Last time I wrote about my frustration with the term “stupid question.” I figure that this phrase confuses the point, whether you use it to excuse your own inquiry or to dismiss one posed by someone else. However, it can also be a signal that a boundary has been crossed. Next time you are tempted to declare that you have identified a “stupid question,” consider these alternatives.

When someone else has a “stupid question.”

If you are using the phrase “stupid question” to shame, denigrate or penalize someone else, first ask yourself a few questions, beginning with: “Why?”

Is there something about this person, their beliefs, their attitudes, and behaviors that drives me to label the question “stupid”? If someone else asked this question, would it bother me any less?  Am I frustrated that I’ve answered this question before and feel disrespected that they haven’t taken note or have been treating my time as worthless?

If any of these are true for you, simply answer the question.  Then, establish some boundaries.  Clarify what kinds of questions they can come to you with (this is especially important for work relationships).  Offer to e-mail them the information – that way they will have it in writing and you will have back-up.  If they ask again, simply click “reply all” in the original message and send.

If the question is racist, homophobic, insensitive or harassing – let them know and be clear about what topics are not open for discussion.  Some “stupid” questions may be unacceptable, even though they are asked from a genuine curiosity.

Finally, you can set the boundary for yourself and choose to be more accepting and open to the questions of others.  If you work with people (and most of us do), you are bound to get the same questions over and over again.  Just try to remember what it was like the first time you asked that question.  When you now answer it confidently and easily, just be glad to help.