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Paul Burri: Some Questions Shouldn’t Be Answered

Some are harder to refuse than others, and some aren't really questions at all

Have you stopped beating your wife? That’s one of those unanswerable questions when you’re wrong no matter what you say. If you answer yes, it means you used to beat her; if you answer no, it means you’re still beating her. Either way, you’re in trouble.

I don’t know about you, but many times in my life I’ve been asked questions that I didn’t want to answer. Some are harder to refuse than others.

You walk into a furniture store and the salesman rushes up to you with, “Can I help you?” Of course, that one’s easy. “No thanks, just looking.” But then there’s the nosy co-worker who has the chutzpah to ask you how much you make.

Years ago, when I was young and innocent (pause for laughter), I would hesitate and then mumble something like, “I never discuss those things,” trying to be polite to someone who didn’t deserve my politeness. Later on when I was much more hardened and toughened, I would answer, “Sorry, that’s none of your business.” Or, if I was feeling particularly feisty, “That’s none of your damn business.”

Then there are questions you ask out of politeness and don’t really expect an answer. Here’s one: “Good morning. How are you?” Unfortunately, but luckily only rarely, you will ask that of someone who thinks you really want to know how they are. Then you will find yourself listening to an endless litany of complaints, illnesses, medical procedures, prognoses, lost jobs and a story about the person’s sister-in-law’s middle kid who was just arrested for marijuana possession, and what are we going to do about the kids these days? (“Please lady, I really don’t want to know your life story. Truthfully, I don’t even want to know how you are.”)

So the question is this: Do you really have to answer every question that someone asks you? (Please don’t answer that. It was meant to be a rhetorical question.)

I once had a partner who was a genius at not answering questions, and his method was surprisingly simple. If you asked him a question that he didn’t want to answer, he would simply ignore it as if you had never asked it or as if he hadn’t heard it. Simple as that. If you were really persistent, he would just smile at you and again just not answer. It sounds simple, but it took me years to train myself to learn the trick, and I’m still not very good at it. Sometimes I will mumble something like, “I’ll have to think about that” or “I’ll get back to you.” But I still find myself wishing I could just simply not say anything.

And if you ask me how I’m doing on that, I’ll have to get back to you.

— Paul Burri is an entrepreneur, inventor, columnist, engineer and iconoclast. He is not in the advertising business, but he is a small-business counselor with the Santa Barbara chapter of Counselors to America’s Small Business-SCORE. The opinions and comments in this column are his alone and do not represent the opinions or policies of any outside organization. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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