A call to focus

Years prior to the pandemic, I had noticed a trend that was slowly but clearly getting worse, and it has ramped up even harder through these Covid years: People appearing to answer questions, but not addressing the main points.

I’ve asked around and know I’m not the only one experiencing it. People in different positions, and even different countries, have found the same issue happening to them.

It can take on any number of forms, but what it comes down to is that you’ll ask a question and what you get in reply doesn’t actually answer that question. And I don’t mean in a, “Sorry, I don’t know” kind of way, which could be understandable, but rather, in a way where it sounds like they’re answering but they’ve overlooked a, perhaps even the key part of the question.

Some months ago I noticed someone in a higher-end grocery store chain not wearing as mask. I didn’t approach them (as I don’t), but saw others openly noticing this person as well. No one, public nor store employee, did anything about it. I ended up using the same cashier the maskless person just had, and so idly asked the cashier what they do about people like that.
The cashier said that they’ve been told not to engage with them about the issue. I said that ah, yes, it made sense that management would be the ones wishing to deal with it and for it not to be expected of employees out on the floor. But she said that actually, no, management doesn’t do it, either. She said that the previous week, there had been a family of four in the same store, and not a mask on any of them. She had pointed the family out to her manager, who told her that the family was to be left alone; that no one in the store should speak to them about it.
I emailed the company about the issue, trying to clarify what their stance was on that kind of situation. There’s a provincial mandate in place (still, as of this writing) that says people are to wear masks inside places of business. So it was odd to me that not only was the family not approached about the issue, but that the manager had seemingly made it clear to the cashier that no one without a mask would be confronted, period.
The reply I got a couple of days later explained that it’s their company policy to accept that there are some personal and medical reasons for not wearing a mask and to let such people go without wearing one.
That was the end of the issue, as far as this person seemed to think. They answered the question I asked.
Only they hadn’t.
The reply clearly explained that people who have reason to not wear a mask are allowed to not wear them. Whereas what I had asked was why the family hadn’t been approached in the first place. There can’t have been a company-accepted reason for the family being maskless without the family ever having been asked.
I politely pointed this out to the company person who had replied to my inquiry, and got no more in response.

So there’s one clear example of someone seeming to reply but without actually addressing the issue at hand. And there are more (and more) of them happening all the time.

Just yesterday I saw a question posted online commenting on how expensive produce is getting at Wal-Mart and could anyone suggest anywhere else to get produce that was more affordable. Most of the questions were sincere and helpful, but there was one person who bluntly suggested a food bank (note, not what was being asked), and another person who pointed out that Farm Boy has the best produce around (but while the latter part of his point may be correct, Farm Boy is at least the same price if not higher than most other places in the area, and so again, not answering what was being asked).

I’m curious, as a side note, if these people actually think they’re being helpful. Did the lady replying to my question about the maskless family in the grocery store actually think she was answering my question? If so, she’s not particularly good at her job of replying to public inquiries. If not, then was she hoping I’d accept her not-answer answer as resolving the issue? Neither is an appealing conclusion.

And it happens again and again.

A person could ask online for suggestions for good places in the area to have lunch. Seven of ten replies will be earnest suggestions or advice, one will disagree with a previous suggestion, one will be a person replying they don’t know, and the final person will say they like onions.

It’s truly bizarre.

I do notice this issue always seems to be in a digital response. I haven’t had an issue, or at least any I can recall, where I’ve asked someone something in person and they replied in a way that danced around actually answering my question. I suspect the digital-ness of the replies are telling. There have been studies that have confirmed that humans have a natural disconnect among others when communicating digitally. We’ve all had the feeling of something important missing, the human togetherness and perhaps animal instinct of needing to some degree to be around other people in person, when we’ve been Zooming for business and family connections for the last couple of years. That’s clearly understood. But even pre-Covid, there was study done on why people discussing issues online get so worked up so quickly, and so emboldened, over online discourse.

There’s something about the anonymity you can have online, combined with that same disconnection from the person you’re debating with. It’s a sense of other people online being somehow not as real as a person in front of you. It allows for things to spiral into the absurd and sometimes hugely offensive very quickly. People who have been approached about their offensive online behaviour admit that no, they would never say those things to someone they’re having an in-person discussion with. Yet put those same people behind a screen to reply, and see how quickly a discussion about preferred antique collectibles escalates to someone declaring the other person is worse that Hitler.

I’ve recently been hunting around for a note-taking system/service, and in my search came across a brief thread on Reddit asking for feedback on which of the two (I had narrowed my choice between) was preferred. Within I think two replies, a total stranger had accused the person asking the question of being a bootlicker for the company of the choice they were leaning toward.

Paired with all that is an interesting inclination I’ve noticed in some people, as touched on earlier, who feel like they need to say something–anything–in reply to a posted question. I’ve asked things on social media and an oddly high percentage of the time have had people, often total strangers, reply, “I don’t know.”
Well… thanks? I mean, I appreciate they’re taking the time to reply at all, but it’s genuinely odd for someone to feel so compelled to answer something, even if they don’t know what the answer is, that they’ll reply saying as much. Whereas of course I’m simply going to assume that if the question goes unanswered, no one knew (or was interested in sharing) the answer. So, moving on. But to know that there are people out there who simply must reply, even if that reply is by its nature unhelpful, is strange to me.

Again, let’s say that lady asking about cheaper but quality produce was asking a group of people in-person where to find it. Do you think someone would look her in the eye and tell her to try a food bank? Do you think that other guy would offer up that he likes Farm Boy produce (that’s more expensive)?

The digital aspect of this behaviour does seem a key to not answering what’s being asked. And unfortunately, we’ve all been a lot more digital for the last couple of years, so the situation is only getting worse.

But I think a lot of the issue of replying without really replying, digitally or otherwise, would be remedied by focusing a little more on what the question is asking and taking a tiny bit of time to ensure that what you reply, if anything, actually addresses the question.

Thanks for contacting us. I understand your concerns about the spread of this virus and will ask the management of that store what their policy is in situations where people aren’t following provincial mandates. I’ll get back to you with any reply we receive.

I prefer this note-taking service over that one. It’s cross-platform and does automatic backups and it has been flawless for the year and a half I’ve used it.

No Frills and Valu-Mart usually have pretty good produce and are the cheapest places I know of in the area.

I totally get the appeal of Victorian chairs, but we don’t have the space for them, lol. My husband and I have a weakness for tea sets.

It doesn’t take much to reply in a way that’s respectful and that actually answers the question you’re answering, guys. It really doesn’t. Focusing on what is being asked and what you’re saying in reply will make things so much better for everyone involved.

If anyone has any comments or questions about this post, as always, please leave them. I promise to focus on what you’re asking and on what I’m saying when I reply and probably won’t accuse you of being worse than Hitler.