Saturday, April 3, 2010

What's going on here? (Part 2)

Just two days after the ridiculous events, and my appropriately ridiculous blog post, of April Fool's Day 2010, I bring you a post with the same title but with much different content and soul. On April 1, 2010 I had a(nother) goofy idea: what would it be like to communicate using only questions? Could I do it, or would my brain turn to mush after a mere five minutes of straining? And, if my brain didn't turn to mush of its own accord, would my ticked off conversation partners do it for me? All very interesting questions, but what makes you think I have the answers? And do you think that stopped me from trying?

So...what, exactly, did I do?
As I said, I had the idea on April 1, but it was late in the evening so I only got a few hours of questions-only speaking in there. The next day, though I admittedly forgot about my plans for some ten minutes after waking, was the real beginning of the challenge: one day of communicating (mostly) through questions.

That "mostly," timidly squeezed in there between those parentheses, is a sign of either weakness or good sense. From the start I knew this little experiment could tick other people off, so I made a few provisos:
  • I could use single-word responses, especially "yes" and "no" -- though I tended towards "mm-hm" and "mm-mm."
  • If a fight seemed likely to erupt I could switch to normal, unrestricted speech. I had to use this rule only once and I was just the mediator.
  • I could use any kind of sentence, as long as it ends in a question mark when written down. Nevertheless I tried not to be formulaic and brought forth a solid mixture of the fives Ws, as well as the "yes-no"s. I also tried to avoid long statement clauses with question clauses tacked on at the end.
Someone more disciplined and serious about this whole matter would have little technical difficulty in trimming the three provisos above, but the social consequences could be dire. Just remember: talking with other people is always better than sitting alone, asking questions of yourself.

What was it like?
Not as difficult as I first imagined. Different, too; a kind of experience I had never quite encountered before. I have a tendency to be verbose, to labor a point of Roman History or the book I happen to be reading, which ultimately leads to only stifled yawns. This experiment, far from leading to rows as I had anticipated, was an awakening or at least a reprieve. In retrospect, I suppose it is not at all surprising: people like to be listened to, to have their stories heard.

But I am neither Studs Terkel nor a Hallmark channel original movie. Luckily, you can be much more than just naively altruistic or annoyingly philosophical when using only questions. You can be inquisitive, of course -- but also funny, angry, mean, embarrassing. At least I managed all those, and much more, in well under 24 hours. The only thing truly difficult to express, not surprisingly, is direct statements, especially regarding yourself, your feelings. "What do you think?" she says. "Well, what do you think?" is all I can say -- usually a better choice than, "I like the blue dress best."

I did not tell my dad about my little experiment and the whole day passed without him noticing. Everyone else with whom I had primary contact knew -- I'd blabbed my mouth the night before -- but none seemed deeply outraged by it. Only my friend George said she was annoyed -- but only once and I bet that was more a matter of the content rather than the method (perhaps I should add "annoying" to that above list of emotions). And the woman at Family Dollar, I swear, saw me as a typically terse and sullen teenager. Everyone else seemed utterly oblivious. I suppose that's typical: they are accustomed to oddball words and phrases issuing from my mouth; Hannah says I usually ask a lot of questions, anyway.

What would a questions-only world be like?
I am convinced, at least with the way things stand now, that a world with just questions would be a very dull world, indeed. (A questions-only novel would be equally boring -- just a note to all those potential Georges Perecs in the audience.) Questions -- most questions -- are meant to be answered. They are not terribly interesting in themselves and are a direct cry for this additional information. This experiment was so successful because of their answers, not my questions.

However, things change, people can adapt. Linguists and psychologists have uncovered an enormously wide array of circumstance in which people have lived, to which they have adapted -- with varying levels of success. Of course, there is no telling what a world of only questions would be like, but of course I feel the urge to speculate.

I see it as a world of enormous circumlocution: the detective says, "Did you murder those five people?" and the suspect says, "How should I know? Did I?" Even if this supposed suspect wanted to confess he would certainly have to jump over more hoops than in the current situation.

If you want to get philosophical about it, we already live in a "world of enormous circumlocution." We have never been able to say what we mean, mean what we say -- not really. Yes, there have been attempts at creating a new, clearer, more logical, even philosophical language. John Wilkins and his contemporaries gave it the old college you-know-what in the 17th century, but the endeavor has lapsed into the realm of folly ever since. As for more recent endeavors, like Lojban, see XKCD. In short, if we can live with the current state of inaccuracy and circumlocution, why couldn't we adapt to another layer, or two?

If you want to get really philosophical about it, I don't know. Do I really have to answer this question? There was no grand scheme and there still isn't. It is not terribly useful, like curing Cancer, nor is it particularly breathtaking, like rock climbing or sky diving. But, but, but -- why does my life suddenly feel more complete?


  1. My favorite blog post yet and Hannah's right, you do ask a lot of questions anyway.

  2. Thanks, George. Glad you like it.