The Art of the Answer

Hopefully, most adults already know the information that I’m about to share.  I know for a fact that most teenagers fresh out of high school do not.  Therefore, if you are in college, I’m about to give you a huge boost over all of your peers.  This may help you professionally, but it will DEFINITELY save your personal relationships, mostly because the fix is so subtle that most people only notice the effects and not the cause, meaning you get the credit but still maintain your mystery.

If someone you respect – perhaps even like – says something that you didn’t hear or don’t understand, you have been presented with an immediate test of maturity and adulthood.

Person: “Hey Steve! Can you poejopfwfkoepqk…”

Steve: “What?”

Steve has failed the test.  Hard.  “What?” is an innocent question that teenagers are used to asking – and that’s because teenagers don’t know anything.  A young adult will condition himself to answer differently.

“Yeah,” you might think, “but you’re a stuffy English teacher.  I don’t need to use your rules in my personal, casual life.”

You don’t know this because most people don’t know this unless they think about it, which they don’t: “What” and “Huh” as one-word questions both induce maximum rage.  Think about the last time you explained something and someone answered, “What?”

In fact, think about the last time you called someone’s name and they answered, “What?”

Have I proven my point yet?

“What” at the wrong time can derail a conversation and ruin an interaction before you can even begin to think about why it happened.  That’s because “What” or “huh” imply any of these 4 things.

  1. “Uh… what?” You’re stupid.  Your mind is too simple to comprehend what was being said.
  2. “… what?” You aren’t paying attention.  Disrespect.
  3. “What?” You don’t care.  Disrespect.
  4. “What?!” (What.) You’re spitting attitude. Disrespect.

None of these 4 things are good for your personal relationships – especially if they already know you aren’t stupid.

“Huh” is even worse than “What” because it makes you make a stupid face while you say it.

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“Huh” is the reason your parents still think you can’t handle your business.

“Huh” is the reason you being on your phone counts as you being “on the phone all the time” instead of just the one time you were using it in front of them.

“Huh” is the reason nobody thinks you can multi-task.

Try this experiment.  The next time someone calls your name, answer with “How can I help you?”  The next time someone says something that you don’t hear, answer with “I heard something about ____ but I didn’t hear all of it.” or even “Could you repeat the last sentence you said?  I think I misheard you.”

You’ll avert so many arguments that you’re used to having.

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This lesson needs to be taught in schools.  I told my students about this, and one of my students asked, “Why?”

I told her that she didn’t know it yet, but she actually hated people who say it.  “You won’t find this out until you move in with someone and ask them something from the kitchen while he’s in the living room.”

Parenthood will also bring this issue up really fast.  My parents weren’t having it.  “Yes, Mom!” was the answer demanded, and had I more courage I would have met this demand with goose-stepping and the obligatory salute to these fascist dictators.

We weren’t really good about saying that until we were older, but if you wanted to get on my parents’ beatdown list all you had to do was say “What?” when they called your name.  If it was for something bad, you were automatically in trouble for it regardless of the explanation, and if it was for something good, it was immediately canceled.

“HOAN!”

“What?”

“Never mind, you can eat tomorrow.”

Even armed with the explicit knowledge of exactly how our parents wanted us to answer them, we were awful at avoiding our parents’ wrath for this particular offense.

Avoid my mistakes, children.  Be better.  Right my wrongs.

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