Tuesday, May 30, 2023

What’s the secret to giving good advice? Wait until you are asked for it

We are living through a golden age of advice. Of budgeting tips and smoky-eye tutorials and from three easy ways to remove stains from a carpet to how to breathe.

Influencers take you on a personal journey of advice, from their favourite face serums, to how to eat breakfast, to how to raise your children, to how to avoid being brainwashed by the liberal elite. Theatres are sold out months in advance for talks by charismatic writers answering questions from their female audiences on such problems as body negativity, the role afforded to celebrities as climate change communicators and what kind of adult man eats a Kinder Egg.

Women evolve over a single summer from models into gurus, advising on anxiety or ADHD or orgasms, or how to cut your own fringe, or whether to vaccinate your kids. Advice flavours the air between us like a strawberry vape, seeping into places it was not invited.

I write this as a professional giver of such advice – every two weeks I respond to letters from Vogue readers asking, for instance: “Why am I never satisfied?” and “Will I regret not having children?” Before that, I wrote an agony aunt column for style title iD, and when I was still at art college I wrote an anonymous advice column for an alternative culture magazine called Bizarre, where the letters were significantly more blue: I once had to ask a doctor to weigh in on a reader’s question, “Is it possible to go blind from someone ejaculating in your eyes?” And that doctor was my dad.

Still, each time I read one of the letters from a Vogue reader (recent questions include, “How do I get over being ghosted?” and “Am I sharing too much about my mental health?”) my first thought is, “God, how am I meant to know?” The pressure to get it right lies heavy on my typing fingers for a minute, as I silently list all the many things I’ve got terribly wrong, all the quick fixes I’ve attempted, all the problems of my own that I’ve chucked haphazardly under the stairs to be dealt with at a later date.

But then the fog lifts, and two things happen. The first is that I remember this truth: that simply by writing their problem down, the problem-haver will probably have solved much of it. It is not about me – the answer exists only in their immediate life, in their mind or phone or family, and the act of telling the story will illuminate its exit routes. The second is that I remind myself, the role I’ve accepted here is not therapist or mum, but instead the letter writer’s unconnected mate, a person just like them who can hopefully help untangle much of the problem, or at least lay out its separate pieces on the table to look at properly under the light.

I believe there is a time for advice, and that time is directly after it has been requested. So I am wary of the seeping strawberry-flavoured kind of advice, and of a culture that invites it. A culture that suggests we are all one piece of advice away from perfection, that there is a correct way to be, ignoring the fact that we are all appallingly different, with different expectations, histories, lusts and bodies. And so often when a person has a problem, they are not looking for an answer, they are just looking for somebody to scream about it to. Nine times out of 10, a person does not want you to tell them what to do, they don’t want a story about what happened when a similar thing happened to your cousin, or a recommendation for a book about feng shui, or your top tips on batch cooking to prevent stressful mealtimes, or which vitamins to take (and you have to drink the tea, there’s no point if you’re not also drinking the tea). No, they want you to shake their head at the appropriate moment. To gasp in outrage at the awful bit. To say, “I’m so sorry, that sounds hard”, or “Bloody hell, that cow!”, or “Well done for getting through that”, or “You can do it”.

All of which sound easy to say but, in practice, can be significantly harder than Amazon-ing over a copy of a book which, for example, promises death will elude us if we write down our dreams every morning, or, a special oil which, if used correctly, will eliminate grief. Listening is hard, empathy is hard – our instinct is to try to fix the problem in front of us, to make our friend happy again, and as quickly as possible.

I used to keep pictures on my phone of certain letters from agony aunts Cathy and Claire in Jackie magazine, written in the 70s. “Dear Kerry,” began one, “the thing is not to give your stepfather any chance to be alone with you. When you go to bed, put a chair in front of the door. Even if he can still open it, the noise will put him off. Go out whenever you have a chance. Let’s hope he soon starts behaving better.” These were, as they say, different times. “Dear Janice, there’s absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t fall in love with your cousin. Why not just relax and enjoy it? Yours, Cathy & Claire.”

Despite my suspicion that magazine advice is still sometimes questionable, or on a par with the “How to please your lover, and still have time to clean the kitchen!” and “Get a six-pack in six days” tips of my youth, I have a deep fondness for advice columns. Especially the ones that read as little memoirs, acknowledging the writers’ chaos or failings, and the ones by professionals, condensing 30 years of expertise on to half a glossy page as if it’s nothing.

While Cathy and Claire were reassuring readers they couldn’t get pregnant from a toilet seat, today’s readers already know all the facts of life – the thing people are questioning now is simply: how to live.

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