Every so often I find myself confronting someone with a penchant for springing pop-quizzes upon the person they’re talking to, despite lacking any real social-context authority to do so. A typical interaction with one of these conversational quizmasters might go something like this:

BOB: Hello, Alice! (Who, for the purposes of this example, is my colleague and peer, and not my teacher or superior officer or something!) I need your help plugging this transcendental inducer into this frobnard.

ALICE: Really? Let’s see that… Huh, Okay. Do you know what the three rules of safe transcendental induction are?

BOB: Sure.

ALICE: [Smiling archly] What are they?

BOB: [Suddenly caught flatfooted] Uhhh…?

(Admission: I assigned the speakers’ genders consciously here to avoid conflating the quizmaster with the mansplainer, a related but subtly discrete phenomenon.)

Alice, beyond being simply rude, has surprised Bob with a sudden intellectual task thrown into his hands. This completely blew away whatever mental frame he brought to this conversation. He’ll probably try to meet the challenge, just out of reflex, much as he’d automatically move to catch a ball that Alice unexpectedly lobbed at him.

The only two possible outcomes of at attempt to answer Alice’s latter question: either Bob stammers out a correct answer, making himself feel vaguely hazed and belittled by a peer; or he doesn’t, making himself feel called-out and foolish. Alice gets to feel superior, either way, and we can imagine that the unexpected opportunity to gleefully knock someone down a peg motivated her.

I therefore propose an alternate course of action to one facing this kind of uninvited quizzing: just sidestep it entirely by asking for the answer right away. Tamp down the impulse, expected by the quizmaster, to chase the bait, and keep your ego unbruised by tucking it away entirely.

So, in the case of the above drama, Bob would answer Alice’s challenge not with a deer-in-headlights stare as he desperately shifted mental gears in order to answer literally, but instead demurring to play the game at all. “Gosh, you know what, why don’t you tell me?” perhaps, with a self-effacing little shrug. Or, in the advanced case, if Bob suspects (or, indeed, knows from experience) that Alice is the sort of person to lead him into a trap for her amusement, he could simply have responded to her first question with a grinning “Nope!”

Taking this tack might involve an apparent profession of false ignorance, which may seem a little dishonest — not just to the quizmaster you face, but to yourself. However, I invite you to reconsider the question not according to its literal wording, but instead as couched in its true, unspoken framing: “What are the three laws of robotics?” becomes “Do you want to amuse me by reciting the answer to ‘What are the three laws of robotics’?” And to this, with a smile on your face, you can say: Why, no!

The effect remains the same: you rob the quizmaster of the satisfaction of watching you squirm, and they experience the lesser pleasure (from their point of view) of simply stating some fact at you. You, in the meantime, can enjoy the subtle relief of keeping your pride uninjured despite this ambush. (Getting want you initially wanted out of the conversation with this disagreeable person, and then gracefully ending it, remains an open problem, of course — but I have faith in the reader’s natural abilities here.)

This whole notion came to me by way of a recent Radiolab episode, when a guest asked long-time hosts Jad and Robert if they knew about a fairly basic scientific phenomenon. As a decade-plus listener of the show, I can guarantee that both hosts knew that topic quite well, and probably had based whole prior episodes around in the past — and yet, they both made professionally curious noises and begged the guest to explain the principle.

Now, they did that because it’s good radio, of course: let the guest do the talking! Just the same, I took notice of the deft sidestep, and it stuck with me. Some weeks later, thinking back on the last time an acquaintance pinned me with an unwanted quiz mid-conversation, the potential application of the same strategy struck me. Just a small thing, and I hope it helps someone — including, possibly, myself — the next time they’re put, with casual aggression, into an awkward spot.

This article was also posted to the “advice” section of Indieweb.xyz.

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