The Bullshit Art of the Non-Topical Response

non-topical responses piss me off“Which one of these do you like better?” — YES.

“I love you.” — Goodnight.

“I’ll miss you.” — I’ll be back before you know it.

“I like spending time with you.” — Good.

“Could you review the attached and let me know your preference?” — Are you coming to the meeting on Thursday?

The art of the non-topical response. Some people have it down pat while others answer your questions with the meticulousness of an OCD CPA with a 1040 in his hands. I’ve been thinking about this a lot as of late (and not alot…definitely a lot, though).

When people don’t or won’t respond to what you say and tend to deflect the conversation, I really think it says one of three things:

I don’t care what you just said – I’m going to talk about what I want to talk about. It’s the egocentric response. ME ME ME. Admit it – they completely ignored you and went off on a one-way trip to MeVille and left you on the pier wondering why you didn’t bring any luggage. We’ve all done it and it’s a pretty asshole move.

I’m not listening to you. That’s right, I’m not listening. I’m in my own head and for whatever reason it is, I can’t even hear you right now. So there. Hey – is that Elvis?

I heard you loud and clear and don’t have the balls to respond. Awwyeah. This is a common one. When something scares us, freaks our shit out, or in some cases, delights us, we can’t bring ourselves to utter the truth in return. So we say something that’s kinda what we think the other person wants us to hear. It’s a total Hail Mary move, saving our ass and the feelings of the person in front of us because we’re too chicken shit to say whatever it is we’re thinking, good or bad.

They all have something in common, however.

Hurt and frustration.

Tell me, my monkeys – how annoying is it to have to have three conversations in order to get someone to answer your question? How much time does it waste to send 4 emails on one subject when you can’t get the other person to focus? It’s like the world has ADD and we’re chasing it down with Ritalin.

How hurtful it is to sit in front of someone who professes to love you who can’t bring themselves to speak the words? Who responds with “goodnight” instead of “I love you, too?” Granted, words are precious and shouldn’t be wasted. There’s a certain sweetness that accompanies the knowledge that the person in front of you, whether lover, colleague or friend, is saying exactly what they mean and it’s genuine. But the non-topical response hurts and leaves room for question.

What’s so scary about actually telling the truth in life? Do we spare feelings more through pure honesty or through the little tango dances we do around issues that make us uncomfortable? Why can’t we say the GOOD things that scare us? Not saying them makes them…well, bad. Something to fear.

I don’t know about you, but I like to be uncomfortable. I relish that itchy feeling in my pants (and NOT the one that requires a trip to the free clinic). I want to be challenged. I want to say what no one else is willing to. I want to throw myself under love’s bus and get run over (repeatedly). When you’re uncomfortable, you offer yourself the greatest possible outcome: joy.

I went to a baseball game last night for the first time in over a year with Ryan, Elisa and her wife, Meg. I sat there watching a field full of players who make millions of dollars each year to be uncomfortable. They slide through dirt, they make moves that have no guarantee of success…they steal home base.

God, I want to steal home base. I want the people I work with to slide into that fucker and pray to whatever god they know that they didn’t just get tagged-out…and if they did, be ready to take that same risk again next game. Those players are paid well for their topical responses and you never see the second base man sitting down with a coloring book when a line drive comes his way with a runner on first.

Here are my thoughts on the bullshit art of the non-topical response:

  • If you can’t say it, find a way.
  • If you can’t say it, perhaps you don’t mean it.
  • If you can’t say it and need to find the inspiration to say it, think of how you’d feel if you never again got the opportunity to say it (as many people each day never do).
  • Understand what the person in front of you needs. Don’t assume anything and no one’s a mind reader. Ask.
  • You can’t expect anyone to read your mind, so open your pretty little mouth and SAY WHAT YOU NEED.
  • If you’ve said what you need and still can’t get what you want or need…maybe it’s time to re-evaluate your audience.

Time is precious, and non-topical responses waste time. They make us wonder why we wasted our breath and our bandwidth. Stop wasting people’s time and answer the damn question already. Don’t be cruel – be present. People deserve our attention because we demand it from them without even knowing it.


30 replies
  1. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    I love this. Thank you for writing this – and especially the way you wrote it . The person who continued to jump to mind is a certain motherly relative who I gained when I got married. She is amazing at not committing to an opinion, reply, answer – but it’s right there in your face. However, since her opinions, replies and answers are all non-topical she can say she did not say THAT. And when forced to give an actual answer, it’s insulting to her – though the things she “didn’t say” are quite insulting to those she says it to.

    Enough family matters. I also completely agree with Francisco. I have learned the art of the one question e-mail (sometimes I get a slap-in-the-face reminder).

  2. Flo
    Flo says:

    Hell yes! Your bullet points are right on and the first one in particular has become my mantra. To make a long story short – after my divorce, friends and acquaintances often became conversationally challenged or even worse disappeared for a while and when I finally pressed them as to why – they all said ” I didn't know what to say so I didn't say anything.” Great, at the lowest point of my life, the people I thought I could count on couldn't string together a few words of comfort, commiseration, etc? So now, when I find myself in this situation I say – “I know this is a difficult time and that there are no words…” sometimes that's all anyone needs. You don't have to be eloquent – just acknowledge that it sucks/hurts/whatever and you and your friend will be the better for it! Thanks Erika once again for a great post and for saying what needs to be said!

  3. Darren
    Darren says:

    If you say “I love you” to someone and they say “goodnight,” cockpunch them and kick them out of bed. If they are female, I'm not sure of the equivalent, but do that.

  4. The Redhead
    The Redhead says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience, Flo – I like your approach for managing situations where there are no “good words.” Words don't always have to be right. There don't always have to BE words. But showing you're PRESENT…I think that's key 🙂

  5. Carol Roth
    Carol Roth says:

    Phenomenal post, Erika. I couldn't agree more. People need to stop being pussies because it just wastes everyones time and time is our most precious resource. Sometimes it is even worse, venturing into flattery when all you want is sincerity.

    Say what you mean, mean what you say.

  6. Francisco Rosales
    Francisco Rosales says:

    One thing I learned [the hard way] about email communications is to ask 1 question at time. When addressing 2 or 3 items on the same conversation, people will pick whatever they want to respond and leave the rest unanswered, so you end up staring at a wall for 48 hours or having to write the email again.

    Corporate America loves this shit…

    Love your post Erika!

  7. Shawn Christenson
    Shawn Christenson says:

    “Time is precious, and non-topical responses waste time.” – Ain't that the truth!

    When writing emails with questions in them – I re-iterate my questions at the end and state “I need you to answer these”. It really ticks me off when I still get non-topical responses to those.

    I took TIME to write that email – and you won't have the courtesy to offer me that same time? Do you expect me to mine it out of you? Do you expect me to drop it?

    Face to Face, it's even more shocking. The sad thing is I think i've gotten used to it from some people and that's made it 'okay'… and i'm likely a culprit myself so I'll need to stay aware of it too.

  8. shellykramer
    shellykramer says:

    Totally agree! I get crap all the time for asking the hard questions, being direct and speaking my mind. But hell, whoever said that “mind reading” was part of our built in brain power?

    So, in addition to not answering questions that are put to you, avoiding them because you're a chickenshit or just not paying attention the way you should, when you don't know, ask questions. Even if they are hard ones. Direct ones. Ones that might seem slightly bitchy ones (try to avoid this whenever possible). But ask them – don't expect to be able to read people's minds and don't expect them to read yours.

    Time is precious. That says it all, Erika. Say what you mean, listen when you should and get every last bit outta home base. Why the hell would anyone choose staying in the dugout when they can steal home?

    Not me, sistah!

    Lub ya.


  9. jim
    jim says:

    I generally agree with your point here. But kind of in reverse, I wish people would not say things like “I love you” or “I will miss you” as hidden questions. If you need something from me that you're not getting, let's talk about it frankly.

  10. The Redhead
    The Redhead says:

    Rachel – great point. The non-topical response is also about not taking responsibility for your words and feelings. If you feel them, express them. If you ask it, expect an answer. If I order a taco, I don't want a Buick. Thanks for stopping by 🙂

  11. Carole
    Carole says:

    <If you’ve said what you need and still can’t get what you want or need…maybe it’s time to re-evaluate your audience.>

    Funny how this is often the one we pay the least attention to, even though it's the most important point of all. We think if we keep asking, we'll eventually get what we need, and refuse to recognize that it ain't never gonna happen. Not with this person. Not in this lifetime. Not in this universe.

  12. Kat Jaibur
    Kat Jaibur says:

    Red, I had no idea you knew my honey's family. They actually teach seminars on this very subject, although we like to call them “Holiday Gatherings.” Nothing feels as wonderful as saying “I love you” and hearing, “Well, good!” in return. Honestly. And the refusal to choose between green beans and broccoli? Is it that life-threatening?

    As for the email that asks 3 questions and gets only 1 answered: I know that bunch, too. One of my dearest friends is a master. (She has other truly wonderful qualities, or I would have killed her for this long ago.) Lots of clients do it, too. Is it a corporate shiftiness thing?

    To Francisco's point, do I have to spoonfeed my questions one at a time to get them answered? Sometimes, I will list my questions (2 or more) as numbers and preface it with “I have 4 questions for you:” This forces them to a) Count and b) be accountable to all four questions. My success rate has been about 80% — meaning I have 80% of my hair still on my head after dealing with them.

    Hopes this helps the rest of you. Thanks for a great post.

  13. shellthings
    shellthings says:

    I had the most amazing peanut butter cookies ever yesterday.

    Um, just kidding. Listen up people and answer the damn question.

  14. robert
    robert says:

    Great post! This is something I've noticed myself doing, and I think it comes from a different place that those mentioned above. After a difficult year, at the age of 43, I think I am finally learning the art of how adults talk to each other. I've often been impressed with the directness of others, other times I'm been left wondering how they can say “that” to another person. I guess I'm finally getting to the point where I'll tell you exactly what I need or want and Fuck you if you don't like it or can't handle it.

  15. Jodi Henderson
    Jodi Henderson says:

    I just had a conversation about this the other day with some colleagues. I really wish more people would just be honest by default. In fact, my motto is “the only right answer is the honest one”. Yes, even if I don't like it. I also try to do the same thing because it really is a waste of everyone's time and energy to not say it like it is. Just git 'er done already.

    Great post. 🙂

  16. The Redhead
    The Redhead says:

    Kat, you're a better woman than *I* am for enduring the holidays 🙂

    And I agree on spoonfeeding. The simpler you make it, the less likelihood for confusion and aversion.

  17. Cherry Woodburn
    Cherry Woodburn says:

    Great post and comments. The additional area that annoys me is when I've spoken several sentences to explain my position on something and the other person responds to a detail within those sentences that isn't relevant to the overall point. For ex. I might have foolishly added a number within the explanation “& it took 3 hours blah, blah, blah” and the other person starts arguing with me that it only took 2.5 hours. I say Ok, that wasn't really my point but they continue to harangue me that it only took 2.5 hours. At those times I just want someone to shoot me.

  18. Joey
    Joey says:

    You completely ignore the very real possibility that the question (or comment) itself is bullshit. Could it be a set-up, a snide commentary, a hidden retort or the preface to a secret agenda ? People ask questions for a number of reasons that don't always include getting a direct and honest answer.
    Sometimes it needs to be skipped over like poop on the sidewalk. Sometimes the subject is better left unaddresed at the moment. Sometimes the question just doesn't deserve an answer. And sometimes the non-topical response is a polite way of saying the question is unwelcome, let's just pretend you didn't ask it.

  19. The Redhead
    The Redhead says:

    Joey, Joey – of COURSE the question could always be complete bullshit. And pink turtles could carry me away to Candy Mountain in a chariot made of jalapeno poppers. People ask all sorts of dumbass questions – sometimes a dumbass deserves the requisite dumbass response.


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