This sentiment is a radical departure from the original newspaper advice columns, which were meant to offer practical guidance on etiquette and manners. They reiterated traditional values, while also luring readers in with the promise of salacious, though anonymous, stories. One of the earliest such columns came in the late 1890s, when a 20-year-old journalist named Marie Manning started giving advice as “Beatrice Fairfax” (after Dante’s Beatrice) for New York Journal. In a piece for Mental Floss, Linda Rodriguez McRobby described how the original format was more brusque than maternal. “Victims of spousal abuse, desperate unwed mothers, and jilted lovers all crowded for column inches,” McRobby wrote. “Manning’s approach to all: ‘Dry your eyes, roll up your sleeves, and dig for a practical solution.’”
This “bootstraps” attitude has since reigned as the most common approach taken by columnists. From classic examples like Dear Abby and Ann Landers to more contemporary (and risqué) ones like Savage Love, readers often expect particularly clueless letter-writers to get a bit of a tongue-lashing. Even the ’90s kids comedy sketch show All That featured a regular segment called “Ask Ashley” that parodied this style: “Ashley,” played by Amanda Bynes, would yell at and belittle fans who would write in asking painfully obvious questions. Likewise, one of the joys of reading Dan Savage is laughing at his raunchy, merciless responses. He regularly implores letter-writers who are dealing with a hostile or difficult partner to DTMFA (“Dump the motherfucker already”). Even without the same colorful language or ribald imagery, Emily Yoffe’s Dear Prudence would often advise an anguished letter-writer to “get over it.”
In contrast, modern advice columns (which I’d argue includes the latest iteration of “Dear Prudence” where Mallory Ortberg, formerly of The Toast, has taken the helm) feel as though they’re coming from a close confidante, rather than a sadistic personal trainer. In doing so, they achieve exactly what Rogers does in his ’97 speech—they allow each individual the space to be vulnerable.
Take, for example, the musician Andrew W.K.’s advice to a reader who asks how he can better deal with his depression. “Downer in the Dumps” writes, “You always seem so happy, and I really look up to you for that. But do you ever get depressed? How do you stay so positive?” W.K.’s response begins with a personal narrative about his own struggles with depression, and then moves beyond advice for one reader toward a grander reflection.
We can keep getting closer to that truth, and we can let our devotion to it become the centerpiece of our lives ... It’s a truth that tells us that life is more beautiful and awe-inspiring than we can even contemplate—and, most amazing of all, that we are a very real part of it. It tells us that it’s all going to be OK. That you will be OK. That you already are. Never forget this. I love you. Stay strong.
The author Cheryl Strayed’s Dear Sugar columns also emphasizes empathy over scolding. In her column, “How You Get Unstuck” Strayed comforts a woman who is struggling to “get over” her miscarriage more quickly—without serving up platitudes about grief.
Don’t listen to those people who suggest you should be “over” your daughter’s death by now. The people who squawk the loudest about such things have almost never had to get over any thing ... Others are scared of the intensity of your loss and so they use their words to push your grief away. Many of those people love you and are worthy of your love, but they are not the people who will be helpful to you when it comes to healing the pain of your daughter’s death.
They live on Planet Earth. You live on Planet My Baby Died.
Strayed, who now offers listeners “radical empathy” via Dear Sugar Radio with her co-host Steve Almond, would respond to letter writers with intimate nicknames like “sweet pea.” W.K. would end each of his letters, “Your friend.” Each column is surprisingly affectionate, considering they’re exchanges between total strangers. The key to this intimacy is how the columnists see each inquiry as an opportunity to tap into something essential about humanity. In an interview with NPR, for example, Heather Havrilesky, the author behind the wildly successful column Ask Polly, explains how she sees her position as a columnist:
I don’t think I’m someone who’s ever going to be high up on a mountain, looking down at all the sad mortals who are still struggling ... I think a lot of people see themselves as these messed-up shells that need to be filled with something or these imperfect, bad, empty things that need to become better. And what I’m trying to tell people is you’re filled with so much beauty and so much potential and so much brilliance. You just have to believe in it.
This same belief in humility and genuine human connection is what an adult takes from revisiting the world of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Over the years, Rogers not only brought together children and grown-ups, but also people from diverse backgrounds and experiences. In a 1969 episode, for example, Rogers invited the show’s African-American policeman Officer Clemmons to come soak his feet with Rogers in a pool and sing together. In a 2016 interview with NPR, Francois Clemmons recalled how meaningful this scene became to him. “The icon Fred Rogers not only was showing my brown skin in the tub with his white skin as two friends,” said Clemmons, the first African-American to have a regular role on a kids TV show. “But as I was getting out of that tub, he was helping me dry my feet.”