Advice Malpractice: Good Advice Columnist, Bad Advice Columnist

"Go jump in a lake!"

“Go jump in a lake!”

I cannot imagine being so bereft of wisdom, friends and mentors that I would ever be moved to ask a stranger to advise me regarding an important decision based solely on a letter describing my problem. Nevertheless, a lot of poor souls apparently do, and because they do, many of them probably act on the advice they get from Beth, Abby, The Ethicist and the rest. This means that anyone with the ego and chutzpah to hold themselves out as qualified to give such advice is ethically obligated to be able to do a competent job at it, and at very least to “do no harm.” Yes, unlike the law, advice columnist is one of the professions where the traditional ethical mission of medicine is not just appropriate, but essential.

Most advice columnists in the media are not competent, and some are dangerously reckless. The worst thing an advice columnist can do is to use the trusting and needy stranger as a potential recruit to steer toward the columnist’s ideologically-driven goals. The question being asked by desperate advice seekers, after all, is not “What would you do?” but rather “What should I do?” If the columnist answers the question presuming that the advice-seeker does or should see the world as the advice columnist does, then doing harm is the likely result.

Carolyn Hax ( Washington Post) is a wonderful advice columnist, and Emily Yoffe (“Dear Prudence”) is the other kind. Two recent responses by them illustrate the distinction between competent, skilled and ethical advice, and advice column malpractice.

First, the bad: Joffe was asked by a 26-year-old woman if it was acceptable (read “ethical”) for her to quit working and devote her time to being what we used to call a homemaker, cooking meals, taking care of the house, paying the bills, and so on. She suggests that the stress of 9-to-5 work isn’t good for her, and feels that she would be happier staying at home.

Ann Althouse, who flagged this (Yoffe’s freak show questions and answers make me unhappy), nailed what’s wrong with this:

This woman portrays her plight as a “mental heath” issue. She pathologizes her desire for the kind of life women were once criticized for not wanting. It’s worth exploring this woman’s possible mental problems, but why doesn’t Yoffe even recognize the possibility that the single-earner household with a home-based partner is a beautiful, legitimate arrangement? Yoffe says that “unless there are extenuating circumstances, everyone should have the ability to support herself” and proceeds to give her tips about how to find a new career. Yoffe even suggests making a business out of doing homemaker things for other people:

In your tech town there are going to be those eager to outsource dog walking, meal preparation, and other domestic tasks. Talk to companies that offer these services to busy tech executives, or start your own one-woman business. Sure, preparing a meal for another family is not the same as noodling around your own kitchen. But you may discover you get satisfaction making life more pleasant for stressed-out thriving people….

But she said she loved cleaning and making beautiful meals for her partner. Why can’t she have her satisfaction making life more pleasant for the stressed-out thriving person she lives with and loves? Yoffe never so much as suggests that the woman talk to her partner about living together like that. Yoffe calls cooking for your own family noodling, as if it’s just vague, purposeless playing. I find that terribly sad.

I find it sad, and terribly unethical. There is no right or wrong way for a couple to live, or for a person to find happiness and self-worth. Joffe is irresponsible, presumptuous and despicable for telling this woman that she has an obligation to live her life the way Joffe thinks she should.

Before our son was born, my wife and I both worked intense jobs and long hours. We returned home to the same disordered home we had left that morning, too stressed to talk or smile, and dreading having to cook a meal. One day, I told her, “This is no way to live. I think one of us should quit working full time, and if you don’t grab the chance in 10 minutes, I will.” I think she said “Me!” between “I” and “will.”

In law, Yoffe’s response  is called exercising undue influence over a client, substituting the lawyers judgment for him or her, and a breach of ethics.

Now the good: Hax was queried by a lonely guy who wrote:

Dear Carolyn: I’m an average-looking guy . . . let’s say a 6, and after years of dating, I’ve come to the conclusion that I have four options when it comes to women, none of which seems to add up to long-term happiness.

Option 1: Be with a woman who is more attractive than me, but less intelligent or mentally stable, thus trading intellectual connection for beauty.

Option 2: Be with a woman of equal intelligence and attractiveness, but spend my life in boredom once the novelty wears off, and end up like every other married zombie.

Option 3: Be with a woman who is more successful and intelligent, but less attractive than I, and spend my life fighting the temptations of lust (think Bill Clinton).

Option 4: Become the lonely creepy uncle everybody invites to Thanksgiving out of pity.

Is my outlook completely distorted and pessimistic? Or am I just being an entitled moron with an inflated ego? Is there a fifth option (other than becoming rich and famous)? I’d really appreciate your feedback.

You can, and should, read Hax’s whole response here. This section gives a sense of how good she is at her job, however:

I suspect that’s the real culprit here, that for whatever reason you see women as a special category of pairing, independent of all other bonds you have, and resulting from a specialized search. If so, you’re being so unfair to yourself. A love that satisfies is one that combines much of what is good and rewarding in your other relationships into one source, someone who also has that fuller appreciation of you. If you love that your buddies make you laugh and allow you to be yourself, that your parents inspire you to do your best, that your grandma knows when you need cookies and a hug vs. a treatise on this or that, and that you’ve never forgotten your first actual girlfriend because gazing at her got you through algebra, then you just sketched out someone who would fit you. Not a 6, 7, 7 and a 5 who averages out to an attainable 6.25.

She’s not commanding the man how to live or how to think. She is providing wisdom and perspective for him to consider, and explaining why his framing of the problem is not only flawed, but damaging and making him miserable. Hax is also compassionate and restrained: seeing a man rate women on a numerical scale must have made her want to retch, and yet she debunked his methodology gently and in a manner designed to both teach and persuade.

If I were ever to ask a stranger’s advice, it would be Carolyn Hax—an ethical advice columnist personified.

22 thoughts on “Advice Malpractice: Good Advice Columnist, Bad Advice Columnist

  1. I think with the Dear Prudence letter, I would have given much the same advice to the LW. The LW was talking about quitting and trying to live off a *boyfriend*, and not a husband. Unlike a marriage, if he woke up and decided the next day to dump her, she would have absolutely no short-term or long-term legal protections. It would be exceedingly foolish to advise someone to quit their job under those circumstances.

    As for Hax, the LW in that case looks like he has been reading too many PUA sites, and has allowed himself to be filled with despair. Her advice was sound, but probably wasted on the LW. I love how the option of being with someone exactly on his level equates to boredom and zombiehood. Reveals a lot about how he sees himself.

    • The fact that he’s a boyfriend not a husband is worth noting for sure, although her plight is no different if she is a wife, is it? Meanwhile, the role of taking care of the home fires is a big job, isn’t it? If someone wants to do the shopping, the cleaning, the bills, the cooking and deal with the plumber and the cable guy, why denigrate or discourage that?

      • If she was a wife, the LW would have a least a fighting chance of getting a temporary support order in case she was suddenly dumped. Girlfriend has no such protections.

        Meanwhile, the role of taking care of the home fires is a big job, isn’t it? If someone wants to do the shopping, the cleaning, the bills, the cooking and deal with the plumber and the cable guy, why denigrate or discourage that?

        It can be a big job, or not, depending on the amount of people and tasks involved. If two people decide that one of them should focus solely only those things, I don’t see anything wrong with it. In this economy, unless one of them was making a substantial amount of money (or alternatively, the SAHP parent’s labor was worth practically nothing in the job marketplace), I would not think it was the best use of time, but that is really something for them to decide. Once children are involved, the calculation changes all over again, of course.

        But in this case, the LW simply sounds depressed. It also sounds like the LW’s boyfriend was willing to support her temporarily while she found a new job, but not permanently. I don’t think Prudence gave the wrong advice in this case.

      • ” her plight is no different if she is a wife, is it?” Nope, not in this wonderful day and age, where pretty soon you’ll be able to get a divorce at a kiosk with a credit card. The primary reason that I’m becoming a physician, is to (hopefully) make enough money so that my wife can stay at home with the kids, and home-school them. This is her dream, and I think it is a fantastic one. What could be more important than devoting your energy to setting your kids on the right path, and maintaining the oasis that’s largely the focal point of our lives? It’s so tragic that we’ve been systematically steered towards giving up our kids as wards of the state. As for advice, the best advisor usually doesn’t directly guide as much as help his or her charge find their own wisdom. Anything beyond that should be framed with all sorts of disclaimers

    • But Ms. “Prudence” doesn’t even advise the young women to reflect on the stability of her relationship before entering into a mutually interdependent arrangement. While the lack of marriage is a concern, that was not even on the radar (not that marriage is, sadly, a guarantee either). The advice is simply a blunt, one size fits all picture of how modern life should be.

      The women here is does not want to be a leech. She wants a clean, stable, mentally refreshing home life with her boyfriend. She wants to volunteer and contribute to society informally. Ms. “Prudence” dismisses all of that, and tells her to be a maid. A tranquil domestic life is stupid; be a domestic servant instead. How condescending; how invalidating of personal autonomy; how frankly, anti-feminist.

      Ms. Althouse is right on target; at least discuss such an arrangement with one’s partner; encourage mutually exploration the of the risks and rewards. Empower this with advise about the realities that young couples often face; layoffs, break ups, stupid decisions stemming from inexperience. Not to scare, or presume failure, but help guide the conversation about living together.

      Continuing to work part time may be a prudent measure of risk control, but the goal should be to validate individuals internal compasses, and educate about potential challenges. A lack of a career skills should things go south is a valid potential challenge to consider. But give this concern context, including skills and resources to assess romantic commitment before making firm career and domestic decisions. Share wisdom to help head off purely “stupid” mistakes, and to navigate the various issues imposed by chance.

      The column author gives very little “prudent” advise in this regard.

  2. There is nothing wrong with one partner staying home to take care of the administrative and nurturing tasks, but everyone needs to have a back-up skill set in the event of divorce, separation, or death of the other partner. Or, in the event of joblessness or underemployment of the bread-winner.

    Of course, that’s not what Yoffe said. She more than intimated that being the partner that stays home is not a worthwhile goal.

    • I think Yoffe thinks it is a very bad idea…in this particular situation. It seems obvious that the boyfriend is not on board with being the sole breadwinner. Nor are they even married. LW has tried all of one job since graduation, and wants to give up on having a career altogether, without the benefit of any sort of permanent commitment on the part of the boyfriend. She seems foolish and depressed. She is obviously not in a situation where being a stay-at-home partner is recommended.

  3. Yeah some of her advice is 10%, but I know two in my limited social circle who were trying to find a sugar daddy, not because they find family life and building a family, but because they don’t want to work. They are ‘temprarily’ between jobs and living off boyfriend or girlfriend and NOT doing home/child. That original LW used the same language. Petulant wannabe permateen is a problem here and no advice columnist should enable that either. (kicking them out is required)

  4. The columnist did not identify concern that the advice seeker might be attempting to leech off her boyfriend. An unethical advice column does not become ethical because some readers can plausibly find a scenario where the bad advice might be applicable. It is the author’s responsibility to spell when and why her advice is appropriate.

  5. Yes I’ve seen pretty bad advice, and words like despicable and ptesumtious come to mind, some can be dangerously reckless. One or two expect everybody to see life like they do. Some of them are very good and compassinate. I wrote to one about some subject, she’s well known and she replied, she was really genuine. I wrote to another to correct them on giving insensitive advice and they never replied. I’m not decrying them, some are excellent. After all you can get bad psychologists occasionally. I’m afraid that’s life. All these people are here to help us. But one person I talked to said some are good, but others are not that nice. Luckily, having good people around me I’ve never had to write in about a problem. I find it sad that some people are so bereft of good people in their life that they are forced to do so. It’s a gamble.

  6. Hax’s competence and sensitivity vary wildly from article to article. She is not exempt from poor advice column ethics in the slightest. It is not uncommon for her to provide inappropriate or callous advice, either. I think whether or not any given advice columnist is “good” depends on the day, the situation, and who is asking what. Over the years of off-and-on reading I have found Hax to be guilty of just about the same sort of sanctimonious ideologically-driven condescending behavior as the other woman cited here as an inferior example. Unfortunately I can’t remember specifics, but it is very funny to me that I found this article in particular when I got fed up with yet another Hacky Hax response and googled “carolyn hax bad advice” to see if anyone else had noticed, lol.

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