Dotty Winters received some sage advice at primary school. It turns out there is power in not explaining.
When I grow up I want to be a snail farmer. I’ve known this since I was in primary school. I remember the very day I decided. Our primary school head teacher told us, that when people ask us what we want to be when we grow up, we should tell them we want to be snail farmers. I thought this was hilarious, and I agreed.
Throughout my childhood I seriously considered this as a future venture. At one stage I decided I wanted to open the UK’s first snail farm. (I missed that boat. In 2014 UK heliculturists produced more than 750,000 snails, which makes me wonder if garlic butter manufacturer may have been a more lucrative option.)
It was only years later, as an adult, that I realised that this had not been a lesson in niche-entrepreneurialism, but rather one in micro-rebellion. My teacher had taught me one of the most important lessons I would ever fail to learn: you do not owe people a truthful, or a serious answer just because they ask you a question.
Over my life I have been asked the usual number of stupid questions:
• “Did you mean to do that?”
• “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
• “Was he planned?” (I was carrying a newborn)
• “When is the baby due?” (I wasn’t pregnant)
On each of these occasions I stuttered and Britished my way through the response. I was terrified that I was being rude, so I provided explanation, amelioration and even apologies in place of a steely glare and a WTF shrug.
One of the most powerful things I have ever discovered is that you are not required to provide a reason why you aren’t going to do something.
“Next week I am considering doing an experiment where I answer every question about ‘how I feel’, with either ‘horny’, or ‘hungry’. I think it could be fun.”
If someone asked me to do something I didn’t want to do I used to hope that when I checked my diary it would reveal an excellent excuse. Now, I don’t provide a reason, and this allows me to turn down invites even when it is only because I am hoping that something better will come up in future (something better includes: no plans and biscuits).
Sometimes, I write things that end up on the internet. Often, enraged people then ask me to justify my opinions. I don’t have to. So I don’t and it turns out they very rarely tell my mum (discovering that I am not obliged to provide my mother’s contact details for this purpose has also helped).
Once, in a job interview, an interviewer asked how my children would cope with the amount of travel required for the job. There has never been a longer Paddington Bear stare in history, not even that time that the Wi-Fi went down when I was watching actual Paddington Bear on Netflix. I withdrew my application and left feeling better than any new job could ever have made me feel.
Next week I am considering doing an experiment where I answer every question about ‘how I feel’, with either ‘horny’, or ‘hungry’. I think it could be fun.
It turns out there is power in not explaining. I recognise that the pressure to respond to questions is huge and most of us will need some practice to get this right. To help you out, here are my alternative suggestions on how to respond to invasive questions:
• Repeat the question back in a silly sing-song voice. Dance off.
• Think of the most brutally honest response you can to the question. Be proud of yourself for not saying that (“I’m sorry I can’t come to your dinner party. Your personality makes me sad”). Walk off.
• Ask them the same question back: “Who looks after YOUR children when you are doing all this work?”
• Remain still and silent. If they repeat the question tell them that you heard them the first time but were marking a minute’s silence for their manners.
• Tell them you are a snail farmer. Provide no further explanation.
Nascent stand-up, fan of fancy words, purveyor of occasional wrongness, haphazard but enthusiastic parent, science-fan, apprentice-feminist.