The Cocktail Party Contrarian: Bring Back the ‘Q’ in Q&A

What to do when rather than ask the expert sitting at the front of the room for his expertise, attendees decide they would treat the rest of us to some of their own.

Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons
Governor Huckabee listens while at a book signing, June 2011. Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons

During a book event at a friend’s apartment the other night, the author was there to speak about his work outlining the dangers of dogmatic ideology in our institutions. I was eager to hear his presentation. As I was on my way home two hours later, though, I realized that the person I had heard from the least over the course of the evening was the author himself.

The question-and-answer period took up most of the schedule, and those who were called on to ask a question never seemed to get around to it. They decided that rather than ask the expert sitting at the front of the room for his expertise, they would treat the rest of us to some of their own. There were rambling monologues, personal anecdotes, observations, and lots of references to work they had done and organizations they were involved in. Almost no one asked the speaker anything he actually could answer. 

I used to naively wonder why so many people didn’t know that the Q in Q&A stands for “question.” Now I understand that, of course they know; they just don’t care. They don’t come to events like these to be part of an audience. They come to find one for themselves.

Strangely, they often succeed, but not in the way they probably had hoped. These people certainly have the floor as they drone on about what happened to their daughter 15 years ago when she was at Santa Fe, but they aren’t exactly captivating the rest of us with their personal stories. We are rolling our eyes and checking our phones, impatiently waiting for the marginally relevant point they felt they had to share at just that moment to be over.

We all know that everyone is desperate to be heard and that desperation can overwhelm better judgment. However, the lack of self-awareness it takes to think that unsolicited personal anecdotes on someone else’s Twitter feed are important contributions to the conversation is one thing. At least online, others have the option of skipping right past the noise. It is quite another level of personal-insight deficiency to show up at a live function and deliver a soliloquy, interrupting the person everyone has assembled to listen to. No one can scroll past an excitable storyteller with a microphone gripped in his hand.

The poor speaker suffers the most. Perfecting the poker face as someone launches into her third tangent while breathlessly telling you about the outrage she suffered at the supermarket three weeks earlier is hard work. Trying to figure out how to respond to a non-question and steer the ship back to the actual topic at hand isn’t easy.

There is no polite way to bring out the hook, but maybe there shouldn’t be. Those who behave this way are hardly consumed by a concern for manners. We shouldn’t be, either. Our event host was way too patient, which is not a compliment. We were waiting for her to say what we were all thinking.

So now I actually may have to read the author’s book, which was never my intention. If I had known that would be the case, I would have skipped the event entirely and spent those two hours in my pajamas at home, eating ice cream in bed and skimming through the 250 pages in peace. My feet wouldn’t hurt from the heels I had to wear, and I wouldn’t have had to hear the woman in the back share her half-baked theories about effective strategies for combating ideological indoctrination. 

I wonder what the author thinks about that. I still don’t know.

The New York Sun

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