Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Questions About Questions

Questions I ask

If I kept a book of the questions I ask that no one answers, it wouldn't be very long, but reading it would send me into an apoplectic fit. I am so frustrated! This mini-tirade is addressed to all the people who have ever unanswered a question I asked.

When you ignore my question, what does it mean? Does it mean you didn't hear the question and I should ask it again? Or does it mean you just don't want to answer, in which case, why don't you just tell me so and save me a lot of mental agony? Did you know that every time I have to ask the same question, the difficulty increases exponentially? Did you know that by the third time I've had to ask a question, I would just as soon roll around in a nest of fire ants than ask it again? But did you also know that by that point, I would be so desperate about not knowing the answer that I might just roll around in a nest of fire ants anyway, out of sheer insanity?

Questions I'm supposed to answer

At the store where I work, I get involved in a lot of conversations that go like this:

Shopper: Whanga nafum ina cauliflowers?
Me: What?
Shopper: Cauliflowers.
Me: Cauliflowers?
Shopper: Yes.
Me: What about them?
Shopper: Where can I find them?

Now, for example, if I responded, "Where can you find the what?" then yes, "cauliflowers" would be a logical answer.

But my saying "What?" gives absolutely no hint that I've heard a single word you uttered. There's nothing to even indicate that I heard the question mark--for all I know, you might have said, "We need a friend called Flowers." So how do you come to the conclusion that I heard the beginning and middle of what was clearly a question, but zoned out for the finish? How, in other words, do you decide which part of your question to leave out when you re-ask it?

These grocery-store interrogations are silly, to say the least. And they could be blown out of existence by an invention we learned about in elementary school: complete sentences. (Complete sentences that begin with "And." And are followed after the period by parenthetical comments with sentences inside them that are incomplete and begin with "And." Rock!)

So, when I say, "What?" you say, "Where can I find the cauliflowers?" When I say, "What about the cauliflowers?" you say, "Where can I find them?" When I say, "Where can you find the what?" you say, "I'm not sure if you can use "what" in place of a noun. I'd better consult Strunk & White and get back to you."

Following these simple practices, we can make the world a better place!


Anonymous said...

I suggest responding, "I'm sorry?" when presented with an unintelligble question. Then the mumbler can't assume you want to know what they're looking for. It's more likely they'll repeat the whole question. Then again there are times when you did miss only the subject but the person will not only repeat the question but will elaborate seemingly endlessly. Even more time is then wasted. The best solution is for everyone to SPEAK UP!

Valerie said...

"I'm sorry" is a good response to an unintelligible question. I use that sometimes. I can't remember if it still elicits the same half-responses that I get with a "what?", but it's a good strategy to try.