“So, when are you and Janet going to give your mother grandchildren?”
“Why spend $300 per hour on a shrink when it’s not going to do any good anyway?
“Why do you always eat junk food when you know you have high blood pressure?”
“Are those boobs real?”
Questions you can’t answer. Questions you don’t want to answer. Questions you want to slap a person for asking. Questions that are just begging to start a fight. We all hear them, sometimes from our nearest and dearest, and sometimes from total strangers.
There is an answer – other than “Shut up and leave me alone,” which may indeed be your initial reaction, but usually isn’t the best solution. (Except maybe to the boobs question.)
Noted linguist and author of The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense Suzette Haden Elgin recommended a technique called the “Boring Baroque Response.” It’s not a skill everyone has at the ready, but with a little practice, you can expand your ability to deflect the nosy and the belligerent.
The essence of the Boring Baroque Response (or BBR) is storytelling. No matter the question, you stare off into space and launch into the longest, most rambling story you can. Here’s an example:
Idiot: “Why do you always eat junk food when you know you have high blood pressure?”
You: “That’s interesting you should ask. It reminds me of when my parents and I were visiting Cousin Jim and Cousin Addie – you know, the ones that lived near Natural Bridge and had that kitchen that was painted all black. And whenever we visited my sister and I played in the hayloft. But it didn’t have hay, it was really bales of straw. Dried-out corn cobs, too, which they fed to the animals, like the mule. I rode that mule once, bareback, and you wouldn’t believe how bony its backbone was! Anyway, Cousin Addie was making biscuits and gravy – sawmill gravy with milk, not red-eye gravy with coffee – and Cousin Jim always said….”
Keep going as long as necessary until the questioner gives up and goes away. As Elgin noted, “A response like this delivers the following message: ‘I notice that you’re here to pick a fight. Do that if you like, but it’s not going to be much fun for you, because I won’t play that game.'”
According to Elgin, the secret of the BBR is to deliver it with a straight face and a thoughtful, reminiscing tone. Sounding sarcastic or snotty will give away the game. And although the example was (vaguely) related to food, as the question was, it doesn’t have to be. The story can be about your sister and how she wanted to be a veterinarian, which she would have really been terrible at because….Well, you get the idea.
My husband had a version of the BBR that he used when he worked in community-based corrections. He would regale the “clients” with stories full of analogies – “You know when they make steel how they forge it first in really high heat and then plunge it into cold water. Well, that’s kind of like….” He could rarely get out more than a sentence before the listener would edge away, saying, “No stories, please, Mr. R. I’ll behave. I’ll be good. Just no story!”
I don’t know if Elgin ever heard it, but the best BBR I know is the monologue that Grampa Simpson produced when asked to break up a union meeting:
“We can’t bust heads like we used to. But we have our ways…. Like the time I caught the ferry to Shelbyville. I needed a new heel for m’shoe. So I decided to go to Morganville, which is what they called Shelbyville in those days. So I tied an onion to my belt, which was the style at the time. Now, to take the ferry cost a nickel, and in those days, nickels had pictures of bumblebees on ’em. ‘Gimme five bees for a quarter,’ you’d say. Now where were we… oh yeah. The important thing was that I had an onion on my belt, which was the style at the time. I didn’t have any white onions, because of the war. The only thing you could get was those big yellow ones….”
Now that’s classic TV! Just like the episode of WKRP when Mr. Carlson had an idea for a promotion and Les was supposed to report on it live from the shopping center, but the one store didn’t want him standing in front of it because customers couldn’t get in, so then….