The coronavirus outbreak has changed the way we all live and work – and, as a result, it’s given us a whole new, unprecedented, set of problems.
What if you can’t stand your partner, now that you’re in lockdown together and can no longer ignore their annoying traits? Or worse – what if you broke up just before the order to stay at home, and are now awkwardly stuck under the same roof?
If you’re lucky enough to work from home, how do you deal with difficult children – or a boss who likes to micromanage you remotely?
What if you still have to go in to work – and your boss won’t let you wear a mask?
What if your parents are driving you crazy?
Or what if you just feel really lonely?
For decades, advice columnists – or “agony aunts” – have been the go-to place for people wanting to ask for advice anonymously. Now, the crisis means some columnists are getting more queries – and the questions have become more serious and urgent.
“The outbreak has dramatically changed the type of mail I’m getting,” says Alison Green, who runs the popular Ask A Manager advice column. “About 90% of them are now related to the outbreak.”
Harriette Cole, who writes the syndicated column Sense and Sensitivity, says “there is no relationship today that isn’t somehow affected”.
She has had questions ranging from dealing with over-friendly neighbours who won’t social distance, to staying in touch with elderly parents who don’t know how to use smart phones, to discussing class differences exposed by the pandemic with your child, after they realise all their friends have gone to second homes.
Frankly, this is a time when we could all use some advice and support – so we spoke to some of the US’s favourite agony aunts and uncles, to find out what problems are bothering their readers the most – and what advice they have.
‘What if my workplace isn’t safe?’
Ms Green says that, prior to the outbreak, most of her reader questions were about awkward interactions.
“There was a lot of inter-personal stuff – like ‘my co-worker is really annoying’, or ‘I’m allergic to my boss’ perfume’. I have almost none of those questions now – because that stuff goes away if you’re not physically at work with people, and people’s priorities are different now.”
Instead, her readers are particularly worried about job security – and whether their work environments are safe.
It’s a similar situation for Quentin Fottrell, who runs The Moneyist, an advice column on the finance media site Marketwatch.
Instead of personal finance queries, he says the “lion’s share” of questions are now about workplace safety – such as one from a grocery store worker who was in close proximity to customers, but banned from wearing a face mask.
“Service workers in essential industries are really at the coal face,” Mr Fottrell says. “People are just grappling with bosses who don’t understand the pandemic.”
So what should you do if your workplace is unsafe?
“It’s really hard, but if your employer is making decisions that jeopardise your health, you can try to push back as a group, because there’s safety in numbers,” says Ms Green.
“Depending on the situation, it might also be something you can report to the state authorities.”
‘Should I pay my cleaner even if they’re not working?’
One question that struck Mr Fottrell came from someone who had cancelled their housekeeper’s cleaning services due to social distancing – but wondered if they should keep paying them.
His advice? That paying would be a “decent gesture” if they could afford it. Since service staff have been hit particularly hard by the outbreak, he also suggests people tip 5% more than usual.
“I feel like it’s the lower paid workers who are really taking the brunt of this virus through their workplaces – when I go to the supermarket, I always say ‘thank you for working today’.”
‘How do I handle working from home?’
Another common theme Ms Green has seen is about remote working – with managers expecting employees to work around the clock, or workers finding it difficult to be productive at home while also looking after children.
“Managers are suddenly managing everyone remotely – and some don’t know how to – so they micromanage, or want multiple check-ins every day. I’ve heard from people whose managers wanted them to stay on video all day long” to prove they’re working, Ms Green says.
For people with anxious bosses, Ms Green suggests that you offer to send them information at the start of each day about what you’re working on, and try to explain that having several check-in meetings daily could actually make you less productive.
Meanwhile, she tells managers that it’s in their own interests to be supportive right now – and understanding of employees who may be less productive than usual. “People have long memories… If they see you making life harder for your employees – they may not leave right away, but they will eventually.”
‘How do I date during the outbreak?’
Relationship advice columnists have also seen a drastic change.
Harris O’Malley runs the Dr Nerdlove column – which he describes as giving “dating advice to geeks of all stripes”.
Previously, many questions were from readers who felt they were unattractive or socially awkward. Thanks to social distancing, these questions have fallen away – partly, he believes, because “a lot of my audience feel more secure communicating over text or internet than in person”.
Instead, the outbreak has “changed the mechanics” of dating – and he now has to coach people on how to have good online dates.
“I’m having to tell people about how to connect on a more mental or emotional level – how to keep relationships vibrant when you can’t fall back on the easy outs.
“When you’re not able to meet up in person, you can’t say ‘let’s have this casual relationship and see if it goes anywhere’ – people are now finding they have to approach relationships with thought, care and attention.”
‘What if I can’t meet my sex partner anymore?’
Dan Savage, who runs the popular Savage Love column and podcast, says over 80% of the queries he gets are now coronavirus-related – and the outbreak has forced him to change his advice as “the very premise of many sex and dating questions has been exploded” by the outbreak.
Previously, he often advocated for non-monogamous and open relationships. Now, he finds himself telling readers they should stay monogamous with partners they live with to observe social distancing.
He also gets questions about “sexting”.
“It’s funny how this crisis has mainstreamed online sex – even a government health department is now telling people that online sex is safer sex,” he says.
‘What if I can’t stand my partner anymore?’
Beyond online sex, Dan Savage says many readers “find being forced to spend every moment with their partner is exposing cracks in their relationship”.
It’s important that couples “carve out time alone” even when they are under the same roof, he says. “We interpret someone wanting ‘alone time’ as rejection, but studies show one predictor of long-term success in a couple is the ability to spend time apart.”
Some of the most memorable questions he received came from a reader who broke up just before the shelter-in-place order, and a woman who told her husband she was thinking about leaving, right before the lockdown.
In those cases, he has suggested that readers stay put where possible, and “acknowledge the awkwardness”.
In the case of the woman who wanted to leave her husband, he suggested signalling some flexibility for now – even if her mind’s made up – to make her temporary living situation more bearable for them both.
‘What if I’m single and feel lonely?’
All the relationship advice columnists we spoke to said they received more questions from readers who are single and feel particularly lonely right now.
Mr O’Malley says clients “who are lonely and want to date” have asked him whether they can flirt with people they see in public places. “I’ve had to tell them: no, you really can’t – it’s kind of irresponsible to do so right now.”
Ms Cole has received a lot of what she describes as “young love” questions – from teenagers who like each other and have started communicating on Snapchat, but are unable to hang out at school and get to know each other.
“Normally by now they would be [meeting] each other. Now all they have is social media,” she says. Her advice? To try doing things the old-school way, by “literally talking on the phone”, because “engaging in lengthier conversations will help you to get to know each other better”.
Mr Savage urges single readers not to assume that couples are happier. “Happiness is something we create for ourselves. We all need to build lives that are rich, as individuals, because there will be times in all our lives when we’re un-partnered. Work on getting happy now – you can work on getting partnered later.”
‘What if I’m stuck with my parents?’
John Paul Brammer writes the ¡Hola Papi! column, which advises on LGBT issues – particularly for the Latino community.
He says he has seen a dramatic jump in the number of reader queries – and is “getting a lot of letters from people who’ve found they’ve had to re-closet themselves” during the pandemic.
Some of his readers are out to their friends but not their parents, while others may be out, but still “feel more comfortable expressing their full selves outside their homes”.
“Now that a lot of people find themselves at home with their parents 24/7, a lot of anxiety returns – they feel re-closeted or like they’re losing who they are.”
His advice is to remember that “this is temporary, and you’re still you”, and to try and communicate your feelings with a supportive family member or friends.
He also urges people to reach out to others – “everyone wants to be connected right now… pain is what bonds people together”.
‘How do I mentally get through this outbreak?”
These may be unprecedented times – but coronavirus isn’t the first crisis the world has faced.
Ms Green started the Ask a Manager column in 2007 – shortly before the recession hit – and remembers that “for years, my mail was very depressing”.
Similarly, Mr Savage began his column in 1991, and says his early column was dominated by questions from readers anxious about the HIV/Aids crisis.
He emphasises that things won’t always be like this. “It’s terrifying, I’m scared, but we will come through this… The crisis is highlighting a lot of social injustices, and hopefully that will stiffen our resolve to do something about it after the crisis ends.”
Meanwhile, Mr Fottrell says “one of the most valuable functions of an advice column is it shows people who haven’t written in” that others are experiencing similar problems.
“You are not alone. We always think our situations are unique – and while we are unique as people, if you’re experiencing something, you can be sure many others are too.”
And finally – it’s OK to take a break from following the crisis. Agony aunts as well as their readers welcome having the chance to address something different, columnists told BBC.
Mr O’Malley recalls a recent question submitted to the Dr Nerdlove column, where a reader was “worried about the size and appearance of his genitalia”.
“I never thought I’d say this – but I really appreciated a question that wasn’t about Covid-19!”