Are you a virgin? and other questions to avoid

peace signAre you a virgin? asked Sugar.

It was my first day of fifth grade at a new school near Philadelphia. I’ve never forgotten Sugar’s name because I had never met a Sugar before and because she was very, very hip…long straight blonde hair parted in the middle, a beaded headband, bell bottom jeans and a fringed, beaded belt. A flower child clearly out of my fifth-grade, fresh-from-rural-upstate-New-York league.

I don’t recall where the teacher was at that moment, but Sugar had the stage and the students around us all turned to see what I’d say. Sugar smiled at me. Did I sense the smugness or did her smile reveal it? I don’t know. But I sensed I was being set up.

The problem was that I didn’t exactly know how I was being set up. I didn’t know for sure what a virgin was.

Driving to the grocery store with my mother that afternoon, I asked if I was a virgin. My mother pulled the car over – rather a bit quickly, I recall – and inquired what had prompted me to wonder about that. I told her all about Sugar and her crowd and her hip-ness and her question during homeroom.

You know, my mother said, just because you’re asked a question doesn’t mean it’s always a good idea to answer it.

Good advice, that. In negotiations and conflict we’re asked questions that aren’t a good idea to answer either. Questions like, Well, aren’t you going to apologize? Like, What’s the matter with you, anyway? And like, What’s your best offer?

They’re not good to answer because…

  1. They may technically qualify as questions but really, they’re cries of frustration dressed up as questions.
  2. Almost any reply to that kind of question will contribute to escalation.
  3. They may prompt answers we’ll regret (You want me to apologize? Ok! I’m sorry you’re an idiot. Or What’s the matter with me? I married you, that’s what! Or What, do you think I’m an idiot?), just like my reply to Sugar’s question left me with regret I can still feel decades later.

What to do instead? Ignore the question and redirect the conversation to more productive territory. Or look for the important thing that’s behind the question in the first place. Or use your reply to ask a question of your own – a better question, like: What should we talk about right now that would help this be a better conversation?

I wish I’d known to do something like that with Sugar. As I pondered her question, my little Methodist self recalled some of my Catholic friends back home praying aloud to the Virgin Mary for help during dodgeball. Surely I’m not like the Virgin Mary, I thought to myself.

So I said to Sugar, No, I’m not a virgin.

As I told my mother my sound reasoning, she looked a tad stricken. When I told her my answer, she gasped. Kind of like Sugar and the other kids had. Then she started banging the steering wheel with the palms of her hands as she shrieked with laughter. Then she hugged me and set about helping me figure out how to go back to school and set the story straight.

Photo credit: San Jose Library