“Questions” represent a prominent cultural marker in America. We’re concerned here not with those proposed by outspoken skeptics, but with questions raised to produce additional information and enhance understanding. The more of those kind the better – a proposition broadly accepted. They’re regarded as a prime indicator of an enviable curiosity and an eagerness to learn. Endless questioning, for example, is perceived to be an essential attribute of childhood. We applaud children who are insatiably curious as they seek to understand the world around them and turn eagerly to adults for answers. Their inquiries delight and challenge us even as they force us to improvise at times and to be evasive when the subject matter is complex, indelicate or beyond their capacity to grasp.
In school settings, skilled teachers continually encourage students to participate in discussions (“Any questions?”) and reward those who do. Questions help determine if they’re communicating effectively while identifying areas of confusion and misunderstanding. Students, however, don’t always respond, often remain mute out of fear of exposing their ignorance or their inability to frame a question. (Fashioning an effective question can in itself be most challenging.) In an attempt to stimulate dialogue and demystify the process, teachers frequently resort to the somewhat mindless exhortation – “There are no stupid questions.” Perhaps so, though surely irrelevant or unfocused questions abound.
The proliferation of news and interview programs on radio and television have given special prominence to the question and answer format. Skilled, persistent and knowledgeable hosts attempt to elicit revealing responses from guests although the latter often are inclined to shift focus, become evasive , wriggle out of tight spots and skirt controversy. Often they simply avoid certain questions, claim prior restraint (viz. pending court case) or focus in on a minor unrevealing portion of the issue.
Or you will hear them say, “That is a great question.” What’s the message here? It could represent an effort to disarm the questioner, employ flattery to blunt aggressive follow-up and otherwise steer the conversation into safe waters. It may also be regarded as a
“great question” because the guest now senses a way to move the conversation in the desired direction, easily within his comfort zone and drawing it away from subjects best avoided.
But, what exactly is a “great question”? Now that’s complicated, but is, most assuredly, a great question!