When Dave married me, I hit the jackpot. He’s my best friend, my confidante, and in some ways, he’s been my mentor. He taught me something very valuable early in our marriage. Or rather, he has attempted to teach me. It has taken me a long time to internalize it.
Unless you’re on a witness stand under oath, if somebody asks you a question, you do not have to answer.
This sounds simple, but it’s not simple at all. Furthermore, even if you’re on a witness stand, you only have to answer the question that is asked.
Here’s an example of Dave at his finest.
One day, my sister-in-law’s children from a first marriage were at our house. Their father called and wanted to speak to them. Dave had answered the phone, and he turned and asked each child in turn if she wished to speak with her father. All three said no.
He then told the father that the children did not wish to speak to him and bade him good day.
A few months later, Dave got a subpoena. Our SIL and the ex-husband were in court and the ex-husband was serving as his own attorney. He thought he was Perry Mason. Dave was subpoenaed as a “hostile witness.”
So we went to court. And Dave was called to the stand. The father (whose name is also David, so I am not using it to avoid confusion) asked, “On Saturday, February 8, 19XX, at around 10 a. m., while you were living at XYZ address, did you or did you not answer a phone call from me and refuse to allow me to have access to my children?”
Dave sat there for a couple of minutes, and then quietly answered, “No.”
That was all. “No.”
The father rephrased the question, complete with all those details, and asked again.
At this point, I was having to hide my face because I was laughing so hard. The judge was even trying not to smile.
Finally, the father, in total confusion and without knowing what in the hell to do, said, “No further questions.”
Dave got up and left the stand.
What was wrong in the question was the date. It wasn’t the eighth.
Even when you have to answer a question by law, only answer the question that is asked.
But more importantly, you don’t have to answer a question at all under any other circumstances. And you don’t have to explain why you’re not answering.
If you choose not to answer, people will make inferences and draw conclusions based on your silence, and that’s something you have to evaluate, but the whole I-got-nothin’-to-say thing is sometimes a really good strategy.
Furthermore, sometimes when somebody asks an innocuous question, not answering will simply raise more questions and draw attention to the whole thing. For instance, you’re at a neighbor’s house for a cookout, and the neighbor’s cousin, who you’ve never met, asks you in an effort to make small talk what you do for a living. You don’t have to answer the question. Of course you don’t. But if you hedge, he will wonder what you’re hiding.
Sometimes it’s better to casually answer the question.
But you don’t have to. And the don’t-have-to part was what was hard for me to grasp.
Years later, I was working in the recovery room at our local hospital. I had a supervisor who I simply hated. The feeling was mutual. She didn’t like me in part because the anesthesiologist who had supervision over the whole RR had hired me without consulting her first. But regardless of reasons, we were like oil and water.
One day, she abruptly called me into the little alcove with a small bare desk that she called her “office,” and said, “Sally, I need to know where you want to transfer.”
I replied, “I’m not transferring anywhere.”
She said, “Oh, yes, you are. I don’t care where, but you are going.”
I said nothing.
She then launched into a rant. She yelled. She accused me of everything short of crimes against humanity, including leaving a dirty spoon in the sink (seriously – and I didn’t do it, one of the OR staff must have). She, of course, was attempting to start a big fight with me so she could go to the anesthesiologist and have me fired.
I said nothing.
I had no facial expression. I didn’t roll my eyes (I had to exercise great restraint). I said nothing at all. I just stared at her.
She finally got so upset she started to cry. I still said nothing at all.
Finally, she stopped talking.
I asked, “Are you finished now? I have a patient to take care of.”
About six months later, I did indeed transfer. I was hired to run the recovery room at the new same-day surgery affiliated with the hospital. I transferred on my own terms, at the time I chose. For that interim period, she never really bothered me again. She wouldn’t speak to me if it wasn’t absolutely necessary. She wouldn’t help me in any way. She stiffed me when it came to the schedule and favored everyone else. But we had no further confrontations.
Dave taught me how to do that.
It’s a great life lesson. You have to pick and choose carefully to determine when it’s a good strategy, but it often works out well.
Nothing was more fun than watching that nurse cry.