Silly Little Relationships

IT IS SATURDAY, a crisp spring afternoon, and you're exactly where you should be: stretched out on the couch in front of a televised sporting event, opening beer number two, relaxed in the knowledge that the pizza you ordered is even now on its way. Nothing could improve this moment, except maybe a bigger television. Suddenly your girlfriend enters the room and says, "What exactly do you think you're doing?"

Is this a trick question?

Yes, it is. The trick is that no matter how you answer it, you will immediately find yourself driving down to your nearest home-improvement centre, where you will spend the rest of the afternoon trying to decide the type of curtain rod that's right for you.

How does this work?

It has as much to do with the nature of the question itself as with anything else. Women are expert at posing questions that seem to have no right answer. Here's a common example.


There is no answer to this question that won't be interpreted "yes". "No" means yes. "Yes" means yes. "I don't know" means yes. "It doesn+t matter" means yes. The briefest hint of a pause before speaking means yes, yes, yes. Most of us would rather take our degrees again than field this one, yet it may well come up several times a week. Your only real choice is to say no, clearly and immediately, leaving no possibility for any subtext, and making it sound like a widely acknowledged fact and not simply your opinion. This doesn't work, but all the other options are worse.

There are several other questions for which "no" is the only answer, and several more that call for an emphatic and unqualified yes. In all of these cases, elaboration, justification or any attempt to be funny is unlikely to pay off.

Consult this handy chart:


Is there someone else?
Do you still fantasise about her?
Are you tired of me?


Do you still love me?
Do you ever fantasise about me?
Do you like my hair this way?

Unfortunately, many female inquiries require more than a simple yes or no response. Some of them are more like riddles. Such as this one:


Typically you're already late for dinner when your girlfriend confronts you, with one pair of shoes on and another alongside them. This is no ordinary choice. It's a devious chicken/egg puzzler, the sort of choice that would lead even Hobson to say to Mrs. Hobson, "Whichever, you old trout!" If you pick the shoes she already has on, she'll think you're trying to hurry her. If you pick the other pair, she'll think it's because you know you can't pick the ones she has on. Some men try a non-linear approach and opt for a third, unoffered pair of shoes, but this is inevitably taken as either an attack on her judgement or an opportunity for her to attack yours. On no account suggest another dress. You might as well say, "You're fat."

This raises the question of why she's asking you at all. She knows you don't know which shoes look better, and she knows you don't care, so why is she trying to elicit your opinion? This is part of an ongoing campaign to domesticate you. As part of the same campaign, she will occasionally consult you about alternative table settings or new towels. In these two cases a disdainful and dismissive "beats me" should do the trick, but don't try that with the shoe dilemma, or you'll miss your reservation. Instead, suggest that she try on the other shoes, then tell her the first ones look better. This lets you more or less off the hook, as long as you don't raise a fuss when she decides that the second pair are better after all.


This could be described as an essay question, since you're obviously not going to get away with snappy little answers such as "forward" or "upstairs" or "I dunno". Another problem is that you and your girlfriend are operating at cross-purposes here. She wants a heartfelt expression of your feelings and an honest assessment of your future together, and you want an easier question. There is certainly no point in answering a toe-curling query like this one without at least a rough idea of precisely what it is she wants to hear. Questions such as this one are a category unto themselves, i.e. questions that should be answered with another question. See how easily some of the more difficult leading inquiries can be parried through the simple deployment of reflexive interrogation.

HER: Where do you see this relationship going?
YOU: Where do you see this relationship going?

HER: Do you think she's attractive?
YOU: Who?

HER: Will you marry me?
YOU: Where am I?

HER: What if I were pregnant?
YOU: Are you pregnant?
HER: Why? Do I look fat?

Whoops! We're in a bit of trouble here. You should have seen that coming. Try a more surreal approach:

HER: What if I were pregnant?
YOU: What if I were pregnant?

At the very least it gives you time to think up a better answer. Some all-purpose question-answers include: How much is a lot? Why do you ask? Should I be? What are you saying? Does it matter? What's love gotta do with it? Are you talking to me? (Note: Are you having your period? is not one of these.)

Let's try a math question.


Hmmmmm....Now, you can tell her the truth, unless the truth is more than 12, or you can have a guess at the number she's more or less expecting. Like most arithmetic problems, the answer is a lot easier once you have a formula. This one should work as long as neither of you has sex for a living.

Take the number of people she's slept with + Number of people she knows you've slept with + Number of people you actually have slept with. Add these up and divide by 2. If you round up to the nearest whole person, you should end up with a realistically healthy but not particularly shocking number. If the result is greater than 12, then say 12. Let's move on.


This rhetorical gem is used whenever you express your disapproval of shoplifting or speeding, or whenever you go to a nightclub and spend the whole time complaining because the music is too loud and there aren't any chairs. There's no good answer to this one. You could draw attention to her inconsistency in this matter, noting that she doesn't like it when you act like a kid or when you act like your dad; then again, if you do that, she's liable to see your point and break up with you. Speaking of breaking up, how about this one.....


Women, like lawyers, rarely ask a direct question, unless they already know what the answer will be. As for women lawyers, I don't know what they do, and I'm pretty sure I don't want to know. The point is, when a woman asks you this question, she knows you're going to say no. Even if you want to say yes, you'll say no. You can't turn the question back on her, because you have no idea what her answer is going to be. If you are trying to break up with her, you'll have to say no and start the whole painful process again. If you aren't trying to break up with her, then it's best to change the subject. Let's try something easier.


Well, slightly easier. This question is of a piece with two others: "Have you forgotten what today is?" and "Have you been listening to a word I've said?" Apart from being questions that are easier to answer wrong than right, they're the kinds of things women say in sitcoms. They are best treated in an ironic post-modern context; ie, just say what Ward Cleaver would say.

HER: Notice anything different about me?
YOU: New apron?

HER: Have you forgotten what today is?
YOU: Of course not. It's Thursday.

HER: Have you been listening to a word I've said?
YOU: That's nice, dear...

Funny, huh? Well, it's not your fault if she doesn't get it. If she wants a better answer, she's going to have to start asking better questions. Questions such as:


This question and its cousin, the almost always uncalled for "Who do you think you are?", are ways of gently reminding you how much of a factor pity was in her original decision to go out with you, and how that decision could be rescinded if you behave in any way that cannot be described as abject. You probably brought this rebuke on yourself by mentioning that you reckon Brad Pitt is getting a little chubby or by speculating that Jack Nicholson doesn't have to wait until his birthday for oral sex. You're not really supposed to answer either of these questions. You're just supposed to apologise for your wanton self-esteem-having. Instead of apologising, just smile. Your manifold inadequacies as a boyfriend - nay, as a man - are a kind of revenge all by themselves. Next!


Like most philosophical questions that seem to pop up out of the blue, this question doesn't pop up out of the blue. This general query about fidelity is in fact a coded inquiry about the extent of your fidelity on a specific occasion or occasions. Your response will also have to be coded. Consult this translation chart before giving your answer:

YOU MEAN - How much does she know?
SHE THINKS - He's hiding something

YOU SAY - It depends
YOU MEAN - How much does she know?
SHE THINKS - I knew it!

YOU SAY - Why do you ask
YOU MEAN - How much does she know?
SHE THINKS - Bastard!

YOU SAY - I dunno. Do you?
YOU MEAN - How much does she know?
SHE THINKS - How much does he know?

There are several more variations, but they're not worth going into. By the time she asks you this question, you're already in deep trouble. It doesn't really matter what you say, as long as you don't blush when you answer.

Let's look at an example that calls for more straight forward lying.


She means, "You were looking at that girl, weren't you?" And you thought you'd perfected that trick of keeping your neck still and just letting your eyes swivel. Obviously, the truth is not the best answer here. We all know that the truth can set you free, sometimes before you've found somewhere else to stay. It may seem easy enough to answer this question with a cunning lie, but when men are caught off-guard, their ability to deceive is impaired. Here are a few of the more common mistakes men make when asked "What are you looking at?"

TOO SPECIFIC: "The rust around the bolts on the handle on the flap of that mailbox on the northwest corner".


TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE: "A diamond necklace in that window back there that would be perfect on you".

TOO TRUE TO BE GOOD: "A see-through nightie in that window back there that would be perfect on you."

TOO OBVIOUS: "Nothing."

WAY TOO OBVIOUS: "That blonde babe over there with the big...I mean nothing."

Here's one that requires a little interpretation.


This one often crops up whenever some kind of emergency or seemingly unsolvable problem arises. The part that requires interpretation is the mysterious "we" in the middle. This means two things: in one sense, "we" clearly means "you" - as in, "What are you going to do now"; but there is also a sense of "we're in this together" implying that you bear equal responsibility for the fact that she's just dropped her keys down a grate, or that she stores her jack and spare tire in her garage so they won't get stolen.

In such situations you'll probably find that the only answer to "What are we going to do now?" that you can think of is "We are going to break up. Good-bye." Most likely you'll decide not to say anything. After which she will probably let loose with the rather ill-advised:


Whether you answer this one is up to you. There is only one question that you should never, ever answer. Keep silent, cower behind your Fifth Amendment rights, pretend you didn't hear, run away, whatever, but don't say anything when she asks:


If you say anything, then when she does get all her hair cut off (and let's face it, she's already made up her mind) and she hates it (and she will hate it), it will be your fault. Even if you say absolutely nothing, the best you can hope for is that she will come home with all her hair cut off, stare you straight in the eye and say:

Does it make me look fat? You're on your own.

Washington Apple Pi IFAQ
lic Wednesday, November 5, 1997