Simple Questions that aren’t so Simple

“Where did you go to school?”

It’s an innocuous cocktail party question that pops up fairly early. You would think that the answers would be simple. Not necessarily.

In St.Louis, where I grew up, this is actually a question about where you went to high school, not university. The answer slots you pretty precisely along political, religious, and socio-economic dimensions. 

Elsewhere in the U.S. this is, in fact, a question about your university affiliation. For most people, in most situations, the answers are simple; “Michigan”, “MIT”, “Notre Dame.” There are two seemingly evasive answers that I am qualified to and sometimes do use; “in New Jersey” and “in Boston.” These are code phrases for “Princeton” and “Harvard.”

Why dodge a direct answer? Because a straight answer might not provoke a straight reaction. The explicit conversation isn’t always the most relevant conversation underway. What appears to be a simple inquiry and a simple, factual, response may be heavily freighted with hidden assumptions and expectations. 

This layering of conversations is present in most settings. My history may make me a bit more attuned to that. 

Which turns out to be of increasing importance and relevance in knowledge intensive settings. Organizations want to pretend that they are simple, straightforward, places. While I am open to a debate about whether that might once have been true, I wouldn’t operate on any of those assumptions today. 

The complexity is there. You can ignore it or you can accept it and factor it in.

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