Etiquette columnist talks ‘Social Q’s’ in the age of digitalism
Once a week, Philip Galanes answers questions about how to act and react in polite society, a different path from his livelihood as an entertainment lawyer. And his job as an interior design consultant for private clients. And another job as a novelist, first with “Father’s Day” in 2004 and then with “Emma’s Table” in 2008.
But the questions are perfect for his Social Q’s column, which runs each Sunday in The New York Times.
Galanes gathered several of his most popular and most peculiar questions in a book called “Social Q’s: How to Survive the Quirks, Quandaries, and Quagmires of Today” (Simon & Schuster).
In a recent email conversation, the obviously busy Galanes answered questions about being an old-fashioned advice columnist in a digital world.
Q: Do you feel vulnerable about your manners, your mood or your social skills since writing the book? I know you have an earlier book and a successful law/design/writing career, but now that people everywhere can recognize you, does that celebrity come with a sense of always being on your toes?
A: Not at all. Part of my philosophy at “Social Q’s,” both the column and the book, is that we all have our blind spots, and we all screw up. That’s just human. It’s how we bounce back that’s important. And that’s what I try to help folks do. And lucky for me, I see no reason to hold myself to a higher standard. We’re all doing the best we can. And in fairness, it’s a complicated world.
Q: You were interviewed by Terry Gross for “Fresh Air” and you talked about reading Dear Abby aloud to your family. Most advice readers were divided between two camps: Team Abby or Team Ann. Did you choose Abby or was Abby thrust upon you based on your newspaper? And did you have interest or follow that sibling rivalry?
A: Well, my earliest exposure was to “Dear Abby,” and she just cast a spell over me. As a kid, I took so much comfort in the fact that there was this sensible woman who could help us navigate the world. (And the fact that it was in print made it seem all the more reliable.)
Of course, later, I discovered Ann Landers. Both ladies were terrific, but Abby had that sensational voice: world-wise and a little acid and laugh-out-loud funny.
And when I found out that they were sisters, well, that just blew my mind! Two sisters with the best jobs in America.
Q: An editor from the Times read your book, “Emma’s Table,” and liked your style, which led to an offer to write the Social Q’s column. Did you accept right away, or think long and hard about what a chore it might be?
A: I said yes so fast it blew my socks off! As soon as I started discussing an advice column with the Times, I knew it was exactly what I wanted to do. And for a guy with lots of opinions and buttinski impulses, it’s about as good a job as I can imagine.
Q: Do you sometimes feel like you live among savages?
A: It’s funny you ask. Because I’ve been waiting for the column to feel like a job for years now. I’ve been at it for four years. But it never has. Every week, there’s a new letter (or 20) that gets me excited all over again. And I can’t wait to dig in.
Then there’s the huge reader feedback, both pro and con. And that’s even more exciting. Like having a conversation about the trickiest parts of living in the world today. Writing the column — and the book – has been the best job I never imagined landing.
Q: It kind of feels like people skip common sense and go right to overwrought. Is a lot of your job talking people down?
A: Well, we all have our blind spots and our sore spots and our freak-outs. That’s just part of being alive. So, if part of my job is reminding folks to take a breath every once in a while, I don’t mind it one bit. I just hope that folks will do the same for me when I need it.
Q: Which questions or occasions come up the most: work, fashion, rules of etiquette, romance, Facebook?
A: One of the things I love the best about the column is that the questions are always changing. It’s like a constantly shifting smorgasbord of awkward situations.
For a week or two (usually around the holidays), I’ll get loads of family crises. Then there’ll be a spate of office dilemmas, then romantic disasters, then Facebook fiascos. But there’s always something new. And the great thing is, I can never predict what it will be.
Q: I know that the column was originally intended as a digital advice forum. Social media and digital arenas such as Facebook, Twitter and everything else seem like the current version of the Wild West. Can they be tamed? Should they be tamed?
A: Like my mom used to say to my brothers and me: “It’s all fun and games ’til one of you comes home in tears.” And Facebook and Twitter are a little like that. You’re right to call them the “Wild West.” People really let themselves loose online, which is fun and freeing. But I hate to see people hurt by mean posts; or someone not get a job because they posted pictures of themselves three sheets to the wind. So, if I can prevent that ... sign me up.
Q: And what about wedding questions? Haven’t we all been to a million weddings by now? Shouldn’t all these questions either be moot by the changing wedding styles or answered by experience?
A: You’d think so, right? But everyone’s Big Day walking down the aisle is slightly different from all the ones that have come before, because it’s our Big Day, and not the ones that came before.
So, brides and grooms (and their moms and dads and maids of honor) develop these little blind spots. We become our own little version of Bridezilla.
And I try to help out, with a kind word or a slap across the face, whichever seems more appropriate. We’re constantly on a learning curve, especially when it comes to ourselves.
Q: Do people just flat out lose their minds when it comes to money? Money spent on gifts that aren’t followed by a thank-you note? Money spent on gas picking someone up? Money spent on vacation homes with no offer of help?
A: One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from Social Q’s is that money is so much more than something to buy things with. Between family and friends, money can be a powerful sign of how much we respect each other; it can be a gesture of kindness; it can also be a weapon. So, we take good hard looks at those nickels and dimes. (And no matter what, just get those than-you notes out pronto! People get so upset when they never come.)
Q: How do you find time for it all? That is a mighty impressive resume and seems to spread out well beyond the 40-hour workweek. What’s the secret to this kind of time-management success?
A: Once I hit 40, I pretty much stopped sleeping. So, I’m up at the crack of dawn, and so grateful for all the funny, freaky, fantastic problems that have flowed into my inbox overnight. I work on them for an hour or two, then I’m on to the next thing, whether it’s legal work or design.
I’m a juggler, just like everyone else in the world. We’re all swamped. And we’re all doing our best, and hopefully, brushing people the wrong way as little as possible.