The advice column as we know it today started with a deception. In The Athenian Mercury, a London magazine that ran from 1690 to 1697, the Athenian Society—supposedly a group of 30-some experts across many fields—answered anonymous reader questions. They replied to all sorts of queries, as Jessica Weisberg recounts in her new book Asking for a Friend: “Why alcohol killed erections and made people slur, why horse excrement was square, if people born with missing body parts were also missing part of their soul, and if the sun was made of fire.”
In actuality, the Athenian Society was just a handful of men—a publisher named John Dunton, his two brothers-in-law, and a man who “they were 50 percent sure was a doctor,” Weisberg says.
But dubious expertise has never stopped anyone from giving advice. And since the days of the Mercury, people have continued to gobble up guidance from wherever it is on offer. Americans, especially, are enamored with advice, Weisberg writes, whether that comes in the classic form of a column like Dear Abby, from a self-help book like Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, or from the anonymous masses on Quora or Reddit.
Weisberg takes a wide sample of advice-givers across time and profiles each of them in-depth: from Benjamin Franklin to Miss Manners to Joan Quigley*, the astrologer who advised Nancy Reagan. She considers the book a work of “emotional history.” Advice both shapes and reflects the society it exists in; she believes diving into particulars of the advice given across centuries (mostly) in the United States offers a unique perspective on Americans’ concerns and values.
I spoke with Weisberg over the phone about many of these issues. An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation is below.
Julie Beck: You write that “America is unique in its hankering for advice.” When did that hunger start, and why do you think it’s a particularly American craving?
Jessica Weisberg: It started right away. One of the very first best sellers in America was an etiquette book that was written by a British statesman. It was by a guy named Lord Chesterfield, and it wasn’t intended as an etiquette book. Lord Chesterfield had a son who was born out of wedlock, and they didn’t have that much contact. So Chesterfield just wrote his son a lot of letters to sort of try to make up for this lack of human contact. The letters had been compiled without his knowledge by his son’s widow.
In his letters, he just says: Be super strategic, never say how you feel, imitate people, never be authentic. People were just up in arms about it, reading it obsessively and arguing about it. And then Benjamin Franklin came shortly after that with Poor Richard’s Almanack, which, again, was an advice book.
This was a time when everything was changing and people were seeking to create a society and a culture with different values and standards than what had come before. People were thinking about these things; George Washington wrote about manners. It felt like a very essential part of our culture from very early on.
As time has gone on, the obsession with advice has taken a lot of different forms, and I think it really reflects the cultural tendency toward optimism. The American dream is a dream, but it really does loom large in a lot of people’s imaginations.
Beck: Lord Chesterfield was British, and a lot of American society was rebelling against Britain at that time. Were people all super against it, or were there some people who were really compelled by those old British ethics and manners?
Weisberg: There was definitely a tension. I think a lot of people liked it, not necessarily because of the content of the advice, but because it was good reading—with a lot about meeting fancy people all around Europe. The repulsion to it was just this idea that people shouldn’t be authentic. John Adams was very upset about this idea that people would say something that didn’t express what they actually felt. That didn’t reflect this new American ethos that he wanted to create.
But on the other side, Lord Chesterfield was really nervous about his son fitting in. He’s like: “You should be respectful of everybody; you should always take on the character of the situation you’re in.” If you think about that, there’s something very democratic about that advice. To be adaptable and be comfortable in all social settings. There is something kind of American about that as well.
Beck: The book is organized into these chapter-length profiles of different advice columnists, or just advice-givers. When you look at the broad sweep of them, how has advice-giving in America evolved over time?
Weisberg: Well, first of all, the early advice-givers in America are all white, male, and straight. Over time you see that changing some. Definitely, you see more women doing it in the 20th century. And today, even though the big national perches are still largely occupied by white cisgendered people, there are more opportunities for other people as our culture changes.
And how much vulnerability the advice-givers are giving of themselves—that changes a lot over time. Like, Benjamin Franklin is not admitting his own struggles with fidelity. Whereas you read later advice-givers and they’re talking about their own challenges with their marriages. Now, we don’t trust people unless they admit to their own mistakes, at least a little bit. Whereas there was a sense of objectivity and authority that advice-givers from many years ago tried to present.
Beck: It seems like now we’re in an era of preferring relatability in our advice.
Weisberg: There’s still that tension. I think advice-givers still need to present both qualities. I just think vulnerability is the more salable quality, more than it used to be, and more than expertise at this point.
Beck: What does that say about what we are actually looking for from advice? It seems like if we wanted the right answer to our question, we’d turn to experts. So is it more that we’re looking to feel like something is right, which is kind of a squishier thing?
Weisberg: Throughout time, when people are looking for advice, they’re really looking for someone to be vulnerable with. I think that’s why, even in the earliest days of advice-giving, it was mostly anonymous. People are just creating this space to be vulnerable. And anonymity is the technology for it. The internet allows for that [even more], there’s a certain level of distancing in our communications online and I think this privileging of vulnerability feeds into that as well.
Beck: So we want this space to be vulnerable. Is it maybe less about getting the right answer and more about being reassured that what we already think and do is normal, or at least acceptable?
Weisberg: I think so. I think when people are looking at advice they’re often looking for affirmation. In advice before the internet, advice columns sort of functioned as a Reddit channel. It was a way for people to chime in and have an anonymized community where they can share their deepest secrets, maybe get some feedback on it and hopefully feel affirmed in their choices.
Beck: I want to talk about another tension, which is the community versus the individual. Whether you privilege community over yourself, or be true to yourself and who cares what everyone else thinks—has that changed over time?
Weisberg: Early advice is so much more concerned with how other people perceive you and contemporary advice is much more individually oriented. That reflects a change in our culture. But I think people certainly still crave affirmation from their community. I don’t think those things are mutually exclusive, but it’s interesting what people were preaching when. They were preaching cultural acceptance, and societal acceptance, and how to make your boss happy, in earlier generations. And now people are saying, focus on you. But I know I as an individual I certainly crave both, and I think most people do.
Most advice-givers, the ones that I profiled, define their job as an essentially centrist position—trying to find a balance between the individual and the society she is in. I think advice-givers for that reason are associated with social conservatism. This idea that there’s a right way to behave. And I sort of bristled at that.
Beck: Like Miss Manners?
Weisberg: Yeah, like who are you to tell me how I should act? The idea of norms can be oppressive. But I also talked to Miss Manners and she said there should be norms because bigotry is unacceptable. And norms do allow us to live in a more peaceful society. There are certainly situations in which I appreciate norms.
I wrote this book largely during the presidential election and the early moments of the Trump administration. And I thought about my subjects really differently because of that. Because I was seeing a lot more public bigoted behavior, and that seemed unacceptable to me. [Advice columnists] are people who wanted to prevent that. That position comes with a certain kind of centrism, but also with a certain kind of idealism. With the idea that we should all behave respectfully toward each other.
Beck: That leads into the last tension I wanted to talk about. You named two chapters after it: Politeness versus honesty. How do you think advice columnists have typically answered that question? Has it changed over time?
Weisberg: I started that idea with Lord Chesterfield, because he believed that politeness was far more important than honesty or authenticity. There was no comparison in his mind. And the second chapter is about Miss Manners, and she kind of feels the same way. But what’s interesting is that Miss Manners comes from a long line of labor historians, and sees politeness as a way of respecting the dignity of human labor, and as really necessary for a democracy to work.
Beck: I see a lot of modern advice columns saying that if you’re being overly polite to people and you’re not really telling them what you really feel and think, then that’s damaging in its own way. That the best thing is always to be honest.
Weisberg From a personal point of view, it’s a struggle to censor yourself, but I’ve been at many family occasions where I’ve done that for the sake of keeping the peace. I prefer to be honest, and sometimes that preference overrides my care for the tension in the room. Then there are times when I feel like avoiding the tension in the room should take priority. And often that is a selfish decision. I want to avoid conflict.
That touches on that earlier tension you mentioned. Who is advice for? Is it for the individual seeking it or is it for the society she lives in?
Beck: What do you think? Who is it for?
Weisberg: I think it depends on the individual advice-giver. Benjamin Franklin is definitely for the society he lived in. Miss Manners is often for the society she lives in. Martha Beck, who’s a life coach, is all about the individual. I tried to do a range in the book. But I think what I found really interesting about these people as a class of individuals is they were trying to navigate that tension in a really unique way, in a way I don’t feel like any other profession does as explicitly.
Beck: So is it better to be honest or be polite?
Weisberg: Personally? I would say honest. Because for all that Miss Manners says about politeness being good for democracy, I think honesty is really important for democracy, too. Nothing changes unless you state your point of view, and state it honestly and state it courageously. I think it is really important both for the individual and for the society she lives in to be honest. I just wish everyone could be honest with consideration for the people they’re being honest with. And that’s hard. That’s really hard.
* This piece originally misidentified Nancy Reagan’s astrologer as Judith Martin. Martin writes the Miss Manners column; the astrologer’s name is Joan Quigley. We regret the error.