Fascinated by what strangers tell other strangers to do about their problems, I have read advice columns for years. Some Abbys regularly respond with a version of “seek counseling,” which is annoying, unhelpful, and uninteresting, but others actually provide a meaningful response. Three I’ve been reading regularly lately:
It is exceedingly rude for anyone to guess from a lady’s size that she is pregnant. Should your wife go into labor in front of Miss Manners, she would merely say, “My dear, whatever is the matter? Can I help you?” (Eventually, of course, she would have to say, “Oh, look who’s here.”)
She doesn’t feel compelled to adhere to expected responses and may totally ignore the writer’s question in favor of a sidebar on some point of etiquette piqued by the story. I appreciate her emphasis on correctness and good manners. Sometimes it is important to know how to introduce two people properly or what to write in thank you cards. Still, she recognizes that using the proper fork at the dinner table isn’t always a necessity, so she strikes the right balance between emphasizing civility and recommending a relaxed form of common sense.
Like Miss Manners, Prudie of Dear Prudence has an excellent sense of humor. She seems unfazed by many scenarios I would find shocking or taboo: her most famous column is probably on last year’s gay incestuous twins. Though she treats many who write in, including the gay twins, with sympathy, she’s good at reading between the lines and calling advice-seekers out on their stupidity or selfishness. I love reading her responses, sometimes zinging, other times gentle and polite, to those who are self-serving, ridiculous, or jerk-y. Plus, often disregarding legal precedence and political correctness, her advice draws from what actually occurs between people and not some unrealized version of the way things should work.
I recently stumbled on Captain Awkward, who started her website because of her own obsession with advice columns. In many ways, she is the opposite of Prudie and Miss Manners, who have a little fun at the writer’s expense. In Captain Awkward columns, it seems that every thought, feeling, identity, or life choice is valid – and those not progressive enough to feel the same are derided. As a reader, I can get annoyed by this, when some who write in are clearly being childish, weird, or themselves intolerant. Still, what Captain Awkward and her fellow responders on the site do exceptionally well is nerd-love and all its variations and related maladies. I’ve read her descriptions of plausible deniability, one-itis, oversharing and winced at how spot-on they were. She understands how the freaks and geeks operate and gives pretty sound advice for that set. Plus, her scripts are usually good for people who want to say something but just don’t know how. For the reticent nerds, making talking easier is definitely appreciated. (Note: the site has a lot of inside jokes and vocabulary, so a helpful glossary is here.)
Sometimes it’s off-putting to read these columns because it may mean recognizing a situation and seeing a response framed in a way that makes me fret about my own manners and choices and actions. But usually the next response reminds me that each Abby is just another person, with yet another opinion, and I’m left figuring the best advice remains this: follow your own mind – and heart.