We’ve been talking a while now about awkward questions and the difficulties they’ve posed. How about some success stories?
What are difficult questions you’ve found a good answer to?
Here’s one I’ve finally figured out an answer to: “Do you have children?”
Why is this awkward? As I’ve mentioned, I’m childless by choice, and I wasn’t even offended when I was asked to explain how I could possibly feel that way. So it’s not that I think the question is invasive, or rude, or hurtful in any way.
It’s just awkward because the answer is “No.”
And I hate answering questions “No” with no followup. I’ve had too much theater training to do that. There’s a rule in improv called “yes-and”: the idea being that you never stonewall your partner’s attempt to connect. You agree, and then take things in a new direction. Like so:
When I was starting out in Chicago, doing improvisational theatre with Second City and other places, there was really only one rule I was taught about improv. That was, “yes-and.” In this case, “yes-and” is a verb. To “yes-and.” I yes-and, you yes-and, he, she or it yes-ands. And yes-anding means that when you go onstage to improvise a scene with no script, you have no idea what’s going to happen, maybe with someone you’ve never met before. To build a scene, you have to accept. To build anything onstage, you have to accept what the other improviser initiates on stage. They say you’re doctors—you’re doctors. And then, you add to that: We’re doctors and we’re trapped in an ice cave. That’s the “-and.” And then hopefully they “yes-and” you back. You have to keep your eyes open when you do this. You have to be aware of what the other performer is offering you, so that you can agree and add to it. And through these agreements, you can improvise a scene or a one-act play.
Obviously, in real life, you don’t have to answer “Yes-and” to every question literally. (“Do you have a moment for the environment?” “Yes, and I’m not going to waste it talking to you!”) But you do, if you want to be a successful conversationalist, have to give someone something back when they hand you a question, some other peg to hang the conversation on.
“I like your scarf.” “Thanks, I got it in New York. Do you get down to the city much?”
“What do you do?” “I’m a nuclear physicist. And I coach my kids’ soccer on the weekend. Do you ever play?”
“Do you have children?” “Yes, two. And I’m just trying to get our oldest into a good day school. You wouldn’t believe the paperwork!”
See, all those answers give the other person somewhere to go, conversationally, in a way that a flat, factual answer just won’t. Especially if the answer is “no.”
And I’ve never found anything to stick on the end of that “no” when the question is about kids. Sometimes you can stick the actual reason on the end of the “no”: you say, “Are you taking any trips this summer?” and they say, “No, we’re trying to save money,” and then you talk money-saving tips. But I’m not going to offer, unsolicited, my reasons for not having kids, especially to someone I’ve just met who does have them, because yeesh.*
The ConductMom sometimes responds, when people ask her if she has grandchildren, that Mr. Improbable and I are very involved in our careers and travel a lot. This is true, but that isn’t why we don’t have children. If we’d wanted them, we’d figure out ways to juggle our other commitments, just as other parents do. Besides, I’m uncomfortable with painting a picture of us as so ambitious and driven that we’ve sacrificed parenthood on the altar of Mammon. (Especially given the modest Mammon we’re bringing in; if it were a sacrifice, we wuz robbed.) We didn’t not have kids in order to do some other thing, and I don’t want to present it that way. (Although the ConductMom can deal with that question however she likes; I’m not criticizing her, only explaining why her solution doesn’t work for me.)
When we got Milo, I immediately considered and rejected the “No, but we have a dog!” This implies that dogs are child substitutes, which is a notion that as a responsible dog lover I think is incredibly dangerous. Milo is not a child substitute because 1) he is not a child, and 2) he is not a substitute. A substitute is something that takes the place of some other, desired, thing. I don’t want kids, so Milo is no substitute for them. It’s also insulting to parents to compare children and pets. (In some ways, anyway. I talk about what you can and can’t say in that regard in the pets chapter of Mind over Manners.)
But my little guy did come to my rhetorical rescue after all, when I realized I didn’t have to compare Milo to a child–I could compare dog-owner me with potential-mommy me instead. So now, my usual response is, “No, and it’s a good thing! As bad as I spoil my dog and bore my friends with stories about him, I would be insufferable if I actually had my own children!”
This is self-deprecating but not self-insulting, not anti-child or -parenthood, honest, and provides a lot of areas for the conversation to go afterward (sharing dog/kid stories, sharing stories about friends or relatives who won’t shut up about their kid or dog, etc.).
So thanks, Milo. You really are the gift that keeps on giving.
What are awkward conversations that you’ve found good answers to?
*Although I’ve never gotten grief about my choice from an actual mother of children still living at home. Moms, more than anyone, get that bearing and raising kids is incredibly difficult, and far too great a responsibility to be undertaken out of a vague sense that having kids is just what people do. The most common response I’ve gotten from mothers if I mention I don’t want kids isn’t, “Oh, but you’re missing out on nature’s greatest miracle!”, it’s “Well, good for you! Being a parent is so hard no one should do it unless they absolutely want to 110%.”