By Petra

25 reasons why advice columns are amazing

Doodlecats card by Beth Wilson
Doodlecats card by Beth Wilson

1. They’re a place where you’ll be heard.

2. You can tell someone your problems in confidence.

3. No matter where you are in the world if you can write, text, email or use a phone you can reach out for help.

4. Advice may be free or only cost you the price of a phone call or postage stamp.

5. Print, online or broadcast media has a massive reach. If you need help, chances are you’ll find it somewhere.

6. Writing or talking about your experiences can be therapeutic.

7. If you don’t want the burden of a secret or story you can pass it on to the advice columnist to take care of.

8. They’re a place to confess.

9. Or somewhere to get a second opinion.

10. You can help other people by sharing your own story.

11. Reading about other people’s problems can make you feel better about yourself.

12. They’re somewhere that reminds you that you are not alone.

13. If you don’t have access to or can’t afford a therapist or other health services, you may be able to get some temporary help or advice from an agony aunt or uncle.

14. They’re somewhere to help you reflect on your situation and give you ideas about what to do next.

15. A place to rehearse what you’d like to say to your lover, boss, relative.

16. Or where you can express feelings you might not feel able to share anywhere else.

17. They provide someone to talk to if you don’t feel safe or able discussing issues with others.

18. Plus a resource to help you build escape plans if you are trying to exit a difficult or dangerous situation.

19. They may be a step on a journey to seeking help or recovery.

20. And a place where taboo topics can be mentioned.

21. Or an introduction service – where you can find out other books, websites, helplines, charities or organisations that could assist you.

22. They can help you put your worries in context.

23. Be a place for reassurance.

24. Where someone will pay you attention and make you feel special.

25. And who you can keep coming back to if you still need help, or if you want to report your progress.


In or out?

Picture from Cory Silverberg's 'What Makes A Baby?'
Picture from Cory Silverberg’s ‘What Makes A Baby?’

Advice columns in print, online and broadcast media are promoted as places where anyone who needs help can get it.

In reality, this isn’t always the case. For starters pretty much all advice columns, wherever they exist, will have more people getting in touch than can be included in any programme or page. Some media outlets and advice columnists have a policy of answering everyone regardless of what is published or transmitted, but that doesn’t apply everywhere.

Right from the entry point of asking for advice there will be people who may not get a reply to their letter or call.

You’re more likely to be featured in a column or programme if you’ve a compelling story, something that’s not been addressed for a while, or that fits a topical issue. Those who are willing to have their problems broadcast or perform their difficulties to wider audiences have a better chance of getting a response. As do people who can describe their situation coherently. Or who have the access, ability and freedom to write, email, or call an advice column or programme.

While plenty of people get in touch with agony aunts or uncles seeking assistance and advice, there are wider audiences tuning in who never actively ask for advice but are still using the advice column or programme to get information, help and ideas.

The way in which we then describe people and problems can make some people or topics seem ‘normal’, make others appear strange or unusual, and render some invisible. By what we decide to focus on and how we choose to do this we have the power to make people feel included, supported and safe. Or to further demonize, judge and shame them. And put them at risk.

Try this exercise
Whether you are making, watching or reading advice columns, think about how they talk about, or don’t talk about, people or problems based around their:
Relationship status
Physical/mental health
Friends and family

You may be able to think of more areas of our lives that are included or excluded in our advice giving.

What can we learn from this?
Looking critically at advice giving we can see
– what conversations or topics are we opening up, and what ones are we closing down?
– who are we bringing in, and who are we leaving out?
– what are the things we say clearly, and what is left unsaid?

From this we can think about how effectively information is offered to audiences. And who is harmed or hurt by what we do and don’t discuss.