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What would happen if you just asked?

This is a question that I rarely ask myself, because I’ve been poking around and asking questions since I was a little kid. And so I know the answer to my original question: People respond, or don’t. You get what you want, or don’t. And life goes on.

Though I’ve made a career switch from journalism to stock analysis, you could say that the essential nature hasn’t changed: I’m a professional questions asker.

Is there a such thing as a stupid question? Yes. When your teacher told you otherwise, he lied.

This is me in front of a restaurant in Bournemouth, England. My married initials are ASK. (My professional and maiden initials are ASJ.)

This is me in front of a restaurant in Bournemouth, England. My married initials are ASK. (My professional and maiden initials are ASJ.)

Stupid questions usually result from not being well-read, not doing one’s homework or not paying attention to your subject. And then there’s the personal prying kind, or the passive aggressive kind — both of which signify that one is in the presence of an ill-mannered dolt. Other stupid questions are the ones where the asker is really trying to show off his or her knowledge, and the question itself is preceded by at least three declarative statements.

There are times when I know my question is about to be stupid. I know that it will totally give away that I haven’t read up on the subject completely. For the sake of time, I usually ask it anyway, with an apology.

Reporters learn an important lesson early on about questions: It’s better to reveal your stupidity to your interview subject than to confirm it for 200,000 people the next morning. (And in the Internet era, your stupidity is confirmed faster, followed by anonymous commenters who don’t let you forget it!)

For the intellectually curious, (which I know you are or why would you be reading my blog?) , questions make life more fun.

For fun, here is my short list of OK to ask questions and NOT OK to ask questions.* Please add your own favorites.

OK & FUN QUESTIONS:

“How old are you?” — If it’s relevant to your conversation, and you can not be obnoxious about it, why not ask this? Reporters are forced to ask it, and are often met with indignation. It’s ridiculous that in our society, age is treated as if it were some big secret. Every year, we each get older. My husband, who suffered from two bouts of cancer in his twenties, is proud of every year he gets. Count your blessings to have made it that far. I’m 28.

“It smells really badly like feet. Can you please make an announcement?” — I asked the flight attendant this prior to departure on my recent eight-hour flight to London. In my defense, the smell filled the cabin and was just awful. (She sympathized but was unable to comply. But how awesome would it have been if she had?!)

“Are you in love?” — I once asked a co-worker this after just having met her. She’d mentioned that she had a boyfriend and, at that time, I was puzzled about the nature of love. This co-worker later scolded me for that question, saying it was too prying. However, she’s now one of my best friends, so I suppose it all worked out.

“How much do you want?” — My alma maters have a real talent for hiring poor students to call my cell phone around 5:30 p.m. each spring and fall. After the student introduces herself and asks me whether I enjoyed my time at university, I usually interject with whether I’m willing to cut a check or not. That’s right Northwestern. I know your game.

“Is it that you really don’t know or that you aren’t allowed to tell me?” — I’m a huge fan of honesty in all situations, and I respect that some people’s employers prevent them from telling me certain things. So, I’d rather just know the nature of what I’m dealing with.

“Why do you want to know?” — This is a great response to prying questions. Sometimes, people don’t know what they shouldn’t have asked. Take pity, we’ve all been there.

NOT OK & BOORISH QUESTIONS:

“When is your baby due?” — Just do not.

“Is there a vegetarian option?” — Down South, I learned that it is never OK to ask this. (Unless I wanted to be immediately branded as a clueless northern urbanite, and who wants that?) This question particularly flopped in barbecue restaurants. Learned that the hard way.

“Who is ____ ?” — I’m a pop culture dunce, and the older I get, the more names I can put in this blank. Once, I was interviewing the manager of a riverboat casino in Northwest Indiana, and he proudly told me, “We’ve secured Mike Ditka as our spokesman.”  By saving grace and intuition, I knew that asking “Who is Mike Ditka?” would not ingratiate me to this man. As it was a phone interview, I quietly Googled the famous football player and coach and merely said aloud, “Congratulations!”

“When are you two going to get married?” — Are you asking, or accusing and trying to make a statement? I often hear this asked of couples who have been dating a long time. It’s a boorish question!

“What’s an IPO?” — My very first journalism internship out of undergraduate college was at the Washington Business Journal. To this day, I can’t believe that I asked that. Asking the owner of a private company that question is like asking any other person, “What’s cheese?” (Wikipedia link for IPO.)

*I’m sure there are laws about questions that hiring managers are allowed to ask. I’ve ignored those laws.