How to Answer Stupid Questions

July 30, 2014 | 15 comments

It's become something of a genre for advice columnists: What not to say to: a pregnant woman, a grieving parent, someone who has cancer. Those are the times when unconsidered words can cause either distress or deep pain for someone who is already experiencing anything from stress to abject grief. Then there are also other primers on how to get ahead by not saying the wrong thing to: a customer service representative, your boyfriend (or your girlfriend), your boss.

People, being people, continue on engaging in what etiquette expert Judith Martin ("Miss Manners") has called blather, which is (more or less) the practice of filling conversation gaps with any ill-considered question that enters a person's head without filtering it first for appropriateness. There is not much that will stop people from asking questions without thinking, and so the victims of such rudeness are constantly on the hunt for the perfect put-down that will so crush the offender that he will never offend again.

I have to mention that I sympathize with this quest for the great one-liner that will stop stupid questions. I am not naturally a patient person, and have had to build some patience (and coping strategies) over the years for cracks like "You're an apologist, huh? Why do you want to make a living always saying, 'I'm sorry'?"

But today, while reading yet another rant about the stupid questions people ask parents of many children, it occurred to me that the search for the perfect put-down to stop stupid questions is misguided. Before I explain what I think might work better instead, let's first look at the stupid questions people ask parents of large families.

This blogger, in a post she herself admits "was deemed rather too much like a rant," goes on (and on . . . and on) about how offended she is whenever people ask her if all the little children she has with her were "planned":

In a special partnership with God, my spouse and I were given these children to custodian, guide, and love. In many ways, I have failed to be worthy of that charge. But I am learning and I am trying. My latest revelation is that I am not okay with this whole scenario where you are in uncomfortable shock at the size of my family and ask me about it.

There is a fundamental disconnect in our thinking. That much should be obvious.  

As a Catholic, I believe that the primary end of marriage is the procreation and education of children. And you believe—whatever it is that you believe. The fact that you believe something different doesn't make it okay or acceptable for you to question me on why I have so many kids or if I meant to. 

Despite being a 40-something confirmed spinster, I started reading this post with a good deal of sympathy for the blogger. After all, I knew the problem she complained about was widespread. Other Catholic bloggers with large families have also vented their spleens over the stupid questions they get about the size of their family and have tried to formulate ready-made zingers to keep on the tip of their tongue for the next time they are challenged on how many kids they have while hunting for peas in the frozen-food section of the supermarket.

But somewhere by the middle of this particular blogger's rant, I began to lose sympathy for her and began to gain some sympathy for her inquirers. I started to wonder how I'd feel if I unthinkingly asked someone an admittedly stupid question and was told, "Actually, we're planning on breeding out everyone that believe [sic] in contraception." If I was a non-Catholic, admiring (as was admitted) a larger than the usual-sized family, and then was sharply reprimanded in public for asking what I might think to be a friendly question? Well, even if I later realized that I deserved the set-down, I'd be resentful for being deliberately shamed by someone who may be the mother of many small children but who is not my mother. And if she then told me in a superior tone, "I'm Catholic. And Catholics believe using contraceptives is sinful"? I wouldn't like Catholics very much, and I certainly wouldn't be interested in joining their "wacky fertility cult" (denials to the contrary that Catholicism was one by my would-be instructor in All Things Catholic).

But there's also something else I wouldn't be interested in. I wouldn't be interested in finding out why openness to having more than two (maybe three) children is a great good, not just for Catholics but for all married couples. In fact, in my resentment at being shamed, I might snidely wonder if my shamer might be a bit more pleasant to be around if she wasn't dealing with so many small children.

And that's the point at which I started thinking about the opportunities for evangelism that blather can sometimes provide.

In a world in which many people have many misconceptions about the burden that a large family must be, both on individuals and the world at large, curiosity and questions can provide an opportunity to dispel those misconceptions. Let's re-imagine the scenario of the harried mother in the supermarket, five or more young children in tow, confronted in the checkout line by a curious person. Suppose the conversation went like this:

Blatherer: "Wow, are all of these children yours?"
Mother [suppresses sigh and smiles]: "Oh yes, every last one of them."

B [still curious]: "Were they planned?"

[M has a choice now. She can either say "Yes" or "No," depending on the point she wants to emphasize. I'll randomly choose one of her options to demonstrate a possible response.]

M: "Yes, my husband and I have always wanted a large family."

B: "But you're stopping now, right?"
M: "We ask ourselves that question every month. Say, could you please hand me a copy of People over there?"

M [turns quickly to child who undoubtedly is doing something naughty right about now]: "Nicky, stop that!"

What has happened here? M has answered every single question asked, politely and with cheerfulness. When the questions move toward a point at which they could become too personal, she changed the subject and then turned her attention to supervising her children. Her answers challenge prevailing presumptions about the size of the modern family—but without lectures, shaming, or unsolicited proselytism.

And how might B leave the discussion? Since she was treated with courtesy and respect, she'd have no reason to be angry or embarrassed. Perhaps she might think over the conversation at some later time. The next time she finds herself thinking what a burden children can be, perhaps she'll remember the cheerful mother of many she once met who seemed so content with her family. She might tell someone sneering at large families, "Oh, I don't know, I've met people who seem to be very happy to be raising many children."

Perhaps she might even think of having more children of her own. Perhaps she might share the story with her husband during one of those discussions and say, "Honey, maybe it really isn't that difficult after all. If that nice lady could wrangle all of her children with such ease, maybe we could handle one more baby. . . ."

This evangelistic template can be applied to all kinds of blather, not just that blather that is directed at large families. Here's a formula for dealing with stupid questions:

Suppress the temptation to lash out. Save your snappy zingers for your La Leche League meeting, or your support group, or—if you must—for entertaining your Friends on Facebook. However much better those one-liners make you feel, they will not help anyone else. All they will do is to confirm for your inquirer that whatever you are going through really must be the burden they believe it to be after all.

Give the obvious answer. Trying to startle with a witty reply likely will have the exact opposite effect that you want. People hate, hate, hate to let anyone else have the last word. If they can possibly respond to you, they will, and in a way that puts you down in return. It will ramp up the tension and can lead to heated argument—or worse. The obvious answer, given matter-of-factly and without embarrassment, tends to defuse a loaded question (and may itself have the potential to startle).

Choose one presumption to challenge. You cannot hope to have an hour to answer your inquirer in-depth. You must answer simply, usually with a "Yes" or "No." But you can probably add a sentence that throws a switch in the line and sends a train steaming toward one conclusion in another direction. For example, when someone asks me, "Are you a Christian?" I always answer, "Yes, I'm a Catholic." Many people who ask that question seem to think that the word Christian is synonymous with Evangelical Protestant. My answer both affirms that I am a Christian and that I believe Catholics are Christians.

Redirect. Yes, sometimes the blather becomes too personal. If a stranger in a checkout line starts to offer medical advice, or is close to asking about what you and your spouse do in your bedroom, or in any other way oversteps bounds beyond a tolerable degree, then you can end an uncomfortable conversation. Just change the subject, or turn your attention to someone else. If you can give your inquirer something to do—such as handing you a copy of a magazine that is out of your reach—that is all the better. Not only will you have a prop in hand with which to distract yourself if need be, but your inquirer may forget what he asked you about.

Beware of your own presumptions

Finally, be humble. I may not be a mom, but as mentioned earlier, I have to deal with my own fair share of questions I occasionally dislike. Let me close with a story of dealing with the question, "What is apologetics?"

One day I was at the supermarket. Among the products on the belt to be rung up by the cashier was a book I was planning to buy. The cashier, a friendly teenager who looked to be about 16, struck up a conversation as she worked. She glanced at the book, which was a novel, and asked if I liked non-fiction.

"Yes," I replied.

"Oh, what kind of non-fiction do you like to read?" she responded.

Not interested in explaining at that moment exactly what apologetics is (yet again), I decided to get around that word by listing topics that could fall under the heading of apologetics. "Religion, philosophy, history." Then, to redirect the conversation away from me, I asked, "How about you?"

"Oh, I like to read a lot of Christian apologetics."

Note: A version of this essay originally appeared on the blog, Peace, Joy, Pancakes (7/7/14). It is republished here with permission.

Michelle Arnold is a staff apologist at Catholic Answers.
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Comments by Members

#1  Debbie Douglas - Fraser, Michigan

Hopefully (Catholic/Christian) mum didn't ask for People magazine...

July 30, 2014 at 8:22 am PST
#2  Brian Kerzetski - Las Vegas, Nevada

I think these are great suggestions and will try to keep them in mind. Thanks also for the anecdote at the end, it made me laugh.

July 30, 2014 at 9:29 am PST
#3  Michelle Arnold - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

Debbie, I chose "People" as an example of an instantly-recognizable title available at most supermarket checkout stands. If you object to "People," substitute in any other title you prefer. The point is not to buy a magazine, but to ask to be handed something—which can later be discreetly set back on the shelf when it's your turn at the cash register.

July 30, 2014 at 9:40 am PST
#4  Deanna Wilson - Hondo, Texas

What a refreshing article! We could always be more kind to one another, and I appreciate the different perspective. This will definitely make me more thoughtful next time I'm asked probing questions.

July 30, 2014 at 9:51 am PST
#5  Tom Runkel - Weirton, West Virginia

Great perspective and great article. Something that was once posed to me is that the person asking the question is really in charge of the conversation. It was suggested that you kind of ask a question back.

Are all of these children yours?
(Turn it around)
Why? Are you considering having a large family?
Now they are answering your question and then you can use one of your escapes.

Just a thought.

July 30, 2014 at 10:24 am PST
#6  Chris Patterson - Platte City, Missouri


I loved this post, and have a couple of pennies to add.

The person asking the dumb question at the checkout line may be more curious than anything else. If he or she were seriously judgmental, no direct comment would be made - only a disdained look. Our Pope-Francis-heart-of-evangelization attitude should LOVE the chance to engage the curious, even while wrangling kids! It is easy evangelization.

I think we react badly to the curious question because we superimpose the fight we just had with our relative or friend regarding our faith and practice. We are spoiling for a fight, and the poor curious questioner gets clobbered in the process. And, the truth is, those "zingers," never feel good for long, and end up being the topic of our next confession.

FYI, my wife and I never had kids. From time to time we get asked about it. (We came into full communion with the Catholic Church just 7 years ago, but we don't blame our childless state on our Protestant upbringing. There a plenty of big Protestant families around.) We have chosen to be graciously open and even painfully honest to even idle inquiries. We say, "No, we don't have kids. It was by choice early on, and it was too late once we came to our senses, due to age. We really made a mistake that we have regretted. We wish we had kids. But God has shown us great love and given us many spiritual kids." We unpack our history if inquiry goes further. We do so because we don't want to be a model for childlessness by choice, and because it gives us a chance to affirm those with kids - large families in particular. "They are the most generous," we say.

Taxing questions give us wonderful opportunity to love.

July 30, 2014 at 2:13 pm PST
#7  brendan o'neill - East Longmeadow, Massachusetts

As Chris Berman (ESPN) once said, "There is no such thing as a stupid question...only stupid people who ASK questions." ha! Enjoyed the article and yes even with ONLY four children I sometimes get the SQ's.

July 31, 2014 at 5:49 am PST
#8  Katherine Amerine - Abilene, Texas

Oh, Michelle...I love that you quoted from Miss Manners. It brought a little tear to my eye, which I removed with a linen handkerchief. I am convinced that keeping close to the Church and mixing in a big dose of Miss Manners will keep one from going too far astray. Thank you for your post and keep up the good work!

July 31, 2014 at 6:07 am PST
#9  David Biddulph - Fredericksburg, Virginia

This article brings to mind my, versus some others', reaction to people asking me about our adopted children.

Many fellow adoptive parents are defensive and looking for that great put down. I've always felt that people are just curious and don't know how to ask the questions - that they don't mean any harm. I love to have a chance to talk about adoption - there are a lot of children out there that need a loving family and any chance I get to evangelize on adoption (as well as the faith) is not to be passed up.

People that ask questions like, "how much did you pay for them?" need to be gently reoriented - my children are human beings and I would never consider buying one. I just talk about all the steps needed before one can adopt, which I believe makes it clear that anyone that views children as an accessory to purchased would be discouraged long before they completed the process.

August 1, 2014 at 8:01 am PST
#10  Greg Feitl - Crystal, Minnesota

I have 5 children, which is a pretty medium sized family at my parish. When asked about having "so many kids", I like to reply, "I love kids, especially my own."

August 1, 2014 at 9:27 am PST
#11  Nancy Gallaher - Santa Paula, California

I remember a long time ago, holding my crying 6th month old baby under one arm while trying to gather my unhappy 2 year old up off of the floor of a store, when a woman said, "Welcome to motherhood". That actually relieved so much stress because I felt like she understood. She was not complaining or patronizing me. It was what is was- a frustrating moment- that's all. Whenever I see a small child with their mother or father, I remember her and I try to say something positive or just give them a smile. They have their child in public. They're out there trying. Thanks be to God.

August 3, 2014 at 10:12 pm PST
#12  Anita Jolly - muskegon mi 49444, Michigan


August 5, 2014 at 4:03 pm PST
#13  Matthew Seymour - Long Beach, California

Perhaps a good place to start in answering questions... would be to not consider the questions stupid.

How do we think the Lord Jesus Christ felt, when his disciples asked him questions?

Was not his Divine Wisdom beyond theirs? But did he cast judgement on them? Or did he forgive and love?

Jesus Christ set the example 2,000 years ago. And we still don't follow Him!

Has he not saved us from the second death? Has not he showed us how to Love!

August 13, 2014 at 10:41 am PST
#14  Michelle Arnold - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

Matthew, the title of this essay was intended to be tongue-in-cheek.

August 17, 2014 at 10:45 am PST
#15  Matthew Seymour - Long Beach, California

Michelle, I wasn't speaking of the title, but of apologetic style and mission in general.

September 1, 2014 at 10:29 am PST

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