September 26th, 2004

ozarque figure

Linguistics; hostile or inappropriate questions; Boring Baroque Response

Nellorat commented:
"As an adolescent, I had the opposite inclination: to take attack-questions as real questions. ... There's a family story about when I was in high school, my father yelling, "WHAT is WRONG with YOU?" and me saying, "I'm not sure. Well, I'm sad because all my friends graduated..." and continuing with several real possible answers. My father might well have become more angry, but instead he just got puzzled and backed off." And 6strings responded: "I haven't read TGAVSD, but this reads like my understanding of the Boring Baroque response. Your account tells me it worked to defuse his attack."

About the Boring Baroque Response....

Once in a while I find myself in a situation where I'm asked to teach just one emergency verbal self-defense technique and I'm given only fifteen minutes or so. When I agree to do that, I teach the Boring Baroque Response mentioned by 6strings. It's an effective response to hostile or inappropriate utterances of many kinds. For example, if someone comes at you with "WHY do you eat SO MUCH JUNK food?" or "WHY don't you EVER consider what OTHER people might want to do?" or "WHY IS it that you're STILL SINGle, at YOUR age?" (et cetera), you answer like this:

"I think it's because of something that happened to me when I was just a little kid. We were living in Detroit at the time ... no, wait a minute, it couldn't have been Detroit. It must have been when we were living in Indianapolis, because that was the summer when my Aunt Emily came to visit us, and she had one of those little yippy dogs, you know? And so..."

Long before you get to the first "And so..," your questioner will have said "Oh, never mind!" and gone away. No confrontation; no wasted time or energy; no loss of face on either side.

[When the hassle isn't in the form of a question -- as in "You know what's wrong with you? YOU NEVER think of ANYbody but yourSELF!" -- you just do it this way: "Hearing you say that reminds me of something that happened to me when I was just a little kid...." Or "Hearing you say that reminds me of an article I read only the other day..." or "Hearing you say that reminds me of a dream I had just the other night..." followed by interminable irrelevant details.]

BBRs are really useful, especially when you're answering somebody you'll probably never see again (like a stranger who walks up to you in a park) or somebody you don't see more than a few times a year (like relatives who only appear at holiday dinners). They're really useful when a whole group of people are working together to try to break a chronic verbal abuser of that unfortunate habit. But there are a few necessary warnings.

(1) They don't work if your body language is sarcastic or hostile or disrespectful, or if you can't say them with a straight face. They only work when (as in nellorat's comment) it's absolutely clear from the neutral body language that the speaker is responding to the attack question as if it were a real question and has no negative agenda. (2) There are situations when you can rely on your common sense to tell you that they're totally inappropriate; for example, no one in a medical emergency would respond to a frantic parent's "WHY isn't anybody DOING anything to HELP my little GIRL??!" with a Boring Baroque Response. (3) And they should never be used with people who aren't native speakers of English, who are working from a different set of scripts and presuppositions.