Carolyn Hax: It’s been 25 years and readers have questions

After a quarter-century and thousands of columns, Carolyn Hax reflects on giving advice

Carolyn Hax sits for a portrait in her home in coastal Massachusetts. She is celebrating the 25th anniversary of her advice column, which she started in 1997. (Jesse Burke for The Washington Post)
Carolyn Hax sits for a portrait in her home in coastal Massachusetts. She is celebrating the 25th anniversary of her advice column, which she started in 1997. (Jesse Burke for The Washington Post)

In 1999, shortly after I started writing the column, I published an “interview” by readers — meaning I dug through my mail for questions and comments about me and my work, then answered them. For the 25th anniversary, here is an updated version using your questions and comments again.

Q: May I ask, what specifically are you specialized in?

A: Same as 25 years ago — nothing. I’ve merely refined it.

Q: How have 25 years changed your view of humanity? Are we mostly good, or mostly bad, or a chef’s-kiss blend of the two?

A: Judging from 25 years of mail, it’s not mostly this or mostly that, it’s one lifelong interior struggle per person. The only people I distrust completely are the ones who think they aren’t bad, everyone else is. They make terrifying voters. They’re my favorite people to answer in the column, though. Not that I accomplish anything.

Q: Do you think people are compelled to write into advice columns sometimes because of the uptick in loneliness or lack of friends that society in general seems to be experiencing?

A: Unless you measure upticks in centuries, I don’t think there’s much of a connection. I think we’re just fascinated with ourselves and advice columns offer an extremely low barrier to entry into the subject. You can write a letter to one in five minutes, read a column in half that, and they’ll let anybody write one, apparently.

Advice columnist Carolyn Hax and cartoonist Nick Galifianakis have collaborated on their Washington Post column for 25 years. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post, Photo: Daron Taylor/The Washington Post)

Q: I was reminded that originally your column was for “the under-30 crowd.” I noticed it changing over the years and occasionally wondered about that. Was it because you have gotten further and further away from 30 or because you started getting lots of questions from the over-30 crowd?

A: Both. It was a natural progression. The one definitive choice was in applying the under-30 label in the first place. We did that only because I lacked the confidence and life experience for more.

Q: Now that you are older and have children, has your answer to, “Where do YOU go for advice?” changed? You had responded: “If I were trapped in a rodent-infested well, I would try to crochet a ladder out of rat hair before I’d cry out for help. It’s an ego thing, and not my most charming trait.”

A: That is still my reflex, to try to find my own way out. It feels built-in. Fortunately, though, parenthood and a public byline are two powerful remedies for any kind of pride, so I’ve learned to override my reflex. Plus crocheting rat hair takes time I either don’t have or would rather spend doing something else.

My turnaround is so complete we've incorporated knowing how to ask for help into the definition of self-sufficiency we've taught our kids.

Q: How hard is it for your husband/sons to have a wife/mother with your job? How do you draw the line between your life and their privacy, especially for your sons, who didn’t choose you as their mother? And how would they answer this question?

A: I mostly leave my work out of my personal life, and my family out of my column. We moved for his job, not mine, but not being in D.C. makes these boundaries easier.

The kids? I asked, but haven’t heard back yet. So, yeah.

Q: I’d love to hear a little about how your life experiences (becoming a parent, divorcing, etc.) have shaped your column over the years. And possibly your writing style.

A: During a five-year period, one that started with a painful separation, I dealt with a parent’s terminal illness and death, my own clinical depression, an old friend’s death in the World Trade Center, a public divorce, the discovery my best friend was better at having one than being one, a new relationship and remarriage that surprised me most of all, and the birth of three children in 15 months. Let’s say that increased the number of topics I felt comfortable writing about.

Some of my major themes held up: Our selves are our only guarantee; honesty is hardest upfront but easiest to carry in the long run; lying to ourselves is the root of so much needless suffering; when in doubt, aim for the path of least regret. But some of them didn’t make it. I’m agnostic about ambition and impatient with unwritten rules and open to any way of living or creating family as long it suits you and it doesn’t hurt anybody. I’m down to very few absolutes.

My experiences softened me and my writing. They beat into me how relatively useless our plans are at creating a meaningful life, and how rewarding flexibility can be. How beautiful even pain can be. How many ways there are to be “right.” Also, as I took on bigger issues, in life and in the column, I had to be kinder. I wanted to be.

Life does what it does. Everything else falls under: “So what are you going to do?” That’s where I live now.

Q: Do you think your advice or tone has shifted over time? How so? Why?

A: See above. I was both lighter-weight and harsher at the beginning. I wince at that combination, but I also remember the field at the time. Advice columns were upholstered in heavy faded dusty florals and they begged to be stripped to their frames. Fortunately even that stripping-down idea got old, and I got old, too, plus I had those intense life upheavals, so now I’m happier to do more exploring and explaining, less shredding. Not zero, but less.

(Only one more metaphor to go, and one movie reference.)

Something else. Every time I read a letter to the column, or a thoughtful comment about something I’ve written, I learn one more thing or get one more angle on life from someone else’s perspective. So not only has the community around my column been a source of joy and in-jokes and laughter for me (some of my favorite Hoot stories are “Wedding Shenanigans,” and “Cornstarchgate,” and these greatest hits from pre-2014), it also has broadened my perspective in ways for which I can never thank you all enough.

Q: Do you think the questions you are asked have shifted over time? How so? Why?

A: Sure. I haven’t made a study of it, but questions about meeting people, how to show you’re interested, stuff like that, have plummeted. We have apps for finding people. On the rise are questions about malaise, divisiveness, stress, navigating complex environments. Managing difficult people is evergreen.

Q: Do you think your advice applies universally, or do you think there are ways in which it is culturally specific? For example, the way you think about boundaries between adults and their parents feels right to me, but I’ve traveled to places where I’m not sure your approach would resonate.

A: Culturally specific for sure. But I try to answer from a place of agency and choice — which makes an answer (more) universal. If there is a cultural expectation, then the people in that culture still choose either to meet it or live outside of it. Even a collective obligation, like public health, involves individual choices to act in the common good. (Or not. Ahem.) Understanding that our agency has limits, then putting it to the best use within those limits, is our universal task.

Q: If I could execute only 10 percent of your advice, I’d be much better off. I totally understand your reasoning behind your advice, but I just find it so darn difficult to apply it. In your daily life, when you encounter similar issues like those we submit here, how do you execute your own advice?

A: With an abiding terror of being a hypocrite. It’s hard to do X when you’re fresh off advising someone that X is a bad idea. I also am north of 10 percent but still not 100 percent at following my own advice, which may or may not be why compassion, empathy, forgiveness and flexibility have become what I counsel most.

Q: What was it like going through a divorce from your cartoonist while continuing to collaborate? How did you make it work?

A: I’d rather file off my skin and bathe in lemon juice than do that again. My mother was dying, then, too (see above), and my support system faltered (see above). I was a mess. Nick and I got through it with our friendship and our working relationship intact by recognizing neither of us would feel better for going on the attack, both of us wanted the column to survive, and all our long-term goals were on the other side of the acute pain.

When you know who you want to be and where you want to be, with a baseline of being able to live with yourself, that can be highly motivating.

Q: I’ve always wondered about the process of putting the column together. I’ve noticed that questions you receive in the online chat might not appear in the print column until a year later. But what about questions you receive via email? Some of those questions seem time-sensitive. Do you respond directly to the letter-writer before the column appears in print? In general, how far in advance are the daily columns set? How do you choose what questions to publish, and what makes a compelling question?

A: That’s actually a bit misleading; people don’t wait a year to see an answer. I answer people live in the chats, publishing in real time, then I adapt those transcripts into four columns per week. We hold those adapted columns for about a year as a courtesy to people who follow the chat and, presumably, don’t want to reread an exchange they just read in last week’s session.

For the three new columns per week, I pull recent questions from both email and live-chat outtakes. Those I file a week ahead, which means I’m starting work on them about two weeks before they’re going to appear, minimum. I also work a bit ahead of that to accommodate uncertainty — for example, I gave myself an extra cushion starting in spring 2020 in case I or a family member got covid.

Because I receive questions from multiple sources, some untraceable, I do not notify people before I publish their questions.

I choose what to publish based on what seems interesting to me, what I feel comfortable answering, what I haven’t covered too recently, what I think might be helpful to others (or just a wow), and what I can fit into my word count. A surprising number of questions get tossed for being impossibly long.

Q: To what extent are your inquirers’ questions edited or rewritten? I am guessing you or your editors have to rework them substantially.

A: I edit them myself, and most only lightly. I want the writers’ voices to come through.

Q: Don’t you think almost every person who asks you a question already knows the answer, but is looking for you to give them a way out?

A: Maybe, on some level, sure — but this take is more cynical than mine. I think most people genuinely don’t know what to do, then think, “Oh yeah, duh,” once they see the answer.

Q: Are there any answers you specifically look back on and wish you had answered differently?

A: Most of them. A word here and there or an entire answer. For my vacations, I reprint columns from my deep archives, and I find the process of choosing them difficult. There’s always something I wish I’d said better.

Q: You’re bad at this, and I’d suggest you find a different line of work. Why are you doing this?

A: For the ego-strokes. See you at my 50th.

Q: Do you have an extremely thick skin? Do you have someone read through comments first to weed out any personal attacks?

A: No to the latter, and to the former? Maybe? At this point. You get called a [word I can’t print] once, and it leaves a mark on your memory. You get called a [word I can’t print] more times than you can count over 25 years, and then carry on with your day, and keep working and finding purpose in your work, and celebrate quitting time with your people or your pets or your hobbies or your self-care, and, voilà. You watch the insult get absorbed and neutralized by context. The context is what each of us gets to build, for the most part, and to adjust as our needs and circumstances change — and mine is extremely effective by now at taking care of me.

Of the many things the column and its readers have taught me, the importance of diversifying my life and my outlook might be the most useful.

Q: How has the misogynistic vitriol directed to you personally changed over the years?

A: Not much. It’s like Max von Sydow describing the demon in “The Exorcist”: “There’s only one.” But the language has changed. Social media now vomits out the agreed-upon code words, which people then throw at me. Depressing, but also convenient. When I see a code word, I know to stop reading because it’s not from an independent thinker or someone hoping to engage and share ideas. These agenda markers have cut down the number of attacks I feel obligated to read. A real timesaver.

Q: So I have to ask, why in duck’s sake you’d want to get asked such nasty-a** questions again? I hope the 25 years of ensuing readership will lead to a range of questions from hopeful, happy, wistful and a few curmudgeons.

A: That 1999 “interview” was kind of a wink; I didn’t solicit any of the questions. I pulled them from the emails I’d gotten over the first year or so of the column and treated them like a reader interview. “I bet you won’t have the guts to print this” was a common sign-off then, and neutralizing it was strangely satisfying as a one-time exercise. For this reboot, though, we did ask readers to submit interview questions.

Q: What’s on your reading list? Fiction? Biographies? What do you read to nourish yourself?

A: Fiction, almost 100 percent (not including what I read for the column). Burrowing into other writers’ imaginations builds empathy, vocabulary, insight into lives unlike my own, and — maybe most important right now — breaks my thoughts free from whatever stressors they’re stuck on. No distinct genres, just various depictions of inner lives. Except murders for, ah, fun.

Q: You have a tremendous stream of data about the preoccupations and life challenges of your readers. What are the (or some of the) emergent themes you see? There must be a few general behavioral or belief patterns out there that you wish you could just disappear with a magic wand for the betterment of us all.

A: A few?

Themes, unsurprising, see above. As for the belief and behavior patterns I’d magic-wand away, I’ll pick a general one: extremism, in all its forms, which means any kind of rigidity. Intellectual, political, religious, domestic, gendered, grammatical, educational. If no new information can put a dent in your views, and you think your views apply to everyone, then you’re the problem.

Extremist views diminish the quality of life of virtually everyone they touch — for the simple reason that they impose uniformity on incredibly diverse organisms. Extremists themselves are diminished by their own restrictive world views, but that result seems to come last, in bitter isolation, after everyone else has suffered. Groups of extremists are the worst, self-reinforcing and shielding each other from their destructive consequences. I’d also magic-wand disinformation and its perpetrators into cold, writhing oblivion.

Q: Do you have any columns that haunt you? Ones where you’d give anything to know it turned out okay.

A: The couple who’d had a baby, then realized they didn’t want to be parents. I would have adopted the child myself if there had been a way to. I lost sleep. I still wonder.

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