Many times in my life people have asked me a question and not waited long enough to listen to the answer, even when the answer was short and immediate. (I only use the option “Say the third thing that comes into your head” if I’m not sure which answer to give, or if the answer is likely to give offence, or be misinterpreted.) Many years ago an old university friend, working for a well-known newspaper, described what it was like working with the paper’s famous editor. “He has the attention span of a flea,” she said, “But that can be useful. It means you don’t waffle.” And it meant that sometimes his attention didn’t stick around long enough to listen to the answer to a complicated question.
Many questions beginning with the word “Why” require detailed answers, unlike questions like “Would you like an ice cream?” which can usually be answered with two words (“Yes please”) or three words (“No thank you”). Over the years I have adopted “Many reasons” as my default answer to many questions, personal or general, beginning with the word “Why”. Why don’t I send my children to Catholic school? Many reasons. Why did Leeds United Football Club fall so far, so fast? Many reasons.
If the person who asked the question is happy with that, then you know that they would not have listened to a detailed answer. If they ask for detail you should be able to gauge just how much detail is appropriate. I am used to asking things like “How many reasons would you like?” and “How long have you got?” But at times I am reduced to saying, “You’ve asked me that before, many times, so I refer to all my previous answers.” If someone asks something they should at least stick around long enough to hear the response and, ideally, remember it.
I am reminded of Doc in John Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row”.
“Doc had one mental habit he could not get over. When anyone asked a question, Doc thought he wanted to know the answer. That was the way with Doc. He never asked unless he wanted to know and he could not conceive of the brain that would ask without wanting to know. But Hazel, who simply wanted to hear talk, had developed a system of making the answer to one question the basis of another. It kept conversation going.”
(That comes from page 33 of my Penguin edition of the book, bought in Cannery Row itself, on holiday in Monterey, California, 12 August 2002 – one of the few books I’ve written in.)
So, some people are like Hazel, asking questions just to keep the conversation going, and others are like Doc, thinking that other people want to know the answers. It’s good to know the difference.
Incidentally, if you haven’t read “Cannery Row” for a while (or ever), check it out. Like “The Grapes of Wrath”, and also published over 70 years ago, it has endured exceptionally well. And if you haven’t read “The Grapes of Wrath” please do. It’s the book I recommend most often, to everyone. Why? Many reasons.