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489: Advice Column

Have you ever written into an advice column, or would you?


Full episode script

In the 1690s — the same decade as the Spanish Inquisition and  Tsar Peter the I of Russia imposing a tax on beards – the British Periodical The Athenian Mercury started what would become a several hundreds year long tradition – an advice column. Writing a preface to a reprint of several of the questions and answers in The Atlantic, Adrienne LaFrance wrote:

Our awkward, curious ancestors. Those who apparently wrote into The Athenian had questions about love affairs and petty arguments. They wanted to know how to communicate their feelings, and when it was okay to lie. So while there’s something more than a little romantic about reading the existential questions that our great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandparents might have had, there is another kind of delight in the centuries-old mundane.

This same article by The Atlantic was referenced by Alison Green of Ask a Manager and and researcher Elyse Vigiletti in a 2017 Vox article where they discussed the history of advice columns. That conversation, in its entirety, is a great read. Some of the more interesting points they make, though, are about the place that these advice columns still play in a world where Google exists. Quote:

The advice columnist–reader relationship confers a strange authority on the columnist, and in most cases, from what I can tell, the columnists just sort of claimed that authority for themselves and readers accepted it. Americans like their advice columnists to be no-nonsense white ladies who champion personal responsibility and tolerance of others’ differences.

The internet has plenty of options for advice that may or may or may not fit this particular mold, though, and writing in to an advice column is an act that constantly intrigues me.

This script may vary from the actual episode transcript.