Please Answer the Question!



I need to rant a little.

As you might expect, my “day job“, and a lot of my not-so-day-job, involves answering questions. It varies, of course. Some questions are simple yes/no, some are translating consumer terminology into more accurate terms and returning a “search result” from one of my websites to help, and so on.

Mostly it’s pretty simple Q&A.

Sometimes it’s less simple.

Sometimes it’s iterative. And sometimes that’s very, very frustrating.

Sometimes I need to ask for more information to understand the question being asked, or to zero in on specifics the questioner didn’t think to include. To be clear, it’s certainly not always obvious what’s important to include, so this isn’t a failure or oversight on their part. Technology and its relationships to … well, everything … can be confusing and obscure.

This is why I often respond with a question or two of my own.

So I ask a question. Perhaps something as simple as “what did the error message say?”

I have already learned over time to be more specific. “What EXACTLY did the error message say?”

In fact, what I’ve really learned over time that I often need to be excruciatingly specific, often at the risk of offending the person asking the original question. “What was the EXACT wording of the error message? The EXACT words are important to help me understand what it is you’re seeing.” Yes, words like “exact” and “specific” and phrases like “the EXACT steps you took to reproduce the problem” and the like are quite common when I’m digging for details.

My rant?

RARELY do I get the answer I asked for. It’s actually uncommon to get enough information in that response to act. (What happens next — whether I continue the exchange or give up — depends on everything from my mood, to my available time, to the wording and attitude expressed by the person asking the question. Yeah, I guess I can be kinda petty at times.)

Most commonly, I get a response completely ignoring the question I’ve asked. Not just a little, but completely. No answer to be found. Anywhere. Just more … words.

In an error message example such as this one, I’ll often ask people to send me a screen shot, but a) not all scenarios are clarified with a screen shot, and b) asking for a screen shot is another question I’m asking, and it can often open up a whole ‘nother can of worms.

I truly get that people are trying to clarify, and that they’re often in a frustrating situation, perhaps even augmented with a little fear or even panic over account or data loss.

But still.

Read the question. Answer the question! That’s all I … uh … ask.

This reached my threshold for public publication today because not only is it happening right now over in Ask Leo! land, it’s something my wife and I see frequently in many other venues. Particularly with written communication, we’ll ask a clear question and the response will include almost anything but an answer.

If someone asks you a question, answer it. Please.

OK, off the soapbox.

6 thoughts on “Please Answer the Question!”

  1. I too encounter this in life and in my aerospace job. I try very hard to answer the questions. At least start with the answer, and then add whatever info else.

  2. When soliciting information, I’ve learned using standard paragraph prose doesn’t work well. I’ll lay out the story and ask the questions in bullet point form (1., 2., 3., 4. etc.) It’s hardly foolproof but it works better when the questions are specifically laid out.

  3. I appreciate the frustration you justifiably expressed in your rant. In a past life I worked in what was a fancy helpdesk. However when people see how successfully some politicians, lawyers, and CEOs have honed their technique to an art form, it’s no wonder they adopt it as well without realizing there is a bit of intentional manipulation going on. The solution may be: Retire early if you can, and enjoy it!

  4. Politicians in particular are adept at lengthy responses, totally avoiding even the slightest answer to the question posed. Very annoying; a waste of everyone’s time.

  5. Im glad of the information in this short piece, I promise it will change my life maybe not as much as it should, but it will change. Being loquacious is not something I pride me on… that a legit sentence? Anyhow, I have a question, actually 2 or three I will soon submit to Ask Leo.

    I am glad to have knowledge from your head to mine.


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