Dear Abby's motto: 'Just answer the question'
Jeanne Phillips started helping her mother with the "Dear Abby" column at the age of 14 as a way of making an allowance. She never thought she would still be doling out advice to millions of readers each day decades later.
"There were no guarantees," Phillips said in a telephone interview last week.
Phillips will visit Great Falls on Saturday as part of the Great Falls Advertising Federation's Celebrity Celebration. Tickets to the lunch, which includes a talk by Phillips, are $25, and are available online at http://ticketing.greatfallsmt.net, by phone at 455-8514 or from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the Civic Center Box Office. The event starts at noon, but attendees are encouraged to arrive early to get their seats, and to have a chance to write a question on an index card. Phillips will answer some of the questions following her speech.
Phillips said in the interview that she received only one simple phrase of advice from her mother when she took over the column in the early 2000s. It's something that has become a mantra for Phillips, and an answer for many of the questions she is routinely asked about the column
"Just answer the question," she said.Phillips said that all of the questions she receives can be broken down to a basic issue — each one deals with relationships.
Whether the concern is a family member saying inappropriate things, or if the reader has trouble getting along with a co-worker, it all goes back to that one basic problem.
"They're all relationship questions," she said.
Phillips acknowledged that some of the questions do get to her, but that she has a method for dealing with it when it happens.
"Some of the letters make me angry, some of them I get a clutch in my heart, but if I allow myself to become too emotional about a letter, I must put it aside until I'm not," she said. "If I'm reacting emotionally instead of rationally, then I'm really no good at helping that person."
Phillips said that is the precise reason she doesn't give advice to friends — she can't be objective.
She said that she sometimes stays in touch with people who continue to ask questions long after she's given an answer, especially those she feels need her immediate help.
"If people are in real trouble, I don't write them, I telephone them," she said. "Those exchanges are quite meaningful to me."
Phillips said she often receives more than 10,000 questions a week through her website, and while she helps as many people as she can, she also has a staff that answers several of the questions posed by people "whose letters don't necessarily make 'hot copy.'"
"There is a responsibility involved with doing this kind of work," she said in explaining why she believes every person who asks a question deserves an answer, regardless of whether it comes in the newspaper or by personal reply.
Phillips conceded that some people write absurd — and sometimes made up — questions just to get in the paper. However, she has a system that works well for dealing with those types of requests for advice.
"I try to save them up and use them on April Fool's Day," she said.
Phillips said she believes her column is popular for many reasons. Some folks are looking for nuggets of interesting information, others have a problem and hope to read advice that pertains to them, and still others use it to pick themselves up.
"Sometime they just want to see that there are people hurting worse than they do," she said.
In addition to questions, Phillips also receives lots of Dear Abby fan mail from readers saying how much they enjoy the column, or telling her how her advice helped them.
"Of course, that's very rewarding," Phillips said.
Obviously Phillips can't write herself for advice, so she leans on her husband when she needs support.
"I'm very lucky, I have a good marriage," she said.
She also has learned how to separate work from her life at home.
"I don't do my writing from the house," she said. "When I open my office door and walk in, I'm of a particular mindset. At the end of my work time ... I close the door after me and that's it — I close the door.
"In a way, I come into work, I sit at my desk, I put on my seat belt, I step on the gas, and I just take off," she added. "And when I unbuckle the seat belt, and I get up and I walk out, I'm finished."
Even so, Phillips said she can't help but take some questions home in her mind, or wonder if she did her best on a particular answer. When that happens, she rereads her answer and reconsiders the question.
"I don't just toss an answer off the top of my head, everything is read and reread — and polished," Phillips said.
When asked how the issues she has been asked to give advice on over the years have changed, Phillips laughed and referenced her upcoming appearance in Great Falls.
"You have to come to my speech to hear that, brother," she said.