The Worst Question to Ask

While getting my hang-tag for college parking yesterday, I asked if the woman helping me could look up my license tag number, which I had forgotten, and which I needed for the form I was filling out. Stupid, I know, not to have it memorized, but I didn’t. And I didn’t want to have to walk all the way across campus in the sun a second time during a busy week.

“No,” said the woman at the counter. “We just don’t do that.”

And then I did it. The thing so many people hate. The question that’s always taken as an accusation.

“Why?” I asked. “You can’t just look it up in the computer?”

The woman did not appear busy, and in fact seemed to have been having a friendly social conversation with a co-worker when I arrived. I thought I was just being logical, performing the operation [you looking my tag number up] is much less trouble than [me making another special trip out of my way again tomorrow, and also risking another ticket this week with no student-parking hang-tag]. But no dice.

She told me that her office didn’t do that. Ah. The old “because I say so”/”that’s just how we do things” answer, which isn’t an answer at all.

I told her I didn’t understand, that I wanted a reason.

She then became testy, borderline rude, and told me to “just fill it out and bring it back already, OK?” before turning her back on me, disgusted with me and my irritating desire for information, and returning to the conversation she’d just left behind.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that quite possibly this woman is not the rude, lazy imbecile you might think after reading my fairly accurate (IMO) account of our encounter.

People (Americans?) hate being asked why they’re doing something, especially with regard to their job. They get mad. They commonly, in my experience, take “why” as a personal affront, a criticism, an insult from someone who isn’t in their shoes and never will be. In America at least, WHY is a loaded gun.

But so often, all we want is an answer.

Let’s rewrite this encounter.

Version one:

Can you look this up for me?

No, we don’t have time for that.

Hm, I don’t understand. No one else is in line, and your office really doesn’t look that busy.

Well, if we looked that up for you, we’d have to do it for everyone, and sometimes we just don’t have time for it. I’m sorry. Can you bring it back tomorrow?

Version two:

Can you look this up for me?


Both options took less time than what actually transpired…

2 responses to “The Worst Question to Ask

  1. What is it about the dynamic of the almighty counter-top between two people? Bartenders, government workers, even cashiers have some sort of implied power and control afforded by this barrier. Even though it’s their job to serve and be helpful, somehow this mostly psychological tool says to us “don’t you dare…” And if any one of us were to make the drastic commitment of leaping over the bar/counter, a storm of consequences would rain down upon us. We all know this implicitly; a cautionary label or sign is rare. I’ve found that the only way to equalize this relationship is to disingenuously turn on that submissive charm we all possess; “…I don’t know how you do it; you must be very busy, but is there any way…?”

  2. I had a similar experience with a cashier. I was using WIC coupons to purchase cereal. When the computer beeped a negative response to my box I was told that it was not approved. I was prepared this time (as I had not been in the past) and showed her the form which proved it’s approval. She tried to tell me it was the type of cereal (not possible, the tiny picture was there, barking approval) then the size (again, tiny picture in WIC brochure, with approval). When I insisted, I was told that she would have to get her manager to approve the transaction. I told her I would wait. I had to wait for two managers, the second of whom was very polite and approved the silly box of cereal. The cashier refused to use her brain and insisted on using the computer’s brain (which was obviously programmed with someone else’s brain).

    Thank you for pointing out the misuse of “power” some of us fall on to get out of being polite. It is a good reminder to take a moment and dare to ask “why?” or “why not?”.

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