Friday, August 10, 2007

The demanding art of agony aunting

In this morning's email, a note from Lianne, a sixth form student who as part of her A Level dissertation, is researching the role of the agony aunt in modern society. Nicely done - the questionnaire I was asked to fill in was thoughtful and well written, and I was glad she'd asked...

... I was particularly glad she'd asked because her survey led me to think through and write down in black and white just what I do as an agony aunt. Many people presuppose that we advice columists simply, well, give advice to the person who writes to us. But I find our job is actually far more mentally demanding and emotionally draining than that.

To begin with, an agony aunt's role, remember, is not simply to respond to the letter that is written. When I answer the heartfelt problem from Desperate of Dorking, I am also answering the similar current problem of Desperate of Dungeness, the similar future problem of Desperate of Dublin - and increasingly, given the worldwide web, the similar but culturally disparate problem of Desperate of Dallas, Dubai or Dharamsala. None of these people will ever write to me, but all them, along with my million other interested readers, will read and benefit from my column every single week.

Remember too that the best agony aunts do far more than simply give advice. We not only try to write an answer which offers emotional normalisation, which suggests that the presented problem is not insurmountable, which reassures that a person who suffers from that problem is not a monster. We also try to write an answer that helps readers see things differently, find different solutions, find better strategies for dealing. Plus, perhaps most importantly, we attempt to write an answer that gives more generalised and transferrable guidance, that reflects society's best practice in order to help readers to manifest their own best behaviour.

And we do all this in - on average - 150 words, on a one-shot-try, with no interaction with our 'clients'. We feel with our readers, we reach out to our readers, we respond to them from the heart - and then, every day, we worry about not being able to do more for them.

No wonder, sometimes, that the adjective "agony" in our job title can be applied almost as much to what we experience as to what our readers endure...

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