After editing an advice column for two years, I’ve decided that there is no such thing as advice. There are only problems and the ways people handle them. Advice, on the other hand, is when you hear a description of someone else’s problem and then tell the person something about yourself. Hopefully whatever you say is funny or interesting, but it has little to do with actually helping anyone. It may seem or feel like it does, but there are always more variables than we’ll ever be able to see or understand, and best case scenario you’re pressing on the problem a little bit in a way that engages the problem-haver.
But even though there is no such thing as advice, advice is still a word that means something, so I guess it’s less that advice doesn’t exist and more that it’s a flawed or impossible concept.
Because either the asker doesn’t take the advice, since everyone just does what they want or are otherwise going to do anyway, especially if it’s cheat on their boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, or wives (oh my god, you should see the inbox; at first it was sad but now it’s actually kind of comforting that everyone’s the same), which can create a rift between the advice-giver and the advice not-taker. Or they take the advice, except that’s not particularly helpful, either, since it strips them of the opportunity to learn the lesson first-hand (presuming there is one), which you already have (again, presumably). And telling someone to trust you blindly can come off as condescending. Or like wrapping a finish-line ribbon around someone’s chest instead of encouraging them to run the race. Kind of. Maybe? I don’t know. More on how little I know in a moment.
And advice columns are like one person handing another an oversized check while giving a thumbs-up for the cameras, but then walking away after the flashbulbs stop, and then it turns out the check is just another piece of unredeemable cardboard. But those photo-op pictures! Everyone loves those pictures. And I don’t think I set this up quite right, but those pictures are like advice columns, because people like to hear about other people’s problems (appreciate a good photo-op), and then hear what a stranger has to say about them, and then either say something about the problems themselves (i.e. say something about themselves) or move on to the next thing. So ultimately it’s a lot of swarming around other people’s problems that’s been dressed up as well meaning, but is really driven by voyeuristic hunger for reassurance that other people’s lives suck, too. Usually, at least. At first I wanted The Hairpin’s “Ask a ___” column to be a place for anonymously asking one another answerable questions—why do you sit so weird on the subway, etc.—sort of like passing notes through a wall, but then it became more traditionally advice-oriented, and I’m not sure how I feel about that, although maybe things will shift in the coming year, and I should finish this sentence inside my own head.
I could also just be reeling from the advice I took a few months
ago to do this somewhat dramatic thing over text, which I did, and
which did not work out so hot, to put it mildly, and which I now
think about almost every day. A friend encouraged me to tell
someone exactly what I felt about a situation, which seems like
maybe the only piece of incontrovertibly useful advice, except
texting isn’t really my thing, and what I felt about the situation
wasn’t totally nice, and it came to the recipient out of the blue,
so it turned into this insane, raw back-and-forth in which all
pretenses were dropped and it unexpectedly felt like I was
communicating the most nakedly with someone than I maybe have in my
entire life. So maybe that’s its own lesson and the advice worked
sideways, and in any case I’m grateful for it. Although who knows.
Who knows anything? How can anyone even think they know
anything? How can anyone think they know enough about anything to
tell anyone else what to do? We’re all idiots who know nothing,
especially whether other people might actually know something and
that it might just be us (me) who’s an idiot, because there doesn’t
seem to be a meaningful way to tell, or such a thing as truly right
or truly wrong, or good or evil, or objective truth, maybe,
probably, I actually have no idea, but maybe if I keep freaking out
I’ll levitate upward on this funnel of flustered apology! Also
please submit questions to email@example.com!
Also by this author: Letters to the Editors of Women’s Magazines (the very first one!)
Edith Zimmerman edits The Hairpin.