Honest advice is unpleasant to the ears. - Chinese proverb
Cultural literacy is a funny thing. We all share a stock of common knowledge which is not directly taught to us by parents, teachers or peers, but rather simply absorbed from our surroundings, taken in like air. Because the process is so subtle and pervasive, it’s generally safe to assume that everyone who lives in a given culture for a long enough time is familiar with all of the common cultural elements even if he has no particular interest in some of them; for example, though I’ve never had any interest whatsoever in football and have never watched more than a few minutes of a game, I still know the basic rules and many of the particulars. I didn’t have to read about it, research it or study it; I simply picked it up unconsciously from other people’s conversations, seeing games on television in the background, and other such means of involuntary learning. In fact, it’s difficult to avoid familiarity with popular cultural elements even if one might prefer to; for example, I know who Honey Boo Boo and Justin Bieber are (and can even recognize their pictures) despite not having watched broadcast television in a decade (and despite wishing I could allocate the memory space devoted to them for something more useful and aesthetically appealing, such as a catalog of domestic animal parasites).
So it’s always a bit strange to discover someone who has somehow never learned about something which everyone else takes for granted; in this particular case, the way advice columns work. It’s not like they’re something new; the first such column appeared in the Athenian Mercury in 1691, and they rapidly proliferated throughout the 18th century. Nor have they vanished with the newspaper; if anything they’ve multiplied, and the freedom of the internet allows modern agony aunts to answer questions with a frankness that would have been completely impossible just twenty years ago. Advice columns aren’t even a novelty on this blog; I answered my first reader question within weeks of starting it, and the Q & A columns were a regular monthly feature by the third month; since the beginning of this year, I’ve answered at least one reader question nearly every Wednesday. But despite all this, a reader recently sent me a very nasty letter for publishing his question and its answer in my column, despite the facts that A) he didn’t ask for confidentiality, and I hid the few identifying details anyway; B) it’s the way I’ve always done it; C) it’s the way advice columns have been done for 322 years; and D) in my email reply to him, I specifically told him the date it would appear in the blog! Apparently, this is not an isolated case; just over a year ago Amy Alkon of The Advice Goddess had a letter from a similarly-misinformed reader accusing her of “asking for your readers to write in with their problems so you can take your ideas from them (also called stealing) and write your own column.” The mind boggles.
Given two not-dissimilar cases only a year apart, I am forced to conclude that there really are some people out there who honestly don’t know how advice columns work; it would therefore seem prudent to put my own policy in writing for the benefit of such readers. First of all, I try to answer every letter I get which asks for a reply; if I get behind in my work due to holidays, travel or other such events this could take as many as three weeks, but most of the time it’s more like three days (or three hours if the answer is short or I’m all caught up). Not every question makes it into a column, but anything which I think other readers will find interesting or illuminating almost certainly will; however, I always remove identifying details and slightly rephrase the language (if necessary) to simplify and/or broaden it. For example, if a reader mentions that he lives in a particular European country I will change it to “Europe” (or else leave it out entirely if I don’t think that’s significant to understanding the answer). If you would like to ask a question but don’t want it to appear even in disguised form, all you have to do is say so; I have answered many questions confidentially and would not even dream of violating such a request. Most importantly, I think honesty is the most important quality of advice; though I answer questions as politely as I can, I am not going to lie to spare your feelings; would you really even want that? It’s better to take the bitter medicine which may cure the ill, than to swallow a sugar pill and continue to suffer. One last thing: if your letter does appear in the blog, I suggest you read the comments left by other readers; it never hurts to get other opinions, and sometimes a reader may add something that I hadn’t even considered.