I’m always looking for you — on my train ride to work, in cafes, in waiting rooms — but I don’t see you rustling a big colorful print version of FiveThirtyEight. If I did, I’d lean in close to examine your face or accidentally elbow you to strike up a conversation. I want to find you by accident, but now that screens give you a more discreet means of reading than paper, I can’t. See, I want to know that I’m not just writing about things that are of interest to me and people I know — so meeting you at some party through a friend of a friend just doesn’t cut it. It’s still too close to home.
Last May, I wondered if there might be another place I could meet you: my inbox. This is how I pitched the idea:
This is the first in a regular series called “Dear Mona,” where I’ll help readers to answer a fundamental, burning question: Where do I fit in the world? Or: Am I normal? I’m not a fan of advice columns in which the writer dispenses “you shoulds” based on her experience. Instead, I’ll offer data to contextualize your experience.
By asking you to email me questions that could be answered with data, I hoped I could surreptitiously find out who you are and what you care about. The sorts of things that, ironically enough, data on this site’s readership doesn’t really reveal. And boy were you revealing!
You came to me every day to tell me that you peed in the shower every morning, never used tampons and went to church every Sunday. After a while, I decided to expand the column beyond “am I normal?” to include all questions, although I have a cheeky suspicion that even when you were asking things like “how often should one change one’s socks?” you were still trying to compare yourself to others. Yes, yes, I know this “you” is a multitude — but identifying individuals within the sexless, ageless, faceless throng of “readers” was so important because suddenly, I didn’t have to imagine you anymore.
But, just as I’ve gotten to know you (it only took answering 47 “Dear Mona” questions and writing 199 other articles), I’ve decided to leave FiveThirtyEight. It has been nearly two years since Nate asked me to join the amazing team he was building here and it’s time for me to take the “Dear Mona” column and my awful British jokes elsewhere. Before I do, I’d like to offer an apology and a thank you.
For every question that was published, dozens went unanswered. When you wrote to me saying that you were going to propose to your girlfriend and wanted to know the probability she’d say yes, I couldn’t find any good data. I’m sorry for that. I was equally stumped when you asked me what percentage of text messages are sent while people are pooping or how often you should be eating quinoa.
Then there were the questions that were too daunting to answer. Should I have responded when you asked me, “Is it safer to walk, ride your bike, or drive home when drunk”? Could I possibly respond with the compassion and honesty you needed when you wrote: “I’m a tall, white, well-built man with a law degree and a six-figure job… but… I’d trade it all to be a lady. Am I normal?” When you told me you hadn’t told that to any friends or family, you reminded me what an incredible thing trust is and how privileged I was to have yours.
You showed me how data is imperfect and your personal experiences helped me fill in the “why”s that are so often missing in my work. You wrote to me to tell me when I’d done a good job, and, more importantly, to tell me when I hadn’t. Most of all, though, you gave me great ideas when I didn’t have any, so I owe a special thank you to:
Micah in his 30s who lived with a roommate
Brandon, who masturbated more than once a day (and his single counterparts)
Elizabeth, who didn’t want children
Melissa, who had been in her job for three years
John, who went to church almost every Sunday
Anonymous, who slept in a separate bed from his wife
Drew, whose daughter broke her leg
Tyler, who had never drunk alcohol (and his foreign counterparts)
George, who wondered about trust funds
Allie, who peed in the shower almost every morning
@thomasasma, who wondered how often socks should be changed
Will, who wondered how many adults take ADHD drugs
Gary, whose patients were often late to their appointments
Jack, who wondered how many flight attendants are male
Dave, who wondered if living together before marriage increases the risk of divorce
Barry, who wondered if the express lane at the grocery store is always the fastest
Lisa, who wondered which state has the worst drivers
Marisa, who wondered what percentage of women have breast implants
Michelle, who wondered how many people regret their tattoos
Kieron, who wondered what the most common name in America is
Fred, who didn’t watch any sports
John, who wondered about the average height difference in couples
John, who wondered how many homeowners have paid off their mortgages
Conrad, who wondered about the most common street name in America
Curtis, who wondered how many Americans have never shot a gun
Seth, who had a 28-year age difference with his partner
Ron, who had moved 15 times in his life
Joseph, who wondered how many women earn more than their male partners
Martha, who wondered at what age she’d be older than most people
Jack, who wondered if moms are less likely than dads to pay child support
Caroline, who wondered if prisoners are less likely to be atheist
Ron, who wondered how many Americans have served in the military
Brandon, who wondered how many Americans don’t know how to ride a bike
Daryn, who wondered how many Americans are married to their cousins
Alex, who was in a long-distance relationship and wanted to know how successful they are
Andrew, who had been picked for a trial jury three times
Brian, who wondered if the moon is to blame
Nathan, whose wife wanted a divorce
Yuval, who wondered what percentage of people are immigrants
Thomas, who was going to be a father and wasn’t sure whether to find out the sex of the baby
Bill, who wondered if it makes sense to split the bill at the restaurant
Brent, who wondered what it means to die of natural causes
Ian, whose friends were getting married
Joe, who wondered how many names and faces the average person can remember
Chris, who used maxi pads but never tampons
Shannah, who wondered about the demographics of heaven.
Hope the numbers helped,