'Times' Advice Guy Answers NPR's 'Social Q's' Philip Galanes talks about what it takes to get your modern-etiquette question answered in the Sunday New York Times — and takes a few questions from NPR listeners.
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'Times' Advice Guy Answers NPR's 'Social Q's'

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'Times' Advice Guy Answers NPR's 'Social Q's'

'Times' Advice Guy Answers NPR's 'Social Q's'

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. Philip Galanes says he has the best gig in America.

PHILIP GALANES: You know, a best gig for a kibitzer who loves to weigh in.

CORNISH: He's an advice columnist for The New York Times, a job he got after he published his first novel in 2004. The book wasn't exactly a top seller.

GALANES: But it happened that one of the people who read the book was the editor of The New York Times Style section, and she thought this is just the voice that I want advising my readers.

CORNISH: Now, that voice dishes advice to readers every Sunday. For instance, want advice on how to tell your dad he's sending text messages intended for his mistress to your phone? Or how to tell the boyfriend you met on a Jewish online dating site that you're not actually Jewish. Well, Galanes's new book takes these questions on - and more. It's called "Social Cues: How to Survive the Quirks, Quandaries and Quagmires of Today." But first, if you're hoping to get an answer to your social conundrum in the Sunday paper, Galanes says it's best to keep your question short and sweet.

GALANES: I only have 800 words. And so some of the questions that will run to several thousand words, are kind of, you know, they've self-edited themselves out.

CORNISH: Several thousand words?

GALANES: Screens and screens. I mean, people have lots of complaints about their mother-in-laws that I could share with you in intimate detail. But I think what I like is something that is idiosyncratic but that can open up onto a problem that all of us are suffering from. Because we are walking around, all of us, into sticky situations all day long. And yours and mine are probably not the same but it's maybe like that Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game; they're probably not all that different either.

CORNISH: I was surprised at the very first thing in the book is this sort of like people writing you trying to figure out how to tell someone else how to do something better about their outward appearance. Are we picky or are we slobs?

GALANES: It stuns me, the percentage of questions that I get that are about people wanting other people to live their better life. I started looking at the ways in which we look at each other. Because it is how we walk through the world. We walk through the world as physical specimens. And that is the first way - and maybe the most primary way - that we encounter each other.

CORNISH: Another area of study in the book, if I can describe it that way...

GALANES: I appreciate it.

CORNISH: ...is social networking. And we had a question from Facebook about Facebook, which was: how do you unfriend someone on Facebook but still be his/her friend in real life? And this comes from our listener Rebecca Ng.

GALANES: Rebecca's question goes really right to the heart of Facebook. And I think I, and a hoard of my Social Cues folks who write in to me, really clung for dear life onto this idea that finally it was our party. We invited all the people. We would determine what would be happening there. It was about us for a change. And then life intruded. And along with life, a posse of second cousins that you're not so crazy about. And it turns out, lo and behold, that we thought Facebook was something new but it's the same old thing. We have to be nice to people. So, to Rebecca, as much as I would like to say there's a cagey way to unfriend her or him and stay friends with them, there probably isn't. Because whenever we reject somebody, whether we do it online or, you know, right on the street corner, it hurts a little bit.

CORNISH: Another thing you talk about is how to deal with rejection. And we have a question from Dante Johnson from Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina that I think gets at this point:

DANTE JOHNSON: How would you properly decline someone who asks you out without being negative?

CORNISH: All right, Philip.

GALANES: Well, when I'm not writing Social Cues, the column or the book, I am an entertainment lawyer, and I spend a lot of time in Hollywood. So, from these Hollywood people, I have earned that there is a tremendous advantage in being positive while you're being negative. When it comes to turning somebody down, I don't think anything beats: Thank you so much for asking but I'd rather be friends with you. It takes the other guy or woman off the hook really quickly because...

CORNISH: So, you're spinning them basically. You're basically saying I am rejecting you but, no, it's a good thing.

GALANES: I'm rejecting you but I'm rejecting...

CORNISH: How is that possible?

GALANES: ...I'm rejecting you but I'm rejecting you with as much warmth in my heart as I possibly can. Because when we need to say no, we need to do it quickly and directly. Because most of us really don't like to hurt other people's feelings. And so we stall and don't respond to the request for the date. But in the romance chapter of my book, I've got examples of requests and refusals that will truly, Dante, blow your socks off. So, do not worry about anything that you have done. I promise you, you will read worse.

CORNISH: One of the topics you cover in your book is how to deal with strangers who might rub you the wrong way. You know, like people on the street, waiting in line at the grocery store. And we actually have a question from Molly Gleeson in Arlington, Virginia.

MOLLY GLEESON: What's the best way to ask someone to stop talking loudly or talking on their cell phones without being confrontational?

GALANES: I get this one a lot, Audie. And my answer is always the same: do it sweetly, Molly, and always with a smile on your face. Because a smile says I come in peace. Here's another tip: do it quickly before your head is about to explode because you're so annoyed that you know more about this guy's fantasy football picks than you could ever be expected to know.

CORNISH: And what do you think actually makes you qualified to be an advice columnist?

GALANES: Finally, an opportunity to name drop. When I first got the column, one of my first fan letters came from a woman called Margot Howard, who is Ann Landers' daughter. Now, I basically learned to read so I could read Dear Abby and Ann Landers in my local newspaper. So, she said to me: when people ask you what qualifies you to answer people's questions, she says just tell them the thing that my mother always told me to tell them, which is: because somebody asked me.

CORNISH: Philip Galanes is an advice columnist for the New York Times. Social Cues is the name of his weekly column and his new book, which comes out November 1st. He joined us from NPR's New York bureau. Philip, thanks for your tips.

GALANES: My pleasure, Audie.

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