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How to deal with a person who asks questions that you don't want to or can't answer

Updated on July 19, 2016

It had been a long time since someone asked me questions I could not or did not wish to answer

The last time I really remember someone asking me a question I could not or did not wish to answer was when I was in my mid-thirties and a four year old girl opened up my bag, pulled out a tampon and asked me what it was. When I told her it was none of her business and that it was impolite to go through other people's things, her mother got angry at me and said I should have let her see my things and explain what they were for.

This reminded me that often, when you are asked a question and refuse to answer it or query the reason for the question, you will be vilified as "the bad guy" for not being willing to comply.

Thankfully I am blessed with good friends and coworkers who do not pry too deeply into my personal life, nor delve into what makes me tick or any number of uncomfortable confrontations which make me feel deeply entrenched on the autistic scale, with a strong desire to seek a dark corner in a quiet room and rock back and forth repeating nonsensical utterings until the evil offender has left the building and my life for good.

Yes, I can be a little weird sometimes, but if you treat me like a normal human being and don't push me past my boundaries, I can be quite charming and blend in with the best of the outgoing personalities so that you would barely notice I have specific quirks, among which is hating to answer non-sensical questions which defy reason and logic.

Questions that can get you into trouble if you reply...

"How can you work in this heat?" says the middle-aged gentleman who has walked into the warehouse where I work. He is dripping in sweat, like meat you take out the freezer to unthaw. He smells too of rank cigarettes, dirt and body odor. I do not wish to engage him in conversation and simply smile weakly and shrug my shoulders and continue working. It is barely 78 degrees fahrenheit and quite comfortable considering it is in the mid eighties outdoors.

He is not content with my silence despite the fact I have put myself out there more than I desire by recognizing that he asked something I did not care to answer. He continues, "why is it hot as hell in here?"

I try again to smile and shrug my shoulders but he keeps at it, forcing me to speak. "Sir," I say, taking a pause to put my reply carefully to avoid further confrontation, "it feels fine to me."

He again asks why it is hot as hell and I decide that politeness is a courtesy he does not deserve and figure he has this one coming, so respond, "I don't know. I have never been to hell, but you seem quite familiar with it. Perhaps you could go back there and leave me in peace to finish my work?"

Apparently my response has left him silent. Score one for me.

Usually when people ask questions they do so seeking answers they cannot find on their own and that's fine, though it can be bothersome having to answer the same question that forty different people ask within a thirty minute time frame and thus, things like the internet, annoying phone messages that tell you which line to press to find out about a, b, c, and d, brochures, signs and manuals were created so that people could have the answers to their questions right there in front of them while they call or visit you to ask you for the answers.

Once when a woman asked me what hours we were open, I pointed to the front door with the four foot sign with the hours listed in bold print, then I handed her a brochure from the brochure case one inch from her hand and did my best Vanna White impression as I pointed out the full page list of days and hours (which varied from day to day) and then handed her a business card (not my own) with the hours listed. I might have overdone it.

I was feeling rather proud of myself, when she looked blankly at me and said, "but when did you open this morning?"

Resisting the urge to say, "the same time we always open," and point to the brochure again, I thought to myself, 'what does it matter what time we opened, when you are here now?' Instead I told her, "At 8 a.m., m'am."

She stood there waiting for me to say more. The look on my face is kind of hard to explain. It is kind of the look you give someone who is looking for eggs in the bread aisle. You wonder if maybe they have some mental issues. You don't want to embarrass them for fear it is something medical or genetic and not just, well, not just... you know...illogical thought patterns, but you are not on the same wavelength and so you wait for them to say something and when they don't you finally ask, without really wanting to ask, "may I help you with something?"

"Well, she said with a long pause. I can't be here that early..."

I raise an eyebrow and suppress a squawk of incredulity and respond tentatively, "Well, you're here now, can I help you with something." - Please Lord let it end...

She looked at me as if I was unintelligent and replied disgustedly, "Well, your sale starts next week and I want to get here early so you don't sell out."

Me: "We have over 2000 in stock and can make or order more, so I don't think that will be an issue?" I finish in a half statement half question and part cringe that another illogical question/statement is coming my way. I am not to be disappointed.

"Well, I want to place my order now and pay for it when it goes on sale and I want the items customized because I have to have them for my daughter's wedding next Saturday."

I have been here before. We have bent the rules and customized items and then the person requesting them decided to go with something different and we were left with 100s of items we could not use or resell. I explain this as politely as possible, but the woman becomes huffy and says, "well, I don't know why you don't make your hours clearer and if you won't take custom orders, why don't you just say so?"

I explain we do take custom orders, but she has to pay up-front because of the expense involved on our part. I also tell her if she orders a large quantity she will automatically get a discount, but if we customize each piece it will cost more and again the tirade begins.

I hand her a brochure with the time needed to prepare customized pieces and tell her if she changes her mind, she will have to let us know by this Friday. You know what is coming next...

"Well, what time are you open Friday?"

It is like Laurel and Hardy all over again.

From your best friend asking you if you like her new hair style, when you think it makes her look like a fifty year old imitating a toddler, to the proverbial spouse asking if he or she looks fat to you, there are some questions you just do not want to answer but whether you answer them honestly, lie or pretend you didn't hear and divert attention to a new subject, there is a high probability you are going to get yourself in trouble, so choose your answer wisely as the ensuing feedback could haunt you for all eternity.

How the hectare am I supposed to answer that one?

A friend relayed a situation at work with an annoying coworker who tried to pass her work on to others whenever she could.

"We have discovered that she asks leading questions to convince us to do things she does not want to do, whether it is to ask how to put paper in the FAX machine, when there is a diagram that shows you how or how to load the postal meter with funds when there is a step by step guideline right next to the meter."

"Yesterday when I walked in, before I had even put my things on my desk or turned on my computer she asks, "Is Marcy in her office?"

"We all know that Marcy gets in around 9:30 a.m. and its probably 9:05 right now, but it is not like I can see her anymore than my coworker can, so I am a bit in awe that she should even ask this of me. How should I know?"

My friend said that she just ignored her coworker, but she asked again. "It wasn't like she asked, "Do you know where she is, she asked, "where is she?" almost as if she was accusing her of not being where she wanted her to be! I was kind of taken aback by it and really didn't know how to answer her."

How do you answer a question like that other than to say, "I don't know."? If someone persists and asks again, you are then obligated to be rude and say, "I already told you I do not know, why are you still asking me?" or go out of your way to suggest what steps the person needs to take to find out on her own, such as get up and walk to the office to check or pick up the phone and dial the extension or go outside and see if she can find Marcy's car, or walk back to her office, all of which take effort on your part and hers. Again you don't want to be rude, even in your suggestions, like if someone asks what the oven temperature is set on and you say, "I don't know, why don't you stick your head in there and find out?"

"All I wanted to do," said my friend, "was sit down and check my email and get the day's work in order so I could function, but every morning I come in, there she sits, padding her time card by coming in ten minutes early and expecting everyone at their desks and working by the time 9 a.m. rolls around. I think she would like to be our boss, rather than our coworker so she gets a kick out of making us look like we are beneath her and should do her bidding. "

When I suggested she page Marcy on the intercom, in part hoping Marcy would get upset that she called her out in public over the hallway intercom, she looked at me as if I had said, "have you journeyed the 10,000 paces up the side of the steep treacherous incline to seek the wisdom of which you inquire of me who has just arrived and is still groggy and wanting nothing more than to settle in, drink my coffee, order my work load, turn on the computer, check my email, catch up on interoffice news and work in silence undisturbed and unperturbed by your lack of innovate skills to solve this dilemma on your own?"

"I know exactly what she wants of me. She wants me to provide her with a quick answer so that she does not have to search for it herself, but I am not an errand girl who jumps to and follows all commands and resent that she wants me to do the work that she can very well do herself. Does this make me a bad person, because it sure makes me feel like one and I am resentful of her, her questions and my own stubborn will and apparent inability to act civilly and simply say, "I'm sorry, I can't help you with that, I just walked in the door," and then let it go, but she won't let it go. It is her nature and it goes counter to mine."

"A few days later I walk in and am immediately hit by a new accusing question, "why isn't my computer turning on?""

"This time I did not answer her. I thought about telling her to make sure it was plugged in, but figured she was smart enough to already do that and if I suggested it then I would look like I was implying she was not intelligent enough to do this, but I really did not want to deal with her this morning and told her that I was not IT and she would have to call IT if she had a computer problem. It turns out the computer was unplugged from the back of the computer. I took great glee in this. I know I shouldn't, but I did... all day long. It really made my day. Maybe ignoring stupid questions or pushing dumb questions off on someone else is the way to go on this subject?"

I choose not to answer my friend, but my sly smile answers the question for her and we both look sheepishly at the floor and grin. We are evil.

Innocent questions are one thing, but some people use questions to control or disrupt things and that's not good

`Have you ever spent a day with a child who constantly asks questions, mostly beginning with "WHY?" "Why is the sky blue," "Why did you put that there?" "Why does he get to eat a popsicle for breakfast but I can't", "Why do you rub your nose so much?", "Why is your face so bumpy and wrinkly?" "Why do you have bad breath?"

If you let them, children can be cruel with their questions and invasive. They will target your weaknesses like a four star general seeking out the weakest link in your defenses to drive a spear straight into your heart and shout with joy as you bleed all over the linoleum flooring. Oh, but I digress...

The point is that some adults will use senseless questions to control you or lead you in a direction you do not wish to travel. Others will pry into your life and if you answer with honesty, they will use the knowledge they have gathered to derail you from your position and title so that they can make themselves look good and you look awful. Then again, sometimes people are just clueless and do not respect that you may not want to have an in-depth conversation with them.

Some people need to warm up to you and the environment before they feel comfortable answering questions and it is one thing to have a conversation with someone and another thing entirely to wear them down with questions. You have to know when to back down when you perceive you have pushed someone to the breaking point.

When a mother says no to a child who wants to do something and the child continues to insist they be allowed to do it, when a political pundit hurls questions like a ball machine hurling baseballs into a batting cage, they are seeking to put the person they are questioning in a defensive position so that they lose power or control over any given situation. In these cases there is nothing wrong with saying, "stop, that's enough."

On the other hand if you feel uncomfortable with strangers asking you about where you work, what you do for a living, if you are married or have kids, there is nothing wrong with steering them off track or faking an emergency appointment you forgot about and escaping to higher ground. You are not obligated to share private information with strangers, but if it is someone you know well and you still feel on-guard, then you might want to ask why (ironic isn't it?)

Seriously though, if you have ever been hurt by sharing a secret with a friend who then told everyone else about it, you are going to be less willing to be open with others in the future, but you can still answer people's questions enough to satisfy their curiosity and then change subjects or ask them about themselves as well. Often people really don't want to know that much about you, they are just hoping you will want to know more about them!

You also do not have to feel obligated to answer when someone you do not know calls you and asks, "How are you?" and then gives you zero point 2 seconds to respond and goes into their conversation. It is just as rude to ask a question and not wait for the response as it is to not answer a question in that case.

Questions should not become interrogations or asked in such a way they cannot be answered. If you have ever caught a child doing something they knew not to do and asked, "why did you do that?",what do you think the answer will be? Almost without fail the child will say, "I don't know."

When questions accuse you or put you in a position where you feel uncomfortable, often you won't be able to answer them. Hours later you may think of a snappy comeback that would have been great, but in the present you may find yourself simply staring and not knowing what to do! It's okay to say, "I'm sorry, I don't know how to answer that question right now, but let me think about it and I will get back to you." Some replies need more composition time than others.

Be limited in your questions and be kind. The whole idea is to gather information you are either curious to know or need to know to get a job done, but chances are, if you did a little research, you might be able to find the answer on your own even if it takes a little bit more work on your part.

"That was a rhetorical question." If only...

Have you ever heard of the term "rhetorical question"? It's a question that makes an assertion that does not need a reply, like when there is a sign on an obviously broken machine that says, "Out of Order" and someone states, "Well, whose bright idea was that to put a sign on it?"

These are questions you are not supposed to answer and if you do answer them you will probably look silly as if you are not intelligent or intuitive enough to know that the question was actually a statement not an inquiry, but, there are other questions you may not really know how to answer or may not really want to answer and these can be a bit more tricky as you can come off looking aloof or offensive if you give the wrong response or do not reply at all.

For the most part, answering questions is no big deal. It is part of life, It is how we gather information, but sometimes questions can become invasive, controlling, rude or confrontational. If you perceive that someone is willfully trying to make your life unpleasant with questions you do not want to answer then learning how to take control of the situation will prevent you from having to play the game.

If someone asks you to do something that is not your job, you can offer to help them anyway or redirect them to someone who can help or show them or provide the tools so that they can do the job themselves. If someone has trouble following procedures and constantly asks for your help, you can print out a copy of the procedure manual and quiz them on it until they get tired of your questions and begin to take action themselves to memorize it! You do not have to make their problems your problems.

While many people will not read a brochure or sign designed to answer questions, rather than get upset, simply grab a flyer or make a printable version of the information sign and read it out to them as you glide your finger (preferably not the middle one) over the text. Then, with a genuine smile on your face, inform them that they are welcome to take a copy with them, so if they have further questions, they can refer to the manual or brochure.

If someone asks a rude question or a personal question, like if you are married or have kids (when you are single or sensitive about this) or have fake hair or ever considered getting a nose job or your teeth straightened, try to be polite and endure rather than point out other people's flaws or attack them for being rude.

Ignoring children's questions can often lead to them asking them louder and more rapidly, so it is best to be upfront with a brief answer. If they ask why you wear glasses, simply say, because I need them to see or I like them and then rapidly talk over them to their parents or show them something that will divert their questions away from you.

If you are on the phone and an adult or child keeps talking to you, asking questions or trying to interrupt, just hold a finger in the air (again preferably not the middle one) to signal them to wait one minute and then explain that while you are on the phone you cannot listen to them and they need to wait unless it is a severe emergency, thank you.

Don't ignore the help button and don't push other people's buttons with invasive questions

Did you know that the vast majority of computer users do not know that there is a help button in the upper right corner of just about every software program out there. If you are in Excel and can't remember how to add numbers in a column, you can type in a query and it tells you how, yet many people will call a computer technician rather than trying the help button first.

If you perceive that people are getting annoyed by your questions try doing some research on your own first before interrupting them. If you want to know what time a store opens and you have a smartphone or computer, try searching for the hours on-line before calling to ask. If someone is standing right next to the refrigerator and getting a drink there is no big deal asking them to get one for you as well, but if they are sitting next to you and you ask them to get you a drink and you are not disabled, then you need to get up and get it for yourself and offer to bring them one as well.

Questions should not annoy, control or attack or put people in an uncomfortable position, nor should you insinuate it is someone else's fault that you can't find your car keys or your shoes or the sandwich you just had but sat it down and now can't locate! Instead of saying, "who took my..." try asking, "has anyone seen what I did with..."

There is a right way and a wrong way to ask a question. You do not ask a fat woman if she is pregnant or a pregnant woman if it is okay if you rub her stomach. You need to know your boundaries and respect the boundaries of others.

When people start using questions like, "why can't you ever..." or "what makes you think that you can..." these are accusing questions that most likely will end in an argument. If someone ever approaches you or refers to you as "you people" or anything combative, the best way to handle it is to stop them cold with an, "I'm sorry, but it sounds like you would like to take your anger out on me today and I don't think that is healthy for either of us, so let's start this conversation again..." the goal should be to get them to state a rational point of topic, rather than irrationally blaming you for everything that irritates them.

Bottom Line

Asking questions is how we learn new things and get to know people. You can learn a lot by being personable and most people, especially those who know you well, enjoy being asked how their day was, how the kids are doing, what is new in their life, etc. but if you ask the same question each day and you see that lip quiver or they literally move faster to get away from you or attempt to avoid you all together, then that should be your cue that your questions are invasive.

Don't put others down by asking questions that are insulting or make them look responsible for something they didn't do. If someone tries to push you to do something by asking you to get something for them or do something they could easily do themselves, then it is time to speak up and say, "I am sorry but I have something else I need to do right now, maybe you could do that yourself when you have a slow moment." The goal is to make it sound pleasant, but make it clear you will not be lead into doing their work. If it is a boss, then you may be obligated to comply, but even then you can remind them of everything you already have to do and explain it may take a while to get to what they want.

Try not to ask potentially sensitive questions of people you don't know, like "are you gaining weight " or "do you really need to be buying soda for your kids". Those things are personal and really none of your business, so try to keep questions neutral and not judge. If someone asks a similar question of you, keep calm, don't get defensive and try to make it light hearted, like, "I'm not gaining weight its just this new dryer keeps shrinking all my clothes," or "oh, we are buying these sodas for a science experiment for the boy's home so they can make rockets out of the bottles." Then see how quickly the holier-than-thou become the holy smokes I was a real jerk and am embarrassed now.

Try to find out why people ask leading questions. Are they lonely like the elderly guy in the supermarket checkout who tells you his life story and asks if you have ever heard about something you have absolutely no interest in hearing about? If so, try to be kind. It's unlikely you will see him or her again, so just think of it as doing a good deed to help someone out. If it is someone you live or work with then get real with them. If they ask why you are driving to the store in this direction when the other direction is faster, tell them you like the scenery on this route better or there is less traffic and you feel safer going this direction.

If they continue to be critical of your driving you can pull over to the side of the road and calmly ask them if they would like to get out and let you call them a cab since your driving seems to cause them too much stress. That will straighten them out in a heartbeat!

There are ways to combat any question and while some questions may seem dumb to you, often the person asking them is confused in some other area or has one thing in mind and so associates that with what is currently going on, even though the two things have nothing in common. You can get them to clarify by asking specific questions.

A woman who works at a local YMCA said people who start there don't know that they have close to five types of child care services. Many just want to drop their kids off while they exercise. This is a free service called Child Watch, but then we have paid services where we watch children all day called Child Care and they will tell us they want to pay for Child Care, when what they really want to do is put their child in Child Watch, so it leads to some confusing moments and strange questions with them being on one page and us on another so that neither understands what the other is asking!!!

She said after a few tries at this, she has learned to ask how old their child is and if they are coming to workout at the gym or want to enroll them in the daycare center. This avoids confusion even though it takes more action on her part and in reality, this is your best way to deal with confusing questions that don't make sense to you. Ask for clarification on the subject and make sure you are on the same page.

At some point we will all ask a dumb question and all get perturbed with an even dumber one asked to us, but that is human nature. If you goof up or say something stupid, just apologize, make fun of yourself or assure the other person that you have said and done even dumber things so don't feel bad about it.

If you have ever encountered a crazy question person, be it adult or child and dealt with it in an innovative way, let us know in the comments section below so we can learn from your wisdom... don't make us have to ask again!!!

Have you ever been asked a question you can't answer?

Have you ever been asked a question you could not answer?

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    • joecseko profile image

      Joe Cseko jr 

      18 months ago from New York, USA, Earth

      There are moments of brilliance in here. Okay, some of that stems from the fact it appears that you and I think very much the same way. I just love the observations, their descriptions, and the brutal honesty that you embrace.

      I think I'm going to have to look at a bit more of your work now.

    • Deborah Demander profile image

      Deborah Demander 

      2 years ago from First Wyoming, then THE WORLD

      Great article.

      I find the most direct response to personal questions is, "I can't believe you asked me that."

      People can be unbelievable rude.

      Thanks for writing.



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