A Conversation with Emily Yoffe
As the writer of "Dear Prudence," Slate's advice column, Emily Yoffe considers the problems of hundreds of people every week. She talks about her most memorable letters, her biggest gaffe and more.
EMILY YOFFE HAS HEARD it all. As the writer of the “Dear Prudence” advice column for the online magazine Slate, Yoffe spends a lot of her time considering the problems—big and small, run-of-the-mill and, well, kinky—of hundreds of people every week. And then she tells them how to solve them.
Whether it’s a woman who is worried that she’s tempting her husband by employing a too-sexy nanny, or an obnoxious 1-percenter complaining about having to give out Halloween candy to kids who have traveled from less-fortunate neighborhoods (that one went viral), the troubled, the confused, the obtuse, the desperate and the weary all turn to “Dear Prudence” for help—to the tune of 400 to 500 emails a week.
According to Lowen Liu, Slate’s managing editor, the column is the most popular feature on the site. And it keeps Yoffe very busy: She reads the emails, chooses which ones to respond to, writes the weekly column, which appears on the site every Thursday, hosts live chats on Mondays and Tuesdays, shoots a video version of the column for Wednesdays, and also occasionally appears on a Slate podcast called “The Gist.”
A veteran journalist, Yoffe began her career at The New Republic and has written for ?The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Texas Monthly, Esquire? and other publications. She occasionally pens longer articles for Slate on everything from politics to health and social issues. Recent topics have included sexual assaults on college campuses and the gripping mystery of the missing Malaysian airliner.
Yoffe, 59, who lives in Chevy Chase with her husband, a private investigator, and her college-age daughter, grew up in Newton, Massachusetts, and went to Wellesley College. In person, she radiates the warmth, intelligence, humor, compassion or (sometimes) wry exasperation that inform her “Dear Prudence” responses.
“I’m not a therapist, and I’m not approaching it as therapy,” she says. “A lot of people just want a neutral party to weigh in on some sort of life dilemma.” To articulate what she brings to the “Dear Prudence” role, Yoffe offers a paraphrase of a quote from the writer of “Dear Abby,” another famous column: “I have common sense, and I can write it down.”
When did you decide that you wanted to become a journalist?
In junior high, I had an English teacher who said, ‘You’re too smart to be such a terrible writer. When you get to high school, take a journalism elective.’ I took it, and I really liked it. The movie Love Story was the movie of the day, so I went to see it, and we had to do a review. I wrote a scathing review, while everyone around me is being washed away [with emotion]. Unbeknownst to me, the teacher passed it off to the school newspaper, which I never even read. They printed it, and all of a sudden all these people started coming up to me, saying, ‘You are SO mean.’ I decided on the spot, this is for me.
When did you come to D.C.?
Right after school, I got an internship at The New Republic. My uncle was a subscriber, and he said, ‘Look, I saw this little thing in the back of the magazine that they have internships.’ So I went out and got some copies and was like, ‘Oooh, this is a cool magazine,’ and I applied, and the editor, Michael Kinsley, picked me. And that totally changed the course of my life.
And then I was here [in the area], mostly just freelancing for many years.
Michael Kinsley founded Slate in 1996. Did you begin Writing for the site when it first launched?
I had just had a baby. I was on a semi-yearlong maternity thing, so I wasn’t one of the originals. I came in a couple of years into Slate.
How did “Dear Prudence” get started?
Herb Stein, who was the head of Nixon’s Council of Economic Advisers, was a friend of Michael Kinsley’s. He was older, a wonderful guy. He said to Michael, ‘You’ve got this crazy, new-fangled thing here, an online publication, you need an old-fashioned kind of column. An advice column.’ He named it ‘Dear Prudence’ because it sounded like an old-fashioned-y kind of name. He did it for a while. He was a very good Prudence. Then he was like, ‘OK, I’ve had enough of this.’ Mike was a friend of Margo Howard, who is Ann Landers’ daughter, and I don’t know all the ins and outs of how she got it, but she was the next one. And she did it for several years. And then she left, and there was an opening. So I leaned in and asked for it. That was nine years ago in February.
What’s it like doing the live chat?
It’s much more stressful than the column. If there’s a juicy question, I don’t have time to think about it. It is imperative to answer quickly and move it along. You’ve got people at their computers, and if you fall silent, they’re going to go away.