A Bad Question

“Can I ask you a question?”

It’s one of those insidious sentences, one of those strings of words which, when put together in that particular order, becomes one of the absolutely worst things one person can say to another. There’s never anything good that follows it. It’s never, “Can I ask you a question? How did you become so cool?” or “Can I ask you a question? Would you like one of these muffins?” Rather, it’s a phrase which tends to be followed up with, “How come you’re such a bastard all the time?” or “Where do you see this relationship as going?” or possibly, “Do you just not shower ever or is there something actually wrong with you that makes you smell like that?”

It’s the sneakiness of it that’s the trouble. It’s the kind of terror that comes in the back door with a lockpick while you’re focusing your attention on the front. “I have some bad news for you,” is something straightforward; you’re immediately prepared for what’s coming next. “Can I ask you a quesiton?” lowers your guard because, no matter what your experience tells you about the likely outcome of this encounter, there’s always the chance that you’re going to finally be asked about that Brazilian stamp collection you’ve been collecting since you were five.

The basic problem with “Can I ask you a question?” is that the recipient thinks it’s a prelude to inquiry, that’s it’s a starter course, an appetizer meant to build up momentum for the rest of a conversation. What it really is, though, is one person asking another’s permission to ruin their day. If they were going to ask how they managed to put together such an awesome hairstyle, they’d just ask it. Nobody ever felt the need to preface a positive inquiry, they just come straight out and ask how many horsepower that new sports car has. If there’s bad news coming though, if one person has been wondering exactly what thirft store that particular jacket came from, but hasn’t quite known how to bring it up, “Can I ask you a question?” is a pretty good start. It’s a small, social contract. “I need to ruin your day? Do you mind awfully if I do that?”

I’ve just had three weeks off work, which has been a combination of brilliant and slightly mind-destroying. I’d planned to get a whole lot of awesome crap done, but it turns out all I really wanted to do was relax for 21 days straight. Lots of time in front of the television. Very little actual writing. Let’s see what January brings though, shall we?

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