Arbitrating the social foibles of a complex world

Brattleboro native Philip Galanes

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Tuesday November 29, 2011

BRATTLEBORO -- "My boyfriend assumed I was Jewish when we met on Jdate, a website for Jewish singles. I didn't correct him at the time because I was afraid he would dump me. Now, months later, I'm afraid he's going to dump me because I didn't tell the truth. I really like this guy. What should I do?"

That's how the most unusual, unlikely and unsought job interview began for Philip Galanes, a Brattleboro native, now a New York City entertainment lawyer and author of two novels, "Father's Day" and Emma's Table."

However unlikely, Galanes got the job and was hired to write an advice column in the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times. Three and a half years later, Galanes' "Social Q's" column is a popular feature -- he receives hundreds of requests a week for advice and hundreds more comments on the advice he gives, and he appears frequently on the "Today" show.

Now, Galanes has a book out titled "Social Q's: How to Survive the Quirks, Quandaries and Quagmires of Today."

The whole ride is still enough to make him shake his head.

"I'm not super polite. I'm not the person you'd imagine would be doing this," said Galanes in a phone interview last week. "The editor at the Styles section had read my novel. It had a kind of smart alecky voice. We're living in a world now, where we're dealing with e-mail and Facebook and Twitter. She thought there is a new sensibility. She wanted to find the anti-Emily Post."

Enter Galanes, who quickly found himself helping people navigate problems that Emily Post never had to deal with. Gone are the days of giving advice on which fork to use or when to wear white. Galanes' readers want to know what to say to the woman who swims next to them at the club and pees in the pool; or what to do when your father accidentally sends you the sexy texts he meant to send to his mistress; or what to say to a co-worker who you know recently had a boob job.

"These are sort of like Dear Abby, but for a new age. I used to love Dear Abby when I was a kid. I used to read Dear Abby in the Reformer," said Galanes.

Now he's the one getting the letters, many more than the four a week he can answer in the Styles section. The "Social Q's" book came about in part to help answer more of those questions -- and to give readers a way to navigate problems on their own.

In his trademark sassy, smart alecky voice, Galanes maps out systems, rules of thumb and mnemonic devices so people can figure this stuff out on their own. It's helpful, clever and fun to read. In the chapter headed "If the Shoe Fits, It's Ugly!" Galanes give us his "Tic Tac Toe" system to navigate fashion crimes and misdemeanors. For the world on online communication, he gives us "OMG" -- O: Only for the east stuff; M: Make Sure; and G: Get on the phone at the first sign of trouble. And just in time for the holidays, he gives us "Ho! Ho! HO!" -- Hold back a little, Hold your tongue and Hold the booze.

"Rather than being school marm-ish about it, and Emily Post about it, I was trying to come up with rules that would work for all," he said.

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Sure, "Social Q's" is great fun for the voyeuristic, but this is real-life stuff that we can all relate to. It matters, and Galanes has become an important arbiter of the social foibles of our complex world.

"When I started, I didn't think I would care as much as I do, but it's surprising how much I care," said Galanes. "I get a lot of questions from kids. There's a huge number of questions that I take really, really seriously."

He said he tries to come up with answers that are right and that leave both parties satisfied that the right thing was done. His experience as a lawyer helps him see both sides of a problem.

He also cites as an influence lessons he learned growing up in Brattleboro.

"Both sets of my grandparents were shopkeepers and both were first-generation immigrants. Both sets of gentlemen were incredibly courtly. They were so polite to everyone who came in their stores," Galanes said. "I would go into their stores and watch how they would deal with strangers."

A lot of what Galanes' advice does is hark back to the values of an earlier time.

"People are hungry for help doing stuff that our parents knew how to do," Galanes said. "Some of it has to do with the fact that we're living so digitally that we're not so good at the face-to-face. We're living in lots of little me-first bubbles. I'm trying to coax people out of those bubbles."

Galanes has nothing against technology -- he's hooked on his devices, loves it that there are more than 2,300 members of the "Social Q's" Facebook group and has a hard time resisting the temptation of peeking at his many "Social Q's" e-mails when he should working on his legal work.

Still, our digital age has come with a cost, and civility has cropped up as a relevant issue of our times, whether it's in reference to political gridlock in Washington or in the reaction to Occupy Wall Street.

"The idea of civility is like a brand new idea, but, of course, it's the oldest idea. But we've lost touch with it," he said. "It's always paid for television announcers and politicians to be provocative, and they get rewarded for that. It's almost like in the age we live in, we're all getting rewarded for being provocative and rude to each other."

Galanes is looking forward to returning to his kinder, gentler hometown. During Gallery Walk on Friday, Dec. 2, at 7 p.m., he will be at the Brooks Memorial Library to discuss his new book and chat, politely, with everyone.