The question of questions

Should you ask them? When should you ask them? How should you ask them? How often should you ask them?

Questions seem to carry a public health warning for women.

From way back in the early seventies when connections between women and language were beginning to be voiced; when in 1975 Robyn Lackoff wrote ‘Language and a Woman’s Place‘, and long before anyone had even heard of speaking styles from Mars and Venus, women have been warned about their use of questions. This advice, supposedly based on how women use language, goes something like this:

Don’t use tag questions – they make you sound insecure and uncertain. (For example – “You think that would work, don’t you?”)

Do ask open questions – they encourage your interlocutor to give detailed answers. (For example – “How do you see that working?” Rather than, “Do you think that will work?”)

Don’t use negative questions – they make you sound negative too. (For example – “Don’t you think that would fail?” Rather than, “Do you think that would succeed?”)

In the paper and on-line self-help literature there is somewhat of an obsession with the questions women ask, the types of questions they ask, how many questions they ask, what tone of voice they use to ask their questions – the implication being that if women change the way they speak, they will be more effective leaders and managers.

This advice adds to (and maybe even creates) a widely shared belief among the women participants in my research, that the way they speak more or less naturally, is perceived as weak and ineffectual – and that they need to change it. And of course, making subtle shifts in style, tone and language does alter the way you come across and as such can make you feel small and insignificant – or substantial and confident.

However, much of this popular advice comes from a time when it was common to analyse language and its use, not from recordings of actual interaction, but from controlled situations, from memory and even from a writer’s imagination. As I have pointed out before in the this blog, the evidence from research based on actual recordings of people interacting at work (and not on how we think they do it) challenges some of these now familiar linguistic landmarks. For example, now there has been far more analysis of naturally occurring talk, it turns out that women, people in fact, use tag questions for all sorts of purposes and not, as Robyn Lackoff once proposed, mainly because they are uncertain or seeking approval.

It is of course, far more complicated than the sound bites suggest. The range of meanings an open question can convey is very wide. It depends on the speaker, the context, and the power the speaker does or doesn’t have and it is this last point that is so significant for how women are stereotypically perceived. Does your intention always match the result? And if it doesn’t, is that because the way you speak makes you powerless? Or is it precisely because you are relatively powerless in a particular situation, that you speak the way you do?

Let’s face it – if when you ask a lot of questions, you are perceived as interested, ill-informed or just plain stupid depends on a lot more than the formal structure of the sentence.

The trouble with normative prescriptive nostrums such as “don’t use negative questions” or  “use open questions” is that they are free of power and context. Open questions are not always so open. “How does that seem?” may (depending on the context and in particular the power relations between the speakers), be used for a whole range of things including a put down, a criticism, a threat, a suggestion, an ironic aside, or even a genuine open question.

But there is something really troubling me. When I talk to professional women about the gender and language research I am reading, their response, as often as not, is to look politely doubtful. Their experience speaks to them differently and it simply isn’t helpful for me to articulate ideas which seem to fly in the face of this. So recently I have been listening to recordings of conversations at work with this in mind to try to identify elements of (power and) language use which do resonate with the research group.

The conversations I am analysing are run-of-the-mill, standard, unremarkable workplace interactions in the course of getting work done – and they are fascinating. In the smallest of conversational moves, together people shape their working climate and environment. Just as the way work gets done is structured (some things are unquestionable givens while others offer a bit of wriggle room to do things differently) so it is with workplace talk. And it turns out that questions have an important role to play in this balancing act between reproducing and changing the way things get done.

I took three samples – a group SWOT analysis, a regular face-to-face management meeting and an international conference call – and transcribed and analysed the interaction to see what people were doing with questions. In all three of the meetings the person with the most formal power was a woman who was also explicitly interested in finding ways of making workplace conversations more inclusive and balanced.

What I discovered surprised me. Although the leaders of the meetings were sensitive to how they might influence meetings dynamics, in the main they did not. In fact, they found themselves, much as all the other participants in their meetings, bound by the conversational routines and expectations about what makes a SWOT analysis, a management meeting or a conference call. Each of these is a different type of conversation – and this matters because each has rules and routines that we simply take for granted, and in the main, don’t break.

These are only three short samples of language so I don’t want to overstate my case, but I wasn’t able to able to identify ‘insecurity’ from a question tag, or confidence from a direct question, or gender from any kind of question. In these conversations it wasn’t what any one person said that gave me any insight into how power and language worked, it was the way that the people worked together in small and subtle ways to keep the conversation steady, and to keep the group on track doing whatever kind of conversation everyone was agreed that they were doing. Questions were overwhelmingly used (in these samples) to gently nudge the conversation along or get it back on track.

What surprised us – me as a researcher and my partners as managers – was just how predictably routine these interactions are. Very little happens in the talk to challenge the way things get done. One of the participants was quite shocked, “But we never ask each other any really penetrating or interesting questions. I don’t know why we talk so much about innovation – all we do is stop each other from going off script!

It’s worth remembering. If we choose to spend any time at all asking ourselves endless questions about the questions we ask, let’s make sure we are challenging each other to ask better questions and not judging ourselves for the way we ask them.


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