Life (and Work) is Not a Game of Jeopardy, So Let’s Not Play It.
I bet some of you have met people like me when I am not at my best – the man who chimes-in with an answer to almost any question even though we were just having a discussion and an answer really wasn’t needed. In fact, offering an answer squashes the conversation.
Here’s an example. Some friends and I were having coffee together. We were talking about the post COVID return to work phenomenon people and organizations around the world are navigating. Instead of the usual talk about the phenomenon in academic terms, we had moved into personal sharing about how COVID had impacted our ways of working. One person shared how working from home was helping their mental health, another shared how they were struggling supervising people with different work schedules. Another shared how much her children and family had been impacted by changes in the school schedules and teacher shortages.
And then, Chris, a retired guy who I guessed was close to my age decided he would provide us with a definitive answer to this question: “will the U.S. workforce need to return to the pre-COVID office or workplace ways of working?”
The only problem was, no one had asked Chris or anyone that question.
Chris somehow had missed it, so he said “Well, the research on this is pretty clear. Hybrid work arrangements will become the norm but over time more and more people will be expected to return to the workplace. Within a decade we will all be back to the way it was before COVID.”
And that was that. Chris’ declaration was like a shock – his comment pulled us away from the intimacy of self-disclosure into a debate about the research and the opinions of management gurus in the Wall Street Journal and other business publications.
We call this sort of behavior “Acquired Male Answer Syndrome” the habit or tendency to provide a definitive answer to a question, whether it’s needed or asked, or not. I became aware of my own tendency to do it before I ever heard a name for it, and learning the name from someone else who noticed it just made it all the more real.
My experience is that many men in our society suffer from this syndrome. It’s as if we’ve been socialized to treat conversations like we’re playing Jeopardy where the goal is to be the first one to come up with an answer.
Maybe the syndrome comes from the meritocracy assumption many of us were subliminally raised with that leads us to believe that having the answer to a question makes us more valuable, or more knowledgeable, or – dare I say – more worthy.
Oh my God.
Don’t believe me. Check it out and see if you can see or witness acquired male answer syndrome (let’s call it AMAS for short) in action. Knowing there is a name for it, see if you can recognize someone doing AMAS.
One hint, don’t expect the person you witness doing AMAS to be aware of it, that’s not how it works. Until someone points it out to us, we usually are unaware that we are doing it. But knowing I have a tendency towards AMAS helps. Though I still do it, I like to think that I now do it less.
Another hint, women can do AMAS just as well or better than men. Of course they can, if AMAS is prevalent in their workplace, what choice do women colleagues have but to adopt the same behavior to improve their credibility or respect from unaware male colleagues?
The problem with AMAS for me is that, when I do it, I unintentionally lower people’s ability to share and talk vulnerably and openly about whatever it is that matters to them. It sucks all the openness out of the conversation. For some, it can even feel like they are being bullied.
I sometimes wonder if my AMAS habit makes me less trustworthy or less approachable because I’m the guy who’s always trying to answer a question that no one is actually asking.
I’m also aware that my tendency towards AMAS is harmful to my relationships. When my wife shares a problem she is having with me and I respond with an AMAS sort of answer, she’ll say something like, “Jim did you hear me ask you to solve my problems for me?” When this happens I defend myself with the oldest excuse in the world. I say “I was just trying to be helpful.” In our zeal to be helpful, we think we need to answer everybody’s questions for them.
By assuming everyone needs us to solve their problems, AMAS interrupts building deeper connection, or trust, or mutual respect. Though I hate to admit it, my unconscious AMAS behavior probably reinforces the male supremacy culture I sometimes deny even exists.
I’ll resist the urge to explain what to do to avoid AMAS, personally. I still fall into it from time to time so I’m not an authority on the subject and after all, explaining how not to do AMAS might just be a sophisticated version of AMAS itself.