‘Why’ questions offer opportunity for verbal judo

| Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Spectator
Jeremiah M. Murphy




“Because why?”

“Because I said so.”

“Why do you get to say so?”

“Because I’m your father.”


“Because, long ago, before you were born, I fell in love with your mother.”


“Ha! Gotcha!”

I don’t answer “why” questions from my kids anymore.

I’ll answer “who” questions, “what” questions, “where” questions, “when” questions, and “how” questions (I love “how” questions!). But I will not answer “why” questions.

“Why?” you ask.

I shouldn’t answer that. But, okay, just this once.

I don’t answer “why” questions because, unlike Snickers, no answer to a “why” question satisfies.

I cannot remember a time (when I would answer a Murphy kid’s “why” question) when my answer to a “why” question would result in said kid replying “Oh! Okay!”

Rather, “why” questions only beget more “why” questions (see above).

It’s fruitless. If you’re a kid, it’s great entertainment. If you’re a parent, not so much.

The police are big on “why” questions. I try not to answer those either.

Police ask questions like: “Do you know why I stopped you?”

Now, that’s a loaded “why” question.

If I answer “Because I was speeding,” or “Because I rolled through the stop sign back there like it was a yield sign,” I’m done. Case closed. It’s off to the hoosegow with me.

But, if I answer “I don’t know.” I’m just lying - and that’s no good.

I don’t want to give the impression I spend a lot of time producing my license, registration, and proof of insurance for police. But, I’ve been stopped a few times. And believe me; I pretty much always know why I’m being stopped.

Once I tried not answering a policeman’s question.

Several years ago I was driving through construction on 5th Street. I wanted to make a left turn at St. Joe. But, a sign said “No Left Turn”. No one was coming from either direction. So, I turned left.

Moments later I was serenaded by a motorcycle patrolman’s siren.

“Did you see the ‘No Left Turn’ sign?” he asked.

I had two choices – tell the truth and effectively write myself a ticket, or lie and have that nagging at me.

But, instead, I went with door number “C”. I said nothing. I just looked at him.

He repeated his question. I repeated my dumb look.

“Did you hear me?” he asked. “Yes.” I answered.

“So, why don’t you answer my question?”

“I’m just not going to answer that question. Ticket me if you have to, but I’m not going to answer that question.

He was not pleased. He was really not pleased. He really let me know he was really not pleased. But, for whatever reason, he didn’t give me a ticket. He gave me a warning instead.

Weird, but effective.

Now, more and more police are using a technique called “verbal judo” to better communicate with miscreants like me. An element of verbal judo is to avoid questions like “Do you know why I stopped you?” or “Didn’t you see that sign?” - Questions that hinder rather than enhance communication during traffic stops.

I received a verbal judo chop one recent evening while driving down West Boulevard. For some reason stop signs are popping up on the boulevard like tulips in spring. On the evening in question, I may have rolled past one of those new stop signs without stopping.

My alleged error was pointed out to me by a Rapid City police officer. He didn’t ask me to guess why he had stopped me. No, he told me his name and he told me that he stopped me because I didn’t stop at the stop sign.


I was tempted to ask him why the city has erected a picket fence of stop signs up and down the boulevard. Why do cross streets that produce about 1/500th of the traffic that travels West Boulevard now have four way stops?

But, the kids were with me and it would have set a bad example.

Happily, Chloe and Dylan weren’t asking me “why” questions just then.

Unhappily, they were giving me advice. “You should have stopped back there.” Dylan told me.

Why would he say something like that?

Jeremiah M. Murphy lives in Rapid City. Contact him at murphy@rushmore.com

(Originally published in the March 9th, 2008 Rapid City Journal)