I hate it when I walk out of the grocery store and catch someone’s eye, only to be asked: “do you want to help homeless children?” or “would you like to help me find a cure for AIDS?” or “do you have 2 minutes to save orphaned polar bears?” There is just no good way to answer that kind of question except to say “Why yes, yes I do! Here, take the contents of my wallet.”
What else can you say? “No, thanks” or “Not today” or “I can’t”?
These responses are all socially acceptable, but if any one of them comes out of your mouth, you will walk away feeling like an asshole. Once you’ve already made eye contact, you’ve blown your chance to pretend the solicitor is invisible, so you have to say something, or else pretend you’re deaf or Norwegian or crazy. It’s a pickle. And it pisses me off, because I do want to help homeless kids and sick people and polar bears, all of them! But on my own terms, on my own time, after doing my own research. And it irritates me that I have to walk away feeling like I should explain or apologize to this random person. Honestly, if you have a worthwhile cause, is this really the best fundraising strategy you could think of?
Now the girl scouts I can handle. They have no power over me with their evil wares. I know danger when I see it, it can’t be camouflaged by a green sash or a minty chocolate coating. And their question is so much easier to reject, because really? No. I do NOT want your $4 box of crack, but good luck earning your badge!
Phrasing questions well is a conversational art form. I’ve often advised those speaking with children to never frame a yes-or-no question unless you are prepared to accept no for an answer. “Are you ready to clean up?” “Should we get ready now?” “Do you want to eat lunch?” What was that, honey? Did you say “Hell, no!” ? You’ve got to phrase your questions to kids in a way that makes it impossible for them to dissent. If you can do this, you’ve mastered the art. If you can’t, just remember that gimmicks and trickery are useful tools for improving your communication with children.
My dad used to chat up my young friends by asking questions like: “Do you walk to school, or do you bring your lunch?” And my husband often responds to a barrage of inquiries with the announcement: “25 cents a question!” But kids – my kids, anyway – can be relentless with the questions. They are also quite poor at gauging the relative importance of their questions. It’s always reallyreallyreallyreallyreally important, like so important that we should roll up the car windows and turn off the music and make sure everyone is silent and, wait, what was I going to ask? Or worse, it really is a , which means either 1) It’s totally abstract and impossible to answer or 2) The answer involves some secret or lie in which I am likely to become completely entwined. In these instances, my only recourse is distraction, which I find most effective when coupled with confusion and a hint of fear. For example: “but how exactly does daddy help the baby get in there?” can be deflected with: “Did you know that every seed inside of every apple has the potential to become a tree? But if you swallow that seed I’m almost positive it will come out in your poop before it sprouts.” Once you’ve got your kids thinking about poop, you’re back in safe territory.
Just watch out for signs of danger.