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I'm not sure how to respond to questions where it is obvious that the asker knows the answer.

For example, when I'm the only one in the room waiting for a meeting to start, the project manager comes in and says "You're the only one here?"

I don't think she means this literally, because she is very smart. I don't know how else to interpret the question though. What is the proper response to questions like this?

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    The question is not completely stupid: you may also have seen someone else come in before, who just quickly went outside for a moment (bathroom break, etc). – Olivier Dulac Aug 3 '17 at 13:35
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    <comments removed> If you have an answer, please post it below. Comments do not have the feature to properly vet whatever you say here so without activity like proper voting and wiki-style editing of content, answering here defeats the purpose of having this Stack Exchange site. – Robert Cartaino Aug 3 '17 at 13:43
  • This question is primarily opinion-based ("Should I ... ?") and also lacks a clear goal we can address (i. e. what do you want to achieve with your response?). – Anne Daunted GoFundMonica Feb 19 '18 at 12:27

17 Answers 17

43

It's mostly that the asker is just trying to make small talk and found nothing genius to ask. It's not making a good impression, but it's still a very normal question to ask and something that everyone does.

Making a small talk before an interview or something would be relaxing. So they are just trying to do that. But because of nervousness, fail to come up with any meaningful questions.

Do not get upset by such questions and do not respond with a bad tone or sarcasm either.

In your case, especially because it's your manager, just answer the question. Maybe they expected someone else also to be present and just wanted to make sure.

Sometimes when I get a new haircut and when a friend sees me, he may simply ask, "Hey, you had a haircut?". I just go with "yeah" ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ and then move on to other topics if it's a good time for small talk.

I also have experience with a particular little cousin of mine who keeps on asking the silliest obvious questions like "are you watching TV?" when it's obvious that I am. I do get annoyed when it continues for a while. At one point I start ignoring the questions. And the kid will go back to his things.

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    I didn't know "duh", so I googled it, and it says, roughly "Thanks, cap'tain obvious", meaning also that statement/person is "stupid". Is that right ? In the sense you mean to use it ? Is it considered rude or not ? – OldPadawan Aug 3 '17 at 11:17
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    @OldPadawan Duh! It's rude to say "duh" to certain people. Say it only to your peers who would take it lightly. :) – NVZ Aug 3 '17 at 12:06
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    OK, thanks. Depends on people you're talking to though. For the haircut, I usually answer my friends "no, my hair just fell down on its own...", or "No, NVZ isn't watching TV, the TV is watching NVZ ! [/chuck norris mode]" ^^ – OldPadawan Aug 3 '17 at 12:22
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    Depending on your relationship with the asker, you could go with Bill Engvall's "Here's your sign". – Michael Richardson Aug 3 '17 at 13:44
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    I used to respond "No, I had them all cut!" though that's not accurate either. – stannius Aug 3 '17 at 16:57
65

The implied question here seems to be: "why are you the only one here"; a possible reason why she does not ask this directly is to be less confrontational (after all you can't be held responsible for your colleagues' absence!).

Another possibility is that she notices the fact that there is no one else in the room, wants some additional information about it, but is not sure what is the right question to ask. (Indeed some of the responses given as examples do nothing to answer the question "why", but still provide relevant and useful information.)

The person asking probably expects some sort of response along the lines of:

  • "Actually Ms. Smith has already arrived before me, but she has gone to the bathroom."
  • "I just had Mr. Brown on the phone, he's on the bus together with the rest of the team and the bus broke down."
  • "The others have asked me to tell you that the meeting has been re-located to the other meeting room."
  • "Yes, let's wait for the others." or "Yes, but I can already start briefing you on the project before the others arrive."
  • "Yes, because I'm actually the only person working on the project that the meeting is about."

Of course the most likely situation is that you have no additional information to offer, in which case you can simply answer:

"Yes, I have no idea where everyone else is."

19

Being smart does not necessarily correlate to having good social skills.

They are looking for a way to communicate because to ignore you would be rude.

Often people will state an obvious question which will reflexively get a positive response. It's a low risk, low effort interaction which will not result in conflict but open the door to further communication.

In response you could use the opportunity to say something positive about yourself and then ask how they are doing or if you can help in any way.

Yeah, I have this thing about punctuality. If I'm not early for something I feel late. Do you need a hand setting anything up?

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    "Being smart does not necessarily correlate to having good social skills." Sometimes, it's even outright the opposite. Ergo, the typical nerd. – a CVn Aug 4 '17 at 8:30
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    Upvoted for use the opportunity to say something positive about yoruself. – John Wu Aug 4 '17 at 21:58
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I would answer kindly as if the question would not be awkward or obvious. Like "Yes, it's just me".

I would also avoid sarcastic answers as "Yes, it's just me, as you can see, unless you've just became blind".

This is because people sometimes makes such questions just to start a conversation.

And... if I may... it seems to me that you are a little bit too strict in interpreting someone else's question. Your manager asked you "You're the only one here?". And I would guess, from your question, that perhaps you thought "I'm obviously the only one here. You can see that. So why bother to ask?".

But maybe some colleague of yours just left the room to answer an incoming call, maybe another one paid a quick visit to the toilet. How could she/he know?

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    There's sarcastic and there's downright rude. Your example of 'sarcastic' is actually the latter. – Pharap Aug 6 '17 at 0:46
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In this context I would interpret "You're the only one here?" not in the strict literal sense but in the sense of meeting participants. They can clearly see nobody else is in the room but it is possible that somebody turned up and seeing that you weren't quorate yet went to get a glass of water or use the bathroom or similar.

Alternatively you may be aware of why some others aren't there and can furnish the asker with this information.

So depending on the exact situation I might answer:

  • So far, yes.
  • Bob was here but has just gone to get a glass of water
  • Yes, Jim isn't going to be here due to an important client call.
5

Sometimes those kinds of questions aren't meant literally but do have a specific purpose other than small talk, I think that's an angle that is missing from the other answers.

  • "You're the only one here?" probably means something like "I'm surprised you are the only one here. Do you know where the others are? There is no chance they are waiting somewhere else, is there? Has anyone told you they couldn't come or they would be late or something?"
  • "How are you?" might be a meaningless phrase (where a honest answer is not necessarily welcome), or it might actually mean to show you that they care (while they already know/see that you are unwell) or of course it could have the literal sense...
  • "Is this seat taken?" is sometimes the question whether you would mind if that person sat there, sometimes the statement that they will now sit there because they see that it isn't taken and sometimes the literal sense...

Can't think of more examples right now, but there are plenty and the expected response is different each time.

  • Oh damn, two similar answers posted while I was writing this. -.- (and a third one just afterwards) – Nobody Aug 3 '17 at 12:22
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I'm not sure any other answer has covered the biggest issue for me. "Questions with answers you think are trivial" is just a proper sub-set of "Questions".

You already know how to respond to a question. This case isn't a special case. You should respond to a question with the answer.

To give a worked example of the situation the OP described, I would expect that conversation to go:

Boss: You're the only one here?
OP: Yep, it's just me.
Boss: Either "Oh, I see" or "I was expecting X to be here, do you know why they aren't?"

  • So you would simply not tell the boss if already someone was there and left, notified you to not attend or left for quickly grabbing a glass of water? Just give him what he asked for? By the way, OP stand for Original Post, so what you mean probably is OPer – dhein Aug 7 '17 at 10:06
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My mom used to call the land line at home and ask me "Are you home, son?", which I really found a dumb question to ask, but I later found out that what she really meant was "Are you going to be home, if so, how long are you going to be home, do you have plans to go anywhere today?".

People do that and even though I find it rather annoying to be asked those sorts of questions, I usually let people go with a shrug or explain to them, in detail, every aspect the question could have meant.

In your case, if it were me, I'd go onto explaining the situation. I'd tell the boss what I knew, if I knew anything, of where everyone was and why they weren't here instead and I'd go on to explain why I was here and not with them. This usually works to keep people from asking those types of questions to me, since I go on and on about every single detail. Do it once, and never need to do it again, and if they keep asking, just shrug and go with it.

4

I think you've misunderstood aspects language/questions/social interactions.

The first one is formally known as the phatic function: many questions/communications serve no purpose other than opening a dialogue and maintaining a particular social atmosphere. This is very common and your manager's question seen in this light is no more stupid than asking, "how's it going?" or saying "hi".

Another misunderstanding is the manner in which people ask questions. E.g., if you knew the time, how would you answer the question, "have you got the time?". I presume you would decode the message to mean, "please tell me the time, if you have it", and tell the person the time, rather than literally interpreting the question and replying "yes".

Similarly, when your manager asked, "You're the only one here?", they may have been implicitly asking, "where is everyone else? Is there something I don't know about going on? Update me".

  • The latter style of communication "have you got the time?" vs. "tell me the time" or "what is the time?" also has a technical name that I've forgotten. I'd be grateful if someone could tell me it. – innisfree Aug 4 '17 at 0:25
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Coming from the "boss," that's a compliment and an opportunity. It means:

1) You're the first one to show up, and
2) Wow! You were even here before me.

With her "trivial" question, the boss has given you what an editor would call a "hook." I would "jump" on this with a response like, "Yes. What can I do for you?

If there is an idea or a project you want to pitch, this is the best time. The boss has basically said that you are head and shoulders above the rest of the crowd (for the time being). And the implicit question (which my suggested remark addressed) is, "What will you do for an encore?"

Many seemingly "trivial" questions are actually "loaded" (sometimes without people fully realizing it's the case). In this case, it may have been an implicit "complaint." A good response gives you the chance to "fire the gun."

Even if it came from the "janitor," you will want to be courteous, but the stakes are higher when the question comes from the boss.

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    @NVZ: Thanks for your help. I've seen you on other posts as well. You'll get your editor badge awfully fast. – Tom Au Aug 3 '17 at 17:17
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One thing I didn't see mentioned explicitly in the other comments: small talk isn't about what's being said verbally Obviously the manager is just acknowledging your presence and trying to relate with you since you're the only two people in the room. It's an invite to talk. Not talking in a room with two people might be awkward.

Most of human communication is non-verbal. Like the other answers here, you could respond earnestly saying "Bob was here but has just gone to get a glass of water"

Or better yet, respond with light humor, depending on your relationship with the project manager. Responding literally is boring Take the conversation somewhere..

"Of course I'm here! I'm always on the ball"

"I just can't wait to talk about the project!"

"I just like hanging out in this room"

"Oh, we have a meeting? I'm just hiding from [the client, the boss, Ralph from accounting]"

"We're the only two people who are on time apparently"

... Or, if you think that's too flippant. Follow-up with a personal question

"I made it! What do you think about the new project Jim's working on?"

"I'm here. What happened with that call with production yesterday, where are the missing units?"

"I haven't talked with you much lately, how's project X going?"

2

On its face, it's a fairly meaningless question, so you could use it as:

  • a way to get more information ("Who else do we need to get started?"),
  • an opening for smalltalk ("Yes, by the way, any news on (recent issue)"?),
  • an opportunity for comedy ("Yup, and I'm not even entirely here.")

There's no one right answer when the question is so basic, but you could avail yourself of nearly any other option along the range of professional responses.

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You're the only one here?

She's inviting you to offer any insight you might have. It's meant to be a gentle, informal request.


Alternatively, she could've asked you:

Why isn't anyone else here?

Some people might interpret this as implying (or at least suggesting) that they should be able to answer the question. By choosing the wording that she did, she avoided implying that you should know, reducing it down to a gentler invitation for you to offer information if you had any.

@NVZ's answer pointed out that you could just go ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, then move on to small talk. And that's exactly what she was trying to enable you to do; you could offer what you knew if you had anything to offer, or you could just go ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

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There are already a lot of answers posted, but I still feel compelled to make a point I don't think anyone else has:

It's probably not meant as a question, just an observation.

The manager could have also said "There's no one else here, huh?" This is not really a interrogative sentence, question mark or no. This can be seen as a form of small talk, or even just your manager talking to herself in a way. You can respond with "Yeah, I guess so" (an equally unnecessarily confirmation) or "Yep" or nothing at all. This is just a normal way humans express themselves (surprise or frustration that no one else is in attendance, for example). Don't get so hung up on how to respond to this non-question.

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As others have said.

Also adding this: In your bosses shoes, it would feel very awkward and rude to them, to come in, find 1 or 2 people there, and not say anything to them, or ignore them. They could say "hi" or "nice to see you"* or "all ready ware you?" or many other things, but what you quote is a nice easy question that's not probing, doesn't take concentration from them, like when people say "dark out isn't it" or "car not working again" or "waiting for supper?" or any one of a thousand other questions that says "I'm interested and casually chatty, engaged, not being bossy" and leaves it to you whether you feel like mumbling "mhm" or chatting briefly in reply - both would be equally okay. A suitable reply would be equally light - "yeah, sounds interesting", "Needed the coffee!", "It's important". Equally open to any or no reply, and acknowledging back.

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Don't assume that the answer is obvious. Answer the question. Experience has taught me that a person may feel silly upon learning the motivations of a question that appears to have an obvious answer.

These obvious questions sometimes imply a request for conversation. Embrace the person verbally after answering the question. Please be kind enough to oblige when able. Don't you want to be the kind of person who helps others? These are simply requests for your social grace.

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    "Embrace the person verbally after answering the question" What does this mean? – JETM Aug 5 '17 at 2:04
  • I mean a verbal embrace as a welcoming kindness. A "verbal hug" is another way to phrase it. This person who asked the obvious question could be having a worse day than you have ever experienced in all your days of joy, sorrow, love, and fear. It seems like a dominant strategy in the game I play of living my life the best I can at each decision to be safe from worsening a sorry story by expending energy on kindness. – Kyle Thomas Aug 6 '17 at 23:48
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There are lots of other ways to interpret the question.

It may be a simple 'hello', meaning 'okay, we see each other, let's start a conversation'. Maybe she's shy, willing to make sure you're 'in contact' with her before talking to you. Maybe she's biding for her time as she's groping in her mind for what she planned to discuss and concentrating. Maybe she's talking to herself like we all sometimes do, meaning, 'okay, what does that mean?' Maybe she was surprised and didn't keep her surprise to herself. Maybe she failed to grasp the situation at once, that doesn't mean she's not smart.

The best reaction is tied to that. Some unobtrusive version of 'yes' will do in all those cases, I think; maybe 'that's right' works, I don't know English well enough. Concentrate on the matter at hand, leave without much attention such subtleties of mind function. No-one is a robot.

(Unless there's a separate reason to think you're being trolled. But that's a different situation.)

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