Tuesday, 2 March 2021

Questions, questions everywhere but did they stop to think? By Steve Way

 I’ve been doing a brief topic about questions with groups of Spanish students who I teach English. It’s made me think about some questions I’ve had to face and the responses I’ve had to make, or wish I’d made.

A few years ago, my wife and I wanted to buy a new car, despite finances being tight (I was a writer after all!) hoping that we might be given a reasonable exchange for our elderly but reliable car in the form of a deposit. The salesman who’d ensnared us presented us with a remarkable document. It asked us to rate the possible exchange value of our car based on three possible criteria. One choice offered was to rate our current car as being in immaculate condition and having a mileage of close to zero due to some remarkable quirk of fate, such as having been locked away in a garage, entirely free from harm, for the entirety of its existence. The third choice effectively allowed us to ask ourselves if we had somehow managed to reach this garage in a barely functioning death-trap, narrowly avoiding serious or fatal harm to ourselves or innocent bystanders by a remarkable fluke that was unlikely to be repeated and essentially implying that we would be acting as highly irresponsible daredevils if we attempted to return home in it. All this in spite of the fact that, according to its predicted mileage, the car may have been driven around the world three times.

As you’ve no doubt guessed already the second choice gave us the option to declaring that our old car bore all the normal ravages of use on the public highways. I note all the possible ravages as there was no option to explain that although the body work had seen better days the car had recently had a new drive chain fitted and the brake pads replaced etc.  This remarkable questionnaire had clearly punched us into a corner and made it clear that our hosts were aiming to offer us the meanest valuation for our car possible. I can’t remember how we engineered our escape, but we managed it somehow and eventually found a more accommodating garage. Interestingly a few months later I drove passed the garage in question (in our new car – well new to us anyway) and noticed that it had closed down. I couldn’t help wondering whether the overly aggressive and parsimonious form of questioning the sales team had used led to its demise.

Speaking of garages, I wonder if you’ve been faced with a similar obfuscating question when you’ve been to a garage with a car in need of repair. It is clearly meant to unnerve you as a customer, to demonstrate the mechanic’s far superior knowledge of vehicle repair than you and potentially prepare you for either an inconveniently long wait before you have your car back or an extortionate bill for repairs (that may or may not have actually been necessary) or both. The question of course, after you’ve timidly asked about the cost or delay, is ‘well how long’s a piece of string, mate?’ Why on earth do we put up with such a meaningless question instead of demanding an accurate breakdown of time frames and cost? Because in these situations the mechanics have all the power and we have none. I dream one day of being brave enough of suggesting, ‘well in my experience a 30 centimetre long piece of string is… 30 centimetres long… and a 20 centimetre long piece of string is… etc.’ but I’m sure if I did my car would sit in the forecourt until hell freezes over but I’d still receive a bill greater than the value of my house.

Even though mechanics are famous for their vague questions you would imagine that in the legal profession they would be meticulously precise when wording questions appropriately. A few years ago, I was called up for jury service, which began by sitting in on a trial in which a young man was accused on three counts. As a group our jury felt sympathetic towards the young man who had been harassed by a couple of completely unsavoury characters, one of whom was so frighteningly devoid of any of the positive features of the human spirit that he still haunts my nightmares. Unfortunately, he had hit back, and we had to determine whether he had done so illegally. The rest of the group voted me in as the foreman, and I was glad to declare him not guilty of the first two charges as well as being sure of his innocence. However, after extended deliberation, and with heavy hearts, ten of us agreed that he had driven his car recklessly and therefore illegally at the time, a sufficient majority to lead to a conviction.

Once standing in front of the court again the court usher made the following demand. “Please only answer the following questions, yes or no.” A pretty clear instruction as you would agree.

Question one. “As a jury have you reached a unanimous decision?”

No problem. Answer, “No.”

Question two. “As a just have you reached a majority decision?”

No problem. Answer, “Yes.”

Question three. “Was the majority eleven to one or ten to two?”

What? Answer the following yes or no? I remember being stunned at the contrast between the inappropriateness of the instruction I had been given and the razor-sharp precision with which I had heard language being used during the court case. Surely this couldn’t have been the first time this had happened. I looked up at the judge, and asked pleadingly, ‘yes or no?’ of course meaning how the hell do I answer this question yes or no. Benevolently but also condescendingly, he replied, ‘You don’t have to answer this one yes or no.’ I wonder if he managed to discern that the manner in which I glared at him implied, ‘after years of giving such an inaccurate and inappropriate instruction why couldn’t you provide more accurate instructions or ask more suitable questions?’

Or maybe, I recognise, I may just be a pedant who believes that when you give instructions that they should be appropriate and accurate.

1 comment:

Andrew Preston said...

Re: "....  couldn’t help wondering whether the overly aggressive and parsimonious form of questioning the sales team had used led to its demise..."

Possibly, though not necessarily. Though I do understand how you feel. In Scotland, there is a hugely successful chain of motor dealers named Arnold Clark. When Arnold himself passed over a couple of years ago, the story went round that in honour of the great man, for his funeral, all his salesmen decided that they would refrain from being ar*eholes for the day.