the weird world of writing an advice column

Over at Buzzfeed today, I joined Daniel Ortberg of Dear Prudence, Jolie Kerr of Ask a Clean Person, Jennifer Peepas of Captain Awkward, Nicole Cliffe of Care and Feeding, and Harris O’Malley of Dr. Nerdlove in a roundtable about writing advice columns.

We talked about weird letters, whether we give advice to family/friends, how to get your letter answered, the letters that stay with us, and more. You can read it here. (Be warned that it contains adult language and topics.)

{ 179 comments… read them below }

    1. MusicWithRocksInIt*

      Would 100% watch this sitcom. Where they all live together or work out of the same space and banter about answering questions. I need more of this in my life.

    2. designbot*

      Same! Also I think I recognize you, from one of the other columns’ comment sections. I’ll slink away and stop sounding like a stalker now…

    3. Wakeens Teapots LTD*


      ** swoon ** I will prolly read it 100x. **swoon**

    1. Sloan Kittering*

      did not realize anyone was reading my novel length real person transfigurative work!! (Just kidding!)

  1. Nicole Cliffe Fan*

    I read this linked from Nicole Cliffe’s Twitter and OMG I did not know how much I needed this delight in my life.

    1. Elizabeth Proctor*

      Nicole Cliffe’s twitter is everything. When she took a twitter hiatus, life was dark.

      1. Tara S.*

        Her twitter feed is so prolific, it’s always a target when I’m trying to cut down on my internet time, but ultimately I always end up with “this brings me too much joy to stop.”

  2. Murphy*


    I wasn’t familiar with Care and Feeding, but I’m now sold on it because the complete (absolutely correct) answer to one of her letters is “Give up. These people are assholes.”

    1. Lynca*

      Care and Feeding is one of my favorite advice columns for EXACTLY THAT REASON. There are real gems in there.

    2. Ann O'Nemity*

      Isn’t a wonderful to discover a new column you love? I have a fantastic time combing the archives. It’s like finding an awesome show on Netflix that’s been around for years but you’ve somehow never seen it before.

        1. Elemeno P.*

          Yes!! I only discovered The Toast toward the end, and I was so bummed that I didn’t know about it earlier. What a fantastic site.

      1. PizzaPizza*

        I would strongly reccomend following her if you are on twitter. She creates the best conversations.

      2. media monkey*

        do i have to join slate (and pay) to read her? she sounded great and i want to know more about the child who lost fingers but it won’t let me!

        1. Kelly AF*

          Some of the advice column stuff is for Slate Plus members only (and I pay the 35 dollars a year for that alone – serious advice-column junkie here) but most is not behind the paywall.

          1. media monkey*

            thanks – i had never had that before. i don’t read enough on there to pay for it sadly!

    3. MusicWithRocksInIt*

      Nicole is the best parenting advice columnist I have ever come across. Lookout though – there are actually two people who take turns answering care and feeding. Nicole is better.

      1. Astrid*

        I would respectfully disagree – I think Nicole and Carvell are both excellent columnists (what a great problem to have – an overabundance of talent). BTW, Carvell’s description of the time he spent with his mother at the end of her life brought tears to my eyes (and made me look at my parent’s decision to host my dying grandfather in a new light).

      2. Dz*

        Carvell advised a parent to institutionalize and legally wash their hands of their teenage son for what honestly sounded like run-of-the-mill teenage boundary-testing and assholery. Honestly the parent sounded like a control freak. I was shocked that Carvell was basically like “This 15-year-old is an addict, dump him at the nearest jail” for the crimes of smoking pot ONCE and sneaking out. Made me wonder if he edited the worst behavior out of the letter (which wouldn’t make sense) because otherwise… wow.

      1. mr. brightside*

        OMG and then I scrolled down to the step-grandfather who wants the kids to go to foster care rather than look after them 3 days a week (when his wife has already precooked all the meals, too), good god my blood pressure can’t handle this, flames on my actual face.

    4. Forking great username*

      Yes, love Nicole! She actually answered a letter from me that day too – bonus to her needing more letters to answer is that the odds of yours being answered is super high! Haha.

      She did cut it for length, and then a bunch of the commenters were asking questions/making assumptions that would have been answered/corrected without that cut. But I am a pretty lengthy writer, haha.

    5. Indigo a la mode*

      I don’t even have kids and I’m completely in love with her column! She is hilarious. I want to get dinner with her.

    6. mr. brightside*

      OK, now I need to check this one out. I’d never heard of that column until reading the slate article!

  3. Amber T*

    I can’t google what a “drilldo” is at work and my imagination is too wild. I don’t think I ever needed to know that word! #dyingontheinside

      1. hayling*

        It’s delightful! There’s a podcast and also a column that has been on several platforms (The Hairpin, Jezebel, Deadspin, among others). She also writes for a ton of other outlets including NY Times (but it’s a little more SFW content).

      2. Temperance*

        It’s great, but fair warning, some of the best questions are really gross. I read her book, and freaking yikes, lol.

      1. Amber Rose*

        I was kind of hoping it wasn’t.
        The wide wide world of sex toys is just… too strange for me. All power to anyone who isn’t intimidated by such things but I am not one of them.

        1. Database Developer Dude*

          Speaking as someone who’s worked in network security before, you can look it up on Amazon at work safely. Your browsing history will show up as first, and beyond that, unless there’s a LOT of Amazon activity, and it’s against your firm’s policy, no network admin has the time to go scouring your history….

          1. Amber T*

            But then Amazon will remember I searched for it and start recommending it to me LOL. That’s just what I need, to show my mother something on Amazon and have that come up as a recommended item or item viewed recently. But good to know I can look up all sorts of weird stuff on Amazon at work and work can’t really see it!

      1. Bowserkitty*

        So would you say the Clean person is actually…Dirty….?

        I’ll just show myself out now, that was too cheap.

  4. H.C.*

    Dream come true – though I wished BuzzFeed had one query that you’d all tackle (either together or separately)

    1. Sloan Kittering*

      ZOMG that would be so interesting, especially if each writer handled it differently. But I assume, to paraphrase Tolstoy, good advice is all alike :D Boundaries and communication, lather and repeat!

    2. blackcat*

      Dear Columnists:
      I own my own office, and it has white carpet. An employee, Sansa, brought her child to work, and the child pooped everywhere. Our admin, Arya, does general cleaning. I asked Sansa to clean instead, since it was her child. But Sansa has refused, but instead said her husband would come in and do it. Arya and I can’t stand the husband, and there’s still poop everywhere. What do I do?

    3. Cassandra*

      I’m trying to think of a question that would be in all the columnists’ wheelhouses. It’s not… exactly… easy?

      I think Duck Club (and cleaning up its… er… leavings) might come closest.

    4. Fuzzy Lady*

      “My coworker brings their messy children to work, and I’m in love with the coworker”

  5. Alfonzo Mango*

    I love advice coloumns- I remember reading them in newspapers and my mother’s magazines as a kid. Thanks for being part of that great crew!

  6. Corky's Wife Bonnie*

    I love how you told Jolie that she’ll regret you sending letters over to her, hahahahaha!!!!

    1. Murphy*

      I sort of want to know how many bathroom letters there really are? (And also why? Why can’t people just put things where they need to go, clean up, and get out?)

      1. Sloan Kittering*

        Captain Awkward has also had some bathroom-adjacent letters that are really eyebrow raising too! Apparently it’s the one thing we all need advice about :P

        1. Ann O'Nemity*

          I think it’s because certain topics are a bit verboten. It can be easier to ask a stranger than bring it up with someone you know.

          1. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain*

            That sounds about right. I imagine that people are thinking that once you get past the toilet training age, you should no longer have questions and people don’t even realize they have a bad habit until someone points it out to them. Hygiene questions in general are tough for people to ask…and to answer…because of the sense of shame that they should just magically know all of this already.

            1. Murphy*

              Oh yeah, to be clear, I’m not wondering why people have bathroom questions! I’m sort of wondering what gross situations people are putting their co-workers/employees in. Like wondering why people do things like men using the women’s bathroom only for pooping, make people use the bathrooms without flushing while the water is out, leave things on the walls, etc.

              1. Not this time*

                Leave suspiciously brown butt prints on the back of the toilet seat, sometimes with shed hairs. And then try to argue they’re “sweat stains,” which, even if true, eww.

              2. Miss Wels*

                I would just like to know why it is so hard for someone to wipe their pee off the seat when they’re done or why they can’t ensure the toilet is fully flushed before they exit the stall.

      2. fposte*

        My theory: 1) we get taught to handle ourselves but not to check to make sure we have, in wilderness terms, “left no trace”; and 2) a lot of people are sufficiently grossed out by any shared toilet that they’ll leave traces sooner than touch the thing to clean it.

        1. Cyrus*

          Makes sense. Also: 3) This is primarily a column about workplace situations. Homes are homes. Rich peoples’ and neat peoples’ homes are generally nicer, but still, the person cleaning the bathroom is generally an amateur, one of the people who gets it dirty, and in the same family as everyone else who does. There’s actually a lot more variety in workplace restrooms, from literal portapotties to the bathroom at, I don’t know, some fancy 5-star hotel or restaurant. Also a lot more variety in hygiene between co-workers than there is within most households.

    2. MusicWithRocksInIt*

      I found it super amusing because she had just said she didn’t want to tackle questions where you need to make someone else clean/pick up after themselves. And oh boy, she has no idea. I can imagine Allison laughing maniacally to herself.

  7. The Bimmer Guy*

    Yesssssss! You and Daniel are two of my favorite advice columnists. I can’t wait to read this.

  8. CaliCali*

    If only I could craft the perfect question that would somehow speak to each person’s area of expertise so they could come together like an advice-columnist Voltron and answer me

    1. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain*

      That would be a pretty disturbing question though — disfunctional relationships, sex, children, work, and a mess to clean. It’s probably best that they don’t overlap much.

      1. Kitrona*

        I was scrolling through and reading quickly, and thought you’d said “Church”, but that could encompass all of those subjects…

  9. TJ Morrison*

    “For people who aren’t Alison, do you frequently get updates from LWs?” It’s so sad that the others don’t get updates like we do here. I Love updates.

    1. Marion Ravenwood*

      I wrote to Captain Awkward a couple of years ago and her reply ended up being really helpful. The Buzzfeed article has prompted me to write an update for her, although I haven’t sent it yet.

  10. Où est la bibliothèque?*

    RE: fakes–does anyone remember when Dear Prudence (the old one) got pranked with a letter that turned out to be the plot of the music video from ‘Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry”?

    1. Mirea*

      I remember. That was Awesome! It was awhile ago though. Was that Daniel or Emily Yoffe as Prudence?

    2. Mirea*

      I also remember a letter to Dan Savage that was lifted from the song “Sad Eyes”. He answered it earnestly so I don’t believe he realized what it was. I don’t imagine that sappy 70s pop ballads were his thing.

  11. Lena Clare*

    This was great, but also slightly disturbing.

    I do like Captain Awkward and Doctor Nerdlove but I find them heartbreaking sometimes so I limit how much time I’m on their blogs. Their answers kind of confirmed that for me.

    My eyebrows nearly disappeared off my face with the “am I the new Bill Cosby?” and “my 2 year old daughter lost two of her fingers when she was at my mom’s and now my husband won’t let her be alone with my mom” ones.

    1. AnotherAlison*

      I am a minimal reader of other advice columns, but I have to do the same kind of limiting with Dateline and forcing myself not to read about whatever tragic accident has befallen some child in the ol’ newsfeed. You start to wonder if my life is the outlier and most people are actually insane.

    2. That Girl From Quinn's House*

      Missing Fingers Mom submitted that to multiple columnists, too! Nicole and Carvel both answered it separately at Slate, and Carolyn Hax answered it in her syndicated column.

      1. CDM*

        The Carolyn Hax version I read merely said the child was injured. The severity of the actual injury makes a wee bit of a difference here. I was thinking, “well, the child is older now and should be better able to keep herself out of trouble” when I read it. Husband seems much more reasonable (and wife somewhat less so) with the added information.

        1. animaniactoo*

          I used to be a regular CH reader (tech issues with the commenting section had me fall back, and now so many more comments as well make it harder to keep up with), and I caught that one – it did discuss the missing digits. Because the comments up and down the board were “EXCUSE ME, YEAH ACCIDENTS HAPPEN BUT….” and people who devil’s advocate said it might have happened under anyone’s watch.

          Me, I was over on the path of “Okay, there is something wrong here that your husband was so against it before that happened and you’re not explaining why he was resistant in the first place. Or what the accident was. Whose interests are you looking out for here… because if it’s making mom happy, well your daughter needs you to be looking out for HER interests, not your mom’s.” Cuz, you know, she only has so many more fingers… (I didn’t say it like that, but it was the gist of it.)

          1. CDM*

            That’s why I said “the version I read” – with syndication you never know what was edited or cut off in error or cut to meet space constraints.

            I was deliberately not making the assumption that CH chose to leave out that information, and you confirmed that I was correct to not make that assumption. That detail was lost somewhere later in the syndication route.

    3. Ann O'Nemity*

      I feel the same way about Captain Awkward. It has taught me so much about relationships and communication. Some of the answers and even the comments (ie Evil Bees) have changed the way I view things. BUT it’s also depressing to read too much of it, and I’ll go long periods without reading it at all.

      Ask a Manager, on the other hand, I can read every day. Reading this blog makes me a better employee and a better manager, but it doesn’t bum me out in the same way Captain Awkward can.

      1. Indigo a la mode*

        I agree. AAM has an upbeat vibe (even though the nature of an advice column is complaints and concerns), a truly wonderful commentariat, and surprising range for a specifically workplace-related column. Even the truly outrage-inducing letters are still palatable and often entertaining.

        It’s hard to read a lot about the kind of heartbreaking, gut-wrenching life struggles that appear in other advice columns.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          Alison sets a “yes, you can and here’s how to do it” tone.
          I think work questions lend themselves well to overcoming challenges. Life questions not so much. Bad job? Leave it. Bad life? You’re stuck until things change.


          People stuck in a bad job can find their lives impacted in extraordinary ways such as poor health and sagging personal relationships. Alison gets the couples/friends/families BEFORE they are really pounding each other because one of them has a toxic job and that person’s whole well-being is tanking.
          This is the type of help our society needs we need to get away from “well, you should know” and move to “here’s how to do this”. Some problems go wildly out of hand and it’s so preventable.

          A friend was recently telling me about their friend. This woman was married to an X. (I don’t want to say the job because the work itself is not my point). He was an X for 30 years. He drank every night. He verbally and physically abused this lady. Finally he died from his alcoholism.
          People lose their gauge. They stop realizing how toxic their workplace is. They bring in substitutes for the pain, upset, and chaos. They feel powerless because their job swallows them whole. Families can be very helpful by bringing resources such as AAM that talks about these topics. The man in this story lost his life twice, once to alcohol and again in passing away at an early age.
          Alison knows that we as a society can do better than this. And we must.

          1. Indigo a la mode*

            Thank you for this super insightful comment – that’s exactly what’s happening here. I really loved reading this.

  12. anonymouse*

    That was an ice cream sundae of an article, and the cherry on top was the person who send Prudie the Venture Brothers letter ‘fessed up and apologized in the comments.

  13. ZSD*

    I hadn’t heard of Dr. Nerdlove before. In just this discussion, he taught me the term para-social relationship. And now I realize I have para-social relationships with…Alison Green, Daniel Ortberg, and Nicole Cliffe.

    1. MadLori*

      Dr. Nerdlove is GREAT, he tackles a lot of toxic masculinity issues and Nice Guy issues, especially in the geek community where they are soooo prevalent.

  14. Nancy*

    I was trying to find the complete story about the two year old who lost fingers (Care and Feeding, the link required a subscription to read the entire article) and found it by googling the entire first paragraph in Carolyn Hax in the Detroit Free press with a later date. Have you ever had another columnist present one of your questions as their own? (Or are the Care and Feeding people also the Carolyn Hax people?

      1. Nancy*

        I have to say I have tried reading Evil HR Lady, and while the content is good, the site itself is a little confusing. I find your site much easier to read and navigate. Maybe that is just because I have been reading your site for a while but I really don’t think so. I don’t remember thinking the same about yours when I first started reading it.

      2. Yvette*

        Do you think that submitting their questions to multiple places might be a sign that a letter is fake? That someone is submitting it on a bet or a dare to see if they can get someone to answer it or multiple people to respond?

        1. Elsajeni*

          I’d definitely be more suspicious of a question that already seemed really out-there if I also knew it had been submitted to multiple advice columns, especially unrelated ones — like, sending the same question to Alison and Evil HR Lady makes sense! Sending the same question to Alison and to Care & Feeding… might make sense, if it’s a really specific type of question, or it might just suggest that you’re sending it to everyone you can think of to try and get a reaction. But I also think it’s pretty common just to send a question multiple places, just because you know your odds of being answered at any one column are low, or you sent it to one person a while ago and are giving up on them and trying someone else, or you’re just desperate.

        2. Iris Eyes*

          I think it is more likely that they are hunting for the one person who will agree with them. 9 people might call them a fool but if they can find 1 person who agrees that’s enough for them.

    1. MLB*

      I miss Carolyn Hax. I understand why online news sites are charging for reading their stuff, but it was the ONLY thing I read on the Post, so I’m not paying for a subscription :-(

    2. Antilles*

      Have you ever had another columnist present one of your questions as their own?
      There’s actually a podcast whose entire theme is doing this – they pick out questions/answers from various advice columns (with appropriate credit), their opinion on the advice offered, and how they would have answered similarly/differently.

          1. mr. brightside*

            +1 The Bad Advisor was the wonderful ice cream dessert after you read a question like “why is my daughter a terrible person and how do I make her stop”.

    3. HBucket*

      If you follow enough different advice columns long enough you will see that fairly often. Don’t ask me how I know…..

  15. Seifer*

    I just love that all y’all know each other. It is amazing, and you should all just run the world.

  16. LD'S Mom*

    Okay, this one is going to keep me from getting any work done (at my job!) for hours, possibly days! You click on a link and suddenly you’re lost in the throes of the other advice columnist forever!

  17. amy*

    This was great! I loved that of course Jolie Kerr is the only one with a super organized (clean!) system for her letters. :)

  18. Mimi Me*

    Reading this has been a joy. Thank you for this!
    Also…I don’t see a lot of work getting done this month as I dig deeper into these archives!

  19. Minocho*

    Thank you for this.

    Will the office bathroom questions that are guest-answered be featured on this site?

  20. frinn*

    I loved this article and discovered two new advice columns because of it. Thank you for sharing!

    1. starsaphire*

      Late comment, but I have been bingeing the Ask a Clean Person podcast since about three nanoseconds after I left my last comment here…

      Hooked. I am hooked. :)

  21. Yami Bakura*

    Now I kinda want Allison and Linkara to switch for a day.

    Allison reviews Frank Miller’s All-Star Batman and Robin from the standpoint of Crazy Steve’s workplace incompatibilities with his fellow superheroes. Linkara hosts a panel with Pollo, Nimue, Dr. Linksano, Muarte, and Harvey Finevoice.

        1. Yami Bakura*

          Good point. Was tired last night.

          I was thinking she’d probably give a workplace-friendly discussion of harsh video game industry conditions.

  22. Even Steven*

    Wow! It’s like SuperFriends! How soon do we get action figures? I wanna collect the set!! What a delight to hear a round table chat with all of my favorite advisors. Alison, you are part of a wonderful group. Thank you for all you do.

    1. Indigo a la mode*

      OMG advice guru funko pops!! I would absolutely keep an Alison funko on my desk to remind me to use my words and be direct.

    1. Bowserkitty*

      Also, reading this and another old post of yours reminds me that I LOVE when you acknowledge that the advice you’re giving isn’t the advice you necessarily want to give, but the advice that societal norms suggest you give (like the gal asking if she should be taking birth control at her desk, or the engineer asking if she could use a face mask during lunch). It’s pretty refreshing.

  23. EA*

    I’m curious – was this an in-person conversation, or a conference call, an email chain, or something like a slack conversation?

    One of the other blogs I read does a regular feature where one of the writers picks a topic, they discuss it in their slack channel, and basically copy/paste the results as an article. Complete with Slackbot adding random responses/emojis/what have you.

      1. JLCBL*

        Neat! I couldn’t have guessed — I love that your voices all came out so distinctively and the responses were so charmingly conversational that I could picture you all in once place (and think, how much I wanted to be there!)

        1. Cacwgrl*

          Right?!?! I loved every bit of it. I would pay so much money to listen to these geniuses with a nice bottle of wine!

  24. Kitrona*

    thank you! I love advice columns and I’ve read mostof the archives of everywhere but here (I’ve gotten to 2014) and I’m always on the lookout for more. This will give me something to do while my separated right shoulder heals! (Thank goodness for tablets, wonderful girlfriends, and the Samsung S-pen not hurting my shoulder to write with! Separated dominant shoulder sucks, y’all, -3/10, would not do again, especially since I can’t use a mouse right now…)

  25. Kat Em*

    Oh my gosh, this whole things was amazing. I really want to watch a documentary about y’all now.

  26. Cacwgrl*

    I am such a child… You said adult language and topics and I cracked my fingers in glee before I clicked the link. My morning is officially full.

  27. Michaela Westen*

    “someone who was being constantly verbally abused by a coworker, and her company knew and just didn’t care.”
    That was my mother. When I was a teen she took in roommates, and one of them was constantly giving me hell. I begged, cried, pleaded with her for months before she got rid of him.
    This made it very clear she didn’t really care about me. I hope this OP got out, and is very firm about any kind of abuse going forward.

  28. TooTiredToThink*

    Oh…. I’m glad I could finally read this cause I’ve discovered a few new columns I need to check out!

Comments are closed.