Demons of self-expression recklessly discard restraint

Via the wonderful Viv McWaters, this post – How to Ask a Question – reaches me.

…. After they finished and the moderator opened the floor for questions, the usual thing happened. The questioners by and large had no questions. Instead they offered up prolix piles of words that led nowhere in particular. Some sought to show off what they mistook as their own superior knowledge. Others scolded. A few got lost in their own labyrinths. The closest we came to a question was the j’accuse rhetorical jab more or less in the form, “Don’t you agree that you are an ignorant buffoon?”

Some of the questioners were deliberately abusing their opportunity. That’s bad manners and an erosion of the civility that is needed for worthwhile public debate. But a good many of the questioners simply didn’t know how to ask a question. They were caught in the fog between wanting to communicate something that seemed to them urgent to declare and the need to ask.

You really have to read the whole thing (it’s not long). The author gives an excellent list of advice for, well, how to ask a question…

I’m reminded of Tom Lehrer‘s (whose birthday it is today!!) opinion on communication –

“Speaking of love, one problem that recurs more and more frequently these days in books,and plays,and movies and so on, is the inability of people to communicate with the people they love. Husbands and wives who can’t communicate; children who can’t communicate with their parents, and so on. And the characters in these books, and plays, and so on – and in real life – I might add, spend hours bemoaning the fact that they can’t communicate. I feel that if a person can’t communicate the very least he can do is to shut up.”


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5 Responses to Demons of self-expression recklessly discard restraint

  1. leavergirl says:

    Well, though I agree, I also find myself (surprise!) disagreeing. I would like to say a few words in defense of those spewing questioners. Here’s the thought. After you’ve sat passively for say an hour and a half listening to the sages on the stage talking to one another, you are itching to turn the tables and talk to them for a wee bit! But no, that is considered by our author as bad manners. And in the framework of the situation, it is. But maybe the whole “sage on the stage” thing is bad manners in a meta sort of way, hm?

  2. dwighttowers says:

    If the organisers of the meeting (or “talking”) have designed it so poorly that people are sat passively for 90 minutes, then they are the ones guilty of bad manners, and also should not be surprised when people “act out.” There are many innovative things that can be done to unfreeze these situations, of course. There is a place for “sage on the stage” – it’s just not as big as the sages would like… 🙂

  3. I think it is stupendously arrogant to require audience members to constrain themselves to asking questions. As if they can only be ignorant and in need of information. They have (as leavergirl suggests) had to listen to the so-called experts opine for a long period of time. Why are they not allowed to opine, shout, protest etc?

  4. leavergirl says:

    Right on.

    Both sides have a point… I remember wanting to ask some questions at the end of a panel or lecture, and being frustrated with all those incoherent or “lecturing back” questioners like the author has been.

    But at the same time, I mean really. Exactly, the sages need to be given much less leeway. Let them contain themselves — then they are entitled to expect some containment from the audience. It cuts both ways, eh?

  5. dwighttowers says:

    To me it’s about expectations being met. If it’s advertised as a lecture and Q and A, I will choose to go along if the speakers seem interesting enough from a google search of ’em. I will grit my teeth about the wasted opportunities for both lecture AND mingling – the two are not mutually exclusive, but most event organisers are very very dull and small c conservative. That’s just how it is. I will take a book to read if it gets bad, and during the Q and A I will jot down anything that’s interesting sounding in the “questions” (i.e. speeches). If someone is particularly interesting, I’ll go and introduce myself and try to swap emails with them. Overall, my expectations of these formats is very very low.
    It’s when it is billed as a “workshop” or a “forum” or some such and turns out to be the same old sage on the stage stuff that my blood boils/the red mist descends. If the organisers are too scared to admit what sort of event they are staging, or too ashamed, or too stupid to know the difference between lecture and forum (yes, you know who you are) then the Queensbury Rules do not apply, and I will kick off, either on the night or via electronic means. That level of disrespect to the people attending your event is unforgivable, imho…

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