simply want to be told you’re right. There’s something nice about putting someone else in charge, giving that person the responsibility for making the decisions. Letting go.

Reading advice columns, for me, is a window into our culture, and into the psyche of the people around me. I learn about the anxieties and fears people live with, and how they attempt to deal with them. I watch the cultural norms shift, too, by looking through backlogs of advice to see how individual columnists, and the profession as a whole, have changed position on some issues. It’s a microcosm of the psychiatrist’s couch, put on display for all of us to watch; a public service, but what kind of service, exactly?

An assurance that you are not alone? Advice for situations you’re facing? A reinforcement of norms?

So, have you ever written in to an advice column? What was the outcome? And who are your favorite columnists? What do advice columns do for you? Are you an advice columnist yourself?