INTERACTIVE: Dear Thelma, three decades of advice and still going strong


  • Nation
  • Tuesday, 28 Jul 2020

PETALING JAYA: Name any relationship problem or just any problem in life that you can think of, and chances are that she has sound advice on how to deal with it.

From what to do about a philandering husband or a noisy neighbour, right down to coping with crazy office politics or panic-inducing exam stress, Sunday Star’s Dear Thelma has been the go-to advice column for readers whenever they get stuck in the anguish of life’s many dilemmas.

The column, which was first known as Tell it to Thelma, made its debut on April 13,1986.

READ ALSO > Dear Thelma – how it all started

For more than three decades, readers sent in a steady stream of letters (well, nowadays it would be email) seeking her counsel.

In celebration of Thelma’s longevity and continued popularity, The Star did an analysis of the column to gain insights on the problems that readers have shared with her through the years.

The photo below shows an announcement published on April 8,1986, five days ahead of Thelma's arrival. Readers were invited to submit their problems. As the announcement promised,"no problem will be too small and no trouble will be too big for her!"

The analysis was limited to columns published over the past decade to keep things manageable.

We found that since 2010, Thelma has responded to 705 letters submitted by readers seeking her counsel on 125 different types of problems.

The most common was marital infidelity (11.9%), followed by romantic relationship issues (11.6%), non-romantic relationship issues (7.5%), marital problems (5.2%) and unrequited romantic interest (5.1%).

The top topic – marital infidelity – consists mainly of wives writing about their husbands who were having relationships with other women.

It’s not totally about bad husbands as there was a small number of men in agony over their wives’ extramarital affairs.

Romantic relationship issues covered many kinds of problems.

Below is a sample of an undated letter sent by a reader to Thelma:

Sometimes it was about the boyfriend who blew hot and cold. Or partners who could not get over their old flame. In general, readers sought help with their rocky relationships.

Non-romantic relationships which came in third were about problems readers faced with relatives, friends, work colleagues or classmates, among others.

There are many reasons why Thelma has managed to last so long. One of them is her appeal to readers of all ages.

READ ALSO > Why advice columns appeal to us

Not all the readers who write in gave their age, but by tracking those who did we found that Thelma has helped readers aged 12 to 74 over the past decade.

One 12-year-old wrote asking for help with exam stress, saying she had been studying hard for her UPSR exam but was still very worried about a tough subject.

Another wrote asking Thelma to help “fix his family” which he felt was broken because of his mother, whom he said was always angry with him.

The 74-year-old meanwhile asked for advice on intimacy issues he was facing with his wife.

READ ALSO > The enduring appeal of 'Agony Aunts'

Thelma’s identity is a secret, but we can reveal that several people have taken on the role over the years after the first Thelma emigrated to Australia.

We did manage to sit down with the current Thelma for some insights about the column’s popularity.

The following is a Q&A based on our chat:

Q: Why has Dear Thelma lasted for so long?

A: I started reading Thelma in the middle 1990s and loved it! What captivated me was the comfort of knowing everyone has problems. Also, it's interesting to learn about different approaches to problem solving. Even if your own circumstances aren't quite the same, there's often a takeaway from good advice.

I think I'm the fourth Thelma, right? While maintaining the solid attractions of the column, I try to bring in a little bit of theory when possible, so that readers can go and read up for themselves. Also, although it's now much easier to find information than in the 1980s, I love that Thelma will share contacts and phone numbers to local services.

That's hugely useful to readers who don't have time to do lots of research.

Even more exciting is that we are receiving letters from Pakistan, Sudan and other countries. Because of our online portal, Thelma has gone international!

Q: Why are marriage related and romantic relationship issues the most common problems faced by your readers?

A: I think there are two things going on. First, there is a perception that Thelma focuses on relationship advice, so when readers have such a problem, they think of The Star. Also, when readers see an issue that resonates, they are encouraged to write.

So Thelma gets a lot of relationship questions but as she has a wider scope, there are pockets of other issues that pop up. For example, when we had a letter recently about career choices, we promptly got another.

Q: Do you notice a trend of problems which are common to people of certain age groups?

A: I notice that younger people are increasingly suffering from anxiety, fear of making mistakes, and depression. That perception is backed up by statistics with the National Health & Morbidity Survey 2017 noting the about one in five teens suffers from depression and two in five have anxiety.

As for adults discovering they're unhappily married, that is often linked to life changes such as the kids going off to college, and their retirement. It's the change in family dynamics like an empty house or suddenly having your partner at your side 24/7 that highlights issues that have likely been festering for a while.

Q: Based on our analysis, there are more women readers who send these letters. Is this because it is more common for women to talk about their problems?

A: Generally speaking, little girls are taught to understand and manage their emotions whereas little boys are told to be brave, not cry and fix things.

Consequently, adult women tend to be more comfortable about reaching out and good at describing what's going on. But adult men are less skilled at this, so they're less likely to reach out.

Sadly, this problem is affecting relationships. I'm hearing of more and more young women who are fed up having to deal with men who are emotionally unaware or lacking.

Thankfully, I'm also hearing from men who want to develop that part of themselves. While it can be a bit nerve-wracking to learn new life skills, I think it's important to do so because it helps boost happiness.

Also, from what I see, current parenting practice is much more enlightened so hopefully this is an issue that future generations will see less of.

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