Ask a stupid question for smart reasons

Man sitting in hospital waiting room
Hospital waiting room

People ask questions because they want to know the answer.

Pretty obvious, right?

Maybe not.

As a newspaper reporter, I had to interview a doctor who was to head the newly created open heart surgery program at Winchester Medical Center. The interview followed the outline in the media release the center’s public relations staff had prepared, except for my last question.

My final question to the cardiac surgeon was,  “Do you have any tips for readers who might want to do this procedure themselves at home?”

Without flicking an eyelash, the surgeon replied, “Boil lots of water.”

When I got back to the newsroom, my phone was ringing. The call was from the public relations staffer who had been at the interview.

“You always ask questions nobody else would think of,” Chris said, “but why did you ask that one?”

I told him that anyone who needs heart surgery has a lot of questions. Lots of them may be really stupid questions, like my question about doing open heart surgery at home.

“I have no way to personally evaluate the surgeon’s medical skills, but I can evaluate his people skills. The answer to my stupid question told me this guy doesn’t fly off the handle when somebody asks a stupid question.”

When I wrote the story,  the quote about boiling water was the lede because it told readers the essential bit of information that wasn’t in the news release.

Within school settings, too,  stupid questions often mask smart reasons.

Teens are masters at asking questions that appear to be requesting factual information, but in which they are really interested in how the question is answered.   The teens are not evaluating content knowledge or pedagogical skill; they’re evaluating people skills. They’re looking for clues to appropriate behavior in the adult world.

Some days when “stupid questions” just keep flying, it helps to remember that fact.

Photo Credit: Waiting Room  uploaded by Carin