The other side of advice columns

I read a lot of advice columns. I love them. I’m not sure why, but I regularly read five or so advice columns a day, and have a few weekly ones I look forward to. One of the universal tropes of the advice column (and, I suspect, hard-to-solve problems humans generally experience) is what to do in a relationship that isn’t working. For example, perhaps there’s a friend who never pays their share of dinner, or is a complete downer, or says racist things. Often there is a two step solution: give them a chance to know what is wrong and change, and then if they are unwilling or unable, end the relationship. If the relationship in question is a family relationship, there’s usually a three part solution: warning, cutting down on exposure and cutting off. If there’s any abuse, the advice is pretty much always “leave now”.

I always wonder about the other side of that advice. I don’t know many people who know they are bad people. (Actually, in fairness, I don’t know many bad people at all.) But I suspect that these other people — the mooch, the depressing, the racist, the abusive… that’s not how they see themselves. Instead, from their point of view, they might be the clueless, the one the world treats unfairly, the funny joker, the person who others have always wronged who has to be careful not to get hurt again.

For example, recently Annie had a couple write in asking why no one ever came to their parties. “What is wrong with other people that they don’t come?” the message implies. For the next 2 weeks, nearly every column has run a list of reasons: out of control pets, out of control children, messy homes, unlikeable personalities, racist jokes… this person is on the other side of countless advice givings that ask “Why do you spend time with people you don’t enjoy?”

This raises two conundrums for me. First, what do I not know about myself? How often have you told someone why you REALLY don’t see them anymore? “I’m sorry, but you’re too negative and you get me down every time I’m around you” isn’t something we say. Or “Every time I’m with you we end up gossiping and I feel ashamed of myself later”. Or “With everything you say about everyone else, I wonder what you say about me”. Or “Your conversation is equal parts awkward pause and awkward discussion.” Instead, we’re busy, or take too long to get back to someone. But I happen to know for a fact that I am not perfect (I know! Please, moderate your surprise.) What do my friends put up with anyway? What encourages people to keep ME at arms’ length that I do not know about and might not be able to control if I did?

The second issue is what happens even if you are self aware. Imagine that you’re 30 or so, intelligent and perceptive, and just not fun to be around. You look deep inside, and discover that yes. You are not a fun person. People don’t enjoy spending time with you. You get in fights with people a lot and end up hurting feelings. So you have tried to change… but it’s almost impossible to act contrary to your nature all the time. You get tired, under pressure, tempers run high and you can’t be who you are not. And things blow up. What then?

The essay I wrote, lo these 15 years ago, to get into college was a discussion of my finite right to be proud of who and what I am. I am as much a product of my genetics and environment as every other human: the jailed drug addict, the self-centered jerk, the runaway prostitute. To the degree their responsibility for their current lot is mitigated by their circumstances so, in fairness, is mine. I got lucky. I didn’t screw it up, granted, but I got really lucky in order to be who and what I am. It is through no merit of my own that I don’t seem disposed towards depression, or get along well with people, or can follow directions. I think I’ve done a decent job in those circumstances where my free will stood me in front of two paths, but there’s always been a good path I was capable of following.

I’ve never come up with a satisfactory “then what”. I try to remember this, when I deal with the congenitally unpleasant — especially when it seems like they are trying their best to make the most of the hand they’ve been given.

What do you think? How do you deal with people who just aren’t fun to be around? Do you suspect you’ve ever been on the other side of this dynamic?

BONUS:
For your reading pleasure, here are the regular advice columns I read

Dear Abby the archetypal advice column, in its second generation. Expect to see lots of PSAs, advice to go to counselling, and horrors about modernity.
Annie’s Mailbox is almost identical to Dear Abby. One of my favorite moments was when they simultaneously answered two different sides of the same dispute.
Carolyn Hax is a more modern, informal style. She tends to ask more questions, and has a slightly longer format, which is nice.
Since You Asked the writer is currently on medical leave for cancer treatment. I usually only read the problems (which are largely unedited and novella length) since I find his answers wishy washy and annoying.
Dear Prudie is probably the best of the lot. She has enough space (unlike the news paper columnists) to really address issues, rarely goes down the “talk to a qualified professional” route, and usually has an interesting perspective which I may or may not agree with. There’s a fun chat on Mondays, a weekly advice video, and a column on Thursdays.
ETA:
Advice Smackdown. How could I forget it? I love everything Amalah writes. This one goes between serious, important, and makeup-related. She would totally be my choice for moisturizer conundrums, but is the sort of writer who can make moisturizer hilariously funny.

Am I missing any good ones?

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5 thoughts on “The other side of advice columns

  1. I too love advice columns! I like the Boston Globe’s Miss Conduct. It focuses on etiquette, but the questions often bring up larger issues. I also love Dan Savage, who does a sex advice column, but he’s not for the faint of heart.

    I sometimes read Ask Amy (she is a panelist on Wait Wait), but I’ve been turned off since she offered a dose of victim blaming to a woman who had been raped at a frat party.

    Sometimes Cary Tennis at Salon is pretty good.

    Like

  2. I’ve been wondering recently how to deal with a downer of a friend, but I realize that to some extent – perhaps a great extent – the things I dislike about her are the exact same things that others might think of me. Sometimes I think the things we dislike about others are traits we actually dislike about ourselves.

    Like

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