Trap questions

First of all: I hate trap questions.

Okay, that out of the way. I’d better explain what the hell I mean by “trap questions.” Because different people mean different things by that phrase.

Here’s what I mean when I use it: Questions that give the appearance of a real choice when no real choice is present. Often, they come with consequences (being chastised, punished, thought rude, etc) if you don’t answer “appropriately.”

What they look like: When a parent asks a child if they want to do a chore and the option to decline said chore is not really present. When a friend asks someone to go out with them but isn’t actually willing to accept a no. When your boss asks if you’d be “okay” with taking on some overtime, and, legal protections aside, you know damn well it’ll bite you when it comes time for promotions or what have you if you decline. Etc.

Growing up, trap questions were a favorite of my mother. As a kid, it felt like she was purposefully trying to trick me so she could have an excuse to punish me for being honest. Giving her as much benefit of the doubt as possible, she has mentioned in the past that she feels she’s being rude when she makes outright requests of people so it’s possible she felt she was being polite by resorting to trap question and there’s some unspoken social rule I’m missing there. I miss a lot of unspoken social rules, so that’s not nearly as unlikely as it is for most people.

Which, actually, brings me nicely to the major problem I have with this form of question: It’s dishonest. And for people who are utter shite at reading social cues and body language (like yours truly), we get tricked into thinking there’s a real choice when there isn’t and then are blindsided when the other person is hurt or offended by our answer.

It didn’t help at all that my response to my mother’s offense (and often doling out of punishment for said offense) was less-than-helpful for resolving the situation, as I was usually both completely bewildered by her reaction and outraged at what – to me – was an unwarranted and disproportionate punishment: What do you mean I’m having an attitude? You asked if I wanted to vaccuum the floor! You know I hate vaccuums! I answered honestly! Why is that wrong?! No, I am not being rude, I’m being honest! I’m not talking back, I don’t know why you’re angry! Why do I have to go to my room?! 

…. annnnd initiate meltdown, end scene.

The problem here, I say with the benefit of hindsight, is a fundamental breakdown in communication caused some people’s tendency to say one thing while meaning something completely different interacting unfavorably with the fact that I don’t do subtext well. Now that I’m an adult, you might have to hint at what you’re talking about a dozen times before I go, “Oooooh, you mean Park and Josie are dating! I get it! Wait, why are you shushing me?”

As a kid, I didn’t do subtext, figurative speech, or hinting at stuff at all until I was about 17. I averaged 85% in high school English, and only lost marks on symbolism. Symbolism was worth, *drumroll please* 15% of the final grade. I was bad at it. Really bad. I was the kid who would respond to, “Zip your lips!” with “But my lips don’t have a zipper” and genuine confusion and who thought that the Robert Frost poem about stopping in the woods on a winter’s night was about some guy on a long trip who really needed to find a rest stop.

So when my mother chose to hint at what she wanted with a trap question rather than being explicit about it, I missed the hint. In effect, she was saying, “Please vacuum the floors,” while I was hearing, “Do you want to vacuum the floors?” and responding to that mentally with, “Dafuq? Who wants to vacuum floors? Why are you asking me this?”

And so when I responded, “No, I don’t like vacuums,” what I meant was, “No, I don’t want to vacuum the floors because I don’t like vacuums,” while she heard, “No, I won’t do my chores! Neener neener!” And she responded accordingly.

This ongoing conflict (among others – many, many others) helped to make me certain of three things: Firstly, all adults – my parents included – hated me. Nothing I could do was right to them, and since my peers and sibling seemed to be able to talk back with relative impunity while I got hammered into the ground every single time for stuff that wasn’t even talking back as far as I could tell, the only other possibility, as far as I could tell, was that they hated me. Secondly, all adults enjoyed seeing me suffer, and doled out severe punishments for their enjoyment rather than for my benefit. And, thirdly, that when I wasn’t giving them sufficient cause to punish me, they would set up a trap – like with those trap questions – to get me anyway. Now that I’m older, I’m not sure how much of this is true, but I mention it to illustrate the view I had of parents, other kids, and adults in general at that point. They were things to be wary of, and not to be trusted, because in my view, they were actively malicious towards me.

Things improved to some degree when I adopted, “No, I don’t want to, but I will if you want me to,” as a scripted response sometime around when I turned 11 or so. I was still genuinely confused about whether or not I could take my mother’s questions at face value or not, and so I always responded with that to illustrate my confusion with whether or not I legitimately had a choice. My mother would still passive-aggressively snipe at me about being snotty if I read a trap question as an ambiguous one (which was pretty much always), but she usually wouldn’t hand out punishment for it. Unless I responded with, “How am I snotty? I’m being honest!” innn which case it usually ended up with us screaming at each other and me grounded. Again.

So around 14, I started to assume that all of my mother’s questions were malicious traps and that I needed to just say yes to everything so she wouldn’t be able to punish me anymore. Problem: This means everything. My mother had accidentally (or, perhaps, not-so-accidentally, but I’m trying to give the benefit of the doubt here as much as thinking about my parents’ actions in context with the rest of my childhood and growing-up make it difficult to do so) trained me to comply and acquiesce to everything and fear every question as a possible source of punishment. Do you want ice cream? Can’t say no because I don’t know if it’s a legit choice or if I’ll be yelled at for not being gracious so I’ll say yes. Do you want to learn guitar? Not particularly since I’d prefer the violin but I don’t know if I’ll get yelled at for pointing that out so I’d better say yes. Etc.

At 14, I still was unable to tell trap question from legit question (and, at 25, I still can’t), so the only other possiblity, as far as I could see, was to assume everything was a trap and comply, comply, comply. It has taken me the 8 years since I moved away from home to go to uni to unlearn terrified compliance and realize that it’s okay for me to say no sometimes. Now that I’m older, as well, I’ve changed my scripted resposne from “comply at all costs” to “ask for clarification.” “Do you mean ‘please do _____’ or are you asking me whether I want to do it?” This can sometimes get others rolling their eyes at me if their meaning seems obvious to them but thus far it has avoided huge blowup screaming fights with the extended family like I used to have.

And, anyway, that’s why I hate trap questions. Because 1, I can’t tell the difference between trap and legitimate question, 2, I fear social sanctions for misinterpreting, 3, trap questions have a lot of emotional baggage attached to them thanks to misinterpretations as a kid, and 4, I don’t think it’s too damn much to ask that when people present a choice to me, that choice should be a real one.

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10 thoughts on “Trap questions

  1. autisticook says:

    Some of your examples made me giggle because horrible as they must have been to live through, it’s just funny to me how complicated neurotypicals choose to make things. Can they seriously not see how silly they are?

    Like my most abhorred trap question. “Guess what!” OK, I’ll guess. How many guesses do I get? Do you honestly want me to try and guess correctly, or do you want me to give up in defeat after two tries so that you can smugly give me the answer to your own question? Do you promise not to get angry when I do guess correctly? What is your purpose in asking me to guess? Really, it’s ok to just tell me. I understand that you’re happy and excited about something. I will be surprised and happy and excited for you too, without doing this whole guessing game first.

    But it’s hard to explain to neurotypicals why even “How are you?” can feel like a trap question when there are right and wrong answers.

    • autisticook says:

      Oops. HTML fail. No idea why, I did check my tags. Sorry!

    • ischemgeek says:

      I deal with that by assuming that “How are you?” isn’t sincere. They don’t really want to know how you are, they want you take the next step of the smalltalk dance, which necessitates some variation on, “I’m good, you?”

      Which is irritating (if you don’t want to know how I’m doing, don’t ask), but fairly easy to navigate now that I’ve taken to assuming that all such questions are just small talk unless the person makes a reference to something specific.

      • autisticook says:

        Yeah, I know. It’s the only one of the meaningless social questions I still haven’t found a good script for, though. Probably because it’s the first question and I never see it coming. On Mondays I know I have to have my “how was your weekend?” script ready. But “How are you?” always catches me unawares.

      • ischemgeek says:

        I am irritated by the weekend question. Especially when the person asked on Friday what I was going to do. Since I’m a huge planner and also a routine follower, unless I say I’m doing something unusual on Friday, I’m doing the same thing I do every weekend, and even if I do something unusual, I’ve already told you. Thus, you already know what I did for my weekend! Why are you asking me again?!

      • autisticook says:

        OK, thanks to you I just had a very pleasurable couple of hours making a very detailed post about my weekend script. It was great fun. 😀

        I hope it’s ok if I post the link here? http://autisticook.wordpress.com/2013/08/04/social-scripts-a-one-act-play/

      • ischemgeek says:

        Sure thing! 🙂

  2. […] developed my script for dealing with “how was your weekend?” because I noticed that answering truthfully wasn’t a socially acceptable option for me. Apparently neurotypical people get very uncomfortable when you say “I played computer […]

  3. kati says:

    this sounds soooo familiar! i remember my mother telling me to apologize to a sibling for some offense and my reply being “but i am not sorry! do you want me to lie?” which i then got in trouble for!

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