The Advice Column Renaissance

Illustration by Sara Wong

I originally intended my column—“¡Hola Papi!,” a couch surfer that now appears in Out magazine—as a spoof on advice columns. (I pitched it to editors as “Latinx Dear Abby, but huffing poppers.”) It would be for a diverse, queer audience, on the trials of dating and the challenges that arise in navigating friendships. Then letters started coming in. People were earnestly asking me for help—people who, for reasons I didn’t understand, decided they trusted me.

Charlotte de Anda, who struggles to balance her mixed identity (white and Mexican), asked me to weigh in. “I don’t always feel connected to the greater Mexican or Latinx community,” she wrote. “Does it ever get easier?” I replied—saying that it does, and that she should never let anyone invalidate her—and she thanked me via direct message on Twitter. Later, I reached out and asked why she’d brought her question to me. “I think people trust advice columns generally for the same reason they trust horoscopes,” de Anda said. “They’re specific enough to be relatable, but broad enough to apply to most people. They’re a voice of comfort.” 

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Over time, like all journalists, I have had to earn credibility—a burden that may apply especially to advice columnists, since we assume the role of moral arbiter. So it ought to be bad news that a lack of faith in journalism has become pervasive. According to a recent Knight Foundation and Gallup poll (if you buy into that sort of thing!), 69 percent of Americans say that, over the past decade, their confidence in the news media has dropped. 

Why hasn’t distrust in the media as a whole negatively affected advice columns, where you would think that trust is paramount?

And yet, in the midst of this growing discontent, advice columns are flourishing. Conditions are so favorable that advice columns are springing up to assume a breathtaking diversity of forms: There are workplace-specific series like “Ask a Manager,” a blog by Alison Green, and “Work Friend,” by Choire Sicha of The New York Times. “Dear Sugar,” started by Cheryl Strayed for The Rumpus, carries on today as a podcast, focusing on vexing subjects such as adulthood and grief. Roxane Gay oversees “Ask Roxane” for the Times, where she doles out emotional guidance to relationship tips. And then there’s my own.

This advice renaissance might seem paradoxical: Why hasn’t distrust in the media as a whole negatively affected advice columns, where you would think that trust is paramount? Maybe it’s because, following the election of Donald Trump to the White House, readers have landed on a truth that many within the profession refuse to grapple with: objective, neutral journalism doesn’t really exist; media is inherently biased. The rise of advice columnists, we might conclude, is consistent with a growing desire among the public for members of the media to express moral clarity. 

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Advice columns date back to the 1690s, with a proto–advice column appearing in The Athenian Mercury, a British periodical. Readers would send in questions like “Is it proper for women to be learned?” There were inquiries both philosophical (“What’s love?”) and scientific: “What is the cause of the winds, and whence do they come, and whither do they go?” Columnists were anonymous, which allowed them to speak their minds. “The pre-Victorian agony aunts and uncles could be surprisingly liberal and outspoken,” Lucy Mangan wrote in The Guardian in 2009, referring to these early founts of practical wisdom. “Others campaigned for better rights for deserted wives and other mistreated women.” Jessica Weisberg, the author of Asking for a Friend: Three Centuries of Advice on Life, Love, Money, and Other Burning Questions from a Nation Obsessed (2018), says that advice columns have changed profoundly since then. “What you see is a transition from wanting advice from someone who is scholarly and an expert in their field like the Athenian Society, a community of intellect, to wanting advice from more of a friend or a peer figure who resembles you,” she tells me. “I think it has to do with a general shift in society toward distrusting elites.”

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That sensibility is embodied by one of my favorite contemporary advice columns, The Outline’s “Ask a Fuck-Up,” by Brandy Jensen. (It has a great name. “I preferred to be up front about the fact that I make a whole lot of mistakes,” Jensen says.) When I ask for her thoughts on the popularity of advice columns at this precarious time for media, she tells me they are performing an important function: in a confused society, where decorum has become all but obsolete and it’s not uncommon to find nasty insults coming from the verified Twitter accounts of elected officials, columnists tell us how we ought to live.  “Typically, an advice column will say, ‘This behavior is just and good, and that behavior is unjust and unacceptable,’ ” Jensen explains. “A lot of writers in the broader media landscape are either unwilling or unable to say that sort of thing due to some outdated notion of objectivity.” Readers are also granted license to act, Jensen says. “You can read an article about how to deal with your racist uncle on Slate, but it won’t be satisfying unless you’re given permission to be like, ‘No, fuck him.’ ”

As an advice columnist, I am at liberty to tell certain people to go to hell, to assert my sense of right and wrong.

That’s a freedom I feel while writing “¡Hola Papi!” In my career as a journalist—previously, I worked as a reporter for NBC News—I have had to interview and take seriously people who would like to legislate me out of existence. Representatives from Focus on the Family, an anti-LGBTQ hate group, come to mind. But now, as an advice columnist, I am at liberty to tell certain people to go to hell, to assert my sense of right and wrong. In letters to Papi, people ask: “My boyfriend’s parents are homophobic, do I have to pretend to like them?” or “My aunt voted for Donald Trump. Should I cut her off, or should I try to change her mind?” They want an authority figure to affirm their worldview and authorize them to live in accordance with it.

That stance has transformed my relationship with readers. When I was reporting and writing op-eds, we had a rapport, sure. But an advice columnist is your friend. An advice columnist is someone you get coffee with, tell your secrets to, and get feedback from. It’s an intimacy you don’t get from other writing, as I’ve heard from readers like de Anda. As opposed to individual pieces sent out into the void, an advice column is a space that welcomes readers in.

 

For a columnist, being inviting can sometimes create dilemmas. An email I received last year from Uganda, which ended up being a matter of life and death, brought me to the limit of my moral certitude.

At the time, I’d been running “¡Hola Papi!” for around six months with Into, a digital magazine that was published by Grindr. (Yes, the gay hookup app.) I remember where I was when I read the letter: Café Grumpy, a cozy coffee shop in the Manhattan neighborhood of Chelsea, where I sought refuge from the February cold. I kicked snow off my boots and sat down to read from Papi’s mailbox. Because the column was distributed by Grindr, most of the messages I received hit on familiar subjects: cheating boyfriends, anxiety over dating, maybe a colorful “hookup gone wrong” incident thrown in. 

This one began as most did, with boy problems. “Hola Papi!” it read. “There’s a man I really like, and I think he might be dropping hints that he likes me too.” Then I reached the end. “By the way, being gay is illegal in my country. I could be attacked or killed if I come on too strong or if I’m mistaken about this guy. What do I do?” 

I ultimately did not answer. A responsible advice columnist is aware of the limitations of the medium and acts accordingly (even if the resulting piece would have garnered a lot of clicks). This advice seeker did not need counsel from an openly gay media professional living in Brooklyn on how to approach a man in a country where homosexuality is outlawed. Whatever advice I gave would be inextricably linked to a privileged Western experience of gayness. What if, because of me, he came out, and doing so put him in danger?

In contemplating my capacity to do harm to this person, I wasn’t so different from reporters and writers across the media. Whether or not we subscribe to the notion that we can be unbiased, we owe it to our audiences to be genuine and write with some humility. It’s more pronounced in advice columns, but every journalist should consider the cultural and political context their work is entering when it’s published. That’s my advice, anyway.

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John Paul Brammer is a writer and advice columnist from Oklahoma currently living in New York. He is the managing editor at The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention organization for LGBTQ youth, and the author of “¡Hola Papi!,” an advice column that runs weekly at Out magazine.