Yes or No

There’s this old joke about “yes or no” questions, and it’s a short one. “Answer yes or no: have you stopped kicking your dog?”

The trap there, where either a yes or a no answer ends up with you admitting that you’ve kicked your dog at least once, is the point that the joke tries to illustrate. “Yes or no” might seem like clear, easy binary answers, but you can stack a lot of assumptions into the premise.

When that happens, it’s fine to point it out! Those are situations where it’s fine to say “I reject the premise of the question” or even to just keep quiet.

Not all questions are traps, however. Some are just honest – if direct – requests for information. The more dishonest someone is by default, the more they’ll tend to treat all yes or no questions as traps.

There is no reason for an honest person to fear direct questions. That doesn’t mean you always have to answer them – after all, it may be none of your business. But if you ask someone “do you like ice cream,” some people will just say yes or no, and some people will hedge.

What is hedging? Hedging is answering in such a way as to be able to deny that you answered either “yes” or “no” later. Lawyers and politicians do it all the time, for predictable reasons. They don’t want concrete positions that can be used against them later – they want to remain flexible.

Of course, you can remain flexible even while being honest. You can ask me if I like cake, I can say no, and then later if you see me eating cake and you think you’ve got some sort of “gotcha” moment on me, I can freely say “I’ve changed my position on cake; I’ve had some really excellent ones lately and it’s caused me to refine my opinion. Now I can say I like cake of a certain type and quality.” There’s nothing wrong with changing your mind.

But be honest and show conviction in your answers. You’ll breathe more.

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