In Praise of Stupid Questions

Recently at the Evil Day Job That Isn’t Really All That Evil, I walked up to someone and said, “I need to ask you a stupid question.”

That got me the knee-jerk response, “There are no stupid questions.”

Actually, there are stupid questions. For example, a question that you could answer by reading the paper in front of your face before opening your mouth would be a stupid question.

Or perhaps a question that had just been answered and you weren’t paying attention.

Or a question you should have known the answer to (say, because it was part of your job…) but couldn’t quite remember because your notes from that meeting six weeks ago vaguely resemble cursive Saturnian, which is slightly less readable than High Martian.

But I digress. My response was, “Yes there are stupid questions. I’m just not afraid to ask them.” And then I asked the question that elicited the information I needed.

It’s true. There are stupid questions. And I’m not afraid to ask them.

One of our tasks in life, as fully adult humans, is to be courageous enough to ask stupid questions, because one will look even more stupid if one does not ask them. Trust me, I have learned this the hard way.

Generally speaking, people hate to look stupid. Consider the phrase, “Oops, I lied.” To impart information that is not true — without intending to mislead — is not called lying. It’s called being wrong.

But stupid people are wrong, aren’t they? So, in essence, it’s better to admit lying (which is actually illegal in certain circumstances and can land you in jail) than to admit imperfection and possibly stupidity.

I blame junior high school, or the currently fashionable-but-ridiculous moniker “middle school” that really should be known as “the years we do not speak of to outsiders.”

Homo sapiens between the ages of 11 and…well, some of them never get over it, but let’s say 15, are vicious little beasts who enjoy nothing more than tearing each others’ souls into tiny meeping pieces.

Any sign of weakness is cause for attack. Like being wrong (being stupid). Lying, oddly enough, not so much, because it’s not considered a weakness. And how many of us carry that fear around years, nay, decades after the persecution has abated?

Which brings me to the wisdom of Scott Adams (creator of Dilbert). Some years ago he wrote a book called The Dilbert Principle. In that book was the story of his pager (the book came out in 1997 when pagers were still current tech). He had just gotten a new one and taken it home and it wouldn’t turn on. Furious, he went back to the retailer, dead brand-new pager in hand.

The sales clerk was helping someone else, but must have had good peripheral vision, because he held out his hand for the dead pager without breaking eye contact with his customer. Likewise, he opened the battery compartment, took out the batteries and reoriented them so that they were correctly installed, closed the battery compartment and held out the now-functioning pager to Mr. Adams.

To quote the portion I still remember word-for-word. “I was an idiot. And yet I had successfully driven a motor vehicle from my house to the store.” We’re all idiots. For about five minutes a day–and that five minutes doesn’t all have to be used at the same time. Use your time, you’ve earned it. Dole it out to yourself in 30-second increments if you have to.

Like a certain ’70s-era detective in a rumpled raincoat, ask stupid questions without guilt or shame. You might be surprised at what you learn, especially if you warn your victim about the stupidity of the question ahead of time, thus giving him or her a false sense of security.

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