The Atlantic

Is It Better to Be Polite or Honest?

How centuries of advice columns have answered this and other questions.
Source: Charles Paillasson / Getty

The advice column as we know it today started with a deception. In The Athenian Mercury, a London magazine that ran from 1690 to 1697, the Athenian Society—supposedly a group of 30-some experts across many fields—answered anonymous reader questions. They replied to all sorts of queries, as Jessica Weisberg recounts in her new book Asking for a Friend: “Why alcohol killed erections and made people slur, why horse excrement was square, if people born with missing body parts were also missing part of their soul, and if the sun was made of fire.”

In actuality, the Athenian Society was just a handful of men—a publisher named John Dunton, his two brothers-in-law, and a man who “they were 50 percent sure was a doctor,” Weisberg says.

But dubious expertise has never stopped anyone from giving advice. And since the days of the Mercury, people have continued to gobble up guidance from wherever it is on offer. Americans, especially, are enamored with advice, Weisberg writes, whether that comes in the classic form of a column like Dear Abby, from a self-help book like Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence, or from the anonymous masses on Quora or Reddit.

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