Friday, August 12, 2011

Still Life with Robin: Sorry You Asked

by Peggy Robin

In the eleven years (twelve in November!) that Bill and I have been running the Cleveland Park Listserv, we have occasionally observed a phenomenon that I'm calling "Sorry You Asked."

It starts out with a perfectly ordinary, not to say boring, query: Someone wants to know who can install a window air conditioner. Or what you can do if the construction crew working next door starts jack-hammering at quarter to eight on a Sunday morning. Or asks for the name of a plumber to fix a dripping faucet.

In each of these instances, a list member replies, not to answer the question, but to scold the person for asking. In response to query number one comes the environmentally righteous admonition, "Learn to live without having every room artificially chilled! Window air conditioners waste too much energy. Just keep your windows open for a good cross breeze, and use a good fan, and you'll be fine on all but the hottest days."

In response to the early morning noise complaint comes a call to the poster to change schedules: "Just stop sleeping in and take this as a chance to get out in the morning. You'll be surprised at how much more you can get done in a day."

And to the person who just wants someone to fix ta little drip: "Do it yourself! It's such a simple repair, you shouldn't need to call someone in to do it for you. But if you really can't figure out how to change the washer in a faucet, then call me and I'll come over and show you how."

By the way, you won't find any of these replies in the listserv archives; we deleted them all. Our philosophy is that a reply should answer the question that was actually asked. And people should be able to ask a question without having to defend the philosophical, moral, and spiritual underpinnings involved. It's odd what simple questions can stir up arguments sometimes -- but we all know that people tend to fire back online in ways they'd never do if they had to respond face to face.

Just imagine how this sort of thing might go in real life. Imagine that you are in New York City and you need directions. So you go up to someone and say, "Excuse me, but how do I get to Carnegie Hall?" Instead of the expected response*, the person says, "Carnegie Hall? Why go there for a concert when the acoustics are so much better at Lincoln Center?" Well, that's the sort of thing someone might consider a valid response in cyberspace, that no one would deliver in person. The "Sorry You Asked" answer, however, is not gettting through on the Cleveland Park Listserv.

*Which is, of course, "Practice, practice." This is one of those punchlines that even in the primitive, pre-internet era, before jokes were endlessly forwarded and re-forwarded, every person on earth seemed to have heard.

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