on the weirdness of writing an advice column, getting the other side of the story, and more

Part 2 of my roundtable at The Billfold with other advice columnists is here. (Part 1 is here if you missed it.) This time, we talk about the times acquaintances of letter-writers have contacted me with The Other Side of the Story, who we get advice from ourselves, how inherently weird it is to write an advice column, and more. Also, I get called a chiropractor for the human spirit, which I want on a t-shirt (or possibly my gravestone).

Head over there to read it!

Also, if you missed me on Second City’s podcast yesterday, you can listen to it here! (Or in iTunes here.)

{ 56 comments… read them below }

  1. Leatherwings*

    I love that you have trouble turning the advice columnist off, especially this line: “I WILL SOLVE IT FOR YOU, possibly against your will.”

    I’m definitely not a well-known advice columnist but I still always want to step in and solve things for people close to me and it’s something I have to be careful to reign in.

    Great read, thanks!

    1. CaliCali*

      I have the same problem. Personally, if I’m actually vocalizing a problem, I want a solution, so when other people are discussing their problems, I assume they do too! It’s a hard instinct to fight.

      1. Koko*

        Yeah, I think the disconnect happens between people who process problems mentally vs people who need to process them verbally.

        Not only do I rarely need to process my problems verbally, but due to my childhood experiences as the fixer/peacemaker in my family I’m deeply uncomfortable being vulnerable in front of others – and an unsolved problem is a vulnerability that you’re admitting.

        By the time I get to the stage of telling someone else about it, I’ve already given it a great deal of thought and decided on my course of action, so it no longer feels like a vulnerability – I’ve handled it and now it’s OK to talk about because I’m not exposing any weaknesses.

        The reason I’m sharing it with someone else is 1) to get it out of my head, the way singing an earworm can get it out of your head, and possibly 2) to get emotional sympathy for the fact that this problem befell me and I’m now having to enact some less-than-ideal solution.

      2. Formica Dinette*

        Same here. I don’t think I derive as much satisfaction from venting as many other people. Gimme solutions, damn it!

    2. Busybody Me*

      I, for myself, am an involuntary Personal Shopper! I constantly step in “oh, that looks great, why don’t you also get this…” or “no, don’t get that, you’d look much better in this.” No one wants it. I also am an involuntary Citizen Activist “excuse me, ma’am, that Hispanic lady has been asking you to help her. Senora, can I help you?” I have to rein myself in all the time. My worst was last week, my husband and I were going somewhere and my stomach took a bad turn, so we had to pull in somewhere so I could find a bathroom. Happened to be the Beverly Hills library (we live in Hollywood). I struggled out of the car to make the mad dash for the bathroom but saw an elderly Chinese couple, obviously tourists, looking bewildered and obviously lost, so had to stop and help them find their way back to the shopping area. My husband was sitting in the car laughing at me. My busybodying overcame even my dire stomach situation. By the way THEY WERE GRATEFUL, okay???? It was a Grandpa and Grandma and no one else was around!!!

  2. Lauren*

    I loved this second part, Alison, though the first was very good too. This is something I am going to remember so thank you for this, especially:

    It’s often a lot easier to tolerate crap bosses and crap jobs if you’re really clear-eyed about the reasons you’re there.

  3. Expected to pay more than my fair share*

    Carolyn Hax has at least once printed letters from both parties. While I don’t remember what it was about I’m belive it involved a husband and wife.

    1. fposte*

      At the same time? Cool, I missed that. I do remember (without specifics) a spouse or friend writing in later. The one I remember most is the woman who was convinced that she had married down and that her husband needed to do 100% of the work around the house as a result, and a friend wrote in to say that the wife was a nightmare :-).

      1. animaniactoo*

        “We just agree with you to shut you up”

        That letter will live on in infamy.

        I remember one joint husband-wife letter where one of the two wrote in for both of them, so there were some sentences like “He would really like me to stress that…” in it.

        I only remember two other incidents of flip side situation in the comments. One was the babysitting guy when the kid got into a mess in about 3 seconds flat while he was in the other room, and the girlfriend wrote in to the comments to defend him. The other was Mike who called himself a schmuck for not being as invested as his LD girlfriend was and wanting to break up with her, and they both ended up in the comments for awhile. Eventually they got married and stopped commenting.

      1. animaniactoo*

        To my memory it was about 4 years ago. Can’t remember the subject, so will be hard to find but I’ll see what I can do.

    2. Alison Read*

      I found it offensive that the host referred to those that followed Carolyn Hax as “right minded”. I guess those that don’t agree with her are all broken?

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        She said “Glad to know we’re all right-thinking Carolyn Hax fans.” We all like and agree with Carolyn Hax. That’s all. You’re reading way more into it than is intended.

    3. Jennifer*

      I think the one time you ever hear both sides of the story is if you listen to the Judge John Hodgman podcasts, where one “party” sends the other to a “case” where they both argue their cases to JJH and then he makes the decisions for them.

    4. Sarahnova*

      The Vine at Tomato Nation once had a guy write in saying that he was basically done with his long term relationship… and then a few days later there was a letter from his girlfriend, who found out she was dumped by reading the column.

  4. Aunt Vixen*

    The bit about being determined to avoid having to feel regret is golden – and right up Carolyn Hax’s street, too, as it happens. Best bit of advice I ever read from her is in an online chat from almost exactly 12 years ago (link to follow): “Awkwardness passes. Regret doesn’t.”

    1. Bigglesworth*

      I’ve never heard anyone else besides myself say living a life of no regrets is a guide for life. I love it!

      1. Artemesia*

        While I have regrets (don’t we all?) when I recently thought I was dying (we all are but mine was a false alarm for dying right now) I discovered that I don’t have a bucket list. I really feel like I have done what I wanted to do. The regrets I have are for dumbass things I decided when quite young and nothing to be done about them now, but the decisions made for the last 30 years or so are pretty much what I am happy to live with. It was enormously gratifying to discover this when I was facing doom. My oldest friend taught me to approach life as if it didn’t last forever and I have mostly done that; she unexpectedly died at 69 but when she knew the end was near also felt the satisfaction of having done what she wanted to do. So glad I listened to her and didn’t postpone the things I most valued.

    2. Businesslady*

      I’ve learned, though, that I have to be thoughtful about how I phrase that. Because a few times it’s gotten misinterpreted like “I refuse to reflect on my choices” or “everything I’ve ever done has been meticulously well thought-out,” and that’s…not the same perspective.

      The other day I was talking with some friends about whether we were optimists, pessimists, or realists, and I decided I’m a retrospective optimist–that even if something’s crappy now, it’s ultimately leading toward a net positive somehow.

      1. Bigglesworth*

        I can see why you would have to be careful how you phrase it. The way that I have described it to friends is that I think that if you learn from your mistakes and you make better decisions in the future because of that experience, then that mistake should not be looked at with regret – it ultimately helped you make better decisions in the future.

        I will be the first person to say that I have made mistakes in the past (Haven’t we all? :) ), but I try to learn from them. I can’t change the past and I don’t know what the future has in store, but I can change my choices in the present by learning from the past.

        Does that make sense at all?

        Does that make sense at all?

  5. Persephone Mulberry*

    This was GREAT. The first part was good, but this was GREAT. I loved how conversational it was, and now both AAM and Businesslady are on my Drinks With Broads* list.

    *Hat tip: H & J of Go Fug Yourself

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Ha, my husband would tell you that I’m not diplomatic AT ALL. His level of diplomacy is next-level shit. I’ve never seen anything like it.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Oh good lord, you all know how I feel about family businesses.

              That said, he is quoted in my answer to a letter tomorrow about vampires.

          1. Sarahnova*

            OK, your husband totally needs to guest here. (Also, as I seem to remember, he has awesome hair. :) )

      1. Jamie*

        I swear this is why I fell in love with your blog all those years ago…your open stance that being direct in and of itself isn’t rude. Being rude is rude, stating what you think in a civil way isn’t rude just because it’s not delivered in a compliment sandwich and that feedback doesn’t have to be delivered with with back-rubs and hot cocoa else one’s a bitch.

        Because that diplomatic thing? Pulling it off without weakening the message is freaking hard and I appreciated you stepping up to be the standard bearer for direct and civil.

  6. Ellie H.*

    I get SO much mileage out of just thinking through what the advice would be if I wrote into an advice column. I have written in here a few times though before I developed that level! I always get the impulse to write in to Dear Prudence (my favorite “general” advice column) but without fail I can tell what the answer would be. It’s such a good strategy, and writing your imaginary question in your head also really helps with assessing what is the actual core of a situation that is at stake.

    I also have this fantasy of having an advice column or podcast where I give one-word answers to questions based just on their headline, rapid-fire.

  7. Lady Blerd*

    I’ve just listened to your Second City interview and “yes and” is definitely something that I have been trying to do but it doesn’t come naturally. Sometimes even when the answer is no, I will soften it by saying that I would look it up just to be sure, that way the person will walk away feeling like they have been heard and yes I do follow up with the rules and regs that supports what I’m saying. I also try to explore other ways to look at a situation to see if there’s a different way to reach some kind of resolution. Heck sometimes it means giving in to what the person wants if it’s a minor issue that won’t have much of an impact over all or our work process.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I struggle with with it too! In the context you described, maybe sometimes it could be “yes, I totally see why you’d want that … and unfortunately we can’t do exactly X, but we can do Y.”

  8. Gene*

    Carolyn Hax instilled in me that you have to just be who you are, warts and all, when you’re dating,

    This made me laugh. When my wife and I first made contact online (back when it was rare, 20th anniversary of first meeting this month), emailing photos just wasn’t possible. So the first photo she saw of me was one that was taken halfway through a 200 mile bicycle ride; I was standing next to my bike, dripping sweat, in full cycling lycra. I wrote on the back, “See, not trying to hide anything.” She still has that photo.

  9. Mustache Cat*

    Ooh, I’m dying to know some of these other sides of the story! Maybe a future feature.

Comments are closed.