Monday, September 14, 2015

Stupid Question

There is a popular saying, often heard in academic settings, which goes something like this: “The only stupid question is the one you don't ask.”

That may sound trite, but there is truth to it. If you're too afraid to ask a question for fear of looking dumb, then you choose to live in ignorance, and that is a stupid choice.

I talked about this once on my defunct podcast, but I'll quickly reiterate it here. Ignorance is a harsh sounding word, but it basically means “not knowing”. Stupidity is a lack of common sense or good judgment. For example, I don't know anything about nuclear physics. That doesn't mean I'm stupid, it just means I'm ignorant on that topic. However, if I were to attempt to build or operate a nuclear power plant without knowing what I was doing, well, that would be stupid.

However, I don't agree that there are no stupid questions. I know I'm a bit of a cranky old bastard, but I think that if you can't ask a question in such a way to get the information you seek, then that's a stupid question.

Let me give you an example: “Where does this bus go?” I hear this particular question on a daily basis, sometimes several times a day, especially at the beginning of each university academic year, when hundreds of new people flood into College Town. It quickly became my least-favorite question of all time.

You might be thinking that this isn't a stupid question. After all, people need to know if they are getting aboard the correct bus for where they want to go. And I'm ignoring the scores of people who won't bother to read the bus schedule before hand, or even lift their heads to read the head sign on the bus.

So why is this a stupid question? Have you ever known a bus that only went to one place? The question makes a certain crude sense in the question of the regional routes. If I'm driving the Route 20, which goes only between O-Town and College Town, and I'm sitting at the College Town Transient Center and someone asks me “Where does this bus go”, I can simply answer “O-Town”. This is leaving out the likelihood that the person probably wants to go to a specific place in O-Town, but that brings us to the real reason this question bugs me.

Take the case of the Routes 14/17 (they're the same route, but in opposite directions) in College Town, which serve such diverse and popular destinations as the Jesus Center, the state employment/county welfare office, and several shopping centers, including the ever popular College Town Mall. If I were to take the “Where does this bus go?” question literally, I would have to start listing all the stops. Obviously, this would be time consuming and way more information than anyone needs.

I realized early on that most people asking where a bus goes usually had a certain place in mind, but attempts on my part to guess which one always ended in failure. If I judgmentally assumed that a teenager wanted to know if the 14/17 went to the mall, and I said that, then 9 times out of 10 they would say something like, “Oh, so you don't go to FoodMaxx?”, which I also do. There was another side to that coin – sometimes people would use something like “the mall” as a landmark for the general area they were interested in. I could answer yes to this question, but it sometimes backfired because there was another route that would have gotten them closer to where they really wanted to go.

I quickly realized that the best response to the question “Where does this bus go?” was to say, “Where are you trying to go?” Almost invariably, they had a specific place in mind, and I could then tell them whether or not I went there. I say, “almost invariably”, because one time that question didn't work. A teenage girl asked the infamous question, but when I asked my usual follow-up question, she just laughed one of those weird little simpering laughs so common with the species, and repeated her original question. I blinked a couple of times in stupefaction, then I said, “Well, that's kind of a long list. If you could tell me where you want to go, I can tell you if I go there or not.”

I finally got it out of her. Can you guess where she wanted to go? Yep. The mall. If she had just asked that in the first place, we could have saved about half a minute of useless back and forth. I couldn't understand why she seemed so resistant to answering my simple question. Was she afraid I was some sort of creeper who wanted to follow her for nefarious purposes?

In conclusion, the reason “Where does this bus go?” is a stupid question is because it's not very useful for getting the information you need. If you know where you want to go, why not just ask that, and save you and the driver some time and effort? Is that so hard?

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