Years ago, when I was in high school (it saddens me that I can use that phrase), a friend of mine pointed out to me that when I was trying to be helpful in the computer lab, I tended to assume that people were stupider than they really were, and that she found this insulting. I was surprised, because I had certainly never intended to be insulting to anyone. When I asked her for clarification, it turned out that the reason she thought this was that whenever someone asked me a question with an extremely obvious answer—for example, “How do I load Microsoft Word?”—I would stare at them for a moment before responding.
The stare wasn’t intentional; it was a by-product of the processing time my brain required in order to gauge the user’s stupidity level. By default, when someone asked me an obvious question, I would assume that the question only seemed obvious and that there must be some deeper reason why this person couldn’t figure it out on their own. Obviously, if you want to load Microsoft Word, you double-click on the big icon that says “Microsoft Word”. But since everyone knows that, I had to assume that the user actually meant something like “How do I edit a Word document that’s on an unmounted NFS share on a Unix server in Timbuktu?”. As I evaluated the likelihood that the user was asking a non-obvious question and had simply worded it badly, I would stare at them. This was the “How stupid are you?” stare. Inevitably, I would come to the conclusion that the best course of action would be simply to answer the question as it was worded and let the user re-word it if my answer wasn’t sufficient.
“Uh, just double-click on the icon,” I would say, after a long pause. “What icon?” the user would say.
I would then direct my stare at the user’s screen, where I would see a Windows desktop with a prominently featured icon labeled “Microsoft Word”. At this point, I would begin to suspect that the user was blind or crippled and unable to use the mouse, so I would attempt to be helpful by doing it for them. Apparently people really don’t like it when you answer obvious questions by doing obvious things. They get embarassed and say things like, “Oh!” and “I knew that!”
No matter how hard I tried, though, I couldn’t stop myself from giving people the “How stupid are you?” stare. I really, really tried. It just wasn’t possible. To this day I still do it, even when people who I know are geniuses ask me obvious questions. I wonder if some people secretly try to avoid asking me questions because of it.
I guess that wouldn’t be so bad.