Why can’t you just answer the question?

Instead of going through an explication todo-list that you must finish unless that train of thought gets derailed.

I was on a conference call Saturday when our boss, Mr. Dick Hardass, asked one of my colleagues a seemingly simple question about a deadline. “This couldn’t take more than 5 seconds to answer” we all thought.

Mr. Shakes-like-a Twig — nice fellow, neat hair —  went on to take 2 minutes to say “a week”.

You see, Mr. Twig had to go through how he was examining three months of business intelligence reports to figure out the right algorithms to sort through it all. Then he had to describe our current layout (which we were all familiar with), that he had just moved, that our report templates are “adequate”, that he just had 2 cups of coffee, that we had setup a second database server to mirror the original data (also something we all knew) and that his parents are from Ohio.

Mr. Hardass is a new boss, so we didn’t get a chance to tell him to never ask Mr. Twig for a status report unless it’s by email. He also has the patience of a fruit fly, the attention span of a hummingbird and the temper of a wounded leopard being poked with a stick, while being forced to watch a Dharma and Greg rerun.

And while Mr. Twig, being a nice fellow, isn’t capable of understanding that silence on the other end is often a sign of a boil-over to come.

“I don’t have the bandwidth to deal with all that, I just want to know how we’re doing!”
etc… etc…

Mr. Hardass

The flustered Mr. Twig replied with a wavering voice, “a week”.

Answer the question!

I’ve heard this said to many people who travel down the winding path of explanations, touching all subjects except the point.

The older I get the more I realize that these people are actually answering a long list of questions in their head accumulated through the hours, days, years and even a lifetime. The one they just heard is actually tacked on at the bottom… which they will get to eventually, time be damned.

Moreover, as I get older, I feel that I’m turning into one of these explanation adventurers touring the treacherous waters of societal impatience. It’s not that I want to delay, frustrate or otherwise confuse the listener, but this is more of an external monologue that I go through to build that very important answer. I’m thinking and I desperately want to give an answer you’re happy with as soon as I can compile a program that displays it — to me first — so I can relay it to you.

Comments are necessary in the code of this program so I can keep track of what I’m doing.

Of course, that’s not to say that you should be wasting your time listening to a dissertation on the consistency of yak dung (which is actually different from cow and buffalo dung, but not many people know this) when you just need a two word answer.

Diatribes, while they personally satisfying, don’t really help people like us. A sudden change in facial expression — raised eyebrows and tilted head works — that you’re waiting is usually the most reasonable thing you can do to get us back on track.

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6 thoughts on “Why can’t you just answer the question?

  1. When I was a starry-eyed 19-year old in my first-ever summer internship at a now-defunct company, I remember bonding with their in-house IT guy over a mutual love of technology and hate for Microsoft. As we eagerly waited for XP SP2 to be released–and add this novel thing called a “firewall” to Microsoft’s flagship operating system–he told me the story of the interview for his current job.

    After [our boss] went through the usual litany of questions, he gave me sort of a quirky smile before asking me one final question: “Can you shut up?”

    The IT guy at the company’s headquarters had a reputation for endlessly monologuing…I’d even had the pleasure of needing his help on something. Though he was effective, he lived up to the joke our own IT guy came up with: “you ask him the time, and he tells you how to build a watch.”

    I’ve already noticed my own descent into this pattern; even the IT guy who told me this very story he had gotten worse since accepting the position. Is it implicit to folks who work in the technical industry? Or is it a personality trait that we all just seem to have in common, but which isn’t necessarily restricted to our professions?

    • I think it probably happens to a lot of people who have to deal with a lot of information at once on a very short schedule. But I do think it takes a certain type of personality for it to develop even in the IT or any other technical or language intensive industry.

      Probably a combination of pressure and constant exposure to minute details (every part of which has to be just right) consuming every part of our internal monologue leaves us with just the external monologue to answer questions.

  2. hmmmmm…..I’d have to say, from my vantage point having worked for doctors, lawyers, Indian Chiefs, and now …er….HER, um, ME…this often seems (to me to) be a feature of having strayed into the ITS ALL ABOUT ME ALL THE TIME show. The extensive digressions, I mean, not just more words than you might wish you’d said afterward, about genealogy and what someone had for breakfast. Apparently this even happens in Zen meditation groups. Because really, someone who has something to do besides talk will tell you the pertinent details as succinctly as possible. Or even, if they’re really sensible, forestall the question. On the other hand, it may be that people have to relearn how to actually talk to each other. !! All good practice.

    • Ah! The Twilight zone of social interractions :P

      Well, with practice it should be like riding bicycle, but the odd thing is that I have to speak to a lot of strangers constantly as part of my job. And I still sometimes I feel like I’m forgetting how to ride the bike while I’m riding it. Does that make sense?

  3. Totally makes sense. That may even be a pretty profound definition of Life, when you think about it. Even now that I am no longer the Slave of the Bankruptcy and Divorce Courts Attending to All the Requirements of the Distraught Everywhere Including Attorneys and Clerks, I find when I’m giving information to someone for the first time I often suddenly see the twirling ball, the random access memory freezes and yes. Are we on a bicycle? How’d we get here? That dizzying sense of unfamiliarity while uttering the familiar. Keeps it interesting, right?

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