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How to Answer Stupid Questions

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.

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