Emily Yoffe has had more than few bizarre experiences. For her "Human Guinea Pig" column in the online publication Slate, she's done everything from posing nude for an art class to competing in a Miss America beauty pageant to taking a two-day vow of silence.
But what she’s best known for is a job even more challenging than those reader-inspired antics: As the voice behind Slate’s “Dear Prudence” advice column, Yoffe offers her readers wise advice on the biggest challenges of life, from overbearing in-laws to dealing with the death of a loved one.
We were thrilled when we had the opportunity to ask the brutally honest and often hysterical Yoffe a few questions of our own. Read on for her take on the pressures (and the amazing parts) of her gig, how she got started in her career, and the ins and outs of being a professional know-it-all.
Is Prudence an alter ego, or is she just you on paper?
I’m the third Prudence, actually. The first was Herb Stein (the father of Ben Stein and a Wall Street Journal board member at the time). He thought this “new online thing” needed an advice column, so he started Prudence. The column was subsequently taken over by Ann Landers’ daughter, Margo Howard, and then me. So really, Prudence exists outside of whoever’s writing the column.
Are you everyone’s go-to woman for advice in real life?
People do sometimes come to me and say, “I have a Prudie question.” It’s very flattering. And when I’m having a problem of my own, I’ll sometimes think, “What would Prudie say?” But, I also try not to be constantly giving advice like a know-it-all. You have to turn the Prudie thing off once in a while!
Is there pressure in the advice-giving business? Do you feel personally responsible for your readers?
Absolutely—especiallly because of the seriousness of a lot of their situations. I get a lot of heartbreaking letters from people writing to me in the middle of the night, with no one else to ask. When I go on vacation and come back to pages and pages of letters, it’s almost too much.
So do you see yourself as a therapist-at-large for an online community?
I’m definitely not a therapist, and the column makes me realize what a terrible therapist I would be. I make a lot of judgments, and a therapist just doesn’t. A therapist might nudge someone into self-insight about their part in a problem, and I’ll just come out and say, ‘‘you’re the problem. ’’
Sometimes I actually get letters from therapists telling me that I should be gentle and kind and open-minded. I don’t want to be cruel of course, but the column isn’t therapy.
What has being an advice columnist made you appreciate about your own life?
Everything! Hearing from people who deal with the really difficult stuff in life definitely helps me put things into perspective. I hear from people whose kids are sick, who have drug problems, whose partners are compulsive cheaters.
It can also be fun to run the letters that make you say, “Seriously? You think that’s a problem?” But it’s all relative, and sometimes, the co-worker who never smiles at you really is a problem.
Let’s talk about your career. When did you know you wanted to be a journalist?
I’ve known since my freshman year of high school. When I was in junior high, an English teacher said to me, “You’re too smart to be such a terrible writer. When you get to high school, take a journalism elective.” So I did, and each week we wrote a news story, profile, movie review, or something.
Now the big movie at the time was Love Story. People would go, and the whole theater would be flooded with tears. I saw it and personally thought it was just awful, so I wrote a scathing review. My teacher passed it on to the high school paper, and I found out that they had printed it when people started coming up to me saying, “you are so mean!”
That’s when I thought, “This job is for me!”
Journalism is a field that seems to be changing. What advice would you give to aspiring young journalists, given the state of the industry?
Journalism has to be something you really want to do. As with a lot of professions, it’s hard to get a toehold—so you really need to want to do it if you’re going to make it.
You have to be tough and persistent, and you have to find opportunities where there don’t appear to be any. Take an entrepreneurial view of your career, and use what you have to create your own opportunities. If you’re young, you have experiences that your 30-, 40, or 50-something editors don’t—use them as material.
Journalism is tough, and it’s changing. But it’s not dying.