Hidden Rhetorical Questions
and how to handle them
Years ago I quit a job to take a promotion at another facility. After several months I attended a sporting event where both companies were in attendance. As I strolled along in front of the bleachers, clutching a diet cola and fixing the shoulder-strap of my purse on my shoulder, I greeted old friends and smiled at new ones. A woman I had known for several years waved me over. “Melanie, Melanie, how are you?”
“I’m fine, Phyllis. How are things going with you?”
“Fine, fine.” She leaned forward and lowered her voice into a conspiratorial stage whisper. “Tell me all about your new job. Have you had any problems?”
It was a pretty dicey job, so it didn't surprise me she'd ask that question. As it happened, I'd had big problems my second day. Enough where I'd wondered if I'd made a mistake in taking the job. “Well, it is going pretty well. My second day there--”
“Frank,” Phyllis looked past me. “Frank, how are you doing?”
I paused, not sure if her question had been rhetorical or not. Perhaps she was just greeting everyone as they ambled past, and really didn't want an answer.
“Hey Phyllis, nice to see you,” Frank called.
Phyllis returned her attention to me. “Your second day?”
With that encouragement, I continued. “Oh my second day,” I began, but her eyes glazed over and refocused somewhere behind me.
“Wendy, how is everything with you?” she called.
There were people sitting all around Phyllis and I could feel my cheeks burn as they witnessed the snub. Trying to cover the cut direct, I continued as if Phyllis were actually listening. Perhaps the people wouldn’t realize how unimportant I was. “Yes, my second day I got into a big fight, trying to protect my co-worker.”
Someone stopped behind me momentarily. “I’m fine, Phyllis. And you?” Must have been Wendy.
This happened to me too often to be coincidence. People would ask me a question and my answers were so uninteresting they could not be bothered to listen to them. It made me feel small, like an ant in the shadow of an elephant’s footstep. I straightened my shoulders and continued, “The person grabbed hold of my co-worker’s hair, took her down to the floor, and started snapping her head back and forth. I jumped on top of the bad-guy and the fight was on.”
“I’m great, Wendy.” Phyllis grinned past me, occasionally flicking her eyes to mine to encourage me to go on. “It is nice to see you and your kids. They’ve really grown.”
“Yup,” I explained calmly. “It took three deputies to break up the fight.”
Wendy and her kids must have moved along because Phyllis glanced at me again. “Oh?”
“It was a rude beginning to my new job,” I said.
“Oh, I can imagine.” Her gaze slid past me again. “Bill, how the heck are you?”
“When they pulled us apart, there was blood everywhere," I continued just to be obstinate. "and a big wad of my co-worker's hair. They rushed me to the hospital,” I added as an afterthought. No reaction from Phyllis. “And then I was in traction for a month.”
“Hey, Phyllis,” Bill barked. “I’m the heck fine. Glad to see you here.”
“Then they released me to one of those convalescent hospitals where I underwent extensive physical therapy,” I went on, folding my arms across my chest, juggling the cola, and jutting my chin.
“Glad to see you too, Bill,” Phyllis gushed.
Really warming to my subject, I plowed on, “I only just regained the use of my legs.
The entire medical staff was amazed.”
The entire medical staff was amazed.”
“Where’s your wife, Bill?”
“Considering they were thinking I’d lose a kidney.”
“She’s working,” Bill answered, his voice distant now, as if he’d kept walking.
“But they think if I’m really careful I should retain my sight.”
“Bummer,” Phyllis called to Bill.
“But other than that, everything is going well,” I finished, sending her a friendly smile.
Phyllis returned her gaze to me. “Wonderful,” she said. “Glad everything’s going well.”