The last few months I have found it hard to read much. Or watch anything. Even my nervy social media addiction has been at an all-time low. What hasn’t flagged is my interest in online advice columns.
I used to read advice columns in magazines growing up. My memory of reading advice columns in women’s magazines (Women’s Era, I am looking at you!) as a teenager is of being shocked at how mean and judgmental the advice was. Perhaps it wasn’t universally mean but that’s what I remember. More recently, I have read a handful of long, idiosyncratic, feverish advice columns online and loved them. Cheryl Strayed’s Dear Sugar, Heather Havrilesky’s Dear Polly, many avatars of Dear Prudence on Slate which is rapidly mutating into “Advice Central”. At last count, it had sex advice, money advice, pet advice, parenting advice, classroom advice, workplace and general advice. I read them all.
Some people read advice columns because they can imagine themselves standing in for the advice-giver. If you are one of them, you know you read the column to compare it to the advice you would have given. I have a friend who reads these columns just to yell, “that’s crap. She’s totally gotten it wrong”. She has a full life but is waiting to be discovered as the best advice-giver of all time, like other people wait to be discovered by casting agents. Me, I don’t have the belief in one’s rightness that advice columnists need—even though the modern advice columnist presents themselves as messy people with complex histories of being wrong. Some columnists make the radical aesthetic choice of devoting most of their column real estate on themselves. The rough template is “Dear Letter Writer, I know you asked me about X. Now let me tell you about the orchids my grandmother gave me and I killed, making me feel more wretched and then less wretched—a parable from which you will glean what you need.” This is agony aunty refashioned as the agony-and-ecstasy aunt. Or the agony-and-I-used-to-do-ecstasy aunt.
The scolders have not left the building though. I once interviewed diet and nutrition advice-giver and best-selling author Rujuta Diwekar and she said in passing that she found that some of her clients, in the early stages of their relationship with her, liked to call and confess their dieting sins. When Diwekar simply told the client to move on and do better the next day, they seemed surprised and Diwekar thought, disappointed. There is always a market for scolding because for some people, love=attention=scolding. So where have the scolders gone? Mostly to Instagram and TikTok where they excel in jerky, jittery videos telling people how they are screwing up in different realms of their lives—their diet, their children’s diet, skincare, their English accent, their clothes, their money, their relationship with God.
Lately, I have been reading a particular kind of advice column which has finally revealed to me my interest in reading columns. Sure, I like the comfort of wisdom and am dazzled by those who can cut through Gordian knots with a few paragraphs of writing. Let me tell you that’s not what you find in the AITA subreddit (a theme-based discussion forum on the online discussion site Reddit). AITA stands for “Am I the Assxxxe?” If you haven’t heard about it, let me tell you that since it was founded in 2013, it has acquired 12.7 million devoted followers. Followers who are there for the dozens of daily posts where folks posts a long, messy description of a “situation”, then a short TLDR (Too Long Didn’t Read) version and asks the plaintive question: AITA? Then dozens/hundreds/thousands of people weigh in. They ask for more details, they ask if the original poster posted the truth and the whole truth and then they declare their personal verdict. Either YTA (You are The Assxxxe), NTA (Not The Assxxxe), ESH (Everyone sucks here) or NAH (No Assxxxe). The last verdict is fairly rare. When everyone is given room to dish out their judgement, it’s rare that you don’t get judged. After the multitudes have voted the majority judgement gives your post a badge declaring YTA/NTA/ESH/NAH. On AITA, everyone gets to be agony aunt. It’s not just my friend who knows better than advice columnists. Everyone knows better.
If you have ever used Reddit you know it’s an Old Internet forum. You are anonymous, it’s all text, no pictures, and its full of the world’s most random possibilities. It could be ugly, beautiful, unbelievably alien or deeply familiar. It’s a lottery. A lot of it is family drama of the kind that—if you are old enough to remember—dominated late 1990s American chat shows. A woman who finds out that her mysterious skin affliction was caused by her husband scrubbing the bathroom with her washcloths. The father who wants his daughter who lives with his divorced wife to pay him thousands of dollars to repay the money he has spent on her since she was born. You get the drift. You can find less dramatic but nevertheless highly polarising content there too. AITA, asks a young American man who hates Indian food and whose girlfriend is Indian. AITA, asks a young woman whose sister-in-law is upset that her wedding clothes are fancier. AITA, asks a young Indian who got a waiter fired while he was travelling abroad because the waiter called him dirty for eating with his hands.
Due to laziness, I get my AITA content filtered through other social media curators and I enjoy it all. It gave me such a good sense of why I have read advice columns all my life. Not for the excellent advice. Every good story needs conflict and stakes and AITA stories have conflict coming out of the ears right there in the headline. The comment section is unfiltered, strident and usually just too much reading for anyone. But if you are the kind of person who runs out to the balcony and watches people shouting “ai, ai, dai, dai” at each other as their friends hold them back by their shirts, this is where you should spend your downtime. As I do.
Nisha Susan is the author of The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories. She posts @chasingiamb.