Kettle Questions

The other day I was talking to a student, when I encountered a familiar pattern of conduct; a series of loosely related questions asked in rapid succession without any attention paid to the answers. I’ve certainly seen this before, and I’ve learned to regard it as something of a power play, or at least a kind of venting. Often, I figure the student is trying to overwhelm me with questions rather than get any actual answers. Alternatively, they are expressing frustration at their own sense of being overwhelmed, perhaps seeking to share that sense of frustration with the person they blame for it.

When facing such a barrage of questions, my first goal is to slow the conversation down and insist that the student listen to the answer to one question and show that they understand it before moving onto the next. Sometimes this means saving the discussion until after class so as to remove the stress of taking up class time in the presence of other students. Then I work my way through the questions one at a time, taking as much time as necessary to ensure the student gets the answer to each question before moving onto the next. This usually works, but it works partly because I have the leverage to dictate the pace of the conversation.

When I say that this works, I mean, that it works in the sense that I can put actual information back at the center of the conversation, and assuming the student is cooperating, I can then work my way through each piece of information one at a time. This works for me. Whether or not this works for the student depends on their own ultimate goals. Assuming they really want to continue with the class, this strategy effectively forces them to focus on the information rather than indulging their sense of frustration. If on the other hand, their goal is to rage-quit or pick a fight, this will most likely force their hand early; they will exit the conversation and then typically exit the course.

So, why am I rattling on about this? Because I don’t think this is a problem unique to teaching. Sometimes people ask questions for reasons that have nothing to do with soliciting information. Sometimes this is done through individual questions asked in tricky ways, and sometimes it’s done by asking a series of questions in a maximally disruptive manner. Of course, it helps if the person questioned is responsible for providing answers in some sense (a fact which keeps them planted in the line of fire, so to speak), but there are lots of roles that could set someone up for this; a public spokesman for any organization, someone engaged in official disputes of any kind, any boss addressing subordinates about a policy, or for that matter; any subordinate being questioned about their own (mis-)conduct. You can’t just arbitrarily subject people to the 3rd degree, but there are a broad range of contexts which could put a person in a position where they are expected to field your questions. In such instances, people will sometimes take advantage of the opportunity to weaponize those questions.

It’s a bit like kettle logic (hence, the coinage) insofar as each question asked might be perfectly reasonable in its own right, but coupled with other questions asked in the same conversation and taken in context, the questions effectively deter any serious effort to answer them.

What are the features of kettle questions?

  • They are usually asked in rapid succession, but not in a manner that facilitates efforts to group them up or take them in succession. This is more likely to occur in a verbal conversation than a written exchange. If the person asking the questions doesn’t provide time to answer each and/or if the one asked doesn’t have the chance to write each question down, the rapid-fire delivery makes it less likely that the person asked will be able to answer each question effectively.
  • Often a new question will be asked while someone is trying to answer the previous question. This prevents completion of the answers, and frustrates the person trying to answer them.
  • The order of the questions is incongruous. It isn’t that a second question is necessary to answer the first (that would make it a reasonable question); the second question actually changes the subject to some degree, forcing the person asked to shift their own attention in order to answer the new question. If she cooperates and tries to answer the second question, the fact that she didn’t finish the first answer then creates an opportunity to come back to it at the leisure of the questioner, perhaps creating a new shift in focus away from efforts to answer question number two, …or 3, or 4, or 13.

Here is a made up example:

Person A: How do you get to the class webpage?

Person B: Well you, go to the school page and you look on the left side for a button that says…

Person A: I don’t know the word count for the essays. How long do my essays have to be?

Person B: You can find this on the syllabus, but the answer is…

Person A: I still don’t have a college email. How do I get one?

Person B: You do have a college email. Your college email is the one you used to send me a message yesterday.

Person A: Okay, so how do I get on the class web-page?

Person B: Well…

Person A: And when is the assignment due?