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    Questioning Questions

    “How old were you when you stopped having sex with your pet?”

    “What!? I never had sex with my pet!”

    “Stop avoiding the question. How old were you?”

    “But, I…”

    That argument is clearly going nowhere. And the reason is obvious: the most important part of the question is actually the assumption underneath it. The questioner creates a domain and, in order to answer the question in any way, you must acknowledge the validity of the domain. To answer in any way, you must admit that your schnauzer was kinda cute.

    Absurd as the above volley may sound, try out this one, from today’s Boulder Daily Camera (our local newspaper that sometimes has the editorial weight of Tinkerbell):

    “Are human beings inherently good or evil, connected or disconnected?”

    This was from an article about how more people are calling themselves “spiritual” rather than “religious” (I’ll have to save my thoughts about THAT premise for another post… but the short form is: same ugly prom date, different dress).

    Check out the question again: “Are human beings inherently good or evil, connected or disconnected?”

    Not much different than, “When did you stop pokin’ the puppy?”

    They imply a belief: a spectrum on which we can judge people, with “good” on one side and “evil” on the other, and a set of relationships where “connected” or “disconnected” are the only possibilities.

    They rely on the person answering to make up what “good” and “evil” and “connected” and “disconnected” mean, and then land on one side of the fence or the other.

    And, clearly, “good” is better than “evil” and “connected” is more evolved than “disconnected.”

    In reality, this question is no more meaningful than: “Are human beings inherently 4.17 or yabba-dabba-do, jalapeño flavored or Dutch?”

    To even entertain the question is to suggest that you agree with the unspoken premise. And, sadly, to tell the questioner that they have been unknowingly speaking in a language that sounds like English, but is really a dialect of Moron makes you “defensive.”

    Anthropologist David Eller gave a great example of the statement-under-the qusetion during a talk today: If we’re at a restaurant and I ask you ‘Are you going to finish those fries?’ I’m not asking for you to predict your future eating habits… I’m telling you to push the plate towards me!

    Just because a sentence ends with a question mark, that doesn’t make it a question!

    (But if it ends in an exclamation point, it *is* serious! Seriously!!!!!!!)

    A question mark is like the command a stage hypnotist uses to make someone start clucking like a chicken. Say it at the right time, and the person will stop what they were doing and start looking for bird seed. Use a question mark at the end of a veiled statement and it’ll make the listener hunt and peck for an answer.

    “How can I attract more money into my life?”

    “How do I get rid of the blocks and resistance that are keeping me from having a successful relationship?”

    “How do I get over my fear of intimacy?”

    I know these SOUND like questions, but they are actually statements about a ridiculous set of beliefs. And to even consider that there is even a way of answering them means you buy into these beliefs. Let’s have a word swapping party to see what I mean.

    “How can I vomit more money into my life?”

    “How do I get rid of the hybrid cars and jelly donuts that are keeping me from having a successful relationship?”

    “How do I get 5′ to the left of my fear of breathing in and out?”

    Trust me, the first batch of questions is as ludicrous as the 2nd if you don’t believe in notions like “attracting,” “blocks,” “resistance,” “getting over something” or “fear of a concept.”

    And, BTW, to “not believe in those” notions doesn’t mean you believe in the opposite. It means there’s no frame of reference for which  those notions have any meaning at all.

    I’ll bet that if you’re reading this, you don’t believe that the Sun is actually the burning of Thor’s hammer as it travels through the cosmos. It’s not a question of whether Thor’s hammer is or isn’t burning, it’s that the question is nonsensical.

    If you want proof that not all questions are questions, just go listen to your average high school student make the simplest statement and use the rising intonation at the end of their sentence, as if there were a question mark at the end!

    “Hey, young man. How old are you?”

    “I’m 17?”

    “I can’t tell from the way you said that. Are you asking me, or telling me?”

    “Um, I’m telling you?”

    “Do you WANT me to shoot myself in the face because I find the way you’re talking so annoying?”



    3 Responses to “Questioning Questions”

    1. ric Says:

      “the most important part of the question is actually the assumption underneath it.”

      In linguistics that’s called a ‘presupposition’, a hidden assumption that must be true in order for an utterance to have meaning. NLP training includes detecting, responding to and creating presuppositional language. Too complicated for me, i just get sucked in. Did i stop beating my wife?

      “How can I attract more money into my life?” “How do I get rid of the blocks and resistance that are keeping me from having a successful relationship?” “How do I get over my fear of intimacy?”

      I see these questions more as a matter of unspecified abstraction, likely arising from the unwillingness to do the obvious. The NLP approach would be to elicit specific concrete examples. Attract money? Get a job! Rob somebody. May require unpleasant activity.

      “I’m 17?” strikes me as a real question that asks something on the order of “is this the answer you want?” The intent, though, may be other than seeking acceptance.

    2. sashen Says:

      Interesting that you bring up acceptance… a few years ago on NPR, someone did a story about kids who speak as if everything were a question. And they interviewed a girl from my old high school. When asked why she spoke that way, she immediately STOPPED speaking that way and answered, “It makes whatever I’m saying less threatening to people in authority.”

      I was stunned by her immediate clarity.

      Now, I don’t believe most people are using this way of talking for that reason. By now, it just seems like a new dialect. Nonetheless, it does have an impact on the listener, the same way that a British accent affects Americans differently than, say, a Southern or New England accent.

    3. ric Says:

      It must be a regional dialect. We don’t do that here, eh?





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