'Times' Advice Guru Answers Your Social Q's
This interview was originally broadcast on Dec. 5, 2011. Social Q's is now out in paperback.
Need advice on when it's appropriate to break up with someone over email? Want to know how to react if your dinner companion whips out a cellphone midway through a meal? What about how to deal with your annoying relatives during the holidays?
Ask Philip Galanes. The New York Times advice columnist has been answering readers' questions about all sorts of social conundrums for the past three years. In his new book, Social Q's: How to Survive the Quirks, Quandaries and Quagmires of Today, Galanes details how to handle relationships, moral dilemmas and everyday scenarios made all the more difficult by the peculiarities of our digital world.
"The e-explosion has caused us to lose some of our savvy in dealing with people," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "[Before] we started talking to people almost exclusively on email and Twitter and Facebook ... we could hear a little hitch in someone's voice and think, 'Oh, oh, there's a problem. I better circle back around to that.' So we don't do that anymore. Everything now is type and send, type and send."
The Internet may make communication easier, but that doesn't mean the rules of etiquette change, he says. Take, for instance, the breakup via text or email. It might be easier for the breaker-upper to avoid a face-to-face meeting, says Galanes, but that doesn't mean it's appropriate.
"When we actually imagine that someone with feelings is going to open an email or text message and say, 'You're toast' — that can just never be right," he says.
Galanes says it is appropriate, however, for the breaker-upper to send an email saying something like, 'This isn't working out. We have to talk,' in preparation for the in-person breakup.
"[In that instance,] you're using an email or text to be even kinder so that somebody isn't taken by surprise," he says. "I still want to make sure that the person gets the telephone call or the coffee date where the personal conversation happens. ... I can't tell you the number of people who express hurt or confusion and anger at not knowing what went wrong or 'Is it really over? Am I supposed to be fighting to get it back?' after getting a [breakup] text.' [But] as long as the e-communication is a prelude to the real conversation, I'm down with that, too."
On cellphone and email etiquette
Earlier this month, we asked our Facebook fans for any burning etiquette questions they wanted to ask Galanes. More than a few people wondered whether it was rude to text or accept a cellphone call in the middle of a conversation.
Galanes says it definitely is.
"I think it's pretty rude," he says. "I'm going to come down on the old-fashioned side of this and say, 'Just turn off the cellphone when you're at the cocktail party or when you sit down for your dinner date or business meeting.' And then if there's something [important] in the offing — if your daughter was fluish when you left home that morning or your boss seemed like he really needed to speak with you — excuse yourself to the men or ladies room 20 minutes in and check."
Another thing to keep in mind? You should never email when you're angry, says Galanes. He suggests waiting two hours before clicking send — because you might want to change your message.
"I love the idea of creating a draft folder where I'll write emails from 9:00 to 9:30. I'll go do something else for a while. And then at 11:00 I'll come back and reread them," he says. "I'm not a hissy-fit person, but I can be sharp sometimes. So the number of emails ... where I go, 'Wow. There was really no reason for me to write that sentence in that email.' So if something inordinately sharp was in it, [it is] gone. Cut. And I feel like I've done myself and the [recipient] a really big service."
The Galanes Family
Galanes grew up not only reading the advice column Dear Abby — but reading it out loud to the rest of his family. He says he was drawn to Abby's advice because he felt it was his job to keep his family running smoothly.
"As far back as I can remember, I was the family fixer," he says. "What I loved about Dear Abby, was in two sentences, she just sorted everybody out. ... I think I took a lot of comfort in the idea that problems could be solved."
Galanes says that even as a child, he wanted to make sure his mother was "running smoothly" and that his father was "unburdened." So six days a week, he would assemble his parents and brothers at the kitchen table and perform a dramatic reading of Abby's column.
After high school, Galanes went to Yale University and then entered law school. When he was 23, his father committed suicide in the family basement with a shotgun. Galanes says he felt responsible.
"At 23, I was thinking — this is going to sound selfish — that it was like a double-slap because I'm the fixer," he says. "If anyone should have seen this coming, it should have been me. ... You couldn't talk to a suicide survivor who didn't feel responsible for some reason. But that was the reason I felt responsible."
Galanes went to therapy, both with his family and alone. He visited ashrams and talked about his feelings. He also wrote Father's Day, a novel about his father's death.
"I thought by fictionalizing him, I'm going to circle around him that way and I will understand this story," he says. "And the novel was pretty good. And it got published. And like so many novels, 17 people bought it. But in a weird, happy fluke — and this is the weird, happy fluke that makes both the column and the book mean so much to me — that out of this awful tragedy of my life, one of the 17 readers of this novel was the editor of [The New York Times] Style section.'"
That editor then got in touch with Galanes about writing an advice column.
"I think she thought that the voice of the novel was smart-alecky but wrapped around a broken heart," he says. "Somehow I think what's made this column so much more than The Times or I or this editor of mine, who's a lovely editor, more successful than we had imagined is that ... we are embracing the fact that everybody's got a hungry heart ... [The column] grew out of the worst imaginable tragedy, but I think somehow that that tragedy sends me out into the world really conscious of how hard we all have it, and I think we need each other a lot more than we don't."
On responding to inappropriate personal questions
"I think the best response is to say, 'Why do you ask?' because it delivers the question back to them in a way that lets them see it, hopefully, for how inappropriate [it is]. I don't want to judge the people — people will send questions in and they'll be furious that someone will say to them, 'You're 40 and not having a baby. How much longer can you wait?' Most people are just thoughtless. They didn't mean to hurt your feelings. So by saying 'Why did you ask?' you give them an opportunity to say, 'Wow, that really was pretty inappropriate.' "
On taking cellphone calls during conversations with other people
"Our focus is splintered enough as it is. If we can't sit down with our friends for an hour and be present at the dinner with them, it's having a negative impact on the relationship that is entirely unnecessary."
On breaking up via email
"Back in the old days, women and men had all sorts of strategies to say 'thank you but no thank you' [to potential dates]. But the idea that somebody now could think typing 'not interested' and then maybe add a little yellow emoticon frowny face and hit send ... what this digital revolution has given us with one hand, it's taken away with another — just some basic human skills."
On a question asking about how to keep your kids at the dinner table
"Getting them to sit through a dinner and eat their meals politely with a fork and a knife and get through it — and no 'pull my finger jokes' and no nonsense ... Terrific. You've done your job, Mother, and congratulations to you.
"Now why not take this family — because she was interested in keeping the family together — so why not take them for a walk around the neighborhood and find as many license plates that begin with the letter 'T' as they can find. The idea was not to keep the kids hostage at the table, but instead to keep the family together."
On knowing when to leave a party
"I think [if] you've gotten through the entire meal, through dessert and through another 15 or 20 minutes of conversation, I think you're good to go."
On going to a party when you have food sensitivities
"The kindest thing that the guest can do is call up the host with options, and say, 'I am just not able to eat wheat because I have a celiac condition, and foods that have been created with wheat will give me trouble. So here's some thoughts and you tell me what you think. I understand you're cooking for 30. I don't want to add to your woes. I could bring my own meal. I could eat a green salad as long as the dressing doesn't have these following ingredients in them, or I could eat around what you've got if I understand how it was cooked, or I can stay home and watch The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which I understand that they're showing on TCM, and I will be really happy with any of those results.' And I think if you make that call sincerely and the host hears it in the right way — meaning not 12 hours before you're supposed to take your seat at his/her table — I think everything's going to work out great."
On his father's suicide
"People feel very entitled to start asking wildly inappropriate questions. The first thing generally people will say to you after you say that your father killed himself is, 'How did he do it?' They might say, 'Oh I'm sorry' or 'Oh, that must be terrible for you' and then they'll go, 'How did he do it?' And I don't know if that's some macabre thing coming up or what it is."
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. What should I do? That's the question Philip Galanes is constantly asked and expected to answer. He writes the advice column "Social Q's" in the Sunday New York Times and has put much of that advice in his book, also called "Social Q's," which came out in paperback this week.
Galanes was an avid reader of "Dear Abby" when he was growing up, but he now answers questions about dilemmas that didn't exist when she wrote her column, like what do you do when your friend keeps texting while you're having a conversation, what to do if you met your boyfriend on JDate, so he assumes you're Jewish, but you're not. Is it ever okay to break up with a text message? What to do if your boss includes you on group emails that are racist and offensive?
And he offers advice about issues that never get out-of-date like surviving the holidays. Galanes is also an entertainment lawyer and the author of two novels. Terry interviewed him last year, when his book "Social Q's" was released.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Philip Galanes, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'd like to start with a short reading from your book that will not only give us some advice but will give us a sense of what you do in your Sunday column. So take it.
PHILIP GALANES: So are you ready for the sad truth? Well, here it is. Facebook only seemed like someplace special, but in fact it's just as annoying as everyplace else in the world, and we have to treat people there as well as we do in real life.
Let's look at an example. Here's a question I received: I've recently received a few Facebook friend requests from people I work with. They're perfectly nice, but they're not friend-friends, they're just work friends. And I'd like to reserve Facebook for people I really care about. How should I handle this? That's the question.
Listen, we're free to use Facebook however we want. Some people are there to socialize, others want to network for career advancement or for their special causes. A few apparently just want to annoy the hell out of us with their numerous hugs and ironic likes and endless status updates.
So if you want to use the place to meet up with your friends free of intrusions from the workplace, you're entitled. But be warned: You're going to hurt some feelings. If these folks weren't fond of you, would they have bothered sending you a friend request? Do you really want to explain your hierarchy of friendship, on which they fall on a very low rung?
And it's not as if you're going to have intimate discussions on your Facebook page anyway, or at least you better not. So while I'm totally down with your true-friends-only fantasy, what's the point? You're probably already in constant contact with your real friends, and you don't need Facebook to help you.
And after you've rediscovered a few more high school buddies you'll never really keep up with and sent a few witty cyber-cupcakes, why bother? Just friend your damn co-workers and call it a day.
GROSS: That's Philip Galanes, reading from his new book "Social Q's: How to Survive the Quirks, Quandaries and Quagmires of Today." So, you know, hearing you read that makes me think so much about how advice has changed because we have different problems to solve, now that we have all this social networking. Do you find that, like, a whole lot of the questions that you get are about dealing with social networking?
GALANES: Well, it's so interesting, Terry, because when I got contacted by the Times for this column, they saw it almost exclusively as a kind of digital advice forum. It was going to be about Facebook and Twitter and email and that sort of problem. But within just a couple of weeks, I found something that was related to that but different.
And that's - you know, since the digital revolution, since we started talking to people, you know, almost exclusively on email and Twitter and Facebook and, you know, people under 40 might not remember the hours and hours I used to spend with people on the telephone all day.
And we would practice things. We could hear a little hitch in someone's voice, and you'd go: Oh, oh, there's a problem. I better circle back around to that. So we don't do that anymore. Everything now is type and send, type and send. So the column definitely gets a tremendous number of e-kind of questions. But it's also shown us that that e-explosion has caused us to lose some of our savvy in just dealing with people like regular people.
GROSS: What do you mean by that?
GALANES: Well, let me give you an example of a question that just came in: I am a 28-year-old woman, and a guy that I work with has asked me if I'd like to go out on a date with him, and I wouldn't. And may I send him an email that says no?
Now, back in the olden days, women and men had all kinds of strategies for how, very kindly, to say thank you but no thank you. Oh, I don't like to go out with people I work with, or, you know, I'm seeing somebody, maybe falsely or maybe truthfully they would say that. Or they would - we would have had a human way to do it.
But the idea that now somebody could think typing "not interested" and then maybe add like a little yellow emoticon frowny face and hit send, it's sort of like we've lost the - what this digital revolution has given us with one hand, it's taken away a little bit in another because we've lost some, just some basic human skills.
GROSS: Well, this leads to a basic human question that we got asked a lot, in other words when we put out the word to come up with questions for you, this is a popular one: Is it ever okay to break up through texting, email, voicemail? So that leads, you know, back to exactly what you were talking about, except this is even more dramatic when you're declaring the end.
GALANES: Well, exactly. But who could think that? Who could think that? It makes all the sense in the world to me that when we have to do something hard, like break up with somebody or say no to them on any number of questions, finding the easiest, most passive way of doing it might be the desirable one, but it is certainly never going to go down as the mensch-y way.
And when we actually imagine that someone with feelings and everything is going to open an email or a text message and say you're toast, that can just never be right. I almost wonder if those people really - did those people who were writing that question, did they really, really wonder if it was okay?
GROSS: Well, here's what I'm wondering, and this is a proposal for when it might possibly be sort of maybe almost okay. Like say you've been seeing somebody, and I'm not talking about like for five years or something, but, you know, a few weeks, a few months, and you realize it's not working, it's time to end it.
So perhaps a kind of gentle way of doing it would be to send an email or a text saying we have to talk, I don't think things are working out. So at that point, like, you're going to talk, but the message basically breaks the news so that neither of you are - you don't have to break the news with the person staring at you, and they don't have to receive the news not knowing how to handle it.
GALANES: I like that even better. It's like you're...
GROSS: Can I have your column then?
GALANES: You're out-social-Q'ing me because you're using an email or text to be even kinder so that somebody isn't taken by surprise. I still want to make sure that person gets the telephone call or the coffee date where the personal conversation happens, because sitting at my station for three years now, I can't tell you the number of people who express so much hurt and confusion and anger at not knowing what went wrong or is it really over, am I supposed to be fighting to get it back?
GROSS: After getting like a text or something?
GALANES: After getting a text like that. So as long as the e-communication is a prelude to the real conversation, oh, I'm down with that too.
GROSS: So here's one of my favorites from your book: My dad seems to have mixed up my cell phone number with the number of the woman he's been seeing behind my mother's back. He sends her sexy texts that are freaking me out. What should I do?
GROSS: That's a really odd one but an interesting problem for you to solve.
GALANES: Well, there are lots of angles on that one for sure. And I decided that the kindest way for the daughter to deal with this was to place a call immediately to the dad's office and say what a confusing text message she had just gotten and it, you know, there must be some kind of confusion because she was sure that no kind of hanky-panky would be going on.
Let's get these - let's get our digital address books all sorted out here, because she got something from her father that just couldn't be the case. And that way it let him know that he'd better clean up his act, or you know, without threatening anything, there might be consequences...
GROSS: Interesting, so it's a way of saying I'm on to you, I'm not accusing you of anything, but I know.
GALANES: It's a way of saying please watch your step. Now, a number of daughters or sons would feel obligated to go directly to the other parent in that situation, but I don't think that that's what I would recommend. I think I would let the father in this case have a little runway for trying to sort it out as best as he can.
GROSS: My guest is Philip Galanes, and he writes the "Social Q's" column for the New York Times Sunday Style section, and now he has a new book collecting some of the questions he's received and the answers he's given and more. And it's called "Social Q's." Let's take a short break here; then we'll talk some more, okay? This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Philip Galanes, and he writes the "Social Q's" column, an advice column, for the New York Times Sunday Style section. Now he has a new book called "Social Q's."
A basic question that was sent to us by a lot of listeners is - and I think everybody's been on both sides of this one - if you're in the middle of a conversation with someone, or if you're at a dinner with someone, is it rude to accept a phone call from, you know, from your cell phone?
GALANES: We're just at the very beginning of this new world where there are 14 million ways of communicating with people simultaneously. And we're all allegedly on the lookout for that, you know, work emergency, family emergency, daughter with a flu, you know, fever of 102. Those things are never the things that happen. Those happen - those things happen once a year. They don't happen every single day.
So I think it is - I think it's pretty rude, yes. I'm going to go - come down on the old-fashioned-y side of this and say just turn off the cell phone when you're at the cocktail party or when you sit down for your dinner date or your business meeting.
And then if there's something in the offing, if your daughter was like a little fluish when you left home in the morning or your boss seemed like he might be on the warpath and really needing to speak with you, excuse yourself to the men's or ladies' room 20 minutes in and check. That's plenty of time. So cell phones off.
GROSS: What's wrong with saying at the beginning of the dinner: I'm leaving my cell phone on because I'm expecting a call from my son's doctor, or my boss really needs to get in touch with me, so forgive me if I have to answer in the middle of a conversation.
GALANES: But there's absolutely nothing that's the matter with that. But the number of times you really are expecting a call from your boss or your daughter, son's doctor - if we only did it then, it would never happen because we never are expecting a call from our son's doctor.
The call that comes in is from your sister, and she's going: Can you believe that Mom expects us to come for, like, the second night of Hanukkah as well as the third night of Hanukkah? And my - or my in-laws want us there for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day? Those are the calls that are interrupting our focus, and our focus is splintered enough as it is.
So if we can't sit down with our friends for an hour and be present at the dinner with them, it's having a negative impact on the relationship that's entirely unnecessary. But I give it to you, Terry, totally I give it to you: If your daughter was fluish, if you really are expecting a call like that from your doctor or your boss or your anything, absolutely, put the other fellow on notice and say: I hope you understand. And of course the person will understand.
GROSS: You know what I think?
GALANES: What do you think?
GROSS: I think probably that, like, if Person A and B are having dinner, and Person A answers their cell phone, Person B is going to be like dying to check their email while Person A answers the cell phone, and everything will work out fine.
GALANES: That's not how things work out fine. That's how...
GROSS: No, first Person B gets really angry at Person A. Then they check their email.
GALANES: No, no, it's not even that. I think that's how the world gets so watered down that we might as well be watching episodes of "30 Rock" while we're eating our food, while we're checking our texts, while we're checking the bag on eBay that we're hoping we can get for our sister for Christmas, and it's all those things put together.
I like little baby steps. How about if you can't turn off the phone for the full 20 minutes that I was suggesting, that you have like a mutually agreed every quarter-hour on the hour we'll check simultaneously, and then we'll turn off the phone again.
GROSS: And you know, I have a feeling that a lot of people who are complaining that somebody answered a cell phone call during dinner, that some of them are the same people who are texting while they're talking to somebody else, that, like, that we're all guilty, we're all guilty.
GALANES: We're all doing it. We're all guilty. We're all guilty of this 24 hours a - seven days a week. And figuring out how to deal with these problems is why I did this book, because what I have is this forum to answer four questions a week. But I have thousands of questions that come in, and then thousands of letters that say, Philip, you're a moron, or Philip, you're a genius - for the following reasons.
And so what I did was looked at - I printed out every - I was so, you know, that little email thing you get at the bottom, like be kind, save a tree, don't print this? I printed everything out. I printed out thousands of pieces of paper, and I sorted them by subject, and I took the 20 most populous - the 20 subjects that people seemed to be emailing me and writing me about most.
And I looked at all of them, and I tried to come up with little formulas that folks at home who might not get their question answered might think about to help them through one of these troubling subjects.
GROSS: You know, some advice that you give in terms of texting or emailing when you're angry about what somebody said or did...
GALANES: Yeah. Oh boy.
GROSS: ...is wait two hours before hitting send. And I think that's really good advice.
And you also suggest, reread it before you send it. And I think that's great advice for two reasons. You might decide you want to change it, that you didn't express it the way you hoped. There might be typos. But also, you know, I find with some emails that they're so hastily written that I have no idea what the person means, whether they're telling me yes or no or hot or cold, you know?
GALANES: Absolutely. We're sitting in our offices or behind some desk, or we're watching TV, and we're typing, and we're doing all these things, and we are not doing - we're really not doing a good job of it. And so I love the idea of creating this sort of draft folder where I'll write emails from 9:00 to 9:30, I'll go do something else for a while. At 11, I'll come back and I'll actually reread them and send things out.
The qualitative difference that I've noticed in the replies that I get, subjects and topics get moved along faster. I'm not a hissy-fit kind of person, but I can be sharp sometimes. So the number of emails that I'll go like, wow, there was really no reason for me to write that sentence in this email, so if something inordinately sharp was in it, oh, gone, cut. And I feel like I've done myself and the other guy a really big service.
GROSS: So here's a question. I'm not sure if you've fielded this one yet. But so many people have either food allergies or food sensitivities, and when you're invited to a dinner party, you have to either show up and not eat, which would insult the host, or you have to burden the host with whatever your particular food issue is, making their already difficult job even more difficult.
GROSS: Or you can decline to go. Do you have any advice for, like, the food-sensitive person and for the host?
GALANES: Well, we're not used to creating meals for small armies, so that when we do, it is really, really stressful, so that the kindest thing that the guest can do is call up the host with options, and say, listen, I am just not able to eat wheat because I have a celiac condition, and foods that have been created with wheat are going to give me trouble too.
So here's some thoughts that I had, Terry. You tell me which one would work best for you, because I understand you're cooking for 30. I don't want to add to your woes.
I could bring my own meal. I could eat a green salad as long as, you know, you - as long as the dressing doesn't have these following ingredients in them. Or I can eat around what you've got if I understand how it was cooked, or I can, you know, I can stay home and watch "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," that I understand that they're showing on TCM, and I will be really happy with any of those results.
And I think that if you make that call sincerely, and the host hears it in the right way - meaning not 12 hours before you're supposed to take your seat at her table or his table - I think everything's going to work out great.
DAVIES: Philip Galanes, speaking last year with Terry Gross. He'll be back in the second half of the show. Galanes writes the "Social Q's" column in the New York Times Sunday Style section. His book is also called "Social Q's." It came out in paperback this week. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.
Let's get back to Terry's interview with Philip Galanes. His book "Social Q's" offers advice on how to handle difficult social situations at work and at home, and how to deal with new questions of etiquette relating to texting, email and social media. Galanes writes the column "Social Q's" in the Sunday New York Times style section.
GROSS: In one of your recent columns you told a really important and moving and revealing story about yourself. Let's just start it with the fact that you explain that, as a kid, you used to read Dear Abby all the time. And you not only read it, you read it out loud to your family and that you loved it.
GALANES: I did.
GROSS: Why did it mean so much to you as a child? Because really, most of that advice is for adults and not for kids.
GALANES: Well, in my - everyone's got a job in their family, and from the time I can remember I was the family fixer. I've got the most charming, incredibly seductive mother in the world, who can build a bridge and burn it down so fast. So somehow I felt that my job was to keep my mom smooth and to keep my dad, who was always very quiet and maybe, I could sense as a child, easily burdened, to keep him as unburdened as I can - as I could.
So what I loved about Dear Abby was that in two sentences she just sorted everybody out. And I don't know if I had some fantasy that by reading the questions aloud and then reading the answers aloud - and I really can't believe that my family put up with this. Because I was really, it was really, you know, a second, first or second or third grader. We used to do this every morning, six days a week. The Brattleboro Reformer used to come and I would assemble my poor family around the table and I would do a dramatic reading of Dear Abby question and answer. But I think I took a lot of comfort in the idea that problems could be solved.
GROSS: Well, I think it's interesting that you described part of your job as making sure that your father was as unburdened as possible, because in this column that I referred to, you mentioned that an unanswerable question is your life, is why at the age of 54, when you were 23, did your father kill himself with a shotgun in the basement. And, you know, I can hardly think of something, you know, more horrible.
GALANES: No. It was - you can't think of much that's more horrible. And for my brothers and for my mother, for me, for my dad's family, it was shocking because it was one of those situations where you never would've imagined it. He was simply the kindest, loveliest guy and the idea that he was so, he was in so much pain and also so isolated, that he wasn't even in a position to share it with anyone. It breaks my heart and it also makes me, I mean at 23 and at 33 and at 43, it was - I'm going to say this is going to sound pretty selfish - but it was like a double slap, because I'm the fixer. If anyone should have seen this coming, it should have been me.
GROSS: So, you know, you write an advice column now, but when you were 23 and your father killed himself at the age of 54, you felt responsible because you were the fixer in the family.
GALANES: I bet you couldn't talk to a suicide survivor who didn't feel responsible for some different reason, but that was the reason that I found.
GROSS: Could you talk to your mother about it, because she, I'm sure, knew things about your father as a spouse...
GALANES: We talked about it.
GROSS: ...that you as his son, you know, wouldn't know?
GALANES: Oh, yeah.
GALANES: Nonstop. I mean we talked about it. We family therapied about it. We individually therapied about it. I went to like lunatic ashrams in Southern California and talked about it. I mean, there was no not talking about it. And finally I wrote this novel. I thought, I was getting nowhere with any of this and I wrote a novel. And I decided the way that I'm going to solve this problem is by fictionalizing my father a little bit. And by fictionalizing him, I'm going to circle around him that way and I will understand this story.
And the novel was pretty good. And it got published. And like so many novels, 17 people bought it. But in a weird, happy fluke - and this is the happy fluke that makes "Social Q's" - both the column and this book - mean so much to me. That out of this awful tragedy of my life, the one of the 17 readers of this novel was the editor of the Style section. And she said to me...
GROSS: Why does - I'm sorry, why did reading that novel make her think, an advice columnist, I've found him?
GALANES: I think that the answer really is the voice of the novel was like smart-alecky, but it was wrapped around a broken heart. One of the things that makes me proud of that column and proud of what we're doing is that I'm becoming really sensitive to the fact that, you know, your story might not be a dad who killed himself, but I know that you've got a story too. And I know that the guy who is sitting in the next room who is monitoring the sound levels, I know he's got a story. You know, everybody's got a hungry heart, to coin a phrase.
GROSS: You know, you wrote that for years you lied about your father to friends and other people. Instead of saying that he committed suicide...
GALANES: I did. I can't believe you, I can't believe you knew that.
GROSS: Well, you wrote it.
GALANES: You did some background research.
GROSS: Oh, maybe you said that to another - in another interview. Yeah.
GALANES: No, I wrote that elsewhere.
GROSS: You wrote that?
GALANES: But it's true. It's true.
GROSS: Because I know I, yeah, I know I read it. But, no, you would say oh, and it was a heart attack, or oh, he died of cancer, lung cancer, stomach cancer.
GALANES: You'd think that I'd have stuck with the same story.
GALANES: One of the great things that I will tell is in my role as a "Social Q's" advice columnist, is that if you are going to lie, choose a simple lie and stick with it.
GALANES: But I chose many different causes of death and - for my dad. And sometimes it would make me feel that maybe I could pretend in the course of that conversation, it really was as if he had died of a heart attack. And there's a lot of shame around suicide, because they're not just saying they can't live, they're also saying they can't live with - there's an implicit with you. And it's a hard one.
GROSS: So you mean you didn't want to tell the truth because it was too painful for you to deal with and you didn't want people thinking that it was somehow your fault? So you lied about the cause of death.
Yeah. For the - yeah.
GROSS: I guess my question is, is that, for you, now as somebody who gives advice about all kinds of difficult subjects, would you consider that an acceptable lie? I mean you weren't doing it to hurt anybody. You were doing that to protect your own feelings at a time when you were especially vulnerable.
GROSS: And years later when you became slightly less vulnerable, when you understood or at least reached some kind of, you know, acceptance of what happened, you were able to tell the truth. So during that interim period when it was just too painful to talk about, is it okay that you told a lie?
GALANES: I hope so. If it was wrong, I don't mind being wrong.
GROSS: You needed, you needed to do it.
GALANES: I needed that then and that's a lot more important than your knowing why my father...
GALANES: ...that wanting to know why my father died. One of the shocking things about suicide too is that people feel very entitled to start asking really wildly inappropriate questions. Like the first thing generally people will say to you after you say that your father killed himself, is that they'll go oh, how did he do it? They might say oh, I'm sorry or oh, that must be terrible for you. Then they'll go how, how did he do it? And I don't know if that's some macabre thing coming up or what it is.
It's reminding me of a "Social Q" that just came in today from a woman who was going to a holiday. She's getting ready to travel for the holidays, to her family, and she has had cancer and the cancer has been in remission. And she has recently found out that there's been a recurrence and it's at a significantly more serious stage than it had last appeared at. And she simply doesn't feel ready to have the pity and the attention and the, I don't want to say prying, because our - most people just really just want to help. They haven't just simply taken the time to think through what is going to be helpful and what is going to be intrusive. And she said may I lie? And so it's sort of like you and she have asked me the same question on the same day, and I have to write my column a few weeks in advance and I didn't know if I would get to her so I wrote to her privately, which I do in some cases. And I told her absolutely. Absolutely.
GALANES: You lie till you're ready. She's the important one here.
GROSS: My guest is Philip Galanes. He writes the "Social Q's" column for the New York Times Sunday Style section, and is the author of the new book "Social Q's." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Philip Galanes. He writes the "Social Q's" advice column in the New York Times Sunday Style section, and now he has a new book called "Social Q's."
On the subject of keeping secrets, you know, I know that you're gay and you've, you know, you've had a partner for a long time and everything. Was that a secret you had to keep when you were growing up and you were trying to be the fixer? Or did your family know that, was that OK in your family, so you could be the fixer while also being who you were?
GALANES: Well, I think my family, when push came to shove, when I finally came out at, you know, probably the age of 16 or so, my family could not have been better. My dad and mom could not have been kinder and more supportive. They did that thing that was, you know, popular in the early '80s and maybe it still is. They said, you know, we've made an appointment with a psychiatrist. We want you to go talk with him. But they were doing it and I felt it in the right spirit. I felt it in the spirit of: we want you okay. We want everything to be okay with you. So, yes.
But I knew long before I was 16; I felt something was, quote, "the matter." I didn't have the language to know what that "the matter" thing was, so that may have been why I was so busy fixing other people's problems too, because it would also keep the, you know, the focus off of me.
GROSS: So just getting back to your father's suicide, you said once you told people that your father actually committed suicide, when you felt comfortable enough to tell people that, they would inevitably ask, and this might be the first thing that they said to you, is like oh, how did he do it? So, again from your position now as an advice columnist who has to think through what's appropriate and inappropriate in situations like this, what would be the right thing for you to have responded? You know, can you say wow, like do I really need to tell you that or...
GALANES: What I would recommend saying to people, because I know that the person I've told, or the person in my situation who's telling, has just laid something unexpected down. We don't expect our friends' fathers to have killed themselves with shotguns, so they were probably a little surprised. And in their surprise they said something that is a little, you know, more than a little intrusive and hurtful. And I would recommend when people do that not only in that situation but in any number of situations. Like you're 45 and you haven't had children yet, why?
GALANES: That one I get a lot. Or you're, you know, gosh, time is really running out for you if you want to get married. The best response that I have been able to come up with is "Why do you ask?" It delivers the question back to someone in a way that lets them see it, hopefully, for how inappropriate and - I don't want to judge the people. I mean, one of the things that I really - people will send questions in and they'll be furious that someone will say to them, well, you're 40 and not having a baby, how much longer can you wait?
Most people are just thoughtless. They didn't mean to hurt your feelings. So by saying why do you ask, you give them an opportunity to really consider, wow, that really was pretty inappropriate. And...
GROSS: But, could I stop you here?
GROSS: So is somebody saying to you you're 45 and you haven't had children yet or maybe they're saying, 45 and haven't found the right gal yet. And so, you know, there's any number of ways that you can answer that. One is like why do you ask? But another is you could just say, well, you know, I'm gay. My partner and I have decided not to have children. You know, so--
GALANES: No - so...
GROSS: So what...
GROSS: How do you figure out which way you want to go? The kind of like, you know, why are you asking me this, or the kind of, well, here's the fact?
GALANES: In the child thing I wasn't actually thinking about me. That question usually comes in to me at "Social Q's".
GROSS: Oh, I see.
GALANES: ...from women and from men and women who are trying desperately to have children.
GALANES: So the facts of the question is so hurtful to them.
GROSS: I get it.
GALANES: It is like how did your father kill himself?
GROSS: What's the problem? You can't conceive or?
GALANES: But no, but you're quite right. There are lots of ways. It's also entirely appropriate to say gosh, I'd rather not discuss that. But I find the less that my response is like a slap across their face, the more I feel the possibility is for the two of us to go on and have a nice conversation that isn't going to be about how my dad killed himself or why.
GROSS: Well, that's one of the things I really like about your advice. You're always trying to take the way that's going to help the relationship as opposed to, like, slapping the person in the face. Doing like the current kind of verbal rebuke...
GROSS: ...that will be taken as a slap in the face, that will only hurt the relationship. Like, your goal is always to be kind. I mean to not let somebody hurt you, but at the same time to find a kind way of kind of drawing the line.
GALANES: Well, I've got to tell you, Terry, that is 100 percent my goal. It's the goal of the column, it's the goal of the book, and I really think it's the way that my dad's story intersects with my story that makes this gig the happiest fluke that I ever could've gotten.
Because it grew out of the worst imaginable tragedy. But I think somehow that that tragedy sends me out into the world really conscious of how hard we all have it. I think we need each other a lot more than we don't. Tough love, it doesn't reverberate with me.
GROSS: And also you grew up being the fixer. You wanted to make things right in the family.
GROSS: Not prove that you were right, you know, and they were wrong.
GALANES: The funny people...
GROSS: Because if you want to win - I have a friend who once said you can't win in a relationship. You know what I mean?
GALANES: Well, that's exactly right.
GALANES: That's exactly right.
GROSS: It's not about winning.
GALANES: One of the clearest indications when I - I mean, because I get hundreds of questions at the column. And one of the clearest and fastest ways to weed questions out is if people want their first and last names used and the city and state that they're from, because they're usually writing to rub somebody else's nose in their bad behavior.
I was married three months ago and I sent my daughter-in-law a wonderful Baccarat crystal blah, blah, blah set and I have yet to get a thank you note. What has happened to manners in this world? Please sign me Sophie Barrett, White Plains, New York.
GALANES: And so she is effectively taking out a personal ad. She's not taken your friend's advice. She thinks she can win this relationship, and that's not where we're at, at "Social Q's."
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us. I've really enjoyed it and I appreciate the advice you've given as well. Thank you so much.
GALANES: Thank you.
DAVIES: Philip Galanes speaking last year with Terry Gross. He writes the "Social Qs" column for the New York Times Sunday Style section. His book also called "Social Qs" came out this week in paperback. You can read an excerpt on our website freshair.npr.org. Galanes is also working on a project with HBO based on his childhood and some of the issues which were discussed in our interview. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.