The Death of Dear Abby and the Power of Common Sense

I'm not one who's given to reading self-help columns, though I'm up for a good piece of advice now and then (people around me say I need advice more than I'd like to admit). Anyway, although I'm not likely to browse self-help columns, I was touched by the outpouring of sentiment following the death last week of Pauline Phillips, much better known as Dear Abby, the name under which she dispensed daily wisdom for decades in her widely syndicated newspaper column.

She and her twin sister, Ann Landers, were the two most widely read women in the United States for a while -- and I can see why. Both were down-to-earth and witty. Pauline Phillips in particular had a pointed and sometimes caustic style. For example, in the excellent New York Times obituary about her, the writer Margalit Fox quoted this priceless bit of commentary from a Dear Abby column:

... this has always been considered one of the finest sections of San Francisco, and these weirdos are giving it a bad name. How can we improve the neighborhood? -- Nob Hill Residents

Dear Residents: You could move.

Now, both Pauline Phillips and her sister came to prominence during the 1950s, when our society was nearing the end of a period of great civic-mindedness. You'd think that personal issues that strangers raised in a newspaper column wouldn't hold much interest then. But Phillips and her sister made the personal universal, in addressing subjects such as love, death, marriage, sex, bigotry, pettiness and, yes, community-mindedness. The two women were able to hold onto their readership during the next few decades, too, as the Me Generation of the 1960s and 1970s and the look-at-me excesses of the 1980s took hold.

These women had the remarkable ability, intelligence and intuitive empathy to change with the times. Their ears were attuned to what people were thinking, how they were feeling, and what the values of each era represented.

This is important -- and not only for advice columnists. It's important for anyone who's trying to reach an audience. People's values about what works or doesn't work, what speaks to them or falls flat, evolve from era to era. In fact, these values change about every 40 years, something I and my co-author Roy H. Williams discovered when we wrote Pendulum, our book that explores social shifts and what they say about how to understand each particular era.

We call these eras either "we" cycles or "me" cycles. In a "me" cycle, people are interested in flash, in hero-worship, in individualism at all costs. In a "we" cycle -- which is where we are at the moment -- we are more given to thinking in terms of the community, of small actions taken for the greater good.

Now, Dear Abby -- or, as she should be called, Pauline Phillips, was all about small actions, about considering others before oneself, about doing what was right to make life better for everyone. Her advice resounded with readers in individualistic as well as civic-minded ages.

The reason for that?

Common sense is a rare commodity in any era.