Oran came into the room and asked his wife, Pia, “Why are you hanging the picture there?”
Pia immediately turned on him and said, “You always have something negative to say about whatever I do!”
“I was just asking a question,” he said, but almost before he could complete the sentence, Pia stomped out of the room.
Later they both talked to me on Skype, and Oran said, “I don’t understand. I was just asking a question.”
“Well,” I said, “your sentence did technically end with a question mark, but you were not asking a real question, and Pia knew it.”
Oran could easily have directly told Pia that he didn’t like the location—or perhaps even the existence—of the picture, but instead he asked a question. Why? Let’s examine this.
Some of the Reasons People Ask Questions
To Gather Information
This is the usual reason that people CLAIM to ask questions—as Oran did—to gather information. This information may simply satisfy our curiosity, or it may be used for making decisions. Examples:
“What date and time will the staff meeting be held?”
“What is the cost of the lumber and paint?” (to assess the feasibility of a building project)
The frequency with which the average person complains is astonishing. Our complaints sometimes become annoying to others, so we put some of them in the form of questions. Oran was claiming to gather information, but he was really complaining about what Pia was doing, and she knew his real intent from the context, his tone of voice, and his facial expression. Other examples of questions that are really complaints:
“Why do we always have to work on such hot days?”
“You want me to do what?”
“Why do I always get the tedious jobs?”
To Avoid Criticism
After we’ve made a mistake, sometimes we can avoid criticism by asking questions:
“Didn’t you ask me to do it this way?” (shifting the blame to the person making the assignment)
“Wasn’t that her job to do?” (hoping to avoid blame for your not doing that particular job)
To Make Accusations
We appear to be more civil—barely—when making accusations in the form of questions. Parents and employers are especially adept at this approach:
“What are you doing?” This sounds more acceptable than saying, “You fool, you’re doing it all wrong,” and it forces the person being questioned to state what they’re doing wrong. Parents love doing the latter with their children.
“Why did you do it this way?” Rarely is this a real question. It’s a way to require someone to state their reasons and look stupid.
To Gather Allies
We commonly ask people questions in order to assess which side they’re on (preferably ours):
“Did you hear what she said?”
“Do you think it’s fair that the boss is asking us to work extra hours on that project?”
To Get Out of Work
“Why do I have to do this job?” When we ask such a question, we know SOMEBODY has to do the task, but by asking a question, we rock the supervisor or parent back on their heels, making them feel defensive. We do this hoping that somebody else will be assigned.
“Does this really have to be done today?” This is to postpone work. When have you ever heard someone ask questions so they can do a job sooner?
“Do we have to clean the whole thing? People hardly ever use half of it.” When do you ever hear someone ask questions so they can do a bigger job?
I couldn’t count how many times I’ve heard questions like this:
“Who was that on the phone?”
“Where are you going?”
“Did you ask if you could do that?”
While it is true that occasionally these questions are necessary, they are more often asked to make someone feel inferior—usually a spouse or a child.
Preventing the Use of Questions
How can we prevent the use of questions that have less than loving purposes?
We can be clearer in making assignments for tasks that need to be accomplished.
We can make the division of labor clearer. If Pia and Oran had decided, for example, that interior decorating would be entirely her responsibility, Oran wouldn’t have been as likely to ask his accusatory question.
We can ask for a clearer discussion of job assignments before they are finalized.
We can just shut up and not ask questions unless they’re necessary.
Don't know where to start?
Read or listen to: