Don't Ask, Don't Tell

A close friend recently asked me a loaded and very dangerous question.

If you interact with other humans, at some point, you too have been the recipient in some shape or form of a precarious query. As they ask, time seems to slow and fast forward all at once. The asker peers into your eyes as your mind races for the "right" answer. Instinctively you know how you respond can impact not only this interaction, but your entire relationship. You must quickly assess the situation taking into consideration the rapport, location, timing, ability to fix the situation and asker's ability to accept honesty.

When my friend asked me my opinion on her attire, she had me in the hot seat; I needed to do some fast thinking before I opened my mouth. Here are some Don't Ask Questions and respective responses.

Does this make me look fat?

Of course, when you are in the department store's dressing room, you can be absolutely honest. After all, the asker need not purchase the offending item. You can offer to have the salesperson bring in another size or suggest a completely different style that would better suit the asker. If at home prior to embarkation, there is still time to change. A delicately put "Oh, I was hoping you would wear your navy ensemble" solves the issue without directly answering the question. However, if you are halfway through dinner at a charity gala when asked, discretion is the better part of valor -- even if you are hoping for the asker's dessert!

Do I have bad breath?

A better-safe-than-sorry approach should be employed. When someone asks, immediately pull out a mint to share. And do be sure to pop a mint yourself! They may be politely trying to send you a message. Yes, you should always carry mints just in case.

Other personal grooming questions can be handled in a similar manner. "Do I need a haircut/manicure/shower" can all be answered with a tactful, "You are fine for now, but might want to schedule one soon" if there is no time to fix the issue. Or "You always look, feel, smell fine to me, but not everyone loves you as much as I do" when there is time to resolve the issue.

Is my spouse cheating?

This is a no-win question. The easiest tactic is deferral. "Why do you ask?" Often, the person is asking because they already know the answer. Do not attempt to guess which answer they were hoping for; instead solicit their opinion. Then, based upon their response, you can decide how to best respond... If, you have proof-positive of an adulterous affair, you must carefully consider your options. Romantic relationships are mysterious entities that often defy the expectations or reasoning of others. The closer you are to the betrayed individual, the more likely it is that you should reveal the information you have learned. A best case scenario is for you to approach the betrayer with your information and compel them to confess to the friend. For mere acquaintances, it is best not to become involved. It could be that the spouse is already aware of the situation and does not need to know you know too. Or, the acquaintance could resent and blame you as the bearer of bad news.

Should I quit my job?

Unless you have a new position at the ready to immediately offer the asker, the answer is "no." If the individual despises his/her job, the best course is to take action. Lend an ear, and possibly a shoulder to cry on, as you help the asker to brainstorm potential solutions. From working to improve the current position; to seeking challenges and fulfillment outside the office; to updating the resume and interviewing while still employed, there are many ways the asker can work to improve his/her situation while still earning money to pay the bills.

This costs a fortune, should I buy it?

When your friend has disposable income to spare, by all means, offer your opinion. However, if your friend has been on a strict shopping diet, do your best to support this thrifty endeavor.

Isn't this the cutest baby ever?

Two sayings immediately leap to mind. The first is "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" and the second "every mother thinks her baby is the most beautiful." If the baby is gorgeous, by all means, concur. However, if the newborn resembles a Muppet -- and not in a good way -- then you need to be specific in your response. Choose something you can compliment and make your statement as sincere as possible. "That outfit is adorable." Or, "look at those tiny, perfect, rosebud lips." Or, "What a snuggly baby!" All are positive utterances without having to fib to the parents.

Etiquette rarely allows for a bold faced lie. So when my friend asked about the fashionability of (or rather, the lack there of) her attire, for many reasons, I had to be honest. First, she asked the question because she already knew the answer. The shorts were awful! If I had told her that the shorts were fine, she would have known I was lying. Second, I also happened to know there were shops around the corner having a fabulous summer sale. When I concurred with her assessment that her shorts were a bit out of date, she laughed knowingly as we headed for the nearest shop. When we reconnected with our group an hour later, she looked quite stylish in her new Capri's. Etiquette asks that we are honest. And that when we do decide to share news that has the possibility of not being well received, we must do so with kindness and respect.