"Are you sure you know the way?" she asked me.
I stood in thought. This was one of the big mysteries of the adult brain — or so I thought — beyond yes and no. Shortly before, she had asked me if I knew the way to room 88. I did know the way, and at (I guess) age 12 or so, that was all there was, so I said so:
"Sure? You asked me if I knew the way, and I said yes. That's all there is. I know, or I don't know. I don't know anything about 'sure'."
She gave me one of those long, faraway stares that adults do when you give them an answer that bears no relation to the expected "yes" or "no". Scratch that – one of those looks that everyone gives me all the time. As far as I was concerned, she started it, by going beyond "yes" or "no" in the first place.
"So you're not so sure, huh?" I used to think this was trying to convince the child he must be in the wrong because he's a child. I have sometimes caught myself doing that to my own children, so other people must do it too, right? Sometimes though, I think it's just taking refuge in a familiar place: the child is getting pedantic, so he must be trying to distract from his lack of certainty.
"Are you sure you won't have another biscuit?"
I know that one mustn't get snippy with well-meaning elderly aunts. Although I still find this one a trial, I at least know what I'm supposed to do here. Aged 8 or 9 this time, the utterly baffling back-and-forth over who should do what for whom was a source of annoyance when I had to observe it in others and of acute personal discomfort when I got caught up in it myself.
It wasn't until I had children of my own that I learn just how relative yes and no really are. To children, the parent's "no" means something like "not until next time you ask me" or in worse cases "go ask your other parent". Similarly, the child's "yes" when asked anything along the lines of "have you done what you know you were supposed to do" really means "what kind of trouble will I get into if you find out the real answer is no?"
We paint ourselves a comforting fiction that a simple "yes" or "no" is equivalent to "done" and "not done" (to borrow from T H White) - that it can only mean one thing. And yet we know that when the kids in the back seat say "are we nearly there yet" that for a long time the answer will be "no", but at some point it will magically become "yes", even though the question and the conditions under which it is asked are unchanged. It is a short leap from this to asking for an icecream every thirty seconds.
Those negotiations over biscuits, those demands of sureness, are rather clumsy ways of getting past the artificial barrier of "yes" and "no", and through to real desires and the reliability of knowledge. Had I know that, I would have known that the proper response to "are you sure you know the way" was:
"I know the route seems a little convoluted, but I have to come here at least once every day."
I would also have known that the best reply over the biscuits was to get out of trouble by not answering the question but making a general statement:
"I won't have another biscuit."
or, more politely:
"I've had enough to eat, thanks."
Edward de Bono wrote a short book that I can strongly recommend called "beyond yes and no". He is dealing with the perpendicular issue of how yes and no often result in an attempt at a preconfigured solution to every problem, rather than what he recommends, which is to apply a general approach, which he calls "policy" or simply "P".
Insisting to ourselves on the sanctity of yes and no is to try to penetrate other people's thoughts by separating the cream from the coffee. What we know about what goes on inside others' heads is not polar. This is mostly because what we know, and what others know, is not clear, or certain. I am convinced that we cannot be "sure". However this doesn't invalidate yes, no, nor the question "are you sure". These are tools used in a process by which we discover what other people think they know, and then decide how reliable that knowledge is.
From this point of view, a simple iterative process enables you to decide whether to follow the (rather pompous) 12 year old schoolboy through the labyrinthine corridors of the Victorian school building.
You observe his demeanour when you ask "do you know the way?". Realizing that he is likely to have learned to appear confident in every response, you decide to dig a little further than his forthright "yes". You'd be smart to do better than "are you sure?" though. You could attempt "how do you know?" or even "why are you sure?". Anything to provoke a further response that is on topic. You'll respond to the tone, the body language, as much as to the words themselves. (After all, I could be lying about going there every day.) And then, according to your confidence or otherwise you'll either declaim "lay-on, MacDuff" or wander off in search of some other insufferable, spotty, floppy-haired public schoolboy.
"Answer the question, yes or no!"
This is always a ruse. Sometimes the answer isn't "yes" and it isn't "no". If so, stick to your guns. Insist. Give the real answer.