My Readers Still Surprise Me”: Emily Yoffe on What it’s Like to Write Dear Prudence

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June 9 2014 9:43 AM
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Your Infinite Capacity to Amaze Me

In a live chat, Emily Yoffe explains what still surprises her after years of writing the Dear Prudence column.

Illustration by Charlie Powell.

Illustration by Charlie Powell

Slate's Dear Prudence chat series is coming home. Emily Yoffe recently explained that she would be moving her weekly live chats from the Washington Post website to Slate.

On June 3, Slate Plus members joined Emily for a test run of Slate’s live-chat technology. What follows is an edited transcript of that AMA discussion. Starting this Tuesday at noon, we invite you to join Emily on Slate for her weekly live chat. Submit your questions here. –Lowen Liu, Slate copy chief and Dear Prudence editor.

Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon! Welcome to this Ask Me Anything. Thank you for helping us out to see how our new live-chat technology is working. We are bringing the chat I've done at the Washington Post over to Slate, so please bear with us while we work out some technical glitches.

Q. Respond Privately? Hi Emily! Do you ever respond offline to letters that don't make the cut for Dear Prudence?

A: Shhh, but sometimes I do. It's relatively random, but I try to respond to young people in distress. I often answer people dealing with abuse. And sometimes, if I'm in the mood, I'll say, "Go" or "Don't go." "Tell" or "Don't tell." But I hope people understand that because of the volume of mail I simply can't do this as a regular thing.

Q. Prank: Do pranksters try to slip questions by your BS filters? Are you aware of them ever having succeeded?

A: I am confident that the overwhelming majority of letters are real. But recently someone sent a letter that turned out to be based on a video of ‘Til Tuesday's “Voices Carry” from the mid-1980s. I'm weak on music video plots from the mid-‘80s, so I got pranked.

Q. Leaving the WP: Why are you leaving the Post? I'm wondering if it's an old journalism vs. Web journalism decision.

A: It's a family thing. Until the Graham family sold the Post to Jeff Bezos we were all part of the same corporate family. After the sale, Slate became a part of Graham Holdings. So it made sense for us to bring the chat back to home base.

Q. Report: Have you ever had letters that made you feel that you had to track down the writer for fear of them becoming a danger to themselves or someone else? And how do you leave the disturbing letters behind when you go off-job?

A: Fortunately, very rarely. I once got essentially a suicide note from a guy. I wrote him a long answer why his plan would devastate his family, then I talked to a psychiatrist friend of mine about it. The letter writer wrote back to me the following day and said his wife was worried about him, had gotten into his email, and saw our exchange, and he was going to get help. He wrote to me a year later, and he was doing a lot better. I do often counsel people that they need to call Child Protective Services or other authorities when they are observing something alarming.

I do feel haunted by some of the letters and the suffering people have endured. But I keep in mind that the people who write to me know that I am a journalist and an on-line advice columnist, not a social service professional. So I try to direct people in distress to the right resources, where they can get comprehensive help. I've heard from many people that simply putting down in a letter what is going on in their lives is therapeutic in and of itself.

Q. Burning Question: Have you ever received a very embarrassing letter and were pretty sure you knew who it was from?

A: No, I've never gotten a letter where I thought I knew the person. But I have heard from people who think they know the letter writer. I got a letter from a young second wife who had stumbled across her husband's X-rated videos with his first wife and was very upset. (I told her to be happy he had picked up some tips from Wife One.) I then heard from a woman who said she was quite sure she was the first wife, and she hoped her successor deleted the evidence.

Q. The Questions: Is there any particular thing you wish people would do before writing you?

A: The biggest problem is that people want to tell the whole story, and they write letters that are way longer than anything I could possibly run. We edit for length and clarity, but if a question is overwhelmingly long, it's just hard to use. A succinct letter helps.

Q. Outcomes: Do you find out what happened to letter writers? I am often dying to know whether they took your advice and what happened as a result.

A: I love to know too! In the chat that's up on Slate now the letter writer whose brother-in-law exposed himself to her wrote a good follow-up. When I do hear back from people I usually include this in an end of year column. I've also started a new feature on Slate's great new podcast, The Gist, in which Mike Pesca and I talk to letter writers to see if they took my advice. I will be posting these episodes on my column and Facebook page.

Q. Your Favorite Sites: What news sites do you read religiously?

A: I start the day with the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. Then it gets really eclectic. I regularly check a bunch of science sites just because I'm interested but also because I like to see if there's stuff that might be applicable to the column. What's wonderful about working at Slate is that all day long people email each other random fascinating things they've found around the Web.

Q. Still Shocking, or Have You Seen It All? Are you still shocked or surprised by letters, or have you seen it all by now? Is there a recent example of a letter that you never could have predicted?

A: What's so great about the column is seeing people's infinite capacity to be amazing. Just recently I had a mother-in-law who forced a tech at an obstetrician's office to tell her the sex of her daughter-in-law's fetus. And in today's chat, I have a mother who came home to find her teenage daughter pleasuring herself with an egg beater. (Which does sound safer than the mom who found her son making beautiful music with the vacuum cleaner hose.)

Q. The Doctor Problem: Do you often get cornered by advice-seekers at cocktail parties, grocery stores, and Slate editorial meetings? Does it get tiresome?

A: I'm always flattered when people ask. Occasionally people do recognize me, but they usually just say hello and don't ask a question. However, once during a break at Yom Kippur two sisters cornered me and I had to mediate a family dispute!

Q. Other advice columnists: Which advice columns do you read? Is there any advice columnist you read and enjoy, but with whom you often disagree?

A: I regularly read Carolyn Hax, Ask Amy, Dan Savage, Miss Manners. I enjoy them all and sometimes think I would have answered differently, but that's what makes the advice column game fun. I actually love it when Dan Savage goes after me! Sometimes he even agrees with me.  I just appeared on his podcast, and we both gave our reaction to a couple of letters and it was really fun to be able to debate each other.

Q. Bad Advice: Has someone ever acted on your advice then written back to inform you that it totally backfired? If so, how did you handle it?

A: Fortunately, no. However, I have heard back from people saying they didn't take my advice—usually I said "Tell" or "Don't tell" and they went the opposite way. But when they've written back it's to explain what they did and how it came out, and they usually say it was helpful to simply to see their question answered and also to read what the commenters said.

Q. Advice Columns: Why are advice columns so popular?

A: I think because they are little encapsulated dramas that people either can relate to, or can say, "Wow, my life is great in comparison to this." And because they are presented as dilemmas, lots of people read questions and say to themselves, "So what would I say?" Then you can see the columnist's answer and decide whether you agree or not.

Q. Personal Family: I appreciate that you mention your own daughter and circumstances of your husband's first marriage. But this is personal information. Does your family or maybe mostly your daughter get frustrated with this exposure?

A: My answer is if you didn't want to be written about, you shouldn't have been born to a writer! Actually, I do hope I respect my family's privacy (and I hope they don't disagree). I think my husband enjoys being presented as the long-suffering person he is. If I'm going to write something significant about my daughter (beyond mentioning she's graduation from high school, etc.) I ask her permission. She's pretty understanding.

Q. Column theme: Do you ever try to find questions that fit a specific theme for your weekly column? Some weeks it seems like most of the questions are about one thing such as in-laws, etc.

A: In the live chat it is sometimes amazing the way themes spontaneously appear; it's like some big Jungian archetype in action.  Otherwise in the Thursday column I try to balance things—one romantic question, one work question, etc. But occasionally I'll have a couple of questions that just belong together so I'll use them as a little bit of a theme.

Q. Do You Make House Calls? It's only the second day of summer break, and my kids are in need of serious mediation. Can you come over?

A: I'm on my way over!!

Emily Yoffe: Thank you, everyone. I really enjoyed this, and you gave us a chance to work out our technology for the live chat. It seems to be a go! Yay.

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