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The question

A friend of mine recently acquired a new girlfriend. The problem is: she asks too many questions. She asks about everything under the sun. She’s constantly peppering me with questions and I hardly know her. There are quite a few areas she asks about that I don’t necessarily want to talk about – my health, for example, with which I have had ongoing issues for the past few years. How can I deflect these questions without causing offence?

The answer

I don’t know if it’s COVID-related or not – perhaps because we’re all not seeing as much of one another as previously – but I too have definitely noticed I’m getting peppered with a lot more questions lately.

In my case, it has clearly partly to do with the fact I’ve semi-suddenly decided to do a complete lifestyle 180. I’m joining the exodus. Like so many people: city boy to his core is city boy no more! I’m a country fellow now. We’re contemplating the purchase of a pickup. SUV no more: pickup now. You might even catch me with a piece of grass in my mouth. Face weather-beaten, squinting into the horizon: “Arr, looks like we might be in for some rain.”

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(Sorry I know I’m being a bit … hmm, I don’t know the word, “country-ist.” In the sense of naughtily being a proponent of country clichés. Please forgive me! I’m new to all this!)

So naturally, people I encounter pepper me with questions. “What’s happening? What the heck are you doing? What, may we ask, is your deal?”

So instead, I beat them to the punch. Before you ask: “Will Pam and Dave be installing a hot tub in their new domicile?” Hell yes. Good luck trying to get in touch with us, but if you are able to manage it, all you may hear on the other end of the line will be the peaceful bubbling of water.

Anyway. Back to the question. Basically it’s hard to know what to do when you’re confronted with a question-pepperer. Because people are taught from a young age that question-peppering is the polite way to be. “Show an interest in other people! That is the art of conversation!”

But allow me quietly to unpack a thought or two about the gentle art of conversation – in a way perhaps my favourite art, even above literature and plays, because it’s more two-way:

When it goes well, it’s like this: I say something. You think about it. You respond (and this is important) based on whatever it was I said. Then I think about what you said; and my response is based on my thoughts about that.

And so it goes. Ideally, neither of us should interrupt one another – though this of course happens – basically it’s best if you can limit yourself to plopping in what my wife calls an “interjection”– as opposed to a full-on interruption or what I call a flat-out “derailment” wherein one not only interrupts but shows no interest in returning to the story someone was telling.

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Anyway, point being I don’t think anyone should enter a conversation with a bunch of hard-and-fast rules. Maybe your grade school teacher or some self-help author said: “Ask numerous questions! That shows your interest and interest is good!”

But they were only half-right. My experience: Sometimes people pepper you with questions because they’re interested in your life; sometimes they pepper you with questions because they’re bored with their own life.

And that’s when I cavil, if I may use that word. If I feel that someone is question-peppering me out of boredom, I will take evasive action. My primary weapons are vague non-statements and circumlocution interlarded with meaningless gibberish: “Hey one never knows” and/or “time will tell” or “it is what it is” or (my all-time favourite ultra-meaningless bromide/cliché) “same old same old.”

Here’s hoping these types of phrase get you through, without, as you say, “causing offence.”

But basically, I would say that you are well within your rights to answer as many questions forthrightly as you care to and sidestep (with circumlocution) as many as you don’t care to answer.

Are you in a sticky situation? Send your dilemmas to damage@globeandmail.com. Please keep your submissions to 150 words and include a daytime contact number so we can follow up with any queries.

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