Q+A with Emma Barnett: Agony Aunt for the Sunday Times Magazine
How did you get a job as an agony aunt?
I was asked by Eleanor Mills, the editor of the Sunday Times Magazine to take on the advice column, which she duly named after me and my approach to problems, Tough Love. I have been a broadcaster for the last seven years and a big part of one of my radio shows was to take problems from my listeners and figure a way through. My mother kept on comparing me to a modern day Marjorie Proops!
Do you think you have any special qualities that make you a good choice for advice?
I am hugely empathetic and I live for figuring out solutions, action plans and advising how people can best communicate their true feelings – without being buttoned up and British about it. I believe in straight-talking and difficult confrontations. Having a good sense of humour helps too and not being judgmental. My friends know they can tell me anything and to expect no eyebrow raising.
Do you believe agony aunts should be qualified in any specific way?
No – but living a full life helps. As does having traversed some difficulties yourself. But I think we should always make clear that our advice isn’t professional in any way.
What else do you do?
I present the morning programme on BBC 5Live - 10am-1pm - 5Live Daily, regularly host Woman's Hour on BBC Radio 4, co-host The Pledge on Sky News and volunteer for Smartworks - a charity getting women back into work through interview training and styling.
Are there any problems that come up more often?
Relationships are at the heart of so many of the emails I receive – between lovers, siblings and parents and their offspring.
Is therapy or counselling something often suggested?
No, not often. I don’t feel it’s my place to say – plus it’s an obvious route to suggest. My correspondents want my take – not to be sent elsewhere.
Do you ever suggest using apps?
Not yet – but I would.
What about self-help books?
Not yet – but I would.
Do you think women are more likely than men to turn to an agony aunt for advice?
Yes – but I have been thrilled with the number of men who have written in – and letters from men beget other male correspondence. It emboldens them.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
The only person you’re up against is yourself.
Do you think advice can be generation-neutral?
Yes I do.
Does any time of year bring more letters or emails?
I did see an uplift in January, post the festive period.
In the time you have been an agony aunt, how do you think readers’ problems have changed?
Seven months in, I see no change per se – but, interestingly, my part in the magazine isn’t sold as an agony aunt column. I think that term can limit and date what you receive and who writes to you. Instead it’s billed as an advice column for 21st century living and I love receiving letters about career issues, living problems and workplace politics.