July 15, 2010


I almost threw the envelope in the recycle bin as junk mail when my eyes fell across the return address: Arbitron Ratings Media Study. I recognized the name as the company that rates TV and radio programs based on audience surveys. I presumed one of those surveys was inside.

I get a lot of questionnaires in my mail. My health care company sends me one every time I go to the doctor. I don’t think they do it because they care. They do it to discourage me from seeing my doctor.

I decided to open the Arbitron envelope because this was a chance to tell someone how much I hate surveys and to ask them to please not send me another. I’d use their return envelope so they could pay the postage. 

The problem with these questionnaires is that they are often poorly written. How can I answer yes or no to questions that are unclear? For example, one line of the Arbitron poll asked me to check a box to identify myself as either Hispanic or White or Asian or Black. I don’t even know what Hispanic means. I think someone made up the word to appear politically correct. I do know it isn’t a race. 

Once, I tried to answer an electronic survey from an alma mater. It was long and I was almost to the end when it asked if I was planning to leave my money to the institution when I died. (I’m glad they were willing to wait.)

At 73, I’m too young to think about death and too ornery to reveal what I plan to do with my estate once I’m gone. The question wasn’t ambiguous, just insulting. I decided to move on, but the computer refused to respond until I’d given the college that critical piece of information — a sign they weren’t interested in my opinions just my money. I deleted the e-mail.

To write a good survey one needs a mastery of the English language. Questions should be unambiguous so that a person doesn’t feel obliged to write an essay to explain why “yes” or “no” is an inadequate response, the query being too broad, too vague, unclear or nobody’s business.

I’ve decided to answer the Arbitron people with a survey question of my own:  Does anyone in your organization know how to write? Yes or No. (I’ll circle the “no” for them.)