Are you asking?

A lot of people ask questions but do not want an answer.  It is a rule of the law court, and of politics and of a lot of police work, that you do not ask a question unless you already know the answer.  It is not the answer we seek, but rather the character of the person giving the answer.  The same is often true in job interviews and business meetings.  Questions are asked not to find the answer, but to assess the depth of the manure being peddled by the applicant.

Then there are those who ask questions to deflect attention from other subjects.  There is the old joke about the American tourist who asks the Irishman if it is true that the Irish always answer one question with another.  To which the Irishman replies “who told you that?”

There is the person who asks what seems to them an impossible question, what sales people call “throwing a porcupine”.  You are selling business suits to someone.  He decides the way to avoid buying is to “throw a porcupine”.  He says “do you have it in Orange?”  You don’t blink, and you respond “do you want it in orange?”  He asks “can you give me 200 this week?” and you respond “only 200, is that enough?”  Porcupine well and truly caught and thrown back.  His next objection is likely to be a more honest one.

There are those who ask questions defensively to avoid getting hurt, possibly from bad experience.  There is the joke conversation about the boy at a dance who works up the courage to ask a girl “are you dancing?” to which she replies “are you asking?”  Both are fencing, seeking to avoid the hurt of a rejection.”

Another question is one that does not seek to understand or to solicit an answer, but is in fact asked to establish the intelligence of the person asking the question, or to demonstrate the status of the interrogator vis-a-vis the interrogated.  The only response to such a question is to switch it back to the person asking it by slipping in a false compliment and soliciting their response.  “That is an excellent question, how would you go about answering it yourself?

In broad terms there are four types of questions.

  • Open questions seek understanding.  For examples see the poem below.  These are the key tool of market researchers, especially qualitative ones.
  • Closed questions are phrased to elicit a Yes or No response.  They usually begin with “Do you”, “Would you”, “Can you”, “Will you” etc.  Closed questions are a feature of the sales process.  “Isn’t this the best product you have ever seen?”  “Will you marry me?”  “Do you believe in God?”  The person asking is usually looking for a “yes”.
  • Leading questions are the tool of the courtroom lawyer and the politician who is dictating a script.  Your role in answering these questions is to substantiate the script.  “Is it not true that on the 5th of June at 8pm you were not, as you stated, in your home alone?”  If you are not sure where the script is leading, plead the 5th and refuse an answer.
  • Finally there is the trap which is phrased as a question, and is anything but.  “I insist you stop avoiding my question and answer with a simple YES or NO.  Do you still beat your wife?”  Damned if you answer yes, and damned if you answer no!

And so to our six honest serving men.  This poem is oft quoted in business circles as a mnemonic for open interrogative questions.  In fact, when you read the full poem, you understand it is the lament of a parent faced with the relentless curiosity of a child.  Why daddy, why, why, why, and while we are at it, are we there yet?  There is a seventh serving man that Kipling missed.  “Which”


I keep  six honest serving-men

(They taught me all I knew);

Their names are What and Why and When

And How and Where and Who.

I send them over land and sea,

I send them east and west;

But after they have worked for me,

I give them all a rest.

I let them rest from nine till five,

For I am busy then,

As well as breakfast, lunch, and tea,

For they are hungry men.

But different folk have different views;

I know a person small-

She keeps ten million serving-men,

Who get no rest at all!

She sends’em abroad on her own affairs,

From the second she opens her eyes-

One million Hows, two million Wheres,

And seven million Whys!

The Elephant’s Child 

Rudyard Kipling


4 thoughts on “Are you asking?

  1. Good observations.

    I’d personally like to have a go at answering a child who keeps asking “Why?” Thinking about such questions is practically my job. I imagine I would in many cases be able to go back to the conceptual underpinnings of the universe.

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