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Questions, Questions, Questions

The art of putting off a nosy conversationalist
Art for Questions, Questions, Questions.
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In DESIGNS FOR LIVING, columnist Marlowe Granados dispenses sound advice in a noisy world. Send your rants and pleas to [email protected] for Marlowe’s consideration.

 

Hi Marlowe,

I’m quite boring, which is why I found such solace in your book Happy Hour, as your characters are the complete antithesis of me. I seek to acquire the self-assurance of Isa and Gala.  

Which is why I am writing to you. Not to tell you how much I love the book because I’m sure you get that all the time and are tired of the many compliments, but to ask you for how to phrase a response with the charm and evasiveness of Isa. 

I have a relative’s engagement party to attend this summer where I will inevitably be asked the dreadful questions “When do you plan on getting married?”; “Do you think he’s the one?”; and be subjected to similarly boring and irrelevant commentary. I will never understand why marriage is such an accomplishment.

I’ve spent too much time considering responses, but I know Isa would have the perfect response to such questions. 

I know this is not even near the type of writing you are asked of, but if you wouldn’t mind helping someone who is usually at a loss for words. Do you happen to have any quick-witted responses that would answer without answering? 

“Did you know it was possible to push back without anyone even noticing?” 

Thank you,

Loss for Words

 

Dear Loss for Words,

That’s so sweet, thank you. I think there are times we all need to look to Isa for a little inspiration. Not only on how to view the world, but how to beguile it! I’m fascinated that you consider yourself boring because from this letter I feel you possess an edge of dryness that you should really lean into.

Even I get apprehensive about social occasions, and I think being asked about your personal life—whether love, business, or otherwise—is actually quite embarrassing. On days where I am not at all up for these questions, I say shyly, “Oh, you know,” and they say, “Well, I don’t,” and then, if I feel playful, I’ll respond, “Well it’s up to you to find out, but not through me!” This information should be freely offered, not danced around with a lackluster enthusiasm, especially when it’s unclear if the person asking even really wants to know.

If they prod me further, I’ll offer something outrageous, which is usually true . . . but the response won’t be at all what they expected, and they will walk away wondering whether they should have asked at all. Case in point: on first dates, when men ask me if I’d like children, I say, “I’ve always imagined myself having two children with two different fathers.” How they respond is really a test of their own social dexterity; it says more about them than it does about me. Anyway, that’s just the truth!

I’m in a period where I’m known to respond to people’s inquiries about my love life with “I’m everyone’s mistress.”

Now, in a previous column, I wrote about what I call “withering unaccountability,” which I will go into further here. This is something I really honed while writing Happy Hour. I wanted Isa to be able to escape situations without anyone being able to claim she said something really wrong. Would it hold up in court? (A terrible phrase that evokes only the worst images, but you understand). The point of this strategy was less to comment on whether Isa did or said anything bad and more to interrogate the circumstances that had placed her in a tricky corner to begin with. I wrote these scenes so that whatever she said would probably be one of those recollections that smudge around the edges, where her interlocutor will eventually admit, “It’s not what she said; it was her tone.” I mean, the argument usually just dissolves from there. For a very long time, I exclusively had one phrase in my dating profile bio: “Can’t control the tone of my voice”—a disclaimer that I would most likely be misunderstood, and it wasn’t my fault!

For many people, it’s hard to get used to the idea of not having to answer a question when you simply aren’t prepared, or don’t want to. I once saw a female scholar at a talk say something like, “That’s a really thoughtful question, and I don’t have an answer to offer right now, but it will keep me up at night.” I could only think how graceful a response it was. Simultaneously, she was complimenting the inquirer, protecting her expertise, and reminding the audience that they should not expect her to always acquiesce. I once got media trained, and it proved more useful in life than it did for any work obligation. It opened up the possibility of leading the conversation away from paths I did not want to go down, and not only that, but steering towards topics where I knew I could shine. That excited me! There was a sliver of power there that I could easily obtain.

Conversation is very much a game of fence, or even tennis. When you make a clever move, both parties are titillated and challenged into a higher level of play. So if people ask, “When do you plan on getting married?” I’d say varying shades of, “It’s up in the air—I do plan on getting divorced twice.” To the question “Do you think he’s the one?” reply, “One of many.” Something I used to say after I stopped being a fiancée was, “You should have at least one failed engagement.” Now I’m in a period where I’m known to respond to people’s inquiries about my love life with “I’m everyone’s mistress.”

I think of my cats absorbed in a game of hide-and-seek around my apartment. They are so alert to each other’s sounds and movements, trying to predict where the other will go, that when one does something unexpected, the other quite literally scrambles. This is the effect you should produce in your conversation because once the other person understands that they’re not up to scratch—an unworthy conversational partner who has neither wit nor sense of humor—they’ll leave you alone to be entertained by someone else. And thank god! What really matters for these soirées is that there’s good cake.

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