Which is probably a good place to stop this column because it just about covers it all. But I have a page to fill and with a bit of luck your computer will freeze just about now and you’ll be forced to read it anyway.
The title is one of those things that you eventually find out for yourself by doing it and living through the consequences. I liken the business of asking questions to the practice of pushing buttons set in the wall. Some lead to good answers and some lead to answers.
My initiation into this was a visit to a Swedish Glass Museum in the town of Orrefors. We had been to see the glass-blowers make wonderful jugs and plates, had looked at the prices that they wanted for their products in the shops…and kept moving. The Glass Museum was free and had more colourful stuff in it so we ducked in there. I pressed a button on the wall.
Now this was in 1973 and the digital age of holograms and multichannel presentations was sometime in the future. But when I hit that button a panel clapped open in the side of the room and a television slid out on a track, the lights went down, and it started to play a movie on the story of glass. Loudly. In Swedish. Everyone else in the place, barring the guard, looked at me in horror and vacated the room, but I stayed there and braved the dialog, music, cheesy story, and intense scrutiny of the guard. Twenty minutes later the lights came on, the TV went off, and then rolled back into the wall. I have never pressed a button in a wall since.
It also applies when someone asks a question wanting a particular answer to be favourable, but forgetting that there can be negatives as well as positives. Or when they try to get something by asking for another thing…and are disconcerted when the other thing is supplied.
The best of them all are the questions that are couched in hypothetical terms; you can deal with them in lots of ways. The conversation can be steered from coy to awkward to appalling with a great deal of ease. When they ask:
a. “I wonder what you would say, if I asked you ( to do something or to give them something or to buy something )? ”
Here the answer is simple. Smile. Look attentive. Tilt your head encouragingly. They have told you that are wondering. Wait to see what their reverie brings. Eventually they will start to sweat.
b. ” What would you say if I asked you ( the same question as before )? ”
Here you must become serious. Not threatening or stern, but with a sort of courteous academic mien. Reply ” I would give you a careful answer, bearing in mid all the factors of the case “. Then say no more. You have answered the question well.
c. ” Has anyone ever told you that ( you are good, bad, indifferent, sexy, obnoxious, conceited, homely, etc, etc ) ? ”
The answer here would be either yes or no, depending upon whether someone really ever has. You can give a one-word answer politely and need say no more. Try to do it in the most neutral way possible. Do tell the truth, as it is a position from which you never need resile.
d. ” I’ll bet you ( have never, or always, done, had, or saw something ) like this. ”
Here no answer is needed unless they finish the sentence with ” Eh ? ” and then you look quizzically at them – engaging full eye contact – and say ” Really ? How much did you bet? ” Don’t break that eye contact…Keep looking…
e. ” Do you know what you’re doing? ” is not a question – it is a snide assertion that you do not and that the questioner does. Pretend it is a question…and answer it pleasantly by saying ” Yes ” or ” No ” just as you please, but keep right on doing whatever it was that was brought into question. If you can manage to do it without the slightest pause or change in position it is the mark of a true professional.
f. ” What do you think you are doing? ” is another variant of the hectoring question. Here you do pause. If you are doing some manual task put it down and if you are working on machinery shut it down. The longer it takes to wind down until it stops the better. Put up one finger in a ‘wait a minute’ gesture while it does so. When it is stopped, and silent, you say politely ” Answering your question. ”
Then you instantly switch on the machinery or turn back to the task in hand.
g. ” What are you supposed to be doing? ” is the third of the big three. Here you treat the situation exactly as you did for [f.] above. When the machinery is still you say that you are supposed to be changing the crown plugs on a Belpaire boiler or calculating the fiscal return on a thyroid, or anything that comes readily to mind – no matter what task you were actually engaged upon. Then start the machinery again and carry on but answer no more questions.
With a bit of luck, the questioner will be in no fit state to ask them.