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Want to be an Agony Aunt (or Uncle)?

April 30th, 2005

Dr Petra

Yesterday I posted a blog about Agony Aunts. Several people got in touch and asked me more about being an Agony Aunt and how to become one. So here’s a rough guide based on the most commonly asked questions about the job.

Do you make up the letters you answer?
No. Most magazines, newspapers, web sites or other places offering advice are sent plenty of letters to respond to. However, letters that are published are often edited by the magazine, paper or website; so the reader may not see the original letter sent in (this is usually the case when the letter is very long).

Are the letters you get sent serious, or a joke?

On rare occasions it seems like the letter is a joke. If it’s really obviously a tease, then it’s ignored. Otherwise most Aunts and Uncles treat questions seriously. Very often with taboo topics, people deal with them with humour to hide their embarrassment. And even if one person’s idea of a joke is to ask about something like cross-dressing, sexual abuse, or addiction, it doesn’t mean other readers may not find it useful.

Do you choose which problems to answer?

It depends. Some publications allow you to have a say in the letters you answer. Others pick them for you. If you’re answering through your own website or radio show, you may have a wider range of choice in what to cover.

Do you answer all the letters you are sent?

Again, it depends. Some publications answer all the letters they receive (more common online). Others pick a selection. Sometimes this can be linked to topical issues or events (for example featuring letters about sexually transmitted infections during sexual health week, or a letter on miscarriage if a celebrity has reportedly had this experience). Usually the volume of questions outweighs the space in the newspaper or time on the radio show to answer them. They’re then either selected at random, on a first come first served basis, or based on what seems topical or interesting.

Why do people read problem pages?

Evidence suggests people read problem pages for entertainment, to get advice for themselves or a friend, to improve their skills, or to reassure themselves they’re okay compared to other people, or that they’re ‘normal’. It really depends on what the page is for. Advice pages about DIY or gardening will have a different response than one dealing with sexual problems.

Do problem pages help people?

It’s assumed they do. Most media outlets carry them, and they’ve been around for generations. However, they haven’t ever really been critically evaluated, and tested to see if they’re effective. I’d love to see research completed to assess this.

Should you answer questions from teenagers? Shouldn’t that be their parent’s job?

In theory, yes, parents should talk to their children. But we know that this may often be difficult. Parents may find some issues embarrassing or distressing, they may worry if they talk about something it’ll encourage problem behaviour, or they may not have enough knowledge on a topic to know what to say. There are some things that parents and children may not want to discuss together. And there are times, particularly when a child is at risk from their parent, that another advisor is more appropriate. We nearly always recommend teenagers talk to their parent, carer or family member. But we understand this isn’t always possible and on occasions where the parent is a risk to a young person or child we advise where else they can go for assistance.

Why do people contact you, don’t they have anyone else to help them?

People write in for support, advice, reassurance, or attention. Some may not have anyone to ask for advice. More commonly, they may have someone to talk to, but feel their problem isn’t something they can share. If it’s a taboo topic, something that’s likely to disrupt the person’s life (e.g. an abuse revelation, or admitting to an affair), or something they feel is too private to share, they may want to talk to a more anonymous source. It’s sometimes easier talking to a stranger, or a person you’re unlikely ever to meet.

Do the letters you’re sent ever affect you?

Of course. Some letters are heart-warming, others are distressing. Those from children about sexual abuse, adult victims of violence, parents separated from children, or people being victimised because of their sexuality, race or lifestyle are always hard to take. It’s also often difficult when one problem is very serious and the next appears to be frivolous in comparison. In these cases you have to remember everyone’s problem is a problem to them, and it’s your job to provide quality information to whoever needs it.

What do people mostly want to know?

One of the main questions we’re asked is ‘am I normal?’. People are afraid their thoughts, feelings, bodies or emotions are somehow not average, and want reassuring. Luckily the bounds of normality are far greater than we believe, so they’re usually reassured. Other people want Aunts/Uncles to settle disputes, provide other resources or places of help, or update them on the sex or relationship education they never got at school.

Aren’t you responsible for splitting up couples, or breaking up families?

A reputable Aunt/Uncle doesn’t tell people what to do. If a person has a problem, it’s our job to clarify it for them, and refer them to sources of help and support. These places can help the person decide what action they want to take. That said, in cases where someone may be at risk in a relationship from physical, sexual or emotional abuse we will explain this and refer them to places of support. Appreciating people may find it difficult to seek help and may take time to get to support services.

Aren’t Agony Aunts and Uncles just getting famous at the expense of other people’s misery?

I think that would be a great shame, and I suspect most Aunts/Uncles wouldn’t agree. There are some people who’ve become well-known advisors, others remain fairly anonymous. There is a trend of celebrities giving advice, which most in the research and therapy communities are concerned about. The way advice should really work is that the information given should become well-known. The Aunt/Uncle is really just there to convey information, evaluate evidence, and refer to additional sources. If people can remember the person, not the advice, then that’s a bad sign. Ideally they’ll remember the advice, act on it, and forget who told them it in the first place.

How do you get to become an Agony Aunt or Uncle, is there a training course I can take?
At this time there is no training course, vetting system, nor mandatory skill standards required to do this job. I’m hoping in the future this will change so the only people offering advice are those with appropriate qualifications. Most people become Aunts/Uncles from a background in journalism, therapy, or academia/research. Some learn on the job. Others appear to have impressive qualifications – but may not always be truly skilled for the position. As well as being able to respond to problems, you also need to be able to communicate in a specific style, and convey messages in a short space.

What makes a good Agony Aunt or Uncle?
With so many people/places offering advice nowadays, it’s often hard to know who to trust. You should look for someone who
* Has a qualification such as a licensed therapist, psychologist, GP, academic sex researcher, sexual health advisor etc, or is a writer with a strong network to professional support services
* Is linked to a reputable magazine, newspaper or website
* Can demonstrate they undergo continued professional development, and regular supervision, feedback or peer review
* Isn’t just there to sell you their books or other products
* Is aware of difference – so they can give advice to people regardless of their age, sexuality, ethnicity, disability and so on
* Is a member of relevant professional organisation(s)

And finally they should be willing to receive feedback about their work. So if there’s anything you’d like to comment on about advice giving, specifically any advice you may have seen me give, feel free to let me know.

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