Your Answers: "When Did You Stop Beating Your Wife?"

Last week, I asked readers to weigh in on the best way to answer the most cliché media training question of them all: “When did you stop beating your wife?”

It’s a difficult question to answer well, since an angry denial will inevitably lead to a negative headline, such as: “Senator Smith Angrily Denies Abusing His Wife.”

The “right” answer, most media trainers claim, is to answer by saying: “I never started.” But that answer has always seemed cold and inhuman, and last week’s question of the week asked for ways to answer that question better.

You offered some terrific options. Here are some of your answers:

David Holman advises a spokesperson should say: “That’s an absurd question to ask that holds no ground”.

Another reader disagreed with David, saying his response would lead to a headline that says: “David Holman refuses to discuss wife beating!”

Daniel wrote: “I would answer: ‘Before I met her.’ Shows a sense of humor while answering the question honestly.”

Another reader named David wrote: “I always heard the question phrased as, ‘Have you stopped beating your wife?’ Then, whether the answer is ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ the person is screwed.” He suggested asking the reporter, “Excuse me, who are speaking to?” or “Why would you say something like that?”

Media trainer Paul Lima suggests something along the lines of, “I love my wife. We’re heading off to the Caribbean next week, on our second honeymoon.”

Chris wrote: “This just came to me: Why not call the interviewer on it? ‘That’s a terribly leading question, why are asking that?’”

Andreas Andersen suggests this clever line: “It is impossible to stop doing something I have never done.”

Craig wrote, “I’d go with something like, ‘It’s never appropriate to beat a spouse. I stand by that statement in both words and actions.’”

So what should you do when asked a question like this one? First, watch this short video from a 1988 presidential debate, when CNN anchor Bernard Shaw asked Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis a rather provocative question:

Governor Dukakis was roundly criticized for that emotionless answer, which didn’t show even a trace of emotion. He would have been better to begin his answer by saying: “Bernard, if that happened to my wife, I would want to pull the switch on that guy myself. But public policy shouldn’t be set from a standpoint of rage and revenge.” He could have then continued with the answer he gave.

Similarly, this question demands an honest emotional response. I like many of the answers above, especially those that offer a genuine response but stop short of offering a dramatic headline. Here are two rules of thumb to consider when you find yourself in a similar situation:

  1. Avoid using “the language of denial,” which creates the dreaded “I did not beat my wife” type of quote.
  2. Offer at least some type of genuine reaction rather than match Mr. Dukais’s emotionless response.

So here’s my try at this question:

  1. “That’s an awful and baseless question. I love and honor my wife deeply – always have, always will.”

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