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Bite your nails? That's nothing;Last word

IN AN uncertain world, where no one's job is safe, there is one sure way of making people feel jittery. Ask them about their health.

"How are you feeling today?" "Fine, absolutely fine. Yes fine, never felt better, really fine, brilliant, fine, just fine."

If you ever have to announce that there might be a few redundancies, don't even think of saying to anyone, "You're looking a bit pale". Intensive-care patients immediately leap off life-support machines and pole-vault through brick walls.

It was no surprise, therefore, to read that some teachers reacted negatively when sent a health questionnaire containing items like, "Do you bite your nails?" and "When was your last period?". Paranoia is fuelled as people wonder what will be done with their answers. Fantasy soon takes over. Will there be a knock at the door one night?

"Good evening, Mr Buggins, health police here. Sorry to trouble you, but I gather it's some time since you last had a period I" Or does some hawk aggregate all the responses?

"Now look here, Simkins, do you realise that 63.7 per cent of Swineshire teachers are biting their nails, especially on Mondays. You're in charge of health. What are you going to do about it, man?" "I've tried, Mr Ramsbottom. Goodness knows, I've tried."

Health and other kinds of personal or private questions have been taboo ever since we were tiny. Early socialisation soon teaches us that there are some things that you simply don't dare to ask.

"Don't ask Auntie Edna about the big wart on the end of her nose."

"Auntie Edna, what's that big lump on the waaarhg abxxxxb yerrr I?" (Muffled sound of four-year-old being carted off upstairs with parent's right fist in throat.) When faced with questions we have been trained since birth to be discreet about, most of us have no idea how to respond. Some people reply in an aggressive manner, often protesting innocently that they are only doing what was required. Children do this to teachers when they print out half a CD-Rom and then say: "But Miss, you did ask us to give you a full answer."

This concept, in the field of management, is known as "malicious compliance". It is what happens when people do exactly as they are told, but make sure that their boss suffers as a result.

"I want everything sent by e-mail."

"Right, sunshine. I'll just e-mail you a few telephone directories to read."

The cousin of this strategy, when respondents nervously send up the whole exercise, might be called "facetious compliance".

"Do you bite your nails?" "Not since I came off the heroin."

"How long is your willy?" "About four foot ten, but his sister Helen in Year 9 is five foot six."

I suppose the most irksome aspect of health questions and other queries thought to be intrusive is the mystery that surrounds them. Why does anybody want to know if I bite my nails? Is there a conclusive socio-medical article in an obscure journal somewhere proving that teachers who bite their nails are less effective than those who have immaculately manicured mitts?

Moreover, why do some of the questions seem so irrelevant to the job? The real health test is whether someone can actually survive in the school and classroom. I would understand items on a questionnaire better if they were more sharply focused, such as: 1 Do you smell?

2 Do you bet school funds on the horses?

3 Do you break wind in the middle of assembly?

4 Do you lurch round your classroom, dressed as Napoleon, shouting out "The end of the world is nigh", while sniggering incessantly?

5 When the deputy head comes into the staffroom looking for someone to cover for an absent teacher, do you cry out, "I've got Lassa fever"?

6 Do you deliberately go cross-eyed when faced with an angry parent?

7 Do you spend the first 10 minutes of every lesson coughing and asking:

"Where's me fag?"?

8 Can you feign a limp when asked to take a PE lesson?

9 Does marking books give you indigestion?

10 Are you constipated even during an Office for Standards in Education inspection?

Biting your nails sounds so harmless.

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