Everything You Need to Know, But Are Afraid to Ask…

Dear Quorum,

It has taken me awhile to work up the nerve to ask this. It’s so embarrassing. Please don’t use my name, or my location or anything that could possibly trace this back to me. Not that it matters, I’ve opened a new email account on a public computer in order to submit this, so you have slim to no chance of figuring out this is me. I just don’t know how I can even commit this to writing. I’m clearly the only one who would ever even think about this topic, let alone ask this question. But I have to know, how can I go about finding answers to these possibly uncomfortable questions? #Askingforafriend

In her 2018 book, Asking for a Friend: Three Centuries of Advice on Life, Love, Money, and Other Burning Questions from a Nation Obsessed, Jessica Weisberg states that, “America is unique in its hankering for advice.” In order to prove that thesis, she provides mini biographies of several famous advice-givers from Benjamin Franklin in Poor Richard’s Almanack to Joan Quigley who provided astrological advice to Nancy Reagan. She notes that in the beginning, advice given seemed to be concerned in what others perceived of the advice seeker, but as this trend has progressed, the advice seems to be more and more individually centered.

The internet provides an ideal forum for the posting of anonymous queries and receiving responses from strangers. Reddit has a whole subreddit devoted to this topic.  Check Twitter or Instagram and you can find this hashtag in use on a regular basis.  It’s easy to think that this is an internet-driven phenomenon. But as Weisberg points out in her book, this phenomenon dates back to colonial times and has evolved over time.

Remember the movie The Help? Skeeter’s first job was to answer anonymous requests for housekeeping tips.  No one wanted to admit couldn’t get the stains out of their grandmother’s linens so they sent in a question to the newspaper and hopefully received a response soon after. There was a similar storyline in Downtown Abbey where Mr. Spratt, the Dowager Countess’s butler was secretly the source of the advice on domestic affairs. Even Orange is the New Black had a story arc with Tastee and Flakka taking #askingforafriend questions on their prison radio show.

You may have early memories of elementary or nursery school and your teacher telling the class, “The only stupid question is the one that has not been asked.” I desperately wanted to believe that. But then, I raised my hand and asked the question burning a hole in my head.  “What does purple smell like?” I’d like to tell you that everyone else in the class smiled and nodded and waited breathlessly for the answer to the question that they all had clearly been pondering but were afraid to ask.

In most situations, however, there were some snickers and the teacher took a deep breath while she tried to suppress her giggle and she answered my question. Trust me when I tell you, though, that at least some of the people who snickered hung on every one of the teacher’s words.  I have to believe that.  Someone else needed that knowledge at that moment.

As an adult, the stigma of asking the stupid question seems more severe. Looking stupid in a work situation can have serious implications. Heaven forbid you actually ask a stupid question in front of your supervisor.  Even if you dodge that bullet, your colleagues have long memories and loose lips. They could tease you for ages, or even worse, let your moment of stupidity slip in front of one of the higher ups at work.

Strong leaders will encourage questions and should use those questions to help educate the team as a whole, as well as find weaknesses within the organization or personally within themselves.  You hope that they will take the questions to heart and work to make sure that the information is available moving forward so no one has to ask. Thoughtful questioning of the system and the team should help build your team’s confidence and productivity.

That being said, you have to acknowledge that from time to time there are some stupid questions: Those that are asked repeatedly. As a member of a team, you should be aware that your questions take time and consideration and make sure that you retain the knowledge that has been previously provided.  Take notes if you need to, but do not waste everyone’s time by asking the same thing repeatedly.  Not only will your leader not appreciate it, you will incur the ire of your fellow team members.

Being possibly embarrassed by the very fact that you have asked a certain question is one thing, but there’s another reason you might want to be able to post a question in this manner.  Perhaps you “shouldn’t” be asking the question at all.  How do I tell my best friend she’s got wicked halitosis? Is this legal? #askingforafriend.  Both of those were on Twitter in the last month.  But there are serious uses as well.  Can one be fired for being early to work? What’s appropriate notice to quit my job in this industry?

You may be considering a new job, and there is a benefit or policy at the new company with which you are not familiar.  You do not want to look stupid to your potential new employer, but clearly you can not ask your current employer and tip your hand that you may be leaving. You can post your question on the internet and in mere minutes, you can get feedback from hundreds to thousands of new friends on how you should proceed.

There’s an inherent moment of vulnerability in posing a question. You have to acknowledge that you do not personally have the knowledge. The simple act of asking the question affirms that fact. Doing that face to face is something that can be intimidating.  If you choose to pose your question online in an anonymous forum, you are less likely to be rejected. No one can laugh directly in your face. You may get ridiculed by a few trolls, but who really cares what CoolRedditDood27 really thinks of you, right?  Unless he offers good advice.  Then, yes, his opinion is very important.

But when your question is received and answered, you will suddenly be part of a society.  You have been accepted and affirmed.  If you have submitted to Miss Manners or Carolyn Hax or a similar service for this type of question, there’s the further affirmation that your question was important enough to be chosen and answered.  This means that clearly they feel that someone else could benefit from the knowledge that you were seeking.  The question that you were so embarrassed to ask was deemed important enough to be read and even more important, to be answered publicly.  Maybe it was not such a dumb question after all.

This is the key to all of these approaches, from single answer requests like Miss Manners, to online chats to #askingforafriend. The answer is received in a public forum.  You did not want to be the person who was gauche enough to ask if you could wear white shoes after Labor Day.  But Miss Manners got your question and felt it was an important enough issue to answer and publish.  In her vaunted opinion, you were not the only person who would benefit from her knowledge.

In an online forum, there is a different level of acceptance.  Miss Manners was being paid to read through questions and respond.  Now it is just your fellow human being, taking time out of their busy life to respond to your query.  As serious or silly as your question is, hopefully multiple people have read it and chosen to reply.  They really have nothing to gain by responding except possibly helping some stranger through a tough moment. If you think about it, with the exception of those who might troll, this is actually a pretty affirming corner of the internet. Affirming is not an adjective you often see in connection with the internet.

If you look up the definition of #askingforafriend, Wiktionary will tell you that it “Indicates that a question is embarrassing by pretending to be asking on behalf of another person.” Essentially, I’m scared to ask this for myself so I’m going to pretend that someone else near to me wants to know the answer. What this definition fails to embrace is the inherent community that this type of inquiry creates.  In the end, you should embrace your inquisitive nature and feel free to ask questions, whether in the open or anonymously.  The question and answer process builds a community and you should be proud to be part of it.

By Mira Brown, AMS

Mira Brown is a Senior Property Manager and Team Leader with EJF Real Estate. In addition to the management of a portfolio of properties in Washington, DC she also serves in supervisory functions and capacities at EJF. She has been a CAI member for over 15 years and has been an active member of the Quorum Editorial Committee for over 5 years.

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