Friday, January 7, 2011

Questions, questions

This post is a bit of a rant about a disturbing phenomenon that seems to have cropped up without my knowing, and that is this mysterious issue of when asking questions became tantamount to bad manners.

If you read my previous post about the Lorfa, I mentioned the problem of human ignorance and how it is a major source of conflict, and that communication is an essential tool in not just eliminating this conflict, but furthering our understanding of the world. I'm a curious person, and I ask plenty of questions. In the past couple of years though a lot of my questions have been met with "dirty looks", as if I had committed some kind of faux pas.

Now I can understand how questions could be insulting, especially some rhetorical questions such as "Are you crazy?", "Are you dumb?", "Why don't you shove this up your rear end?" etc. Common sense will tell you that these questions will often not be received well. However questions that are designed to simply understand the world around me are often received badly nowadays.

I asked a software engineer who was on a development team, how large his staff was and he got extremely insulted. I did not ask in any way that I would find rude; I always try to put myself in the shoes of the person receiving the questions to check and see how I come off, and I do this even more if someone received a question badly. I think he interpreted my question a long the lines of "you guys don't do any work you lazy slobs". However nothing in my question indicated this.

Normally I would just chalk this up to a unique event involving one particular individual who may have been having a bad day or is actually just a jerk, but it happened again numerous times with different persons over different mediums. The majority of them were american though, so hopefully it is only an american phenomenon.

I believe it is a problem of reading into a question too deeply. A lack of objectivity I suppose, and this relates to my previous post as well. Personally I wouldn't mind seeing the day when a question such as "Are you stupid?" could be taken at face value and answered yes or no, even though that particular question is a bit problematic (if the answer is yes, are you qualified to answer?).

The way I see it close-ended questions have six possible answers: Yes, No, I don't know, Maybe (it depends), Mu, and I can't tell you. I suspect that a lot of folks would find that last answer a bit unsettling, but I do recognize that there are many situations in which it applies. Of course, often times when a person wishes to conceal information they will use the "I don't know" instead of the "I can't tell you", which makes it even more secretive. This wouldn't be acceptable in all circumstances however as in some cases it is obvious that the person does have the information.

In case you aren't familiar with Mu, it means "void" or absolute negation. This applies to questions such as "Do you still beat your wife?", Assuming that either you have never had a wife, or do but have never beaten your wife, neither "Yes" or "No" would be acceptable. Unacceptable as well would be "I don't know", presupposing the person would remember taking such an action, and if they wouldn't they are probably too crazy to be having such a conversation with.

"Maybe" would be bad as well, as would be "It depends", because this would indicate that with some minor clarifications the answer would be "Yes" or "No", and we established our scenario as this not being the case. The "I can't tell you" answer would be rather difficult to apply here, as again the same problem exists in that it indicates a "Yes" or a "No" being the correct answer, even if there is a barrier of secrecy in the way.

So, the appropriate answer here is "Mu", meaning that the question is inherently flawed and cannot be answered with any of the typical answers applied to close-ended questions. A lot of folks will just say "I don't beat my wife, and have never done so", or "I have never taken a wife" to take care of the prankster asking the question. However, this is an open-ended answer to a close-ended question, something I find inaccurate even though it is acceptable and used in many cases (and abused by politicians). It is probably polite to include an explanation after you answer "Mu", as this might perplex many.

With these six answers at your disposal, I don't see any reason to take offense to a close-ended question, barring obvious rhetoricals that are designed to insult. I'd say that you can even answer "I don't want to talk about it", after all the person asking the question is asking you for a kind of favor, to answer their question. I would be happier to hear this answer than a lot of the negative responses I get.

Perhaps it is a matter of ego, if you ever saw Star Trek V where spock's brother and the crew meet who is supposed to be god. "God" asks to be taken away from there on the Enterprise, which provokes Kirk to ask "What does god need with a starship?", and bones eventually says "Jim, you don't ask the almighty for his I.D.":

Of course the entity refuses to answer Kirk's question, instead opting to shoot at him with some kind of lightning. Maybe people feel intimidated by skepticism, and would prefer some kind of absolute faith. I'm opposed to faith in cases in which it fuels ignorance though, if for no other reason than because ignorance gives rise to conflict.

I guess I'll just keep asking questions and hope that the trend disappears, and that most will understand that I do not have malicious or dishonest motives. Someone told me that perhaps I am not asking such questions as diplomatically as I could, but you can only be so diplomatic before you aren't asking the question at all. Then there's the other issue where excessive diplomacy becomes dishonest/phony, as you will know if you have seen just about any sitcom. The eightfold path of Buddhism includes a category called "Right speech" which explains this quite well:

"The importance of speech in the context of Buddhist ethics is obvious: words can break or save lives, make enemies or friends, start war or create peace. Buddha explained right speech as follows: 1. to abstain from false speech, especially not to tell deliberate lies and not to speak deceitfully, 2. to abstain from slanderous speech and not to use words maliciously against others, 3. to abstain from harsh words that offend or hurt others, and 4. to abstain from idle chatter that lacks purpose or depth. Positively phrased, this means to tell the truth, to speak friendly, warm, and gently and to talk only when necessary."

I have also seen it phrased as "speak from the heart", which could also be extended to questions. "Question from the heart" I suppose.

So, if it will please your majesty, and if it's not too much trouble, please leave a comment for this blog entry. Thank you for your time. 

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