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Dear Reader: Yes, There's A Reason People Asked Dear Abby For Advice

"Dear Abby" columnist Pauline Phillips, seen here in 2001, died Wednesday. (AP)

Dear Monkey See:

I just heard that Pauline Phillips, who wrote the advice column "Dear Abby," passed away yesterday at 94. From what I've read, she wrote or co-wrote the column for almost 50 years.

"Dear Abby" — and "Dear Ann Landers," written by Phillips' sister, Eppie Lederer — are probably the most famous mainstream American advice columns that ever were. Today, like everything else, advice is splintered — you can get all kinds of advice from Dear Prudence at Slate or from Carolyn Hax, sex and relationship advice from Dan Savage, etiquette advice from Miss Manners, or crowdsourced advice from just about anywhere. You can even get music advice at NPR.

My question is this: Why do people ask strangers for advice? Is there the slightest logic in turning your problem over to someone who doesn't know you? Or worse yet, to a bunch of strangers on the Internet?

Signed,

A Hypothetical Monkey See Reader, Setup Department

Dear Hypo:

I'm so glad you asked.

Hypo, from time to time, we all need advice. The instinct to ask for help is an enormously human one, and while you should go to a doctor for medical advice and to a lawyer for legal advice and to a mechanic to find out why your car is going "vvvRRRRRRvvvvRRRRR," sometimes there's no easy way to put your finger on what kind of advice you need. (If you'll pardon a bit of promotion, which I'll call "synergy," I will point out that on the weekly podcast on which I appear, we recently took up a discussion of advice columns that covers some of this territory as well.)

In truth, general advice columnists like Dear Abby wind up answering the questions that need the least expertise and the most instinct. There's no expert, for instance, who can explain what you should do when your best friend is in a new relationship and seems to have forgotten you, or who can give you ideas for how to tell your co-worker that he chews so loudly you're completely distracted.

That doesn't mean the problems aren't serious. Sometimes they're very serious — about whether to leave a spouse, about whether it's worth it to stick it out in a job, or about whether a person or a situation seems dangerous. If you read advice columns regularly, you know that as often as not, the letters drip with dread because the person already knows what the answer is. Deep down, she knows she should dump the boyfriend, quit the job, call the police, move out of the apartment. Advice is so often just reflection, right? When we ask for it, we try to cast things in the most neutral way we can; we try not to tip our hands about the advice we want to hear because we've convinced ourselves that we really do want to know what an unbiased third party would think. We convince ourselves: I'm presenting my friend's side of the case completely fairly. I'm completely open to the possibility that I'm wrong.

In that sense, people like advice columns precisely because the person is a stranger. Dear Abby had no loyalty to you, or your boyfriend, or your best friend, or your boss. Dear Abby, ideally, told it like it was.

Of course, the limitation is that even assuming you can muster objectivity, you're always getting the columnist's own viewpoint, particularly in matters of fairness and the way we treat each other. To use just one example, you would have gotten very different answers to many of your relationship questions from Dear Abby than you would get from Dan Savage. Traditional, Dear-Abby-style advice brought to bear a particular set of values in relationships: gentleness, fidelity, longevity. Dan Savage brings to bear an overlapping but distinct set of values that more thoroughly addresses itself to whether you're happy.

Good advice columns understand, however, that asking for advice doesn't make you the hero. In fact, a good advice columnist knows when to say, "You know what? It really sounds like the problem is you." (If you don't mind a little not-very-Dear-Abby-like language, please enjoy the first answer in this column, written by my friend and former colleague Sarah Bunting in her advice feature The Vine, for a wonderful example.) A willingness to call out the reader, and not to coddle everyone who writes in, can lend a columnist credibility and seriousness, even though it can make the column seem a little more cranky. (I tend to like them cranky. Or at least intermittently cranky.)

Miss Manners, probably my personal favorite advice columnist of all time, is wonderful at this as well, gently — or "gently" — making it clear when, in her view, the asker of the question has some thinking to do. In her book Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, she answers the question, "What am I supposed to say when I am introduced to a homosexual 'couple'?" Her answer: "'How do you do?' 'How do you do?'"

Of course, sometimes the columnist is the broadly defined "community." That's much more common in the Internet age. My favorite source of crowdsourced advice is at Ask Metafilter, where you'll currently find questions on everything from lighting for food photography to "How do I get over my narcissistic parent?" As suspicious as people are of turning over their problems to the Internet — and there's a whole set of Ask abbreviations that underscore the lack of relevant expertise, including IANAL (I Am Not A Lawyer) and IANAD (I Am Not A Doctor) — you'll often find there a remarkable outpouring of compassion and kindness, as well as quite a bit of firm kicking in the behind when it seems warranted.

In the end, Hypo, asking strangers for advice is a curiously optimistic thing to do. Obviously, there are times when the fact that someone is bringing a particular problem to a stranger instead of a doctor or a therapist sets off alarm bells all its own, but in a way, it's a call not only to communal wisdom but to communal giving-a-flying-fig-about-other-people. Dear Abby's advice might not have been your cup of tea, but there was a person who took a moment to consider your problem. Someone gave your wedding, or your family, or your friendship, or your sex life, or your work life, a little thought because you asked.

It's easily understandable why it appeals to something in us.

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