When people ask me what I do at a social gathering, I usually don’t say I’m a psychologist. First, because people sometimes respond with inappropriate disclosures. (Real example: “My wife's on anti-depressants so she's got zero sex drive.")
But it's mostly because, in the course of the chit-chat that inevitably follows, people tend to ask me simple psychology-related questions. That in itself is fine, except that when it comes to psychology, the question is rarely as simple as it seems, and even if it is, the answer probably isn't.
As a result, people usually have good reason to be exasperated by psychologists’ inability to give them a straight answer to seemingly simple questions, because we rarely do. However, in our defense, there are good reasons for this—at least seven, in fact. And to illustrate them I include some examples of actual questions I’ve been asked at social events.
1. The question isn’t simple at all.
Example: “Do people really change?”
This question is seemingly one that could be answered by a simple yes or no, but in fact, the person isn’t asking if people can change but rather in what way people can change, which is a much more complex question. In this case, I said, “That’s a great and not-so-simple question. How much time do you have?”
2. The answer isn’t simple at all.
Example: One man introduced himself to me at a party, told me he heard I was a psychologist, and said, “What’s the quickest way to get over a divorce?” He then stood there, half turned away, expecting a quickie answer—maybe “Get a Porsche"?
I began explaining how recovering from rejection and loss was in fact, a complex emotional process. A few sentences in, he began to look very sad, so I wrapped it up and steered him toward the bar.
3. The person has an obvious agenda.
Example: “Do you think shoving ADHD drugs into kids is a good thing?”
If the person was asking about my take on medication for ADHD, that would be one thing but the phrase “shoving ADHD drugs into kids” implied that she was very much against ADHD medications and how they’re prescribed. Since I didn’t know her—or her experiences with ADHD, kids, or medications—I tried to get out of it by joking, "Most ADHD meds aren’t shoved in, the kids take them orally!” She did not think that was funny.
4. We're trained that way.
Psychologists who practice traditional psychoanalysis are often trained to answer a question with a question because they believe that simply offering an answer means missing an opportunity to explore the meanings the question might have for the poser—thus learning more about their unconscious thought processes. Turns out, that can be a hard habit for some of them to break when they're in social settings.
5. The answer depends on the detail or on a third variable.
Example: “My colleague never feels nervous giving presentations and I do. Is that bad?”
Since I don’t know exactly how nervous this person gets, I could either have asked them (which would have been annoying as I’d have been answering a question with another question) or just said, “That depends,” (also annoying as it’s not a straight answer). But the answer actually does "depend"—specifically, a little nervousness is usually considered good as it helps our focus and alertness, while too much is a problem because it’s distracting.
6. The issue is one of disagreement in the field.
Example: “Should schools help kids improve their self-esteem?”
Good question. In this case, I said, “There’s actually a bit of disagreement in the field about various self-esteem programs, the majority of which are simply not very effective. And there’s also debate about whether the focus should be on self-esteem or concepts such as self-compassion and self-efficacy.” To which the person responded, “So that means no.” To which I replied, “Not exactly. It depends.” After which they pretended to spot a friend across the room.
7. The psychologist is indeed annoying.
OK, some of us are slightly annoying and cannot answer a straight question to save our lives. Example: A colleague at a dinner once responded to the host asking, “What would make you happy?” by saying, “What would make me happy was if people had more empathy, if they had more compassion, and if they had a willingness to open their minds to new ideas.” Which would have been a great answer—if the host hadn’t been standing in front of him holding a heavy tray of desserts. (I opted for the tiramisu.)
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Copyright 2015 Guy Winch