Friday, November 18, 2022

Can I Ask You A Question? (You Just Did!)

Sometimes, being married is no picnic.

I was in the restroom and had just washed my hands and they were dripping wet and I was trying to find a towel, when Mark pokes his head in.

"Can I ask you a question?" he says.

"You just did," I reply.

"Oh, if this isn't a good time..." he counters.

"What is the question?" I say, getting exasperated.

"No, it can wait!" he says.

"Just ask the question," I say, sighing.  I finally find a towel.

"Well, you don't have to be mean!" he pouts.

"I am not being mean, but you keep asking me questions as to whether you can ask questions!"  I am starting to get annoyed.

"Nevermind! It can wait!" he says, now full-blown angry.

"JUST ASK THE FUCKING QUESTION!" I say - now I am pissed off, and rightfully so.  What is this bullshit all about?

As it turns out, the mysterious "question" he wanted to ask was, could I empty the dishwasher?  Hardly the stuff of State Secrets.

But the whole interaction got me thinking.  Why do people ask a question by saying, "Can I ask you a question?"  The question is, itself, a question.  Now they are asking two questions!

Maybe the next time someone says, "Can I ask you a question?" I will say "No" and let it go at that.  If they persist, I will tell them they had their one shot and blew it.  You only get one wish with this Genie!

I guess it is one of those language things - a way of mentally clearing our throats or something.  Or maybe a way of pitching things to people.  When someone says, "Can I ask you a question?" and you say, "Yes" then they have your attention.  They are now onstage, they have the mic, and you have to listen.  It is a way of saying, I have something important to say.

On the other hand, it is a way of just clogging up bandwidth in communications.  It takes a simple question or request and drags it out for several minutes. It is like these podcasters I wrote about before - who dither and dilly-dally and never get around to saying anything, but when they do, they slip real boners under the radar, and then quickly go back to blathering.

Most people are horrible communicators - ambiguity is part of our nature, I guess.  It is also a big part of passive-aggressive behavior.

In my former profession as a Patent Attorney, ambiguity is often fatal - or at least discouraged.  Attorneys would like to insert ambiguity into a Patent Claim so that later on, they can argue that their Patent on an electric "eye" that rings a doorbell when people come into a store, "reads on" a bar-code scanner invented three decades later.  And yes, this sort of thing has been done, a lot, in the past.  The government has since closed the door on keeping Patent Applications alive for decades, but even still, Patent Trolls thrive on ambiguity.  Good Patent Examiners don't let them.

So, as a Lawyer and an Engineer, you learn to speak precisely. Dangling modifiers and vague references can literally be fatal, particularly in Engineering.  You have to speak precisely.  I guess that is why I am not a big fan of this "pronoun" nonsense.  Even before this "they/their" crapola, the use of ordinary pronouns is always suspect.  "Jim, Tommy, and Tim go into the store.  He is caught shoplifting."   Really?  Which one?  Because it isn't clear who "He" is - but people do that shit all the time.  I even do it - when I am not careful.

Speaking precisely and clearly can prevent a lot of misunderstandings. Speaking ambiguously - or worse yet, soft-talking or muttering under your breath - ends up creating uncertainty.  Teenagers love that shit.  And passive-aggressive people often do this as a power play.  If you never say anything clearly, well, you can't be held into account later on when what you said turns out to be disastrously wrong.  "I never said that!" they claim, "What I meant to say was...." (and then they "correct the record" retroactively to be in the right).

Of course, there are variations on "Can I ask you a question?" such as "I have a question" or even "Question!" or the more fanciful, "Query!"  There is the more intimate, "Can I ask you a personal question?" question, which is more of an inquiry as to whether the interlocutor is intimate enough to be allowed to ask.  The problem with that question is that if you say "Yes" and the resultant question is too personal, you somehow have been tricked into having to answer.

There is the more imperative, "Let me ask you a question" which doesn't give the recipient a choice - he is about to be question-raped, whether they like it or not.  Of course, that is nothing compared to the deadly, "Can I ask you a favor?" which, if you answer "Yes" you just committed yourself to an opened-ended task that could be anything from "please close the window" to "loan me $5000!"

On the flip side, "asking a question" can be used to make a statement and do so without appearing to be making it.  "I hear that Hillary Clinton is a Satan-worshiping cannibal.  Is this true?"  If called out on that the inquisitor will then say, "Well, I'm just asking the question!  Aren't we allowed to discuss this?"  You see how that works - you can slip crap under the radar by posing it as a simple question - yet another form of sealioningA-Hurk A-Hurk! A-Hurk!

Perhaps it is nothing and I am over-reacting.  But it made me think how odd and inefficiently we communicate in life.  It leaves me with... many questions.