Thursday, 3 February 2011

Useful Answers to Difficult Questions

I have, for some time, been collecting useful answers - answers that can be used to respond to all manner of awkward, intrusive or just plain difficult questions.

So I'm going to share with you the best I have found... so far:

"That would be an ecumenical matter"

This comes from the wonderful, witty Father Ted comedy series. Ted attempts to present the appalling Father Jack as a still-functioning member of the clergy by training him to make this reply to any questions posed by a group of visiting bishops. I've tried it and it works - and not just with bishops! You might want to change 'ecumenical' for a similar but more contextual word like 'administrative' or 'ethical' The only problem is that the original is so well known amongst Ted fans, it has a subtext which says: 'I have no idea (a) what your question means, (b) what the answer is, or (c) what my opinions are on this matter.'

Works best with: technical or work-related . e.g. 'What is this company's policy on work/life balance?'

Doesn't work well with: direct questions. e.g. 'What time does it start?'

"I hear what you're saying but..." OR "I'm glad you asked me that..."

The classic riposte of the politician or hobby-arguer. It acknowledges the question, but puts it neatly to one side leaving you to launch on your own trajectory.

Works best: when, actually, you didn't hear what they were saying.

Doesn't work well with: direct questions. e.g. 'What time does it start?'


This is the haiku of useful answers: short, neat, ambiguous. It acknowledges both the question and a panoply of possible answers, all of which you are obviously fully conversant with but which you consider rather old hat.

Works best with: leading questions. e.g. 'Don't you think this is the biggest load of nonsense?'

Doesn't work well with: direct questions. e.g. 'What did you have for lunch?'

"It depends what you mean by ....[insert a word from their question]"

Ah, the classic 'answer a question with a question' gambit. Pick up the questioner on a word or phrase in their question and twist the discussion into a neat exploration of semantics, deflecting attention from the original question. I've even got away with: 'What do you mean by 'mean'?'

Works best: with almost any question. e.g. 'What did you have for lunch?' 'It depends what you mean by 'have'.'

Doesn't work well with: people who are easily provoked to physical violence.

And now...


... a new addition to the 'Useful Answers' Hall of Fame:

"Don't change the subject!"

This was in a comment on my earlier My dog has no nose post from Dave and I think it's a new classic. It's a little time machine packed into four words - you can use it to return to any point in the discussion (a point where you were on less shaky ground) and steer it on a new course from there.

Works best: almost any question, except...

Doesn't work well: when the conversation only begins with the question in question.

So... any more I should add to my list? ...And, more importantly - any questions?


  1. I am claiming copyright on that answer. A mere 10p in royalties each time you or your readers use it will suffice to keep me in the manner to which I am rapidly becoming accustomed.

  2. The man who put the 'ass' in assistant head of department, at my old place of work, had two stock answers. 'Nothing's been decided yet' and I'll get back to you'. It'll be no surprise to hear that he's still assistant head of department.

  3. You might very well think that; I couldn't possibly comment.

    --Francis Urquhart

  4. "I'm glad you asked me that..." was one which Quentin Crisp endorsed before proceeding to explain how you then turned the answer round to talk about what you'd always intended to talk about in any interview - brilliant.

    Yes, I loved Father Ted too.

  5. And Francis Urquart in 'House of Cards'. Akin to a modern Shakespeare play!

  6. 'I couldn't possibly comment' is one I regularly use - last Sunday was the most recent. I also use it in comments columns.

  7. Dave - Fine. I've used it exactly once. If you send me a stamp I'll send you your 10p.

    Martin -'I'll get back to you' - yes, that works.

    Rainy - Of course! How could I have missed that one off the list - I'm going to have to amend it!! Thanks.

    Laura - Yes, another good one... some modifications to the list are definitely required now!

    Dave - I'm going to steal that too! And you can't claim any rights to that one! 8-p

  8. Very funny! Loved your 'doesn't work well with' examples.
    It's not the same situation, but this reminded me of my older brother's typical response to discussions he doesn't really want to have - 'so what's your point?'. A real conversation killer.

  9. I find 'no' to be a useful one.

  10. Deborah - That's big brothers for you! Bah!

    Fran - Ooooh - I never thought of that!