What’s the primary trait you need to be an advice columnist? According to Baltimore native R. Eric Thomas, bestselling author, noted playwright and television writer, the answer is simple.

“Empathy.”

On July 1, Thomas joins the big leagues of the trades with “Asking Eric,” the successor to the legendary Chicago Tribune’s “Ask Amy” column, written by the retiring Amy Dickinson.

I grew up under the auspices of “Ask Ann Landers,” “Dear Abby” and “Miss Manners,” whose words seemed absolute and final. It felt like deviation from their opinions might lead you to ruin. But Thomas, a deeply funny and thoughtful person who previously filled in for Slate’s “Dear Prudence” advice column, has a different approach.

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“I’m working really hard to stay authentically in the vein of who I am, and to be responsive to what works and doesn’t work,” he said. “I’m going to approach this with hope and pop culture sensibilities, and a humility.”

“If you’re looking for someone to fuss at you,” he laughed, “there are a number of people who would be happy to do that.”

But fussing at people from a high horse is not what “Asking Eric” will be about. Thomas said that he when he was contacted by Tribune Content Agency, he didn’t know that Dickinson, whom he called “an icon, a fixture,” was retiring. He didn’t realize “what they were auditioning for, which is great because if I had known, I would have gotten into my own head about it. When they offered me the position, we had a very long conversation about what that entailed, to be very clear about the expectations and what this level of exposure is like.”

No one with any humility takes the prospect of advice-giving lightly. It’s hard to imagine anyone thinks enough of you and the way you live your life to want your opinion of theirs. It’s nerve-racking to do that for people you know, let alone taking on the responsibility of responding to queries from those needing so much help that they want to write a stranger. Thomas acknowledges that, but also reframes the situation as “a conversation, rather than an edict” — or, as he wrote in his introductory piece, “you’re not asking for a decree from on high.”

The difference between Thomas and his advice-giving ancestors may be the times. “Social media has democratized everything, and there’s this understanding that there isn’t just one story, so if there isn’t only one story, there’s not only one ending,” he said. “I admire the way that Ann Landers and other people would just sort of lay down the law. I’m not the law.”

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One of the striking things about the traditional advice business is that we, the readers, have generally been supposed to accept the views of the status quo — laid out almost entirely by white women of seeming status and privilege — as universal and applicable to everyone. I thought it was particularly notable that one of the announcements introducing “Asking Eric” specifically referred to him as “a Black male playwright.” So what does he make of that?

“You know, I think it’s interesting. I’m always a little weary of any circumstance where the tagline is my identity and not my accomplishment,” Thomas said. “Sometimes, they’re not seeing my realness. They’re showing what’s strange, perhaps, about this, and this circumstance. All of my work, all of my books, have been about, ‘Hey actually, this is also a standard human experience.’ I have wants, I have desires, I have failed. All these things.”

Because of the reach of his books like “Here for It: Or, How to Save Your Soul in America” and “Congratulations! The Best Is Over,” Thomas has been contacted by people whose circumstances seem different on the surface, but whose problems are altogether human, just like his. “I get DMs all the time that say ‘I’m a white Mormon mom from Kentucky, we have nothing in common, but I see myself in your story.’ And that’s the key to all of this.”

The last time I had spoken to Thomas was a few years ago, when he was in the process of moving from Baltimore to Philadelphia for a pastoral opportunity for his husband, the Rev. David Norse Thomas, at a church outside of the city. I told him in our recent chat that we missed him here — “I miss Baltimore, too!” he replied — but I guess it’s enough to at least have his voice soon be available in daily, national syndication.

In advance of the column’s official start date, he said, a few sample versions will be released. His aim: to “listen to the questions behind the questions and give feedback,” as opposed to “offering a magic solution.” As a storyteller at heart, he said he’s going to approach each letter writer “human to human. I like to give a couple of choices like, ‘If you do this, imagine this will happen,’ or ‘If you do something else, this will happen.’”

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“Like ‘Choose Your Own Adventure?’” I asked, referencing the interactive book series that allows readers to pick between plot lines, which, in my day, either wound up in victory or, alarmingly frequently, sinking in quicksand. He agreed that it was something like that, but clarified it’s hopefully not that dire.

“We’re having a 300-word exchange. I am not going to save your life. I’m just giving you an opportunity to take a breath,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Hey, I hear what you’re saying. Here is where I’m coming from.’”

Sounds like empathy to me.

Leslie Gray Streeter is a columnist excited about telling Baltimore stories — about us and the things that we care about, that touch us, that tickle us and that make us tick, from parenting to pop culture to the perfect crab cake. She is especially psyched about discussions that we don't usually have. Open mind and a sense of humor required.

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