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The Power of the Advice Columnist

From Benjamin Franklin to Quora, how advice has shaped Americans’ behavior and expectations of the world.

Orlando / Three Lions / Getty Images

“Most so-called serious writers diagnose but never prescribe,” Jessica Weisberg writes in the preface to Asking for a Friend, a history of public advice-giving in the US. “A memoirist might probe her own experience with mourning for her readers’ benefit, but she’s unlikely to offer explicit instructions.” Plenty of serious writers are comfortable prescribing for a society; they just don’t prescribe for individuals. Even if they feel they have the right to dispense their wisdom, in most cases, such entitlement is a disqualification.

Nation Books, 320pp., $27.00

What has qualified advice columnists isn’t knowledge, but something more like a projectable bedside manner that stops people from bristling at their instruction. This is part of why the practice might feel so useless to a reader today. Generally, the advice columnist is at best a topical solution to the problem that nobody has the answers. At worst, they buttress the structures that cause readers’ problems in the first place—for a nation struggling to navigate a brutal health care system, for instance, Dr. Oz provides the feeling of access to a trustworthy doctor who cares.

Weisberg’s subjects are columnists, self-help magnates, life coaches, and kind retirees with an internet connection, from Benjamin Franklin to Ann Landers to a prolific Quora contributor named Michael King. They represent a range of attitudes and approaches, and an eclectic, though limited range of experiences: “aside from Oprah, who politely declined to be interviewed for this book, mass-market life advice is still largely dispensed by white people,” Weisberg writes, and with a few exceptions, the marquee advice-givers featured are straight, cisgender, and were born in the US. Beyond that, what they have in common is the fact that, through selling millions of books and being syndicated in hundreds of newspapers, they’ve “become the arbitrary authors of social rules, helping readers decide what is required of them.”

Not all of them have any expertise, much less in the fields they advise on, but their work, Weisberg argues, offers a uniquely direct window onto American emotional needs throughout the country’s history. Starting with the Athenian Mercury—a London publication that invited readers to submit anonymous questions to a secret society of experts (consisting, in fact, of the publisher, two of his brothers-in-law, and a guy who was maybe a doctor)—anonymity has been a technology of sorts that allows for a public record of what people actually care about.

Advice givers, Weisberg writes, serve an important social function: some give advice that passes into collective wisdom, on childcare (Dr. Benjamin Spock) or personal finance (Sylvia Porter). Even when their content amounts to fluff, they offer empathy and reassurance, if not necessarily broader solutions for the problems their readers consult them with. Though blockbuster advice-givers have exerted a huge amount of influence in shaping the attitudes and opinions of audiences, the practice itself, as Weisberg notes, seems inherently conservative. There’s a perception that helping individuals and helping society are contradictory goals: “Advice, stereotypically, is meant for the individual seeking a competitive advantage in business or love.” But matters of how people treat one another are linked, of course, to deeper moral and political dynamics. Advice givers, at their best, can attempt to fold together the micro and macro—helping readers pay meaningful attention to other people, and distilling issues that can seem abstract, or like matters of opinion, to matters of human dignity. 

Benjamin Franklin, writing as Poor Richard, dispensed advice for a polity: He thought that making his readers more virtuous would benefit American society. Weisberg deftly connects this notion to the more recent work of Martha Beck, a high-paid life coach, bestselling author and O Magazine columnist with a PhD in sociology, who trades in the dubious notion that self-optimization is in society’s best interest. Visiting Beck’s California ranch, Weisberg watches her film a promotional video in which she pours blue water over a pyramid of sugar cubes, which is meant to symbolize the dissolution of hierarchies and the emergence of an enlightened society. The cubes on the bottom dissolve first, collapsing the rest, Beck explains, because “they are made of inclusion and love.” 

Beck can seem to embody some of the worst stereotypes about self-help, but Weisberg is generous with her subjects, and her scope is wide-reaching: She tackles sixteen profiles with surprising coherence. Each chapter has the clarity and clip of a well-produced podcast episode (she worked as a producer on Serial), and she has an instinct for details that sit memorably askance from the narrative and catalyze interest. She reports a marriage counseling workshop organized by Harville Hendrix and Helen Hunt, and provides a characterization of celebrity therapist Mildred Newman worthy of a biopic, but the subjects most central to her account are the canonical advice columnists of the 20th century: Dorothy Dix (Elizabeth Gilmer), whose column ran from 1896 to 1950, and was read by 60 million people at the height of her fame; and estranged twins Abigail Van Buren, or “Dear Abby” (Pauline Phillips) and Ann Landers (Eppie Lederer), who, by 1965, were carried in 700 and 638 newspapers, respectively.

Dix’s legacy, Weisberg writes, was “half a century of persistent emotional labor.” She listened and responded to readers in pain, and her consolation took the form of a highly compassionate fatalism: She told readers to adjust to their suffering, while reassuring them they were not alone—suffering was an immutable fact of life, for women especially. At a time when women were unable to vote, effectively barred from most professions, and largely unable to access birth control or obtain a divorce, she might remind a reader that cruel husbands were their lifelines, but publicly regret the fact. Her straight talk, combined with her attention, was a balm. In their study of Middle America in the 1920s, the sociologists Robert Staughton Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd found that her advice columns were perhaps the “most potent single agency” in “shaping the habits of thought” in the Indiana town where they had embedded.

Ann Landers and Dear Abby were less severe, but more conservative in their approach. They wrote their columns from the mid ’50s onward, but their popularity peaked during the cultural schisms of the 1960s, when many readers were scrambling to understand, if not exactly keep up with, the changing times. “The position of an advice columnist, as they both defined it, was an inherently centrist one,” Weisberg writes—their job was to find a cultural equilibrium, no matter how wildly the country seemed to tilt: “They weren’t interested in what was right; they were interested in what was normal.” What was normal to them was handed down by law and custom. At the start of their careers, Weisberg writes, they publicly disapproved of interracial marriage and divorce; by the end they may still have privately disapproved, but their social barometers had liberalized accordingly.

Landers and Dear Abby intended to serve their readerships: “Back then, people wanted to blend in,” Jeanne Phillips, who took over Dear Abby for her mother officially in 2002, told The Atlantic. “What they wanted to do was be the best American they could be, and that’s how the column evolved.” But their mode of help, of course, re-inscribed the norms that hurt so many in the first place. Dix was more progressive: She was a suffragist who openly supported women’s causes, and even floated the idea of wages for housework, 50 years before Silvia Federici. But “she was far too cynical to advocate, or even imagine, far-reaching social change,” Weisberg writes. “She accepted that women were screwed and made herself available to hear their complaints.”

Advice columnists answer questions about love, life, death, abuse—the gamut of sufferings one can verbalize to a famous stranger. In prescribing an attitude and a course of action, they prescribe a worldview. Judith Martin, aka Miss Manners, who started her column in 1978, mostly answers questions about conduct, but her responses feel somehow more humanistic than her predecessors. Her interest is not in formal etiquette, and she doesn’t only concern herself with matters like thank-you cards or wedding plans, though she might argue that these minor matters can have major repercussions: “Serving as the language and currency of civility,” she writes,

etiquette reduces those inevitable frictions of everyday life that, unchecked, are increasingly erupting into the outbursts of private and public violence so readily evident in fractured families, stymied legislatures, drop-of-the-hat lawsuits, road rage, and other unwelcome by-products of a manners-free existence.

Her advice is not primarily meant to impose a system of conduct, but rather to serve the greater purpose of helping people avoid wounding each other, and to assist people in treating each other with dignity, partly by identifying when dignity is at stake. “Miss Manners says that etiquette shouldn’t be complicated, that it’s simply a matter of treating people with respect,” Weisberg writes. “The minor details, the holding of forks and doors, are a side note; few people will notice social peccadillos if you commit to the Golden Rule.” (To the question, “What is the correct way to address someone who has a terminal illness?” Miss Manners responded, simply, “As a living human being.”)

“Politeness” has bad associations, for good reasons: As many have noted, it’s generally invoked to maintain the supremacy of a dominant group, or to shut down conversations that make members of that group uncomfortable, or as a substitute for meaningful action that might cause discomfort or hurt feelings. Or else, it means nothing: Why would etiquette matter in the face of real violation? Of course, human levels of upset aren’t always commensurate with the size of the offense, sometimes because people are irrational, and sometimes because an offense that might seem trifling to the offender has a vast root system they’re ignorant of, or willfully ignoring.

Like Ann Landers and Dear Abby in their heyday, Martin addresses a readership confused about the right way to behave, but her definition of “right” is closer to morally relevant—something is wrong because it causes harm, not because it challenges received notions of normalcy. In her chapter on William Alcott, a vegetarian lifestyle advocate and abolitionist who believed that a meat-free diet would improve people’s morals, Weisberg refers to the definition of manners provided by Samuel Wells in his 1856 manual How to Behave: the “spontaneous recognition of human solidarity.” The idea transcends its context. “Politeness” is not obedience, but a mutable constant and an executive function, a commitment to paying respect through meaningful attention to other people. This undertaking evades most attempts to systematize it, which is why it helps to have competent mediators.

Manners are by no means a sufficient approach to social problems, but they are an axis across which a more complex issue might be, limitedly but helpfully, understood. At the very least they can distill issues that strike some as “partisan” into the matters of basic humanity that they are. The principle that you shouldn’t do something to someone that they don’t want you to do to them, for instance, is simple enough in most social contexts. Applied to sex, it challenges toxic, inherited assumptions that were rarely examined until recently, and routinely do serious harm. There will always be people who do serious harm regardless of whether they know what they’re doing is wrong, but etiquette, by this notion, offers some guidance here, too—namely that a respect for human dignity requires defying those hell-bent on violating the dignity of others. 

In her introduction, Weisberg writes about her love of Cheryl Strayed’s “Dear Sugar” column, which was published on The Rumpus from 2008 to 2012. Strayed’s columns were often long, winding, literary responses to long and winding questions—personalized prose-poems, predictably a little on the sweet side, designed to turn a reader’s problems under the light. “The internet is like a garrulous friend—entertaining and inattentive, carrying on regardless of who’s around,” Weisberg writes. “Sugar, in turn, liked to listen.” The letters Strayed received were “vague, existential pleas for Sugar’s companionship.”

“Dear Sugar” belonged to a different internet, and an internet subculture that sometimes idealized empathy as an end in itself—feelings were all pleasure, feelings were all pain, feelings were a currency to be traded among empaths. This isn’t to diminish Strayed’s column, which still brings its readers a great deal of comfort; or even to diminish empathy, which is a basic way of relating to people as well as a basic need. But empathy has limitations, of course, and it is not a standalone social good. You can feel deeply for someone and not do a thing to change their circumstances; you can feel deeply for someone and gorge on their pain.

Like politeness, the term can seem meaningless without elaboration. It’s less a standalone virtue than a muscle that requires development, and that works in coordination with other characteristics and other objectives. Beyond a capacity for fellow feeling, a truly qualified advice-giver would need the social, political, emotional, and intuitive sophistication that allows one to understand the dynamics undergirding the way people interact in a given social context. A deep understanding of what causes harm, and what factors can make harm so difficult to respond to directly; a deep understanding of the nature of contemporary social networks and social environments, which put so many in touch while putting so many in harm’s way. 

The homogeneity of blockbuster advice-giving was always entirely counter to its function. Advice givers, no matter how developed their “empathy” or broad their imagined readerships, still foreground the set of experiences they’re most intimate with, and select letters based on their perceived ability to respond. “If anything, I would say columnists of color—and same with a disabled columnist and an LGBTQ columnist—are much better able to answer questions from your white, cis, straight questioner,” the writer Ijeoma Oluo told the media NGO Images & Voices of Hope. “If you are a minority, you are always steeped in that culture just to get by.”

Manners, broadly construed, are a dimension of public space, even more so now that we occupy public space in words just as often as in person. “Advice-givers have a reputation for social conservatism,” Weisberg writes, “but the very existence of the profession, a class of people tasked with defining and redefining cultural norms, should ideally prevent power from becoming entrenched and ensure that these social bargains are renegotiated every generation.” This is overreaching, a little grandiose. Columns depend on their readers, and the job of advice columnist is, as Weisberg puts it, often to be a professional friend. But friends shape attitudes, give energy, and direct attention, often more effectively than polemics, and questions of how to treat others are ultimately inseparable from questions of how we want the world to be.