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Inter Caetera

The Tomato Game

There’s a popular children’s game in Poland known as the tomato game. It’s very simple in its premise. You need two or more people. From among them, one is designated the “tomato”, who is constantly asked questions. The questions are aimed to make the “tomato” laugh, and the rule is that the only answer the “tomato” is allowed to give is the word “tomato”. The game ends when the “tomato” says something different, laughs or other participants give up.

I didn’t manage to find any information about the origin of the game, however, I think it just naturally came about due to the inherent comedy of the word itself. In fact, the game is so popular that the word “tomato” entered regular usage and it is sometimes used as a backdoor to deliberately not answering a question in regular conversation, especially when faced with a binary question with no good answers.

“Tomato” is a third way out of a binary question, different than “yes” or “no”. If “yes” is true and “no” is false then “tomato” is undefined. Neither true nor false. “Tomato” is, essentially, un-asking a question. It’s the correct answer when faced with a presupposition or a situation to which no answer can adequately be produced.

As programmers, we are often faced with such questions. Estimates are the most common. “Can you deliver this by Tuesday?” when you have not had any time to even investigate the problem. Remember the tomato - not every yes or no question has to be answered definitively and if there is uncertainty, it’s better to say so.

A different but related, fruit-based concept arose in my company when we had to figure out what to do about unanswered questions. The common situation was: someone asks a question on Slack, but nobody knows the answer. But since nobody knows the answer, nobody answers, and so the asker of the original question is left with no information whether anyone even read it or acknowledged it.

The solution was to instruct everyone to acknowledge the answer to every question. If you read the question but you don’t know the answer or the question doesn’t concern you, you drop the 🍒 emoji as a reaction or answer and move on with your life. So, the asker is left with information that you acknowledge but don’t know. Works wonders for streamlining communication.

(The reason for cherries, by the way, is a play on words that I don’t feel sufficiently qualified to translate.)

It’s important to remember that not every question is binary, and just assuming that just because it was asked it has to be answered might lead you astray. Remember the tomato.

Inter Caetera

Inter Caetera is a blog focused on web development, quality, philosophy, religion and the humanities. Follow the updates on Twitter @inter_caetera