I’ve been told there’s no such thing as a stupid question. And I suppose that’s true, at least in spirit. What they meant was “If you don’t know, ask. Don’t blunder along in the dark.” And trust me, I’ve done far too much blundering. It takes a certain humility to learn—the humility to admit you don’t know everything. But, there really is such a thing as a stupid question. Lemme ‘splain.
This not a stupid question:
At a previous workplace, a meat shop, I was tidying the store when a well-dressed gentleman walked in.
“Can I help you?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “Could you tell me what a heritigeebuseeness is?”
My mouth opened and shut. “Pardon me?”
I guessed by the accent that he was new in town. I really didn’t want to embarrass the guy, but I hadn’t the foggiest idea what he was talking about.
Be cool, Geralyn. You’re a professional.
“Um, I’m not sure if I understand,” I began. “Could you explain what you mean?”
“The sign outside the door says heritigeebuseeness. What does that mean?”
I looked up into his eyes, gripped my broom and wracked my brain. The sign. The sign. Oh! The plaque outside the door! “You mean a heritage business? Oh yes, that means that this building is very old, built in 1914 I think. It used to be a bookstore.”
“Ahh.” He nodded and smiled and took his leave.
That is not a stupid question. He didn’t know. How else would he know if he didn’t ask?
But this is a stupid question—one I had to answer twenty times a day. “Is your boss busy?”
Trumped only by: “Is your boss tied up right now?”
It was the mayor of my small town who asked me this and, being an ass, I replied “No sir, we don’t make a practice of tying him up.”
But I think my favorite dumb question came from a middle-aged fellow who came in one afternoon with his teenage daughter. I did my thing, asking “is there anything I can help you find?” And he said:
“Which of these cheap roasts can you cut into nice steaks?”
To make a nice steak out of a cheap roast takes either a) serious cooking skills or b) magic. Basically, you get what you pay for. I looked at the assortment of rump roasts and cross ribs. “You mean for barbequing?”
“Yeah. The lady at the grocery store cut up a roast for me into nice steaks—a cheap roast.”
Well, good for her. “Do you remember what it was called?”
“Well, nothing I have here really cuts into nice steaks. I suppose we could cut a top-sirloin for you. That’s probably the cheapest option. But I have some nice sirloin steaks right here.” I pulled a couple from the cooler.
He shook his head vigorously. “No! I want you to get me a roast and cut it into steaks.”
“But it would be the same thing.”
“But a roast is cheaper.”
“I can’t do that.”
The guy looked at his teenage daughter. “What a little shit.”
Steam threatened to blow from of my ears. First he tried to con me into selling him good meat for cheap and now he was calling me names!
Be cool, Geralyn. You’re a professional.
I decided to appeal to a higher power. “Let me ask the butcher.” Henry happened to be nearby so I told him what this guy was looking for.
“Hmm…” Henry strode out into the storefront. “Well, we could cut you a top sirloin, but we have these nice sirloin steaks right here.”
The customer crossed his arms. “No, I want a roast cut into steaks.”
“But we’d just charge you the steak price, so why don’t you…”
“They did it for me at the grocery store.”
Henry stood his ground. “Well, I can’t.”
So, out went the man with his daughter trailing behind him. I felt vindicated, and I never saw that guy again.
The way I see it, the question is only as stupid as the attitude behind it. If you genuinely want to learn then there really isn’t a stupid question. However, if you ask a question, you need to be ready to accept the answer. I’ve caught myself doing this before. I belong to a writing group and when we meet, we critique each other’s work. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to a critique and gone “yeah, whatever”. As Jerry Harteis says, “Of all the opinions I like mine best.”
Now that is dumb. I know I can’t please everyone, but if I’m going to discard critiques because I don’t like them, then why am I wasting time with a writing group? Learning requires humility.
Its not as if we should blindly accept the answers we’re given. We must compare the answer given to the results of the answerer. If they’re a hundred grand in debt and living paycheque to paycheque, I wouldn’t take their financial advice, know what I mean? But if the results they have back up their answer, I’d better give it serious consideration.
So, I suppose, it’s worth displaying a little ignorance now and then. But keep in mind: there really such a thing as a stupid question.
I’d love to hear from you. What’s a stupid question you’ve been asked?