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Can we trust agony aunts?

”When we ask for advice, we are usually looking for an accomplice.”

Saul Bellow

Back when I was growing up in the St. Louis area, newspapers were in their heyday. Two major two newspapers were published daily in St. Louis — the widely respected St. Louis Post-Dispatch, founded by Joseph Pulitzer, and the less prestigious, but essential because of its comics page, St. Louis Globe-Democrat, aka the Morning Globe.

My family subscribed to the Post and I remember waiting every day on the front porch for it to be delivered at 3:30 p.m.

Often, however, I was also sent out in the morning to buy a copy of the Globe because my mother liked to read it with her morning coffee and Lucky Strike cigarettes and my father enjoyed its “funny pages” when he got home from work.

These publications were known for having competing advice columnists. The conservative Globe published Dear Abby by Abigail Van Buren and the more liberal Post published Ask Ann Landers, which was written by Van Buren’s twin sister and rival, Ann Landers.

The Jewish Women’s Archive website says that “Both columns were characterized by a straightforward tone, practical advice, and a firm but modern moral sensibility.”

It was also noted that in contrast with earlier advice columnists, both women used humor, including sarcasm and one-liners. Often people would clip out and save these advice columns or even mailed them anonymously to people who needed to be taught a lesson.

Most days, if I could get my hands on the paper, I would read the editorial cartoon, the comics page, and my favorite — the advice columns. I preferred Ann Landers to Dear Abby, but I read both of them, as well as Miss Manners’ etiquette advice column and Hints from Heloise. That is why I’m so polite and know so many housekeeping hacks today.

Advice columns have a long history and date back to the 1690s. Many believe they first appeared in an early British periodical called The Athenian Mercury. The editor-in-chief, John Dunton, is often credited for initiating the format. He put together a socalled “society of experts,” whose job it was to give advice on personal and scientific questions submitted by readers.

As technology advanced so did the platforms for advice-giving, Today the original print media has been largely supplanted or supplemented by radio, television, podcasts, and online columns and blogs.

One of my favorite radio advice programs was NPR’s Car Talk, a Saturday morning program that featured master auto mechanics (and MIT graduates) Tommy and Ray Magliozzi. They called themselves “Click and Clack the Tappet Brothers” and supposedly, this was a call-in talk show, in which listeners would ask for advice regarding auto repairs. Usually, however, the conversations veered off track and focused on the entertaining banter between the brothers and their uniquely humorous perspectives on life, relationships, and occasionally automobiles. The show’s tag line was,”Well, it’s happened again — you’ve wasted another perfectly good hour listening to Car Talk.” It ended in 2012, but you can still listen to podcasts of the shows and even ask Ray a question about cars at Cartalk.com.

Radio and television advice shows continued to evolve often using professional advice givers such as Dr. Joyce Brothers, Dr. Ruth, Dr. Laura, Dr. Phil, Dr. Drew, and of course the fictional Dr. Frazier Crane.

More direct descendants of Dear Abby and Ann Landers are found today in works like Carolyn Hax’s daily offering in The Washington Post, attorney Philip Galanes’ New York Times column, Slate Magazine’s Dear Prudence feature, and The Chicago Tribune’s Ask Amy.

My wife Diane reminded me that an advice-type column also appeared regularly in Ladies’ Home Journal called “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” It featured a juicy story of real marital conflict as well as a professional marriage counselor’s analysis and recommendations. The column started in the 1950s and ran for nearly 40 years. In the early days, wives were usually blamed for the problems to the point of being called “childish,” “juvenile,” or “emotionally immature.” Gradually it became less sexist and in every case the marriage could be saved.

There are also similar online features today in which people typically describe some outrageous behavior by a partner or relative and readers get to sound off and offer their own comments and analysis. It’s a guilty pleasure, inane, but nevertheless riveting.

Out Magazine advice columnist John Paul Brammer believes that advice columnists must first establish credibility and that has become even more difficult today. In a recent Gallup poll 69% of Americans said that over the past decade their confidence in the news media has dropped significantly. Brammer believes, however, that, “… in the midst of this growing discontent, advice columns are flourishing.”

This new popularity stems from advice-givers developing a number of special niches for a diverse array of people and interests.

Advice columns are characterized by a degree of intimacy between writer and reader not seen in other forms of writing. Self-disclosure and the inherent vulnerability of advice seekers places a special obligation on the advice-giver to be, not only accurate, but kind and helpful as well.

Advisors need to be aware of their limitations, as well as those of the medium they employ. A Canadian study assessed the safety and appropriateness of health advice given to elderly readers in newspaper columns and discovered that a significant percentage of them contained advice that was “inappropriate or potentially dangerous.” But on the other hand I have often wondered, if people actually take any of the advice read in columns.

“Well, it’s happened again — you’ve wasted another perfectly good 5 minutes reading this column.”

Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., teaches psychology at Ivy Tech Community College in Sellersburg and lives in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at tstawar@gmail.com

LOCAL COLUMNIST

Terry Stawar

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