It’s been a busy year in advice columns. Normally, I don’t like writing retrospective columns in November, let alone being so bold as to name the advice column of the year this early. Who knows what could come in the next month, right? But I am 100% certain that this advice column cannot be beat by anything anyone else writes in the next month.
It contains a mixture of all the things I look for in a good advice column:
- Brevity. Advice should be crisp, simple, and to the point. Columnists who can cut to the chase win a lot of points, in my book. Yes, some situations are complicated, but when you’re talking about letters edited to fit in a newspaper and the responses, it should be short and simple. Sometimes, concepts are clear and don’t need to be explained.
- Crispness. I like columnists who add dry wit and snark to their columns. It makes their work more fun to read and it makes it more memorable. If I read some blah-y, preachy advice, I usually start tuning out, and I don’t really remember what it said. When the columnist says something funny or snarkalicious, it sticks in my mind.
- Bluntness. Sometimes, advice needs to be blunt. A question is so ridiculous, so invasive, that the only dignified response is one of disbelief, expressed through bluntness. Bluntness is not just a reminder to the reader that what they are asking is eyebrow-worthy. It’s also a reminder to people that they are, in fact, allowed to be blunt in certain social settings.
There’s one advice columnist who tends to embody these things. In fact, she’s known for it: Miss Manners. Miss Manners is penned by Judith Martin, and has been since the start, unlike other advice columnists, where the face behind the pen name has turned over not once but even multiple times. Miss Manners is always crisp and fresh and one of the things I love about her is that she belies pretty much every stereotype about her. People might expect older women who are experts in etiquette to be conservative and stuffy, and she’s not. She’s highly progressive and wicked funny. In fact, one of the driving thrusts of her columns is the idea that if you’re being offensive, people have a right to stop associating with you, which is kind of a cornerstone of my own philosophy.
Given these facts, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I adore Miss Manners on general principle, and that she would probably be shortlisted for advice column of the year. I’ve been reading Miss Manners since I was a wee thing and I think she gives generally sound advice; in fact, usually I agree with what she says and only rarely have I differed from Miss Manners. In part that’s because she focuses on etiquette rather than entangled personal situations like Ask Amy or Dear Abby. But it’s also because she has a way of cutting to the chase in a situation, divining what’s really going on, and setting things straight.
Miss Manners taught me that while it’s never acceptable to be rude, a firm ‘I beg your pardon’ can be just as effective as snapping at someone for saying something I find abominable. She also taught me that if I find behaviour unacceptable, I’m allowed to say so; she taught me to value my own opinion rather than going on what other people tell me, and she reminded me that I have autonomy, as a person, to make my own decisions and to formulate my own thoughts on matters. Since marginalised people are often informed that they don’t matter and that their lived experiences are not as important as what other people think, this was an important thing for me to learn at a young age.
Dear Miss Manners—What is the proper way to ask someone why they have prosthetic limbs?
Miss Manners responded in true form:
Gentle Reader—As that person’s new doctor, you can ask outright. If Miss Manners is mistaken and you are not that person’s doctor, you have no business asking.
The first time I read this, I said ‘this is my platonic ideal of an advice column,’ and I stand by that. Everything about the framing of this response is superb: Start with the ‘innocent assumption’ and move on to ‘but if I am mistaken in this assumption, you, gentle reader, are clearly an ass.’ It’s delicious and it’s a sharp reminder to readers of her column that, hey, you shouldn’t ask people for information about their disabilities unless you have a professionally relevant reason for needing that information. Furthermore, it goes the other way, too; as a disabled reader, I know that my desire for privacy and respect is perfectly reasonable and that I am allowed to say, as Miss Manners taught me, ‘I beg your pardon?’ when someone asks an invasive question of this nature.
I am immensely pleased to announce that this column takes the advice column of the year award, hands down, and that Miss Manners’ position as Supreme Advice Columnist of the Universe remains secure.