Sunday, January 22, 2012

"Do you want Thai, or Italian?"

One of my minor quests in life is to find ways around small inconveniences in life arising from  people asking (and answering) the wrong question. For instance, I've written before that when someone asks what you want to eat for dinner, the answer 'I'm easy' is often profoundly unhelpful.

But there's another case where people answer the wrong question - the 'Do you want Thai or Italian?'. The reason it gets tricky is that it's not clear whether the person is expected to balance the competing interests in their head before giving their estimate of the consensus best choice, or whether they're just meant to state their own preferences directly, with the consensus to be formed later.

In other words, suppose you weakly prefer Thai, but you suspect that your friend would prefer Italian. Do you just answer 'Thai'? Do you answer 'Italian', based on the assumption that you don't mind Italian and your friend wants it?

In my estimation, the most useful answer is to just state your own preferences - once we know how each other feels, it's easy to balance the competing interests. But the second one is fine too, as long as it's understood by both people what's going on. Things get frustrating when your friend doesn't know which answer you're actually giving - do you really want Italian, or do you just think he wants Italian? What if neither of you actually want Italian, but each thinks that the other one does?

Ironically, this problem gets worse when you have more regard for the other person's feelings. People are reluctant to just say the thing they want, because it might sound too demanding, or because it could be interpreted as a lack of concern for what the other person wants.

Thankfully, this is a situation that can also be solved be answering both questions with the appropriate phrasing. These days, I'll go for something like the following:
'If it were just me eating, I'd lean weakly towards Thai. But if you feel more like Italian we should do that, because I'm happy with that too.'

Bam! Problem solved. They now know your true personal preferences, which is the actually useful part. But you've also given your estimation of the estimated compromise decision, without having it confused for your true preferences. Plus you've demonstrated ample concern for their feelings, which means that you don't look like a tool for stating what you personally want.

Let's just say... you're welcome.

Chateau Holmes - helping you navigate potential minor faux pas situations by spotting the potential confusion in the question.  

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