Most of my day is spent in answering questions between long bouts of staring at a computer screen. Whenever I do look up, it takes my mind a few minutes to process what I’m seeing or hearing. The results have been just short of snarky.

The easiest way to answer is directly, in my opinion, but there are obviously some things I should not say. The other day, I was in the middle of two different spreadsheets, and I had a small piece of scrap paper to keep notes on the task at hand. It took me a few moments to realize someone was standing at the desk, but I looked up, my mind full of my project and said, “Can I help you?”

“Uh, yeah,” the student says. “Um, do you know why the door is locked?”

Well, Reader, I here paused to consider an answer. I assumed the student was referring to the classroom door, but–as I mentioned earlier–I hadn’t been paying attention to that classroom, except to vaguely notice students were going in for class, because I was engrossed in my project. Unfortunately, my mouth tends to run a little faster than my brain. Completely confused, I said, “Because they’ve started already…?”

I wasn’t trying to be snarky–really I wasn’t! But I took the question way too literally. Needless to say, the student was like, “Fine. Never mind,” and I was like, “Wait, I can unlock it for you! Have you already tried knocking?” which was another not-the-best thing to say. Luckily, he was in the process of knocking, and the teacher inside opened the door, rendering me completely useless while mouthing half-formed apologies.

The trick is to figure out the question behind the question. Just like my job working with international students, where I needed to ask several presumptive queries just to understand what was meant, I need here to extend the same method of problem-solving in conversing with native English speakers. Slang has left most of us with a bereft vocabulary and an inability to express our ideas fully without resorting to vague and ambiguous terms.

Granted, I was completely absorbed by my project. But a much more understandable request would have been, “I have class in that room and the door is locked. Will you unlock it for me, please?” In this case, I could have said, “Sure thing! Give me one moment,” and closed my computer. Also, some teachers may prefer being harder on truant or tardy students. Maybe they want the door to be locked. Either way, I need to work to understand the question behind the question, instead of answering with the first comment off the top of my head. Like the question, “Uh, do you know if there are bathrooms on this floor?” I want to say, “No, we all hold it until 5 p.m.” But I don’t.

Maybe what I need is more compassion. Hmmm…


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