Do you know anybody who can regularly make people squirm with embarrassment just by asking an innocent question?
From a young age, a near relative boy, the Kid, was the kind of guy who’s keen to learn, and he followed instructions eagerly. ‘Don’t ever be afraid to ask questions,’ I once told him. ‘Only stupid people are too scared to ask questions, and so they guess the answers and get them wrong.’
He nodded his three-year-old head as if he’d gained some powerful spiritual medicine, and I was happy I had helped him grasp a basic part of learning.
Later that day I took him to the supermarket.
In aisle 12, we were scanning the shelves when the Kid walked up to an elderly woman and asked her. ‘Why do you have a moustache?’
Horrified, I whisked him away, apologising to the woman who gazed back at me with hatred.
‘You shouldn’t ask women questions like that,’ I told him. He accepted this, but confusion darkened his face.
I led us into the next aisle, where a one-legged man sat in a wheelchair. My heart sank. The Kid ran up to him. ‘Why did you chop your leg off?’
I dashed forward to rescue the guy from more embarrassment, but he held a hand up.
‘I was in a bad motorcycle accident,’ he said. ‘They cut my leg off at the hospital.’
‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘He’s only three.’
‘It’s okay,’ the guy replied, shaking his head in… well, I don’t know what.
As I shepherded the Kid away, he advised the ex-motorcyclist, ‘You should be more careful, shouldn’t you.’ I didn’t dare look back.
There was one more aisle left. It was empty except for one young black guy and his white girlfriend. Of course, the Kid had a question for him.
‘Why are you so black?’ he asked the guy. The girlfriend narrowed her eyes, but the guy laughed.
‘I’ve never been asked that question before,’ he said.
The girlfriend wasn’t so easygoing. ‘Why are you so white?’ she shot back.
The Kid shrugged. I hadn’t yet introduced him to Descartesian philosophy, so he was lost for an answer.
‘Sorry, he’s only three,’ I told them, and steered him away. Any more explanation could only make things worse.
‘That guy back there,’ the Kid said thoughtfully at the checkout, ‘I think he’s a basketballer.’
You see? If you don’t give people the correct answers, they make ’em up.