Get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week by signing up in the box below. Please send your questions for publication to email@example.com. (Questions may be edited.)
Got a burning question for the next Prudie? Submit your questions and comments here before or during her first live chat.
Mallory Ortberg: Hi, Emily! I’m so glad to get the chance to talk with you a bit about the column before assuming the Dear Prudence mantle. The advice game is the ultimate your-mileage-may-vary exercise—do you have a feeling for when someone is looking for (or needs) a gentle smack to return them to their senses, a bit of empathy, a dose of humor? It’s a tricky balance, I think, between writing something entertaining for your many readers and trying to be genuinely helpful to the original writer. How have you balanced that?
Emily Yoffe: This question is a lovely distillation of this job. Mallory, you have just described for yourself your new marching orders. How do you balance all this? That’s done question by question, every week. All you can do is try to make the right call, working with limited information, while honing your skills at reading between the lines. You are also right that you have two audiences—one the individual letter writer, the other the many Prudie readers. Speaking to those two audiences works itself out, I found, by being true to giving the best advice you can to the letter writer. You have more than proven you have a preternatural gift for a turn of phrase. (Proof: You are a best-selling author in your 20s!) So you will balance these imperatives by applying your wit and wits to the amazing panoply of letters you will confront in your inbox.
Mallory: I am trying so hard to not break out into Kipling’s “If–” right now. Or walk with kings, nor lose the common touch! Then you’ll be an advice columnist, my son.
One of the most common complaints I hear about advice columns is “FAKE.” Do you often suspect letter writers of trying to con you? What sets off your suspicions? Do you think it ultimately matters if occasionally a fictional letter makes it through security? (ALSO: Do you think those gay, incestuous twins were real??)
Emily: When I started this column almost 10 years ago I, too, thought one of my biggest tasks would be sniffing out the fakes. But in fact that has been a matter of almost no concern. I think most of the letters are real. If you didn’t know already, this job will teach you that humans have an almost infinite capacity to get themselves in unbelievable situations. Mostly, people write in using their normal emails so their names are visible. Sometimes, as a spot check, I googled the name of the letter writer to see if that person’s demographics fit their own self-description. I can’t think of a time it didn’t. (Note: I guarded people’s privacy with the utmost assiduousness and would never release those names to anyone. Nothing ever slipped in 10 years, and I’m sure you will follow the same principle.) There are so many people who are genuinely seeking the advice of an objective person, that they simply swamp the few possible fakes.
One time I know I got faked out involved a rather ridiculous chat question about a couple having a blow-up about the woman’s “little hobby” before they had tickets to the symphony. It turned out to be the plot of the music video for the band ’Til Tuesday’s song “Voices Carry.” That worried me, because plots of music videos from the 1980s are a complete blind spot of mine. (And they may be for you, too, Mallory.) Fortunately, I didn’t get fooled again. (That’s a reference from the ’70s.) So don’t worry about fakes.
And yes, I’m almost certain that the incestuous twins are real. I did a follow-up letter with them, and one twin explained at length the genesis of their relationship. After the twincest letter ran, I got an email with the subject line, “Thank you.” It was from a female twin in her 20s in a similar relationship with her sister; she said they thought they were the only such pair in the world, and that the letter gave them such relief.
Mallory: That’s such an important point to bear in mind, because I know my initial reaction to “gay incestuous twins” was one of shock and prurient interest (I’m only mortal!), but there are actual human beings behind every question, no matter how unusual the circumstances. It’s not worth the time, I think, trying to sniff out fakers and writing answers with an air of suspicion. The column really depends upon an assumption of good faith.
Also, Emily! “Won’t get fooled again,” that’s a Who reference! I got that! Also, Quadrophenia was one of the first albums I bought with my own money! Nevertheless, anyone who wants to fool me will probably be able to get away with recycling music video plots. (This is all very exciting.)
All right, leaving the Who behind us for now: It’s fairly obvious what readers and letter writers get from Dear Prudence, but I imagine that after almost a decade of writing the column, there’s a fair amount of help you’ve gotten from it too. Has Prudence influenced you? What qualities of hers will you take with you?
Emily: I think almost certainly Prudie made me a better mother. The sources I turned to for help in handling parenting questions also informed my own parenting. They made me realize that most conflicts could be defused by de-escalating—even walking away if necessary—and that the most important goal was preserving the relationship, not winning a particular battle. They helped me understand that making that choice in no way means giving in to your kid, or not setting boundaries. It did mean that I gave advice pointing out that often a conflict, particularly with a teenager, could be subdued by lowering one’s voice and simply expressing sympathy for the difficulty of being a (hormonal) teen trying to sort things out. When I applied that lesson with my daughter, it almost always worked.
Mallory: What do you think of as Prudence’s defining characteristics? Every iteration of the column is different, but what do you think it is that makes Prudie Prudie?
Emily: Here’s a little secret that got me through almost 10 years of being Prudie: I only answered the questions I could answer, and I can’t answer this one! It doesn’t matter what made your three predecessors Prudie. What matters is how you make yourself Prudie. You have all the raw material necessary: the smarts, the wit, the insight. I look forward, a year from now, to your answering this question yourself!
More Dear Prudence Columns
“To Catch a Professor: A student told me she has sex with two senior faculty members for money. What should I do?”
“Office Stalker: I wouldn’t leave alone the woman I was mentoring. Can I still fix things?”
“Frankly, My Dear, I Don’t Give a Damn: Should I warn the women I date that I’m a sociopath?”
“Let It Go: I’m a 27-year-old woman, and I’ve never had an orgasm.”
More Dear Prudence Chat Transcripts
“Insemination From Beyond the Grave: In a live chat, Prudie counsels a woman debating whether to have a baby using her dead husband’s sperm.”
“Campus Escort: In a live chat, Prudie counsels a father whose daughter wants to work as a paid companion to cover college tuition.”
“Jeepers, Peepers: In a live chat, Prudie counsels a woman whose husband tried to secretly film a 19-year-old staying with them.”
“No One Will Believe: In a live chat, Prudie counsels a woman who fears telling anyone her brother-in-law came on to her would tear the family apart.”