Wishy-Washy: Yes or No?

Posted on July 23, 2010

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I have been called wishy-washy, right to my face and on more than one occasion. Is it because I seem indecisive? Maybe. Inconsistent? Sometimes. Driven to look at questions from every possible angle before answering? That depends on exactly what you’re asking. When you say every, you don’t mean it literally, do you? Because that would take forever. And driven in what way? Are you suggesting I’m irrational? Obsessive? Out of control?

This tendency of mine makes the people around me crazy, and given the chance, most of them would crack me over the head with a shovel and roll me down a big hill. But I think there’s value in resisting the temptation to jump into one camp or the other on every issue. Am I liberal or conservative? Traditional or progressive? Cautious or spontaneous?

It depends.

In many ways, those two words guide my life. My son and I were in the car the other day and he asked if it’s ever okay to cross the double yellow line. I said that on a written exam, the correct answer would be No, it’s never okay. Crossing a double yellow line, I added, would almost certainly cause him to fail an actual driving test. But is driving that simple? Is anything?

Several years ago, I had to answer a series of questions on a job application. One of them was, “Is it ever acceptable to violate company policy?” This is similar to the question my son asked me, and it caused the same ambivalence. It’s that word ever. I was pretty sure I knew what the expected answer was, but to me, ever means this: “Can you imagine any circumstance in which disobeying company policy would be the right thing to do?” Any circumstance. Of course. If the building is being attacked by giant fire ants from the planet Mercury and the only way to get my co-workers out safely is by using the executive elevator, I’m going to do it, even though I’m just a level-3 shipping clerk and I’m not authorized to use the executive elevator. I know it violates company policy, but lives could be at stake. (Well, they said ever.)

Here’s the dilemma I faced. I’m filling out the application and trying to visualize the person who will be reading my response to this question. If I answer Yes, I could be turned down because I seem to have no regard for rules. If I answer No, I might be rejected because I’m inflexible, lack imagination, and can’t think on my feet in emergencies. Heads you win, tails I lose. The department manager later confided that she wanted to hire me, but the regional supervisor overruled her because I had answered Yes to that question. I wonder if questions like that are inserted into the application for the sole purpose of giving the company justification for not hiring you, regardless of how you answered.

When I go to a new doctor and have to fill out one of those medical history forms, there’s always a question that asks, “Are you pregnant?” Again, these are Yes or No questions. If I answer No, I feel I should elaborate, because the question seems to imply that I might have been pregnant in the past or that I might become pregnant in the future. Neither of those seems likely. On the other hand, all I have are those two little check boxes. I usually leave this question blank, but that bothers me too, as though I hadn’t completed the task or, worse, that I seemed unsure about the pregnancy issue.

Telephone surveys offer similar problems. I recently answered the phone and was asked to participate in a survey about home electronics. The first question was: “Do you own a cell phone?” I said, “No.” The next twelve questions were about when, where, and how often I used a cell phone. I hesitated after each question, almost apologetic at first, but growing increasingly irritated: “I don’t have a cell phone.” This seemed to puzzle the caller, who didn’t know how to record my responses. I was tempted to lie and make up answers about my fictional cell phone use, because really, that would have been quicker and less frustrating for both of us.

These surveys, by the way, are self-perpetuating. Once you agree to participate, your name goes into a database of people who are home, answer their phone, and have nothing else to do but reply to idiotic questions. We get calls at least once a week. It could be the government inquiring about smoking habits. Or the car dealership wondering how we enjoyed our most recent tire rotation. Or the power company wanting to know how often we unplug major appliances when we’re going to be away. I used to answer the phone by saying, “Hello.” Now I grab the receiver and just yell, “Somewhat concerned! Completely satisfied! Almost never!”

Personality tests are still another source of trouble. They present scenarios that assume to cover all of the possibilities. For example: “When attending a party, are you more likely to mingle, making sure you talk to everyone, or do you prefer to become involved in a more meaningful conversation with one person?” It seems to me there should be an initial question that asks, “Do you ever get invited to parties?” This, one would think, could eliminate the need for the rest of the questions. I don’t get invited to parties. Maybe I should get a cell phone.

Here’s a little twist: Every once in a while, I’ll hear an open-ended question as though it were Yes or No. When I go out for breakfast, the waitress asks, “How would you like your eggs cooked?” My first thought is, yes, I would very much like them cooked. Who wouldn’t?

But mostly, I struggle with the questions that want a single word answer. “What’s your favorite color?” Well, if we’re talking about lettuce, my favorite color is green. If it’s chocolate, I prefer brown. I never eat green chocolate or brown lettuce. Regarding white or blue, I like white clouds and a blue sky. Reverse them and that’s some kind of environmental disaster. I like red strawberries, yellow bananas, and purple grape juice. I love rich, dark soil, the blacker the better. But when snow turns black, I get a little depressed. What’s my favorite color? It depends.

And speaking of colors, what about the double yellow line? I told my son to give the answer that follows the rules. But then I felt compelled to add that every moment he spends behind the wheel, he should see the line as something intended to protect lives. It would make no sense to cause injury or death out of deference to two stripes of paint.  “If it’s a choice between crossing the line and hitting a child who’s running out into the road, cross the line.”

In our rush to lock in the correct answer, there’s limited time for such consideration. Hesitation, a willingness to debate, or any attempt at recognizing other points of view are all seen as signs of weakness, of flawed character. Critics call it relativism, a label that so terrifies politicians, they would rather be thought of as people who have stopped learning. But it’s how I try to approach most of life’s questions and choices. I feel more prepared and more confident when I’m not restricted by Yes-No, True-False, what I didn’t know five years ago, or how I felt about something last week.

It’s the advantage of being wishy-washy.

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