Sunday, April 3, 2011

Agony Aunt is All Ears. Or Should Be.

India have just won their first World Cup in 28 years, and I'm sitting here, thinking about....advice columns. More specifically, advice columnists.

This has the ring of something of a confession, but I find that advice columns occasionally make for interesting reading. I'm not sure whether its my inner psychologist, or my inner voyeur, that is to blame - but I find that advice columns deliver drama in more compelling doses, and with more texture, than the average television show. They offer insight into lives lived by other people, often in other places, and very rarely, some measure of insight into one's own.

What is it that makes people write in to advice columns? After all, unlike health, fashion, beauty and even tarot columns, these aren't necessarily anchored by experts. Advice columnists are often just well-known personalities, who commit to delivering little other than a point of view on an issue.

Support systems and therapy are luxuries too few have access to. For those contending with emotional needs, situational complexities and financial constraints, the advice columnist is often the only accessible coping resource. Writing in is free, anonymity is guaranteed, the columnists have answered other questions in the past - what's the worst that could happen?

But the truth is that several letters and emails are also sent in by those who describe themselves as being well-off, as members of functional (even supportive) social units, and as currently being in therapy. Which begs the question - wouldn't these solution-seekers be better off seeking the perspective of those who know them well and are more familiar with their situations, or those who are actually qualified and licensed to help people cope with their circumstances? What could an agony aunt possibly tell them, that they haven't already heard, or couldn't easily hear from someone else?

Which brings me back to what I've mentioned earlier - personality, and a point of view. My assumption is that advice columnists are chosen, for better or worse, for their personalities and their supposed 'life experience.'*  They may be minor celebrities (think Pooja Bedi, Sandhya Mridul, Sapna Bhavnani, ) writers or actors, but they've also had their struggles - some more widely documented than others. I would also assume that these experiences allow columnists to empathize with their readers - and that experience and empathy jointly inform their points of view, which in turn inform their responses.

But it's hard to think of an advice columnist's point of view as pristine and wholly personal. Columnists speak in a certain voice, and very often, that voice adheres closely to the spirit of the publication or website that houses their column.  It's possible that this congruity exists before-hand, but it's equally likely that it develops over time. In any case, publications (particularly in the US) do not hesitate to take each other's columnists to task - Jezebel is a case in point,  and the Huffington Post recently described Salon's Cary Tennis as being certifiably insane - evidence that the advice carries more weight than the average well-intentioned response. 

While the substance of a columnist's advice is likely to be contentious, there's no arguing that some voices (and some personalities) resonate better with some readers than others. People read a couple of advice columns on-and-off and like what they see. When they feel the need to reach out - but want some objectivity, or a response untainted by familiarity, or just anonymity - they write in. They write to someone they think they know - either through the column itself, or through a public persona, or through some combination of both. They may or may not get a response - and they may or may not like the response that they get. If they do, and they are serious about effecting change, they will make the effort that is called for. If the advice fails to find favor, they will continue looking for something or someone who will say what they want (and need) to hear. 

Come to think of it, eventually, people will pretty much do what they think is best. Just as with therapy, and conversations with family and friends. The rest is all just good intentions, and self-expression. Sometimes I think we need to be heard more than we need to listen. 

* This does not apply to columns of the Social Q's/ Miss Manners variety, where wit, snarkiness and an awareness of the minutiae of social codes are prerequisites.

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