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In Social Q’s, a New York Times advice column for interpersonal quandaries, the writer and lawyer Philip Galanes helps readers navigate tricky and awkward social challenges. No problem is too messy or mundane: Since starting the column in 2008, Mr. Galanes has advised a big sister concerned about a bullied sibling, a generous host dealing with ungrateful houseguests and even an unfaithful spouse desperate to win back his partner.
Mr. Galanes released a snappy coming-of-age novel in 2004. A few years later, The Times’s Styles desk recruited him to write a new advice column in the digital age, and he’s developed his own voice for the format. If the author of Dear Abby (Mr. Galanes is a longtime fan) is your wise and empathetic aunt, Mr. Galanes is your compassionate and quick-witted friend who has seen it all. He’s also evolved his style; instead of providing a definitive answer, he begins a dialogue that carefully considers available contexts and perspectives. Despite increasing polarization (not to mention online trolling), Social Q’s tries to preserve civility in difficult discussions, he said.
In a recent interview, Mr. Galanes discussed how he responds to letter writers, what’s changed since he started the job and what keeps him hopeful. His responses have been edited and condensed.
In a Social Q’s column, you called this your “dream job.” What keeps you coming back?
I’ve always been doing a version of this job in my life — in my family, in my workplaces, in my career. This job has given me a profound sense of the way our world is shifting. When I started in 2008, we were in the first explosion of Facebook, and the correspondence was so polite. In fact, the format that my original editor and I had come up with was lighthearted — I was supposed to make fun of the questions a little bit. For the first couple of years, it worked like a dream. But then the world shifted around us.
All of a sudden, around 2015 or 2016, I started getting angrier letters. People were a lot less prepared to see the goodness in people. The last thing I wanted to be was another mean voice coming at you. Part of the dreaminess of the job is that I love to open a new question from somebody to see what they’re worrying about and see if I can possibly help them. But it’s also given me a front-row seat to how culture has shifted over the last 14 to 15 years.
How do you choose questions to answer?
I read every question I get. I feel like I’m seating a dinner party, and I’ve got four guests. There are infinite social problems, but they also fall into large buckets: family, in-laws, work, strangers, friends. If I’m reading the question and something hits me in the solar plexus, I know there’s something going on there at a human level. I think the readers are a lot like me; we’re all interested in the nuts and bolts of the human condition and how we relate to the people in our lives.
Do you consult with anyone?
My rumination time is dog walking. It’s much more profitable for me to spend 45 minutes thinking about something quietly than it is to engage someone else.
At the start of the pandemic, you said letters that asked about social situations suddenly contained an “element of danger” because there was nothing easy about navigating social life during a lockdown. How has this sense of danger changed your approach?
I feel like it puts a much greater onus on me to find kindness for anyone, whenever it’s possible. I’m also hyper-aware of how, most weeks, the column is open for comments. I’m not so concerned about me. If a stranger writes a mean thing, it can stop me in my tracks for a second. But I feel incredibly protective of the letter writers, and they’re not used to that.
Recently, there was a letter from a mom whose daughter had repurposed a gun safe and she objected. I am 100 percent on board with a 15-year-old daughter needing to have privacy in her life. But I’m also the son of a man who killed himself with a gun. I advised her to talk to her daughter to come up with another storage system that respected her privacy but didn’t use gun paraphernalia. There were so many comments that were generally ad hominem attacks about the mother and her failure to see the larger picture of parenting — that a gun safe is just a box. Maybe if I’d said a word about my own experience, people would have been a little more sensitive. But one of the things that I find in 2022 is that we’re not willing to let both sides of a conflict be OK. I keep trying; I think I get through a fair bit of the time, but I fail a lot.
There are no devils here. There’s a mom and a daughter, and if I can help you keep that in your head while you’re reading the answer, I feel like I’ve had a big win that week.
You originally wanted to be “the best friend you’ve never met,” according to a book of your columns. Would you define yourself similarly now?
I still aspire to that. But the circumstances in our nation over the last 10 years have made me acutely aware that I can never be that. I’m not as sure of myself; I thought things could be solved 10 years ago, and now I’m just trying to help people get from one place to a slightly better place. I can be a temporary bridge.
I don’t want to come off as saying there isn’t kindness to be found. I’m impressed almost every week by the ability of readers to empathize with the people who are having problems. The vast majority of mail I get is extremely supportive. Most people want to help, and they love the fact that I’m trying to — whether they agree with me or not. When I look at letters that are coming in from young people — facing terrible economic, housing and climate crises — they still seem so energized about doing the right thing, treating people kindly, acknowledging advantages that they might have had. That’s where my hope is, with young people.