In the context of a conference or a classroom, the very idea that “There are no stupid quetions” is merely a ploy. It’s a prompt for interaction to make your panel look interesting or your lesson seem less lonely from the podium. It’s all a ruse. If Funny Exam Answers can exist as a website, then there are stupid questions.
It’s probably easiest to witness, first, in password protection questions. The value of these questions has shifted over time, and it’s easy to see they don’t hold the privileged weight that they once did. Nowadays, I can verify pretty much everything about you with one quick sweep of Facebook (or if I’m super nosey, a query in Spokeo [PSA: Remove yourself from that database now.]).
What is your mother’s maiden name?
- Well, now that your mom’s on Facebook, that’s simple. And in the case of many a mom who doesn’t take the father’s last name, it was no issue in the first place.
What is the name of your first pet?
- Yeah, that photo album you put up of Buddy back in the day? No brainer.
Where did you graduate high school?
- Again, Facebook! Even if you’re not on Facebook, a number of professionals list this on LinkedIn. Save the nomadic army brat, just knowing someone’s hometown makes this easy to hone in on, which brings us to…
What is your hometown?
Like I said, the value of those questions has completely changed with frighteningly instant access to personal information, and while systems will labor to keep up with the movements, there will forever be dissonance in communication between generations. For an older person who really has no interest in joining Facebook – not even to get pictures of the new great grandkids – being asked for her hometown over the phone may still be a decision for her to seriously consider. For everyone else on social networks, it’s too late for us. We need to ask ourselves different questions.
Offline, there will ever be questions that are more presumptuous than the speaker thinks. They’re much like rubbing a pregnant woman’s belly and asking her “How far along are you?” without knowing so much as her first name. For sure, context may make some of these more forgivable than others, but often times, these questions being asked, at all, are a major indicator of ignorance, lack of thought, and just not understanding the words coming out of your own mouth. Yes, it’s all relative, but also, yes, there’s probably a better way to ask these:
Are you trying to have kids?
- “Hello, Intrusive Pants! Yes/No, I am/am not practicing unprotected sex with my heterosexual significant other. That is your business, absolutely.”
Are you identical?
- When people learn I have a twin brother, one-third of the time (rough estimate), they ask, “Are you identical?” For any readers who don’t know: I’m female. I have a twin brother. I don’t have a penis, so we’re not identical. Or is it because he doesn’t have a vagina that makes us not identical…? OR MAYBE IT’S BECAUSE WE’RE DIFFERENT GENDERS.
We’re not identical.
Are you close with your brother/cousin/family?
- Taken at face value, the possible answers to this question are “yes” and “no.” But is that ever really what the asker is getting at? I often feel the asker doesn’t know what they’re hoping to hear, and is ultimately just reinforcing how inept they are at small talk.
There was a time when I was younger and I thought I had to uphold a certain image of my family. I’d answer “yes,” that my family and were close, but that just wasn’t true. After I had my awakening, I switched to “no,” and was met with a lot of awkward silence. Did I deserve the awkward silence? No. I was merely being honest. In this case, the asker was really the conversation killer, asking a close-ended question with a 50/50 chance for a potentially devastating response.
When I think on this question and what non-therapists are trying to get at when they bring it up, I am at a loss. I don’t know what this achieves in casual conversation. I wonder if the underlying question is really just: Are you close with the black sheep in your family? – And, of course, don’t expect the interviewer to respond to you in kind. – Tell me more about your assumed-to-be deepest interpersonal relationships without me telling you about mine.
What’s your earliest memory?
- I’m not opposed to nostalgia, but this question bugs me because it immediately sets you up for failure. It’s a semantic debate, yes, but really: Can you ever truly know your earliest memory? The term “earliest” has an absolute value. It is the starting point of your timeline of memories, and if you’re like me the integrity of that timeline is questionable.
We’ve all got those family stories that have been told a million times, so much so that you think the glorified version is true, when in actuality the glorified version is about as trustworthy as the final edit on a [un]reality show.
In general, trusting the memory of a baby (or whatever stage a human podling is in when it starts making memories) is just pointless. What’s there to rely on? And how do you know you don’t have a memory from being two years old that’s actually older than your memory from being two and a half?
I know, I know – people aren’t really asking for the definition-perfect “earliest” memory when they ask this. But to that I say, well then why not ask what you really meant to ask? Y’know, put some better words around it: “What’s one of your earliest memories?” stresses me out a lot less than “What’s your earliest memory.”
With “What’s your earliest memory?,” you’re asking a question using language that hinges on accuracy. If you aren’t expecting a verifiable truth in return, then why did you ask it that way? Next time someone asks me for my earliest memory, I’m just going to say: “Colorful fuzzies,” and that will be the best answer they ever received.