What is an Agony Column?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 20 September 2019
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An agony column is a type of newspaper column which offers advice for personal problems. The author of such a column is often called an agony aunt or an agony uncle, conjuring up an image of a competent, friendly figure who will offer sound and useful advice, and in some cases the author may actually be a credentialed professional in a field such as medicine or psychology. Many newspapers carry agony columns, which can be generated in house or purchased from national syndicates. Agony columns can also be found on Internet sites; in some cases, general site visitors are invited to submit suggestions as well.

The concept of an anonymous advice column in a newspaper is relatively old. People have been seeking answers and advice to problems for thousands of years, and anonymous columns offer the distinct advantage of providing advice without judgment. An author can also conceal his or her identity so that people in the author's life are not aware that they are the subject of an agony column.

Many agony columns focus around the issue of sexuality, and columnists often point out that they get the same questions again and again from readers. Others look at issues of family dynamics, ethics, and manners. Some agony columns even focus on investments, financial issues, real estate, and similar problems which people may encounter. An agony column may also sometimes include personal ads, and love advice columns are often located in the personals section of a newspaper.


Some people are surprised to learn that the author of an agony column is often a composite. Many newspapers keep several people on staff to answer questions, with a single fictional agony aunt or uncle's name being used for the byline. A few high profile columnists do write all of their own material, although they may keep staff members to respond to letters which are not published. In some cases, the original columnist has retired or passed away, and another author picks up the torch, but retains the columnist's name on the columns, since people have grown to love and trust the older author.

Many people enjoy reading the agony column in their local newspaper since it provides an interesting window into the lives of other people. Such columns can also offer generally useful advice which might be applicable to a reader's own life. All sorts of people write in to agony columns, and in some cases an agony column also comes with a message hotline for readers to call if they want to record their questions for radio or podcast columns.


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Post 4

@pleonasm - The thing is though that they need to be kind. People will often only write into an advice columnist when they are at their wits end and the last thing they need is someone making fun of them. I wouldn't want to read someone being too cruel, although I do think they should be somewhat tough. Like a parent, I guess.

Post 3

@croydon - I particularly like it when the advice columnist is a bit snarky or cynical and doesn't try to give neat or easy advice. When they will actually tell someone to dump their boyfriend if it's obvious that the relationship is never going to work.

I think it's wrong to tell someone to keep trying or to change their behavior in order to make someone else happy if it means that they are going to blame themselves and be miserable.

Plus, if the advice columnist is a little bit cynical it often comes across as much funnier than if they are all sweetness and light.

Post 2

I've actually learned quite a lot from various agony columns. You have to find one with an agony aunt who has a good head on their shoulders and knows what they are talking about. But it's surprising the range of questions that people will write in about. It's actually comforting as well, since you realize that a lot of people have gone through the same problems you are going through.

Sometimes there just isn't a simple solution to a problem. And sometimes the stories can be quite tragic. But they almost always make for pretty good reading.

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