Wednesday, December 9, 2009

On Customized and Pre-Fab Answers

One of the biggest tensions in the columns, it seems, is the challenge to treat each question as a new, unique situation--each person's story as worthy of individual consideration and response--when in fact, so much of what comes up has been seen, time and time again.

Today, Dear Abby addresses a woman whose husband, after 50 years of marriage, is suddenly extremely interested in her premarital sexual history. Abby had this to say:

DEAR CAUGHT: I'd be fascinated to know why, after more than 50 years, your husband is suddenly pumping you for the information. Could he find the idea of you and another man titillating? To me, "family history" begins when a couple forms a family, not before.

If discussing the subject of your premarital sexual experiences makes you uncomfortable, then don't take the bait because if you do, I have a hunch your husband will never stop fishing.

I was startled that she didn't suggest that the husband may need a mental and physical examination, because any sudden, unprecedented change in behavior--especially in later years, and especially with regard to sex, it seems--can indicate early stages of dementia or other problems.

Why did I expect her to include this? Not because I know anything about geriatrics or about mental degeneration, but because I've read it in dozens of other advice columns--including Abby's. So on the one hand, it seemed like a glaring omission....on the other, how much of a column should be made up of pat disclaimers like "see a doctor" and "seek counseling"?

Amy Richards, "the other" Ask Amy, handles this by posting commonly asked questions and encouraging readers to start there--but I don't like this way of discouraging folks from writing in because someone else, for example, already has a friend with bulimia.

Maybe a way to handle it would be to have links to resources or tips for gathering more information on common problems. Or a flow chart! This way, the columnist could respond to individual letters in specific ways that seem appropriate, but the writer would still wind up at: "insist on a thorough mental and physical examination for any loved one who suddenly exhibits drastic behavioral changes."

What would you do, if you were asked the same question, in different contexts, hundreds of times each week? In the limited space of a newspaper column, how would you include all the necessary "disclaimers" and tips, while still saying something unique that addresses the specifics of the situation and, let's face it, keeps the readers from getting bored?

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