Post 194

Asking & Answering:
Three Exceptions to the Rule
That You Don't Deserve an Answer

Sometimes I say that asking questions is okay and even refreshing and good.

But sometimes I say that asking questions is not okay and even invasive and rude.

So what’s the deal?

To ask or not to ask — this is the question.

Questions are tricky.

Forming and Posing Your Question: The Primary Issue is Intention

You’ll notice that Jesus’s reactions to questions depended upon the motive of the person asking. When the Pharisees ganged up to come up with some questions designed to trap him, Jesus would often answer their questions with a question.

So check your motives. Or, for a simpler test, check your feelings towards the person you’re quizzing. Do you like him? Do you trust her? Do you actually want an answer to your question or are you just trying to make the other person look bad in front of others? Are you asking a child a question as a way of gaining information about another adult? Are you appointing yourself ‘teacher’ and asking a child questions to assess knowledge of this fact or that? Intention is everything.

Consider your question.

Is your question sarcastic?
Is your question condescending?
Is your question cutting and mean?

Hmmm. Then maybe you should shelve the question. Disqualify yourself.

The positive flip side of this is that if you do have good feelings and intentions towards someone else, probably your questions will be inoffensive. Probably your question will be okay. He or she will sense that your curiosity stems from genuine caring.

Ask away.

However, even in this latter case, do not feel entitled to an answer to your question.

In General, There is No Entitlement to Answers

I can think of very few instances where one person is truly entitled to an answer from another. Most of the time, the person does no wrong by responding with silence, or by refusing to answer. From an etiquette or social-relations point of view, things could get awkward, but there is no moral fault here. It is not unchristian to decline to answer a question, if the question asks more than you’d like to answer. And sometimes, the first question is fine, but the second question goes too far. You’re allowed to bail, anytime you like.

Consider, as I said previously, Jesus at the tribunal. He did no wrong in ‘choosing to remain silent.’ He did not tremble before the local authorities and so he didn’t answer questions that he didn’t want to answer.

Good for him.

Exception #1: Entitlement to Answers Often Exists Between Spouses and Within the Immediate Family

Nevertheless, there ARE instances where one person is entitled to an answer from another.

When the Blessed Mother asked Jesus about his decision to stay behind in the temple, young Jesus answered her. In addition to being his mother, she was, at the time, actively caring for him. In this role and situation, she was actually entitled to an answer. So you see, entitlement isn’t always a bad word.

What follows is an incomplete list of instances of entitlement to answers:

  • A wife asks her husband why he came home so late. She is entitled to an answer.
  • A husband asks his wife why the car is missing a wheel. He is entitled to an answer.
  • A girl asks her father whether there are monsters in the closet. She is entitled to an answer.
  • A boy asks his mother if zombies are real. He is entitled to an answer.
  • A boy asks his mother when she’ll be back. He is entitled to an answer.
  • A girl asks her father when he’ll be back. She is entitled to an answer.

Those are examples from family life, and questions in family life are very often deserving of answers. In other words, the asker of the question is entitled to receive a prompt and honest answer.

But the line must be drawn. Extended family members are quite likely to overstep their bounds, feeling entitled to answers when they aren’t.

A Distinction Between Immediate Family and Extended Family and a Word About Strangers

It is not necessary for members of your extended family to know where you are going or where you went, whom you saw and what you ate.

They can ask, but they are not entitled to an answer.

Your mother-in-law is not entitled to know how your family is celebrating Thanksgiving this year, and grandparents have no entitlement to know what your educational plans are for your children. Uncle is not entitled to know the square footage of your house and Auntie is not entitled to know whether you are planning to have another child or two (or three or four).

I am not suggesting that these questions cannot be asked in a spirit of friendly conversation, but I am on the subtopic of entitlement, and my point is that such questions do not in fact have to be answered. There is no entitlement.

So keep that in mind.

Perhaps it is time for people to realize that you are entitled to your privacy.
Perhaps it is time for people to realize that you don’t discuss all of your plans and all of your past.

When it comes to your life, you keep some things private.

That’s fine.
You’re allowed.

When it comes to your life, you make some things public.

That’s fine.
You’re allowed.

Don’t feel guilty because you don’t want to discuss, with others, your health, your diet or your religious beliefs.
Don’t feel like a criminal because you don’t want to discuss, with others, the inner workings of your relationship with Scrabblehead.
Don’t feel unchristian because you don’t want to discuss, with others, your plans for your family.

It’s fine.

Not everyone is entitled to an answer.

As for strangers, they are almost never entitled to answers, whether or not they are governmental officials. Unfortunately, as in Jesus’ day, the local authorities tend to forget this, and are visibly shaken when people do not dance to their tune. They rend their garments and lose their glue, as VigilantOne would say.

Exception #2: Entitlement Exists In Situations of Trust

With this subtitle, I am referring to those limited and specific instances where one person is entrusted with a special role. If I hire you to cut my hair, then I am entitled to ask you what kind of toxins you’re planning to apply. If I hire you to cut my grass, then I am entitled to ask you when you will start. In cases like that, the asker is entitled to an answer.

Similarly, if I’ve entrusted you with the care of my child or my aging relative or my pet iguana, then I am entitled to answers to my questions about this responsibility you’ve undertaken for me. Dentists and doctors, be prepared to account for what you have done and what you are planning to do.

These types of relationships and situations create that entitlement, and hence when we hear Jesus’ parable about stewards and servants, we hear that the master asks the questions and the servants reply. In the same way, an employer can ask the employee when he expects to complete his work, and a director can ask her cast when they expect to memorize their lines. Or if a tenant makes an inquiry about ongoing charges and expenses, she is entitled to receive the clarification she seeks. It is wrong, in such a case, for the landlord to ignore the question.

Of course, the trust relationship often runs both ways, and so in an employer-employee situation, the employee is entitled to answers regarding his wages or the work that he is expected to do.

Exception #3: Entitlement Exists Where You Have Been Harmed

And there is another set of cases where people are entitled to answers. In these cases, the person who does not answer is being unjust and is committing a sin. I do not say that they are committing a civil or criminal offence; I say that they are committing a sin, and that is far worse.

What are these cases?

These are cases in which the person has interfered with your life and a failure to answer your question causes further harm, or prevents you from mitigating or minimizing the harm to you or those in your care. Some examples:

A. If I have stolen your snow blower, then you are entitled to know what I have done with it and where I have stashed it. It is wrong, in such a case, for me to refuse to answer your question.

B. If you have lied about me and insulted me by email, then I am entitled to know what you have said, and to whom you have said it. It is wrong, in such a case, for you to refuse to answer my question.

C. If Gavin has poisoned Gabriel’s goat, then Gabriel is entitled to know what Gavin gave her. It is wrong, in such a case, for Gavin to refuse to answer Gabriel’s question.

D. If a mother collects her child from a caregiver, she is entitled to know why her child’s hair is now several centimeters shorter.

E. If a man notices that his book of quotations is now annotated with pencil, he is entitled to know why the guest took such liberties and whether other books or objects in his home have been written on as well.

In cases like these, silence compounds the misdeed.

It’s quite simple, really.

I would call it common sense.

And a Word About Defamatory Words

With respect to item B above, the Canadian legal system, when dealing with cases of defamation, puts a great deal of weight on the conduct of the defendant following the original defamatory statements. So, for example, if you defame me, and I discover this, drawing your attention to the fact that you have said false things about me, then the clock begins ticking. The waveceptor watch’s timer begins running.

Your refusal to answer fair questions will be noted. Your refusal to provide full and accurate records will be noted.

In setting the amount of appropriate monetary compensation, the court will make a note of your actions after you were first notified. Did you cooperate with the victim or were you obstructionist? Did you take steps to remedy the damage or did you continue? (Some defamers stop and apologize, but others, rotten to the core, become further inflamed upon being asked to behave and they redouble their lies, going wider and wilder than before.)

Witnesses are routinely called in such cases, and their conduct is scrutinized as part of the package. Past correspondence, electronic and paper, are required to be produced. Anonymous tips and clandestine whispers can, in this context, be brought forth into the light of day. And hey, it’s handy that gmail lasts almost forever.

From what I understand, there is no upper limit in Canada on the amount that can be awarded for slander and defamation. The courts understand that a person’s reputation is something valuable, and if false things are said about a person, then compensation is fair.

Sounds good to me.