IT’S ALMOST a standard closing after slide presentations, including webinars, to check if there are any questions from the audience. (Are they still around with no audio/video?) The absence of questions can indicate: a.) lack of interest; b.) the presenter already running over his time limit; or, c.) everyone has already left.
Questions are a form of social greeting.
When asked how one is coping with the crisis, does the standard response still apply? Is the query intended to gauge how the pandemic has affected us? In terms of health, wealth, and mental well-being? Should one even attempt a full answer (do you have time?) or just treat the casual question with a grim reply — I just tested positive.
In its neutral form, a query is a simple request for information on a topic, sometimes a sensitive one. (Can we move on from first base?) A stunned silence may be the right answer — wait, my Grab ride is here.
Can questions also equate to orders, as when the interrogator sits higher in the food chain? A corporate query, “have you finished the report I asked for?” is not asking for simple information. (Getting there, Sir.) It can be a rebuke for being too delayed in one’s commitments.
The question “Where is the elevator?” is an example of a simple request for directions. There is no implied reproach of somehow having misplaced a structural feature of the building. Only the truly paranoid will inject some hidden insult in the simple request for directions — is he implying that I am short?
Answers required under oath are a special category. Lawyers are tasked to coach the respondent on the proper way to address such questions. Those who have been witnesses, resource persons, or avid followers of media-covered hearings observe that questions can be longer than the answers being sought. (Just give an answer of “yes” or “no.”)
Questions from supplicants are seldom a case of gathering information. This includes questions on jobs, keeping one that one has (Sir, am I included in the downsizing exercise?) or getting an acquaintance into the company as a supplier of egg tarts. These include follow-up questions that only seek reassurance — Are you sure you won’t change your mind again?
Media practitioners asking questions are viewed as legitimate interrogators seeking clarifications in the arena of public interest. Journalists though can be like congressional investigators in eliciting answers that make news. This bias for controversy is seen in TV talk shows (even when the interviewee is answering from home) where the host forces a guest to a conclusion he is trying to avoid. (Why are you so consumed in looking for an evil motive here?) The host is quick to stop this unscripted cheekiness — Let me do the asking, Sir.
Ambush interviews are a variant of hostile questioning. A well-thought-out response is called for — no comment. The setting of this gotcha moment is not conducive to sharing information. Too many people are blocking the way to the exit.
Questions among friends are driven by social convention. Unless the one asking is a rival for a position, the straight reply works best. If one is asked if he is aware of an outside luminary coming in for his position, he can give a simple negative reply and then vomit afterwards in the washroom — where is the elevator?
Some questions do not even require answers. The “rhetorical question” is in the debater’s toolkit. It is self-contained and usually hurled as an insult. Do you think you have all the answers, Mr. Smarty Pants? (Can you repeat the question?)
The complexity of questions and answers is a subject worthy of a sociological study. Answers to even the most difficult questions tend to be anticipated. It is best not to raise a question if the answer is likely to be unacceptable — do you still have feelings for me? (Are you sure you want to know?)
Philosophical questions are a special category. They are inquiries one makes on oneself. What is the meaning of life? There is no need for an immediate response. It’s good to sleep over this one. In the morning a new question will pop up — what’s for breakfast?
Tony Samson is Chairman and CEO, TOUCH xda