John filling in the recent Census form highlighted my uncooperative attitude to most questions.    There are some people who like answering questions about themselves – or indeed any questions.   I have never been one of them.   Of course I am not talking here of friendly interest in one’s well being, or even the kind of questions that intimates, who know most of your secrets anyway, can pose.    We can all recognise the difference between a loving question, and one of a different kind.     And some people in the course of their job are perfectly entitled to ask questions.       No, it’s the invasive or manipulative questions you don’t want to answer.

I suspect these characteristics must be ingrained from an early age, for I used to hate it when ‘adults’ could apparently ask you any question they liked – often ones they would not have dared to ask your parents – and you were rude and disrespectful if you did not promptly reply and a liar if you prevaricated.   (Sadly, I’m afraid even from an early age, I was all three.)

Some people are very good at extracting information from others, apparently painlessly, and I think among the necessary skills for this is patience.     It’s being prepared to release information about yourself so as to create a safe environment, being willing to let the conversation ebb and flow, being reliably discreet so you are worthy of being trusted, and listening carefully.    It’s not really about asking questions at all.

I rarely complete any non obligatory questionnaire.   Not only does it get tedious and boring, but I find I have a (quite genuine) capacity to mis-interpret questions.   I once applied for a railway season ticket.   The railway clerk perused the form and then said, you haven’t indicated how long you want the season ticket to run?   The choices were 1 month or three months.   I pointed out that the form said, ‘Words not required to be deleted.’   The clerk looked at me.   ‘So, you didn’t delete them?’    I nodded.   He shook his head at my stupidity.   ‘No-one’s ever interpreted it in that way before.’   (This sort of thing happens quite frequently.)

Occasionally some minor inducement makes me start an advertising questionnaire.   I never submit them.   Somewhere about the sixth question I lose the will to live.   ‘How do you rate our product compared with x, y or z?’    I don’t care about any of the products, I don’t have an opinion on this, and I can’t be bothered forming one.

I recall doing with my children one of those tests  about how you function.   I can’t remember the exact hows or the whats of it, but it turned out Rory and I were the same type, classified as only 1% of the population.   While some aspects of this were flattering, the person chosen as an example of the type was Donald Rumsfeld, which was a trifle alarming.   The comment was that this type of person will have an opinion on everything they have decided it is worth having an opinion on.   I rather liked that double decision.

I generally feel if I’m asked more than 2 questions on the trot, I’m viewing the questioner critically.

As for going to the door or answering the telephone, to be asked a question, well, that’s not good.   How long ago was it since we had put our double glazing in?   I was tempted to respond, What business is that of yours?     But the spectre of being rude always haunts the British, so I said quite pleasantly (I thought) if the caller cared to state his business, I would see if I could help him – whereupon he shut his notebook with a bang, said, I don’t have to put up with this! – and departed.

Sometimes there are discussions about the ethics of telling the truth.    Now I hope I am a truthful person.    Certainly if being asked for your testimony in a court of law or anywhere when the subject of discussion is important to someone, or their reputation, it is critically important to tell the truth.   To bear false witness against someone would be wicked.   But if on the other hand somebody asks you an impertinent question that’s no business of theirs, then I feel fully entitled to answer whatever I like.

And have you noticed, when there’s some question that you are being asked which you find difficult to answer, the minute you think up an answer both robust and satisfying, you are never asked the question again?

Then there’s those who ask questions but don’t listen to your reply.    I used to volunteer help one afternoon a week in my children’s school, usually being asked to help people with their creative writing, or reading.    I gave my help on a purely voluntary basis.      There was one very bossy teacher whom I (and my children) disliked.    There were always several mothers in the school, helping.    One day this teacher (none of whose pupils were ever in my charge)  came in to where several of us were, and I was getting on well helping a boy who hardly ever said anything to get his thoughts down on paper.    He was talking about his grandmother who had recently died and clearly the late lady had not departed into the great void unlamented.    The work we did together was sent home and his mother came to the teacher to thank her and to say his work had opened up a valuable conversation between herself and her son.   Ms In-Total-Command interrupted us although other women were free.   “I want to record a programme on the radio at 2.30,” she informed me.   “The radio and recorder are in the library.   Can you make a note, and go and record it for me?’    I stopped the boy mid flow and looked at her.   “No, I’m afraid not.” I said, smiling.   “I’m not a good person to ask to do this.   I won’t remember the time and I’m useless with technology.    I suggest you ask one of these other ladies.   Any of them are bound to be better than I would be.’   She glared at me.   ‘I’ve asked you,’ she said, and stomped off, with the manner of General Patten dealing with a deserter.     I shrugged, turned back to the boy, and thought no more about it.   Later she came back, presumably having discovered I had made no attempt to record the material, bristling with rage, and stood right in front of me and said, heavy with sarcasm, ‘Thank you so much for taking my recording.’    I thought, Should I say, I told you  I wasn’t going to do it?     Should I say, I’m not yours to command.    Should I say, I’m not an 8 year old you can intimidate.   Should I say, Dreadfully sorry – and pretend it was a mistake.    But in the end I just replied,  ‘It was nothing.’   This was certainly true.

The best exponent of the art of answering questions in a way that ended the discussion that I have observed was the late James Callaghan (Prime Minister.)    ‘Sunny Jim’ as he was nick-named (I gather because he wasn’t) had, for public presentation a genial, avuncular style.   But if you watch him being interviewed he had a steely resolution and a knack of answering questions politely but in such a way that it did not seem possible to pursue that subject any further.

There are of course different styles of questioning.   I watched Tony Hayward of BP (who was admittedly rather inept as a spokesman) being interrogated by American senators and other politicians on the regrettable oil spillage in the Gulf of Mexico.   The questioners were (by our standards) rude and aggressive, and almost all took the opportunity to condemn him publicly, one supposes with an eye to their voters at home.    (I am not suggesting they did not have cause for complaint.)

I thought there was an interesting contrast between that style of examination and the one employed by Lord Chilcott, chairing the enquiring into the events leading up to the Iraq war.    At the time, Chilcott was criticised for being ‘too soft’ on witnesses.     I did not think so.     I thought he was the type of person Lord Byron might have had in mind when he wrote:

He was the mildest mannered man

Who ever scuttled a ship

Or cut a throat

With such true breeding of a gentleman

You never could discern his thought.

I thought he was typical of a type of Englishman, mild but inexorable, who with extreme politeness would manoeuvre you to the edge of a cliff where, still murmuring expressions of deep regret, he would push you over.   I enjoyed how, for example, with their polite and respectful questions, they still obliged the former Attorney General to describe how he had regarded the war as illegal, pressure had been applied to him, he had been sent on a visit to America, and when he returned, he had changed his mind.    We don’t need them to say anything more.   We can draw our own conclusions.

Finally, I was amused to note that in the questionnaire to applicants of The Apprentice (2010), the question was posed, What is the worst lie you have ever told?    The worst lie?    Are they kidding?   Presumably, you told it for a reason.   They cannot be expecting a truthful answer, surely.    Will it suffice to make something up that’s innocuous and entertaining, and then add in invisible ink, (This one.)?

Here endeth the article.   Any questions, any one?


About adhocannie
I am a good natured woman with a long memory and a swift tongue. I like loooking at things and thinking about them. Also food, clothes, travel, reading, sewing. I try to see the ridiculous in things, but sobriety of reflection keeps edgting in. I have husband, children, grandchildren, friends... I feel rich in things that matter. I am a happy exile. I like writing. I do not like talking about me (though I do.). You willl be much more interesting.

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