Why Do You Ask?

Pauline Phillips, better known as the syndicated columnist Dear Abby, recently died.  Her witty advice concerning private matters and personal deportment made her beloved by millions.  Me, not so much.  Lately, I’ve become severely skeptical of the presumed words of wisdom dispensed by the alleged experts.  Let me explain.

Philip Galanes, entertainment lawyer, media executive, two-time novelist, interior designer, funny guy, and true Renaissance man, writes the Social Q’s column for The New York Times offering “lighthearted advice for awkward social situations”.

Some while back, Mr. Galanes addressed the circumstance where you are asked a question that makes you uncomfortable — most commonly because it feels too personal for the level of intimacy you share with the asker — but the reason doesn’t really matter, assuming you are not under oath in a court of law.

He concludes that the most appropriate reply is “why do you ask?”, for two reasons.  One: the asker can decide that the topic is really none of her business and gracefully change the subject.  Two: the askee can understand the asker’s motivation and, with this new information, decide whether or not to answer.  It certainly sounded like a good idea.

As it happened, the occasion soon arose to try out this response with an acquaintance.  During a period of vulnerability, our interactions felt increasingly inconsistent and confusing to me.  When she asked her question, Mr. Galanes’ advice popped into my head and with no snark in my heart his words popped out from my mouth: “why do you ask?”

Well, it turned out this was not such a good idea.  No, not at all.  In a rather perturbed manner she exclaimed, “Nobody talks to me that way.  NOBODY.”

Well, certainly I don’t.  Not anymore.  My advice is to keep your mouth shut and act like you don’t understand.  Because you don’t.  Understand.  At least I didn’t.  And I still don’t.

© 2013 Jaclyn Schrier. All rights reserved.

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