Friday, November 27, 2009

Questions? or Pseudoquestions?

“Why can't I go to the party” “Why can't I stay up as late as Bill does?” “Why do I have to take that boring math class?” If you are a parent of a teenager you've heard such questions ad naseam (at least if you're a responsible parent). Quite likely you've noticed that those questions are an invitation to an argument and you may want a better way to answer them. Actually they may not deserve an answer because in most cases they are not questions at all. They are pseudoquestions.

A pseudoquestion is really a complaint phrased as a question. People who ask real questions want answers. People who present pseudoquestions want you to change something. The teen doesn't want to know why he can't go to the party or stay up late. He doesn't want to know why he has to take that math class. He wants to go to the party, stay up late and skip the math class. If he wanted to know the answers, you could explain to him the dangers of the party, the need for a good night's sleep, and how math will be useful to him later. Then he would be satisfied. However no answer is a satisfactory response to a pseudoquestion because the “questioner” doesn’t want an answer.

That is the key to distinguishing between real questions and pseudoquestions. If the “questioner” really wants an answer, then it is a real question. However if he only wants to complain or get you to change something he doesn't like, it is a pseudoquestion.

The distinction is important. Real questions are the gateway to progress while pseudoquestions simply cause contention. Physicists questioned things like why the atom is stable and why some other odd things happened that they didn't understand. The result, after many years of seeking the answers, was quantum mechanics. That science stands behind much of modern technology, including the computer on which I’m writing this article.

The point is that those scientists didn't complain that the atom wasn't acting the way their knowledge at the time said it should. Instead they asked real questions and dedicated time, talent, and energy to finding the answers. The pseudoquestioning teen, on the other hand, doesn't seek to learn why math or a good night's sleep is so important. Instead he devotes time, talent, and energy to complaining and trying to get his parents or school administrators to change the rules.

Of course children can drive their parents crazy with either real questions. What parent hasn't been driven to distraction by questions such as, “why is the sky blue?” “How do birds fly?” “Why don't snakes have legs?” There was even a popular song about that, “Little Wendy Why-Why” by Al Hoffman and Martin Kalmanoff. The song expressed the exasperation of many parents when their offspring start to resemble “one big question mark.” Such questions come faster than parents can answer them, but at least they are real questions. If parent and child pursue answers together, those questions can lead to some real education as well as parent-child bonding.

However the difference between questions and pseudoquestions is not limited to children. Pseudoquestions also plague business and public life, and even adults can hinder their own happiness when such disguised complaints keep their focus on what they don’t like. What manager hasn’t had an employee “ask” something like, “Why can’t Jim do it?” In most cases that employee doesn’t want to know why Jim can’t do it, he just doesn’t want to do it himself. A better employee might ask something like, “What is the best way of doing this task so that the company prospers and we all benefit from it?”

Some people also ask “questions” like, “Why doesn’t the government pay for my health care.” Do you think they really want to know the answer? I doubt it, they just want to avoid taking responsibility for that part of their own lives. Give them a good answer and they will continue to complain.

It is also common for people to obstruct their own lives with “questions” like, “Why do these things always happen to me?” When you ask such a “question,” do you really want an answer? I doubt it, more likely you want bad things to stop happening. A much better question would be, “What can I learn from this?” Or “What can I do to make things work out better in the future?”

How do we deal with pseudoquestions? There is probably no pat answer. We might just give an answer and if the person is not satisfied then say, “I answered your question and it is now obvious that you didn’t want the answer. You just wanted to complain and I’m not going to listen to complaints. Get on with your life.”

What if you find yourself the culprit in “asking” pseudoquestions? The same thing applies. First recognize that that’s what you are doing. Then give yourself a mini-lecture such as the above. You might even go look in a mirror and tell yourself to stop complaining and get on with your life.

If you like my blog, please tell others.
If you don’t like it, please tell me.

1 comment:

Spread Eagle said...

How to deal with what you call "pseudoquestions"? Socrates might be your friend. You respond with a series of questions of your own, each with an apparent built-in answer with which the youth will agree, all which taken together in sequence leads inexorably to the point you wish to make. The key here is that when you get there you don't draw the ultimate conclusion for the youth. That MUST be done by the youth himself or herself to be effective. Otherwise it's just another case of you laying the law down on them. It has to be a product of their own reasoning. They may still not like it --probably won't in fact-- but it's a teaching moment (and that's your job), and the complaining on that particular topic will lessen.