To Answer Or Not To Answer


I am sure – O Gracious Reader – you have experienced something similar to any or all of the following. Several months ago, I opened my e-mail program only to find dozens of unread e-mails had flooded my inbox in a short period of time. Upon closer inspection, the culprit was an initial e-mail sent to thirty or so recipients, and each recipient had responded at least once. Do I respond to the initial e-mail? To the last e-mail? To every e-mail? On another occasion, I e-mailed to about 1,000 recipients a hopeful and happy devotional of about 800 words. Later that day, I received a diatribe completely lacking in humor, which was easily twice the word count of the original document. More importantly, it seemed to barely address anything I wrote about in my devotional. And who among you share my experience of inconsistent cell phone coverage. When you finally reacquire signal, the phone pings seemingly without end all the notifications from social media about some inflammatory post or tweet. To answer or not to answer – that is the question!

Over the past several months, I have used my space in this publication to address the art of conversation in the twenty-first century. Not that long ago, our conversations were limited by time and proximity. You might have a five-minute chat with a friend while doing errands. Many forty-minute periods at the high school I taught were conversations rather than dissertations. Even a warm summer evening drinking coffee in the back garden with friends could only cover so much ground. Years ago, my wife and I would do our best to talk about the Bible until midnight every Friday night with our dear friends – eventually, the eyelids were heavy, and we need to return home for some shut-eye! Even that delightful habit had an end. Today’s conversations through e-mail and social media suffer no constraint based on time or location. We are confronted with a never-ending opportunity to go back-and-forth, forth-and-back, and back-and-forth again with no end in sight. I am reminded of a FAR SIDE panel with two mosquitos where Betty hit an artery, and her only chance for survival is to stop. But Betty is unable to extricate herself from her plight. (see picture) So many of today’s interactions remind me of this unforgettable comic panel. Once you are in the torrent of the river, how do you swim safely to shore?

We find advice in the Bible (no surprise) in the book of the Proverbs (even less of a surprise.) Two consecutive verses are often seen as conflicting, and upon closer inspection, we can find some advice for today’s conversations, whether personal or on-line. Proverbs 26:4-5 read in the New King James Version as follows:

4Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him.

5Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.

Skimming the previous passage causes many a reader to do a double-take. Did the author change his mind mid-sentence? Not likely. The “Principle of Charity” obligates the listener to interpret the words spoken by another in the best light possible. Rabbi Meir is credited with saying, “A person does not say things without reason.”1 This principle compels the listener to overcome ambiguous or absurd wording and try to find meaning. Recently President Trump was roasted in the media and in memes for a tweet about Mars and the Moon. “In a tweet, apparently commenting on his own administration’s space policy, the president said: ‘For all of the money we are spending, NASA should NOT be talking about going to the Moon - We did that 50 years ago.’ He added: ‘They should be focused on the much bigger things we are doing, including Mars (of which the Moon is a part), Defense and Science!’ Trump’s declaration shocked many space enthusiasts because the Moon has not traditionally been regarded as part of Mars.”2 A simple reading – a charitable reading – of the tweet concludes that the President realizes that space exploration and expansion would include both Mars and the Moon rather than suggest that he is confusing or conflating the two celestial curiosities. It was not that long ago that President Obama took heat, not from the mainstream media, but instead, from on-line pundits when he claimed to have visited 57 states.3 It is ludicrous to suspect Obama thinks there are 57 states. Many theories were proffered regarding this statement, and I leave it to you, Gracious Reader, to follow up on that if interested. To make anything of this statement is uncharitable and unproductive. Whether the inconsistent response of the mainstream media merits scrutiny is a different matter altogether. Belittling or berating either Trump or Obama for these comments by interpreting them in the worst light possible serves as nothing more than a guttural grunt among like-minded cronies who are still friends in their respective social media accounts. Embrace the Principal of Charity in our conversations.

Mark Twain is credited with saying, “Never argue with a fool, onlookers may not be able to tell the difference.” This seems to capture the idea found in Proverbs 26:4, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, Lest you also be like him.” An office colleague often said, “Never argue with a fool. Eventually, he will bring you down to his level and win with experience.” These quotes have the same idea. Avoid the melee of arrogant argument and railing ridicule. Any meaningful truth or learning is camouflaged in a veneer of muck from all the mudslinging. The audience is unable to distinguish between the gladiators and is left to merely cheer for their favorite. Is this conversation like what we saw in Luke 24 or even John 8?

The fifth verse of Proverbs 26 encourages us to respond to the utterance of an absurd statement to avoid the misapprehension that the statement is approved. We might call this “getting in the last word” or “tacit approval.” By saying nothing, the appearance of an agreement or and acquiescence persists. As the old joke goes, “When I talk to my wife, I always get in the last words – ‘Yes Dear.’”4 Ahem. There is a legitimate concern that to say nothing is insufficient and even injurious to the pursuit of truth.

So how does all this come together in practice? Let’s see if we can reduce it to some familiar phrases:

  1. Give the other the benefit of the doubt.
  2. Be firm, kind, and charitable.
  3. Resist the unending and unproductive responding so prevalent in today’s social media posts.
  4. Where a response is necessary, make it concise, factual, relevant, and gracious. And make your first response your best response so that there is no need for a second (or a one hundred and second!) response.


1 From a footnote at As Prof. Moshe Halbertal explains this statement (in his book People of the Book, Harvard University Press 1997, p27.) "[A]lthough a person’s words might be read as self-contradictory and thus meaningless, they should not be interpreted in that way. If someone tells us he feels good and bad, we should not take his statement as meaningless but rather understand by this that sometimes he feels good and sometimes bad, or that his feelings are mixed."

4 This bears no resemblance to my household and if it does to yours, I recommend purchasing FAMILY MATTERS: A Survival Guide for Your Marriage by Ron Matsen (available at: