We’ve all heard it said that there are no stupid questions. Most of us have probably said it a time or two in the course of our lives. That said, most of us have probably heard a question or two that really did strike us as stupid after all. Whether or not you’ve actually called out a stupid question by name is, well, …another question, but most of us, I reckon, have thought about a question or two with a certain trace of contempt.
It’s a dilemma. There is something in the nature of a question that leads us to want to say ‘hands off!’ Don’t criticize this! Be nice! There is also something in the nature of a question that leads us to want to put them back in the category of fair game.
…some of them anyway.
Why protect questions? I don’t think the issue is literally that there are no stupid questions. The problem has more to do with how you treat people than how one things about the intellectual merits of a query. Calling something ‘stupid’ isn’t usually all that helpful, to begin with. The real issue here is the likelihood that somebody asking a question is already putting herself in a vulnerable position. The fact that she is asking a question suggests that she is seeking new information, and so it seems particularly unhelpful to respond to such a request by mocking its source. She just said doesn’t know the answer, so why would you mock her? No matter how obvious the answer should be, mocking someone for asking a question seems pointlessly cruel, and very unhelpful. So, when someone is asking a question, it just seems like a good rule of thumb to give maximum charity to their question itself and to any impressions we may form about the person asking it.
There are of course exceptions to this.
It is worth remembering, for example, that sometimes people ask a question, not because they don’t know the answer themselves, but because they have other reasons for wanting you to be the one who actually produces the answer. It is often said of lawyers, for example, that they like to know in advance the answers to any question they ask a witness at trial. One might think of them as using the witness to help them tell a story rather than soliciting new information. We can of course find comparable examples outside a courtroom. In such cases, all our assumptions about the nature of a question and what it says about the person asking it go right out the window. In such instances, we may still wish to refrain from calling a question ‘stupid’, but that no longer has to do with any special kindness to the one asking it.
All of which brings us to an uncomfortable point; whether or not one ever wishes to tell someone their question is a stupid one, one ought to remember that questions are not entirely above suspicion. A poorly framed question can send anyone thinking about it down the wrong path, and some questions can be highly deceitful or at least terribly wrong-headed. Other questions come loaded with so much interactional significance that the information exchange requested pales in comparison to the social dynamics at issue. Either way, questions can pose a whole host of concerns other than just the need to figure out an answer to them. The problem with such questions is rarely that the answer should be obvious. In that sense, the ‘no stupid questions’ principle still holds. Nevertheless, some questions can be highly problematic.
What follows is a list of the types of questions one might want to twice before answering.
Is the list incomplete, you may ask?
Complex Questions: Perhaps the most commonly known pitfall in problematic questions would have to be the complex question fallacy (sometimes known as a ‘leading question’ or even a ‘trick question’). A complex question is phrased in such a way as to presuppose an assumption which is itself problematic. To answer the question is to grant the assumption. The classic example of a complex question fallacy is the question; “Have you stopped beating your wife?” A ‘yes’ answer affirms that you used to beat her. A ‘no’ answer means you still are beating her. Either way, answering the question puts you in a bad light, and (assuming you don’t beat a wife, which you may or may not have), your best hope to steer clear of the trap is to deny the terms outright and refuse to answer the question as it has been asked.
The trick to handling a complex question is recognizing it in the first place (and hopefully you will do that BEFORE you have answered it). Once you see it for what it is, it is best to call out the assumption that was embedded in the original question and state your objections to that assumption. This is the reason you are not answering the question.
Don’t be surprised if people sometimes try to taunt you into answering the question after all. It is particularly common in some online interactions to find people will just keep telling you that you still haven’t answered the question or that they are still waiting for it. The goal here is to suggest that your refusal to answer the question is a failure of some sort, the implication being that you either do not know the answer or you are embarrassed to admit the real answer out loud. Of course, sometimes people really do duck an honest question, but a complex question is not an honest question, and it does not deserve an answer. So, you are better off sticking to your guns.
Of course, not every complex question is a direct personal attack as in the example above, but whatever the assumption that is embedded in the question, granting it means something. Usually, that meaning if far more important than the specific answer you may give to the question. Even when the question is theoretical, it really is best to avoid answering a complex question.
Rhetorical Questions: A rhetorical question is a really a statement put in the form of a question. Usually, this is done for rhetorical effect. Let us say, I tell you that student had called me at 2am in the morning to ask whether or not they had an assignment due the next day. I then follow this by saying; “Is that a time to be calling me about homework?” If I do this, I am not really asking if that’s a good time to call; I am saying that it definitely isn’t. My question is rhetorical, and most likely you would understand this, but what if you didn’t? Were you to answer my question by saying; “sure,” and then going about explaining your answer, I am probably going to get frustrating and put you on my do not call list right along with the student.
The trouble with answering a rhetorical question isn’t as sharp as it is with a Complex Question. You don’t end up admitting to something terrible. Instead, you will may find yourself encountering significant resistance to the answer (or even outright hostility as a result of that answer) The person who asks such a question actually assumes the answer is obvious, and if you try to suggest otherwise you are raising an issue they themselves regard as closed. If your answer doesn’t match theirs, then you are in for a long haul.
The trick is to realize when a question is rhetorical.
The challenge to handling a rhetorical question is a lot like that of dealing with a suppressed premise in an argument. Because the implied answer to a rhetorical question was originally thought to be obvious, any subsequent discussion may involve extra stress.
Once you know that you are dealing with a rhetorical question, you have a couple options for addressing it. If you agree with the implied answer, then so be it. Nod your head and grunt affirmation. The conversation will then move on. If you don’t agree, then you should realize your answer will likely be the opening round of an argument, and that argument is a little more likely than normal to be with someone who doesn’t want to listen. One strategy that may help is to suggest that the other person explain their own reasons for thinking as they do, thus spelling out the point they have already made for you. At that point, you will be in a better position to consider their views and respond accordingly. Also, the person you are talking to may feel better about the susequent discussion after having expressed themselves more fully before hearing your objections. Either way, you will understand each other better once the original speaker’s thoughts on the matter have been expressed more directly.
Suggestive Questions: Sometimes the point of a question is really to make a suggestion. “Are you gonna check the expiration date on that milk?” or “Do you want to run a spell-check on this post?” might be good examples. “Are you going to check the oil in the car?” would be another. Putting these suggestions in the form of a question might be meant to leave an out for the person being asked, but in some cases, you could literally translate the question into a statement, a request, or even a command.
In most cases, suggestive questions are no big deal. The phrasing of a suggestion in the form of a question may serve to soften the tone of the suggestion, or it may be clever, or it may be the tip of the passive-aggressive iceberg. Either way, you can usually deal with these questions without too much drama. There is at least one type of suggestive question that can pose real problems, however, the accusatory question.
It should also be pointed out that suggestive questions come very close to being rhetorical questions. In many cases, they may be quite synonymous, but in most instances, a suggestive question will leave the person asked an out, so to speak. They can say ‘no,’ but the point of the question was to urge a ‘yes’ to the suggestion.
Accusatory Questions: Sometimes a question is asked for the sole purpose of poisoning the well. This is usually done for the benefit of an audience. When facing such questions, your own answer is quite beside the point. The only reason you were asked is because the person asking the question wants to suggest something that will prove personally embarrassing to you. Examples?
“Is it true that you are a sexual deviant?”
“Are you a socialist?”
“Isn’t it true you are only doing this because you are mad about _____?”
Hopefully, you get the idea. Of course, any one of these questions could be asked honestly of some people in some contexts, and depending on the audience or the community in which they operate, the answers may not even be all that troublesome. In other cases, the questions are asked in order to malign someone’s character and demean them in front of others. Depending on the audience, the question alone may be sufficient to give them a negative view of the person asked.
Things just get worse from there!
As the point behind such questions is really to make an accusation, any answer given is likely to be unhelpful. You may be given the courtesy of a chance to deny it, but doing so may actually just strengthen the impression that you are guilty, and in the court of public opinion, answering an accusation may effectively keep a harmful narrative in the news cycle. There isn’t really a clear and obvious way of handling such questions, but it is important to realize when you are facing them. The other person isn’t really asking you anything; they are making an accusation. One tactic you might consider using is to insist that the other person put their own cards on the table and present any evidence they may have in support of the accusation. If you can show that they don’t have any reason to ask the question to begin with, then there is a chance any audience will see the question as the cheap shot that it was. That will get you further than providing an honest answer to a dishonest question.
Diversionary Questions: Sometimes a question is asked for the purpose of changing the subject. Diversionary questions can be subtle, or they can be blatant, but either way the point is to shift the conversation to something the questioner would rather talk about than the topic at hand. They can also be used to slow down a discussion and bring a speaker back to a point already covered. Alternatively, they can be used to speed up a discussion and push a speaker to address advanced points before they have covered the most basic pieces of information necessary to handle those advanced topics. Diversionary questions can also just change the subject altogether.
The person asking diversionary questions may believe them to be relevant or they may be very deliberately trying to pull you off topic because they would rather talk about something else. Either way, the trick to handling a diversionary question is to recognize that it will effectively change the topic and refuse to go along with it. Whether or not your refusal is phrased politely may depend a little bit on just how politely the diversionary question was worded and/or the degree to which the questioner insists on pressing their question. It can sometimes work to say that you would like to answer the question later, but first you wish to finish discussing the current topic. A reasonable person will likely accept this. An unreasonable person may press. Mileage varies!
Start-from-Scratch Questions: One of the hardest things to deal with in the context of intellectual discussion is one which asks a speaker ready to address a complex subject to address one or more really basic points in dealing with that subject. You can only cover so much ground in a single discussion. So, if you are starting with the most basic building blocks of a topic, then you may not get to the complicated stuff at all. People focused on complex problems may also find it difficult to shift gears and think about basics when that wasn’t what they were prepared to do in that particular conversation. So, asking a start-from-scratch question in the context of a discussion where the answers might normally be assumed can effectly throw a speaker off her game. This may be an accident or it may actually be the point of the question. What to do about it depends a lot on how one assesses the situation.
If the person asking you to start from scratch appears to be sincerely, then the best course of action may be to shift gears and go ahead and discuss the basics. You may not get to the more complex information you had hoped to talk about, but if the person you are talking to needs more basic information, then you are better off covering that anyway. Now if that person is outnumbered by a group reading to get into the thick of complex issue, then you may have to balance their needs and interests against those of the larger conversation. Either way, so long as the question was asked in all sincerity, it should be possible to manage the conversation.
The real problem here is that sometimes people ask start-from-scratch questions, not because they really want to know the basics, but because they mean to make you work for every single piece of information you wish to claim. Socrates did this, and he became a hero to philosophy (though he doesn’t seem to have impressed the Athenian community of his own era). Internet trolls also do this. Most of us just find them irritating. The tactic is akin to sealioning and/or rhetorical questions, but the main point here is that when someone actually knows a topic well asks very basic questions, they are likely preparing to call into question answers we like to take for granted. This can be a great intellectual exercise if everyone is game for the challenge. It can also be a form interpersonal aggression clearly intended to aggravate others and/or to prevent people from forming meaningful conclusions to serious questions.
What to do about a start-from-scratch question? It’s your call. Considerations include the following questions:
Do you think the question is asked in sincerity? Are they really in need of basic instruction? Alternatively, do they openly acknowledge their own intentions for asking such a question?
What are your own obligations to answer questions? Is this your job or are you free to decline the task at hand? How patient are you? How likely is the questioner to try our patience or to listen to your answers?
Unanswerable Questions: Some questions simply cannot be answered. No, this isn’t usually because they are extra profound. It is far more likely that the question is in some sense incoherent. These usually fall into two categories; questions that employ contradictory terms, and those employ vague terms. “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” would be a good example of the first. So would; “What color is the sound of a horn?” (though my old philosophy professor insisted the answer to this was obviously ‘blue’.) The second sort of question would include such gems as “is the United States of America exceptional?” or “Are you a spiritual person?”
Questions of the first sort are a bit like complex questions. They cannot really be answered in their own terms. One has only to explain what the problem is. One hand cannot clap by itself. It must at least be clapping up against something or it is not clapping at all. We either need to know what that other thing is, or we should probably just skip the question.
Questions of the second sort can be addressed by trying to define the terms in such a manner as to make a clear answer possible, but people asking such questions are often invested in the enigma of vagaries to begin with. Each effort to spell out what one means by ‘higher power’ or ‘exceptional’ is likely to leave the person asking them unsatisfied with the subsequent answer. In some cases, it might be better to just skip these questions to.
Assignment Questions: Sometimes the problem with a question is not in the question itself; it is in our own inability to provide a serious answer at the time and place in which it is asked. People typically answer them in one of three ways; by answering anyway, by asking for more time to study, or by flat out refusing to answer the question after all.
Those answering anyway may try to finesse the issue by using vague terms or even diversionary tactics, or they may just take a guess based on whatever information they have available. They might acknowledge their lack of confidence openly or they might try to bluff their way through it. Either way, the decision to answer anyway involves the risk of getting the answer wrong, and possibly looking very foolish in the process of doing so.
Asking for time to study-up on the answer to a question may or may not go over well, depending on the expectations of those asking the questions and or any audience present. It’s also worth considering whether or not the time it takes to study up on the answer to a question will be well spent in doing so. In professional contexts, one might be expected to do the work in question and get back to people, but if the discussion is unmotivated by any clear practical interests, then one may be better off admitting that he is not in a position to answer and that additional time is not likely to change this fact. On the other hand, sometimes a good question can send us to google or to a library and the end-result can be be provided later. When this is possible, most reasonable people will accept it.
The hard part to such questions is often admitting to oneself at least that you don’t know to begin with.
Thunder-stealing Questions: Sometimes people ask a question knowing full-well what the answer is and/or that the answer will be forthcoming if they just wait a moment. In at least some cases, the point of asking the question is really to steal the initiative for addressing the issue from the person being asked. Case in point, upon hearing a teacher announce a new essay assignment, and knowing very well that the teacher is likely to announce a deadline and a minimum word count, one student may ask; “When is this due?” Another asks; “How long does this one have to be?” Students may be doing so as part of a genuine effort to get an answer or even because they are overly-eager to get started thinking about ir, but they can also do so as a means of transforming the power dynamic in the classroom. Changing the instructions into an interrogation of sorts can undermine the authority of the teacher and create the impression that the students are driving the conversation.
Conversely, I once a saw a faculty member go through a proposal from administration, asking a series of accusatory question (“How are you going to deal with this?” and “What about___?” The administrator had answers to each question, but each answer effectively came across in a defensive tone. I finally realized my colleague was actually staying a paragraph or two ahead of the administrator as she went through the document, effectively asking questions the answers to which we had already been provided and would have discussed in a few minutes anyway. The point of asking these questions was to dominate the discussion and create the impression the admin hadn’t thought about these things and addressed them only after being pressed on the matter.
What do you do about this kind of question? Quite frankly, the best answer may be nothing. You just answer them and move on. Anyone aware of the dynamics in question will likely know what is going on anyway, and many of these power games are only as important as you let them be. The biggest problem posed by such questions can be the fact that they involve an interruption, so if you get a lot of them, it can be difficult to keep up, and/or they can disrupt the order at which you meant to move through the issues. If that is a problem, or if it seems like the damage to one’s credibility is getting serious, it may be worth it to claim the floor, so to speak, and ask people to withhold their questions until after one is done with an initial presentation.
Of course, this leaves open the question of what to do about isolated thunder-stealers; “are you going to get me flowers for my birthday?” may effectively weaken the power of the gesture, but that isn’t a question of handling an audience; it’s a question of handling a relationship.
Um, good luck!