Keep Two Thoughts

Personal essays

Just Asking - Essay from Newsletter 99

When a question isn’t a question


There’s this class of conversations people have.

“Are you stopping at the store?” one asks.

“Why?” the other answers, “What do you need?”


“It’s no problem,” the other person says, “it’s on my way.”

“Well, if you’re stopping, would you mind picking up ."

The first question wasn’t so much a question as it was the beginning of a negotiation.

Kind of like, “are you ready to leave?” or “are you going to finish that?”

The questions aren’t about what the questions are about.

Sometimes it’s questions we ask ourself. Questions like, “well, it’s the day after Valentine’s Day, do you feel like heading to the store for some half-priced, been-on-the-shelves-since-the-day-after-Christmas, still in the store ‘cause no one wanted it, Valentine’s Day candy?”

The answer is “no” but then I remembered there’s a library book that’s being held til tomorrow. I’ll be out anyway. And so I ask myself, “are you stopping at the store?”

Not asking

When I first moved back to Cleveland I lived with two salesman. One sold ads in local radio and the other sold ads in local tv.

They would come back from their sales meetings with stories and techniques that their manager had presented to the group.

One was the assumptive close. You assume you are going to get the ad buy and so you ask a detail question.

You don’t ask, “so, would you like to purchase ads?” You ask instead, “so, when would you like your ads to run?” or “do you want us to write your ad copy or will you be providing us with a script?”

The manager’s example had been, you’re trying to get someone to spend the night. You don’t ask them, “are you going to spend the night?” You ask instead, “would you like to use the green toothbrush or the purple one?” or “which side of the bed do you prefer?”

This technique is manipulative and feels wrong to me in any setting.

Sadly, it works.

The person being asked often assumes the larger question has been settled and we’re just picking out the color of the drapes. Pay attention to the question not being asked.

Do we

When I was in graduate school I used to meet regularly with my thesis advisor.

We’d talk about math. He’d look at what I’d done during the past week. We’d talk about what I’d tried and what I might want to think about next.

Once we were done with our work we’d talk about pretty much anything.

I remember one conversation about a faculty meeting he’d just come from.

The department had an opportunity to hire someone who ordinarily wouldn’t have been available. I think my advisor was the department chair at the time and he’d thought that things had lined up where this decision should go smoothly.

At one point during the meeting, one of the senior department members had asked, “should we hire another geometer?” (That’s someone who does geometry.)

Now the discussion had become bigger. Should we hire this person or not was a small, specific question.

Should our department add another geometer was a different question.

The meeting soon ended. This was too big a question for this meeting. The moment passed. The candidate wasn’t hired.

After the meeting the senior faculty member had come up to my advisor and said, “I thought the question should be asked. My answer would have been ‘yes’.”

By asking the question, the answer was ‘no’.

Would his answer have been ‘yes’? I don’t know. But people ask these sorts of questions all the time. Questions that influence people just because they’re being asked.

Their defense is that they’re just asking a question.

Just asking a question.

Not answering

I once posted the following benign comment on social media:

“If it bothers you when their side does it then it should bother you when your side does it. If it doesn’t bother you when your side does it then it shouldn’t bother you when their side does it.”

We tend to give a pass to our side. When our politicians do the things that bug us when their side does it, we shouldn’t excuse the behavior.

And when their side does something that we just shrugged off when our politicians did it, we shouldn’t get upset about it when they do it.

Anyway, a colleague saw that post and started “Just asking questions.”

He was being disingenuous. Here I thought we were talking about a real present threat by our current leaders and he wanted to “but her emails” me.

It reminded me of a different generation when political conversations about serious issues would get derailed when the Republican would shout “What about Chappaquiddick?”

Suddenly a discussion about social services or civil rights would be turned into the same old discussion about a terrible event that had nothing to do with the discussion at hand.

It was a question that wasn’t a question and yet it was a question that needed to be answered.

More serious than “Should we hire a geometer” but with the same effect of sidelining a discussion.

Just asking

Twenty-nine years ago yesterday I asked Kimmy to marry me.

It was a question but it wasn’t really a question.

We’d never discussed it before that moment - but we both knew.

She knew it was time for me to ask and I knew what her answer would be.

It really would have sucked if either of us was wrong.

It’s important to ask questions.

It’s really important to make sure they really are questions.

When Joe Rogan invites guests on to talk about COVID and other pet topics, he claims to not prepare.

He then says he’s just asking them questions.

Is that ok to not prepare and to ask questions that may lead millions of listeners to take advice of people giving unfiltered answers.

Hey, unfiltered is cool.

It’s real.

It’s not like the heavily researched, scripted, and edited main-stream media.

Covert Bailey used to give presentations on health and nutrition. He would talk about the people who came up to him and agreed with him that sugar is bad for you. “But,” they’d say, “not honey. Honey is natural.”

Bailey would nod and say, “Honey is natural. So is syphilis.”

There’s a lot to be said for taking the time to research your topic and guest and to clean up misconceptions before sending it out to millions of listeners.

Unfiltered, real, - just like honey. And syphilis.

Anyway, who would you trust if you found out you did have a medical condition that needs attention?

Joe Rogan?

I’m just asking.

Essay from Dim Sum Thinking Newsletter 99. Read the rest of the Newsletter or subscribe

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