I have been writing an advice column for a little more than a month, and I have already discovered I have many opinions about how my advice column works. I have decided to write them up in order to help people decide whether they would like to write to my advice column or a different advice columnist.
First: I view my job as an advice columnist as trying to help the letter writer solve their particular problems. I am on, a very basic level, on my letter writer’s side. I have already received letters that make me feel like I would not like the letter writer particularly much as a person, ones with political beliefs I strongly disagree with, and even ones that made me tempted to go “well, stop sucking and you wouldn’t have the problem anymore.” But I’ve tried my best to attempt to improve my letter writers’ lives according to their own values, goals, and preferences, without telling them those values are stupid and they should get better ones. And I avoid telling my letter writers that they are terrible people.
If I receive a letter where I’d have a hard time being on my letter writer’s side– whether because of personal triggers or because I actually find their goal appalling — I’d probably avoid answering it. But I think I can be on the side of a lot more writers than one could naively assume: if you want to write me about your struggle to avoid masturbation, or your difficulties with loneliness as a celibate same-sex-attracted person, or your paralyzing fear about the world being destroyed by superintelligent AI, I am going to do my best to adopt your worldview instead of starting with “well, I disagree.” (If for some reason this is a problem you feel is best solved by a sex-positive feminist who prioritizes global poverty and animals.)
I don’t think this approach is right for every advice columnist: Dan Savage certainly doesn’t, and Savage Love is an amazing advice column; That Bad Advice is an amazing advice column which does literally the opposite of my thing. But I think it creates a certain amount of safety when you’re writing, and it’s an approach I personally feel comfortable with.
Second: this is an advice column. I am providing solutions to problems the letter writer has in their life. I am not providing political commentary, structural solutions, explanations of what things would be like in a better world than the one that already exists, or essays loosely inspired by the letter. Again, there are lots of great advice columns that do those things, but this is my advice column and this is what I’m doing.
Third: I am a person with limited knowledge. In an announcement, I described my areas of expertise as “sex, kink, dating, polyamory, BPD, neurodivergence more generally, effective altruism, transness, scrupulosity, abuse, spiritual abuse, and parenting persons under the age of 18 months.” However, if you write me about some topic that is far outside of my area of expertise, I’m going to assume you want my perspective on it; I will probably talk to friends with more knowledge or note that this is not a thing I have a lot of experience in, but I will still offer my uninformed opinions.
Right now, I’m getting few enough letters that I can answer every letter. If or when that changes, I’m probably going to favor answering letters in my areas of expertise over answering letters which are not in my areas of expertise.
Fourth: I strive not to recommend ending relationships or seeking therapy/medication. I feel like these are common band-aids when the advice columnist doesn’t really know how to answer the question, and they’re usually provided without considering why it might be hard for a person to end a relationship or seek therapy/medication. Some people have moral objections to divorce or estrangement from parents; some people are financially dependent on the person; some people are coparenting children and have a functional coparenting relationship; some people are simply not ready to end it. Many people can’t afford therapy or medication, have a difficult time finding a compatible therapist, can’t fit in appointments around their schedules, or are dependent on a parent or spouse who would object.
I do suggest ending relationships, therapy, and medication sometimes. But I try to always provide some other alternative, in case the person doesn’t choose that: advice about how to maintain the relationship, in the former case, or self-help books, peer support groups, coping mechanisms, or advice about supplementation.
(Exception: if to the best of my ability to interpret the letter writer they are writing a letter of the genre “please give me Official Permission to end my terrible relationship,” I will give them official permission to end their terrible relationship. This is also the response you can expect if you’re looking for Official Permission to transition, to identify as LGBT+, to have a particular kind of sex, or not to have sex.)
Fifth: I am a weird person and this has improved my life a bunch. A lot of my solutions tend to be of the form “have you considered just being weird?” If you are particularly interested in being normal and respectable (instead of just appearing normal and respectable to outsiders, which of course is a thing many weird people sometimes have to do), my advice is unlikely to be helpful.
Sixth: I tend to recommend safe rules. These are rules that have a lot of false negatives but don’t have a lot of false positives: that is, they almost never say something is okay when it isn’t, but they often say that things aren’t okay when they really are. Knowing what actions are okay often comes down to context, personal relationships, and the ability to read the room. As an advice columnist, those are exactly the things I don’t have– and I definitely can’t have it for every situation you might encounter. That letter would be far far too long. And I don’t want to say “pay attention to context and read the room,” because if you knew how to do that you probably wouldn’t be writing me. I also find that safe rules tend to be helpful for my anxiety: I can very confidently say “well, I’m following the rule, so it’s fine.”
When I’m recommending a safe rule, I tend to specifically highlight it as a conservative rule with a lot of false negatives and few false positives, so that people don’t worry that the probably-fine things they’re doing are actually bad.
If this advice column interests you, you can read it here or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. (For people who use throwaway emails, I’ll note that I don’t answer letters privately and you don’t have to remember the password to your throwaway.) If you appreciate my advice, you can back me on Patreon.