Sunday, January 5, 2014

Good communicators hone the use of indirect questions to a fine art

In polite society, how we frame our questions has a decisive bearing on the kind and quality of response we’ll get. This is why when in unfamiliar social situations or when addressing a total stranger, it is the mark of civility to avoid pointblank questions and make use of indirect questions instead. Indeed, indirect questions have the pleasant effect of “breaking the ice,” so to speak, encouraging those addressed to give information willingly—very often without being conscious of doing so.

In “The Grammar of Indirect Questions,” an essay that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times, I explored the various forms of indirect questions and the many ways of structuring them to elicit the desired response. I am now posting that essay here to help people hone their use of indirect questions to a fine art, thus making them not just effective but pleasant communicators as well. (January 5, 2014)

The Grammar of Indirect Questions

Imagine you are all by yourself at an MRT station or bus stop when a total stranger suddenly walks to just a few inches of you and blurts out this question straight to your face: “What time is it?” No matter how harmless or decent-looking the stranger, chances are that you’d feel a deep sense of intrusion, as if somebody has just barged into your bedroom from the outside in the dead of night. You may not say a word, but your sense of violation and outrage would be real. This is because when asked direct questions like “What time is it?” pointblank, the preliminary amenities neglected, people instinctively resist giving answers and oftentimes become downright hostile.

This, as we must have observed all our lives, is where the art of asking indirect questions comes in. Using indirect questions instead of direct ones in socially unstructured settings has the pleasant effect of “breaking the ice,” so to speak. It lowers resistance to intrusion on privacy and prompts people to give the requested information willingly and without seeming to do so. Thus, in the situation described above, and without thinking at all, you probably would have obliged the stranger with the desired information had he used this classic indirect question, “Hi! I wonder if you can give me the time,” or, with less familiarity, “Excuse me...May I know what time it is?”

Although indirect questions clearly ask for a response, they don’t necessarily need a questioning intonation when actually spoken, nor end with a question mark when in the written form. The first indirect question above, for instance—“Hi! I wonder if you can give me the time”—doesn’t look like and isn’t in the form of a question at all. It is an indirect statement that embeds a question word to reduce the sense of forthrightness. Its basic structure is this: Indirect statement = [indirect phrase] + [question word] + [statement]. In the given example, the indirect phrase is “I wonder,” the question word is “if,” and the request statement, “you can give me the time,” is by semantic design already worded in the affirmative. This psychologically predisposes people to make an unstated “yes” and unthinkingly give the requested information. “It’s 9:25,” you’ll probably reply without thinking more of it.

See how this same wholesome tact is used by the other indirect questions that follow, and compare it with that used by their direct question equivalents: “I really don’t understand what you find in that woman.” (“What do you find in that woman?”). “It must be difficult for you to put up with such an inflexible husband.” (“How can you put up with such an inflexible husband?”). “I suppose you have already discussed your complaint with the boss.” (“Did you discuss your complaint with the boss?”).“You must find it so inconvenient commuting to your office.” (“Isn’t it very inconvenient to commute to your office?”).“I wonder if the good-looking applicant you interviewed is qualified for the job.” (“Is the good-looking applicant you interviewed qualified for the job?”).

The more formal and polite way to put an indirect question, however, is to use a phrase followed by a statement, in a construction that—unlike in a direct question—doesn’t invert the subject and verb or use an auxiliary verb: Indirect question = [indirect phrase] + [statement]. By taking the form of a real question with a modified question embedded in it, indirect questions like the following profoundly attenuate the oftentimes irritating forthrightness of direct questions: “Can you tell us where you were that night?” (Where were you that night?”). “Do you know how long the trip will be to the Banaue Rice Terraces?” (How long is the trip to the Banaue Rice Terraces?”).

For an indirect question that we want answered with a simple “yes” or “no,” we can use an indirect construction with an “if” embedded in it, as in the first indirect question we discussed: Indirect question = [indirect phrase] + “if” + [statement]. “Would you ask her if she is interested in the job?” (“Does she want the job?”). “Could you tell me if this is the store that sells jade bangles?” (“Is this the store that sells jade bangles?”). “Would you know if they are willing to sell all their stocks at a 15 percent premium?” (Will they sell all their stocks at a 15 percent premium?”).

The difference between indirect questions and direct questions may look deceptively superficial, but the superiority of the former in eliciting a positive response simply can’t be underestimated. Indirect questions are definitely not only a much more civilized way of getting information from strangers and acquaintances alike but are much more efficient ones at that. To become more pleasant and effective communicators, we will thus be much better off cultivating the art of asking indirect questions rather than just banking solely on the conciseness of their direct counterparts.
This essay subsequently appeared as Chapter 113 of Jose Carillo’s book Give Your English the Winning Edge. Manila Times Publishing Corp. Copyright 2009 by Jose A. Carillo. All rights reserved.