- For the past 25 years, Carolyn Hax has written a syndicated advice column for The Washington Post.
- Known for her blunt but compassionate counsel, Hax is one of The Post’s most popular writers.
- In an interview with Insider, Hax spoke about her career, life, and what still mystified her.
How can I get my spouse to take on more household chores? How do I sever ties with a friend whose company I no longer enjoy? How can I overcome my job-interview anxiety? How can I keep it together amid a terrifying health scare?
These questions are, you might say, the stuff of life. They’re also the life’s work of Carolyn Hax, who this month celebrates 25 years at the helm of her eponymous advice column for The Washington Post. The syndicated column appears in 118 newspapers around the US, including The Sacramento Bee, Detroit Free Press, and The Dallas Morning News.
Hax’s quarter century on the job is not unusual for the genre: Pauline Friedman Phillips, aka Abigail Van Buren, wrote “Dear Abby” for 46 years, while her sister Eppie Lederer, aka Ann Landers — affectionately known as “America’s mother” — was at it for 47 years.
But Hax is undoubtedly a force in the otherwise insipid self-help industrial complex. America’s mother, she ain’t. She’s more like America’s savvy older sister: a tad bossy, quick to point out your blind spots, but compassionate and knowing, too.
If it weren’t for a twist of scheduling fate, she might never have gotten the job. It was spring 1997, and Hax, a news and copyeditor at The Post, was filling in for the day on the Style Plus desk, which ran lifestyle articles. In a casual conversation with Peggy Hackman, then the section editor, Hax learned The Post was in the market for an advice column to attract younger readers.
“And I said, ‘What you really need is a snotty 30-year-old writing one of these things,'” Hax, who incidentally was 30 at the time, said.
Hax, who describes herself as “mouthy and opinionated,” took matters into her own hands: Using questions from the sample column, she wrote her own version of answers, which were promptly circulated among the paper’s brass. Within weeks, she was in business.
Over the course of her career, she’s written thousands of columns and hosted hundreds of live chats where she provides hot takes on readers’ personal challenges. She’s consistently one of The Post’s most read authors, according to the paper’s internal data.
There’s both voyeuristic pleasure and moral satisfaction in reading Hax. You not only peer into other people’s lives and problems, you also get Hax’s sharp-eyed observations and often mordantly entertaining counsel.
To the religious mom who doesn’t want to allow her 24-year-old son to sleep in the same room with his long-term girlfriend at her house, Hax was gentle but forthright: Your son is an adult, and your relationship could suffer when he tires of your moral righteousness, she said.
“Whatever you decide — and it is your decision — please preface it with, ‘I am deciding this for a grown man,'” she added.
But Hax has a sensitive side, too. To the daughter who lost her mother to cancer and can’t fathom how she’ll push through the grief, Hax said: “Feeling the pain — the unrelenting flood of it now, then in waves as the waters start to recede, then intermittently throughout your life, whenever it feels like washing over you — is how you get through it.”
Hax is, after all, human and has experienced her fair share of tragedies, disappointments, and joys. She lost her mom to ALS in 2002. That same year, she divorced her husband, Nick Galifianakis, the artist who draws the cartoons for her column to this day, and remarried a childhood friend. They are the parents to three teenage sons.
In a wide-ranging interview with Insider, Hax, 55, spoke from her home office in coastal Massachusetts about her career, her life, and the reader questions that still mystify her.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
Out of the hundreds of questions you receive for your column every week, you answer roughly a dozen. How do you decide which ones to tackle? What makes you think, ‘I have something to say here’?
Provocation of some sort. My reading day is Monday, and I just sit there and read, and if I have some gut reaction or visceral response — either I’m upset or I’m angry or I’m amused, or I have that, “Wait, I know that one!” feeling — I copy and I paste it into a writing file. I don’t answer it right then, I just keep reading and compile a big file of questions. When I’m ready to start writing, I go to that file.
I start with the top one, and I edit the question into some usable form, and then I try to write an answer. I put it into a column, and then I go to the next one. It’s really an assembly line.
Do you always know your answer right away?
Sometimes I have to turn it over in my head for a couple of weeks. I have questions running in the background constantly that I come back to when I have something.
Do you ever suffer from imposter syndrome or feel you’re doing the work that a trained therapist ought to do?
Sure. But the history of advice columns does not include a bunch of people who are therapists. It is a from-the-hip medium. It is the kitchen-table conversation put into column form. I’ve never felt like I had no business doing this.
How did you find your voice?
By not looking for it. One of the things that helped me is that I don’t necessarily like to write. I don’t journal. I don’t write poetry. I like to read. I love words. But I don’t like to generate them myself. And so the way my style came about was I just didn’t try that hard to have one.
Your job seems like so much fun, but I imagine it’s also deeply taxing.
It is mentally taxing. You’re in people’s problems, and they can be upsetting. And I feel very responsible even though what I’m doing is very much a layman talking at the kitchen table. I want to make sure that I’ve covered everything. Because if I miss something the day after it’s published, I hear about it from readers in such volume. These are people’s lives, and I don’t want to be cavalier.
What have these past two years been like for you — both personally and professionally?
I never lose sight of the fact that I’ve gotten off easy. I was already working from home. I didn’t lose anybody, knock wood, close to me. The biggest losses I’ve had are my kids, who are all in high school, having lost a bunch of experiences. Their world suddenly got circumscribed in a way that it just seemed so wrong and unfair.
Professionally, I’d say I used to get a variety of questions and then, suddenly, I got variations of the same question: “I can’t do this anymore. I’m home with my kids, and I can’t see a way out. I can’t.” That helplessness and hopelessness was unrelenting for a long time. But again, I can’t lose sight of the fact that it was somebody else’s; it was not mine.
How did you cope?
[At the beginning of the pandemic] I would sometimes have these panicky moments or these moments of absolute debilitating rage. That surprised me. I was just so angry. I would have to take a walk. Or, unfortunately for me, I would bake something. I’m still wearing it.
You endured a mini public flogging in 2003 after you and your husband separated, and some readers were scandalized (and openly cruel) when you appeared in a gossip column engaged to someone else and pregnant with twins. What do you make of that today?
I don’t think about it. There are people out there who believe that I left my marriage for somebody. I didn’t. This was over the course of years. I just reported it all at once.
But I made a conscious decision at the time that I wasn’t going to counter every accusation because that takes pieces of your soul away. I could only say what was going on and move on with my life. The most useful thing that experience taught me is that you just have to detach your well-being from what other people think of you.
I’ve heard that therapy is a success when you hear your therapist’s voice in your head soothing you, countering your negative thoughts, and guiding you toward healthier behaviors. Who’s in your head?
I have the readers’ voices in my head constantly. I come across questions and I think, “OK. I went through something like this. It didn’t look like that to me. But this person saw it very differently, and I will incorporate that into my answer.” The part of this work that has been so good is that, in all of that feedback from readers, I have gotten an incredible education on what it is to be a person who isn’t me.
Where do you fall on the nature of the human race? Are we born evil? Or are we basically good people who are deeply flawed?
There are still people who mystify me. I look at what some people believe, even though it’s been disproven over and over again, and I think, “Where do you come from? Where do you get your worldview?” I feel like it’s part of my responsibility as a writer, as a citizen, and as a human to try to understand other people. But sometimes, I think I’m not making any progress.
That said, I think in general people are trying their best to get through whatever in their life is mystifying and difficult and complicated. And that is probably true when people were out there hunting and gathering. Survival and emotions are complicated things. I give people the benefit of the doubt that they’re working out their own ways of getting through. I think some people lose their battle with their worst impulses. All of us have them. I don’t think anybody is uniformly good. But I feel better about people, and I feel better about my day-to-day life if I look at everyone as doing their best to figure all this stuff out, just like I’m trying.
After two-plus harrowing years of pandemic, social strife, economic uncertainty, and international unrest, do you have any words of wisdom for us?
Stay out of the middle distance because that can be overwhelming. If you’re looking at the near distance — what you need to get done on your to-do list so you get to the end of the day — you’ll stay on course. And if you look into the far distance, and you recognize that humanity has been dealing with stuff for its entire run, usually worse than this, you’ll be OK.
But the middle distance — when you try to figure out where you’re going to be two months from now, or if you’re ever going to have steady childcare again, or if you’re ever going to be able to go on an airplane without the existential terror of contracting something — can mess with your head. So I always say, “Think in really small baby steps. Or go so big that you go to the mountains, and you look at the sky and the stars, and you realize, ‘I am insignificant. This doesn’t matter. I’ll be fine.'”
Last question: You’ve been doing this for 25 years. Are you tired of it? Do you think about retirement at all?
I am about to send three kids through college, so I plan to retire when I’m 150.