Dear Ali and Hayley,
How do I tell my vegetarian girlfriend that I love meat more than I love her?
Invite her to a candlelit dinner at Fogo de Chao.
We’re no advice columnists, but 50 years ago, we just may have been.
Last Thursday, we lost the master of the art. Pauline Phillips, who wrote the most iconic advice column of all time under the pseudonym “Abigail Van Buren,” passed away at 94 years young.
The Dear Abby column was so major that according to The Washington Post, Phillips received anywhere from 3,000 to 25,000 letters per week. A defining part of the zeitgeist, she tackled issues ranging from sex to what to pack in packed lunches, adultery to mortality to homosexuality — and all the amusingly banal in between.
Always progressive, always sweetly sassy, Pauline’s Abby was the cool mom, the experienced older sister or the hip young high school teacher that gave it to us straight-up, peppered with her signature wit.
Perfectly described in the New York Times obituary last week as “astringent, often genteelly risque,” Abby first appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle in 1956.
Through Phillips, we could be both anonymously and publicly vulnerable. Those seeking advice benefitted not just from her wisdom, but from the subsequent dialogue she started within her collective readership.
Phillips spewed out some spunky zingers in her day, but she also delivered on the delicate moments. Here’s one of our favorites from the first-ever column in ’56:
“Dear Abb[y]: I am sweet 16 and truly never been kissed … please tell me how I can become irresistible? — Hopeful Ann.”
“Dear Ann — if you become ‘irresistible’ at 16, you’ll need police protection by the time you reach 20. If you are looking for a good night kiss, the likes of which would melt a glacier, it’s too early. However, if you want the innocent, customary goodnight kiss, hold your little cheek up, close your eyes, and boom! You’re irresistible. — Abby.”
This is officially the best advice ever and our lives would be significantly better if we had been told this at 16.
With the loss of this esteemed voice of reason, we pondered the state of advice — from asking for it to giving it — today. There’s no question that advice columns are still well-read — in fact, Phillips’ daughter assumed the column in 2002 — but our generation has replaced the Dear Abby model with more niche forums for specific answers to specific questions.
With Dear Abby, “so many Americans were reading the same advice about how to live an upstanding moral life,” Creative Writing professor Meredith Broussard explained to us. While both the old and the young read Dear Abby, today the idea that we would look to the same authority as our parents and our parents’ parents seems far-fetched.
We have lost that sense of loyalty to an author in the same way that we’re surfing, skimming, trolling and perusing without commitment.
Instead of picking up the paper to see what Abby has to say today, millennial readers instead handpick their information from search engines.
We take heavy questions like “could I be pregnant if …” or “how do I tell my parents I’m gay” to Google. We’re both impatient and hesitant to seek real help from real people.
Online, we not only lose the contact between the writer and Phillips but also between all of her readers. Whereas we once traded interpretations of Phillips’ daily dish over the water cooler, today we digest solo, behind the privacy of our monitors.
While Dear Abby invited public discourse, the internet has made it too easy to find answers. But valuable, personal advice can only be unearthed through human interaction.
Yet are we too proud — or perhaps too intimidated — to ask adults for help? In a meta move, we asked Broussard.
“One of the things college students struggle with is talking to grown-ups,” she pinpointed. Instead of solitarily reading a Yahoo! Answers page she encourages us to “talk to people, learn from other people — not just people that are exactly your age — talk to older people, talk to younger people and have conversations that matter.”
In the wake of Phillips’ passing, it’s on all of us to keep the talk alive.
Ali Kokot and Hayley Brooks are College juniors from New York, N.Y. and Ft. Lauderdale, F.L. respectively. You can email them at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow them at @haybethbrooks and @alikokot. “Think Twice” appears every Wednesday.