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Sunday, March 15, 2009

What were you expecting?

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When someone asks a question, I believe it’s because he wants to know the answer except in few situations. There is (my) simple rule when asking question: don’t ask question which can be answered in only one way. That is when context, position and circumstance of answerer puts him in a position that he has only one way to answer posed question then question is wrong question to ask. You will be surprised how often this rule is violated.

If questioner is only interested in pretending to ask question and doesn’t really care for reply then I can understand intentional breach of this simple rule of common sense. However, that is not the case many a times and I have seen people with sincerity on their face with expectations of genuine reply asking questions which has no other answer but obvious one. Such questions and their subsequent answers are futile in sense of not adding any value to discussion or information, except if questioner himself is unaware of obviousness of answer. What are these questions you may ask?

During pre-placement talks by company representatives on the campus in our college, asking these representatives whether their company permits flexibility, independence of decision making and growth opportunity is one such set of questions. As they are on sales pitch trying to sell their company to students, one cannot really expect completely honest answers from them and they will not say anything which will reduce students’ interest in the organization. Everybody loves to project his organization as good place to work even when he don’t think so himself. That’s why idea of company one gets as outsider is at least somewhat different than what one gets as soon as one joins as insider. It’s not their fault really. In a game called placement, companies sell themselves in presentation and students sell themselves in the interview. If students wrote statement of purpose indicating their real intentions in university admission process, will he get admitted?

When a professor asks students about how are they finding his course, can he really expect anything but positive reviews from the students? Even if students hate the course, they will be polite enough not to reply in negation, unless asked in correct context such as anonymously. When you ask me on this public platform whether I support racism, what do you think my answer will be? It’s not to say that my answer will be necessarily incorrect, but because there is no other way I could have answered the question, any answer is not going to provide insight into my real mindset thus making exercise useless. That's why I always end up smiling when someone puts an obvious disclaimer (me too, but it's not that kind of disclaimer). There are so many occurrence of such meaningless questions everyday that once you start noticing, you will find them everywhere. It’s mostly formality and desire to be praised, I understand, but don’t expect your dinner guest what he really thought of your cooking or your spouse about how do you look.

If you really want to know real answer then provide for opportunity where answerer can answer honestly without compromising himself. There is one exception though. An smart observer of human body language and linguistic ability may be able to pick up some signals in the manner answer is phrased despite it not providing any non-obvious information.
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