The enduring appeal of 'Agony Aunts'


  • Lifestyle
  • Monday, 17 Sep 2012

Agony aunts are thriving even in this Internet age as proven by Dear Abby, a syndicated column which appears in 1,400 newspapers and gets letters worldwide, from Malaysia to Kosovo.

A 12-year-old girl wrote to an agony aunt, saying that she went into a Hunger Games chatroom on her iPod Touch and encountered three people who asked her for sex. They also wanted semi-nude pictures of her.

“I got so scared I couldn’t sleep,” she said.

That was just a sampling of heartfelt letters found recently in Dear Abby, an advice column which began five decades ago in Iowa, United States.

The agony aunt is Jeanne Phillips, who took over the job in 1987 from her mother who started the column under the name Abigail Van Buren.

In these days where help is just a tap away on the keyboard or touch screen, agony aunts (or uncles) have not gone out of style.

“While advice on the Internet may be only one click away, not all of it is good or correct information,” said Phillips in an e-mail interview.

Another “selling point” of advice columnists as pointed out by Phillips: they offer anonymity, which is something you won’t get if you approach a school counsellor, for instance. This probably explains why they have survived since 1691 when the advice column was born.

In an article on “A brief history of agony aunts” in The Guardian about three years ago, the writer reviewed a book by Tanith Carey titled Never Kiss A Man In A Canoe: Words Of Wisdom From The Golden Age Of Agony Aunts.

The writer discovered that a 32-year-old man in 1691 was troubled about an affair he was having. With no one to turn to, he started what has become known as the first advice column.

Such columns, like Dear Abby, have evolved through the years, said Phillips.

“Society has changed. Readers are more open about their problems than they were when Dear Abby began,” Phillips said.

“But the core of the problem, which is interpersonal relations, has not changed. The questions involve how people interact with each other, whether it is in social situations, in the home and family, the school or the workplace.”

Today’s women, she said, form a greater part of the workforce and this has taken its toll on the family.

“Also there is the phenomenon of stay-at-home dads, which is fairly new. Some of them feel isolated and not accepted.”

There are also many queries from people who complain about their significant other who still does not want to commit to a marriage despite them having kids together.

“There’s a lot of that these days,” she said.

Dear Abby gets about 10,000 letters and e-mails every week, mostly from people between the ages of 18 and 49. About 30% of them are guys.

“Seeing to it that every question is read is challenging. That’s why I have a staff of trained people to help me make sure that people in crisis get a prompt reply.”

When she gets letters from readers who are suicidal, she said she would pick up the phone and call them.

“I’ll offer to listen, talk to their doctor for them or steer them to a community mental health clinic or suicide hotline.”

Dear Abby, as she points out, is never boring.Its website reveals a gamut of everyday problems. One woman said she had been seeing a guy who always insists on going Dutch or never offers to pay during their dates.

Abby’s advice? “Are you getting what you’re paying for, and is it enough for you? If the answer is no, then scratch him.”

Nothing seems too trivial for an advice columnist. There was a letter from an office worker complaining about a colleague who wears flip-flops every day and “the sound of her walking is extremely annoying, to the point where I get a headache.”

The advice given was entertaining: “If the boss says her footwear is fine, then you’re out of luck. Wear earplugs, use aspirin as directed.”

In another case, one wedding guest, who was trying to buy a gift for the soon-to-be married couple, was upset to find out that they had listed pricey items for their cats in their online wedding registry.

Sometimes, the readers themselves send in their advice. Dear Abby published a letter on Aug 21 from a 58-year-old man for women who often lament about finding the right guy.

“We’re right here every day, working in the same building, going to the same functions, eating at the same diners,” he wrote.

“You want to find a guy in your age range? Step back, be honest and really look at yourself. How do you act, dress, talk? Would you date you? Do you measure up to the standards you have set for the right guy?”

“Take the time to see who he is, what he enjoys and remember, he’s not going to change, and if he did, he wouldn’t be what you wanted anyway.”

Phillips, on her part, said she thoroughly enjoyed her aunt agony duties.

“My work is also my hobby. It’s really not ‘work’ if you enjoy what you’re doing and I happen to love it.”

“I never tire of being an ‘agony aunt’. What I do is part of who I am, and always have been. I like people and I’m interested in them.”

Where does an agony aunt go to when she needs a shoulder to cry on?

“When I need advice or consolation, I go to my husband for affection, the benefit of his experience (and he’s had plenty of it), as well as his unstinting support. I’m a very lucky woman. I consider him to be my gift from God.”

She believes that the popularity of Dear Abby is due to the fact that she does not “sermonise”.

“I answer the questions as clearly, concisely and briefly as I can. It is both a responsibility and an honour and it is humbling.”

She said her advice had been used as the basis of sermons in churches and by professors of sociology and philosophy for lectures.

“People pour their hearts out to me in an endless stream of headaches, heartaches and confessions. They do it because they trust me and know I won’t judge or belittle them, and that I’ll do my best to give them resources to find help.”

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