gary s. whitford

Ever wonder about the question? Consider the interrogative. We seek information from one another by posing a question. We find out and discover; we test and affirm. Having addressed the too-oft “Huh?” in a recent post, let us consider the quest for information that guides our decisions.

Search and Ye Shall Find

We seek information from computers. No matter how much value the global postulate receives from exchanging scenic photos, cartoons and celebrity photos with clever aphorisms and quotes, God created the Internet for writers. We learn how to surf a search engine with precision, shaping our query with +this and   -that, placing “key phrases in quotes” and so on. We can get to the heart of the matter in seconds and follow tangential paths for hours.

Once upon a time, we would search through card catalogs and the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature (the latter reference required a call to librarians Edward and Ruth Sagebiel to recall the name), followed by a trek through dusty tomes for information.

Relevance in the Relationship

Surprisingly enough, the most immediate information isn’t available from the World Wide Web. To find out what your friends think and feel right now, you have to reach out and ask someone. Granted, you can chat through text or social media, but the real, right now way to discover is a question delivered by phone or – gasp – in person.

Real talk. Stock photo by Iris Dimmick.
Real talk. Stock photo by Iris Dimmick.

When questioning your beloved and best friends, it’s important to remember that words can mean more than their definition in the dictionary. Of those words that mean more than they seem, “why” carries an indictment that doesn’t really seek explanation. In the close interpersonal context, “why” sometimes means: “You have made a choice that betrays my understanding of your better nature, and I do not understand what you were thinking.”

A long-ago New York Review of Books included an article about a woman, named Jesse, diagnosed with autism who created detailed, stunning, colorful paintings of bridges. Jesse’s mother did most of the communicating and the author asked, “Is it okay if I talk with Jesse?” The mother replied, “Yes, but avoid questions that start with ‘why’ because Jesse will hit you.”

So Why Do You Ask?


Do you really want to know, or do you just want compliance, affirmation, a vote of confidence? If you merely seek reassurance, take a deep breath, go within for faith and perception.

Do you think you already know the answer? Then don’t ask, just postulate, then listen, and watch.

Use your questions wisely, and you will find truth. Avoid accusatory “why” questions – a defensive person cannot be honest.

I used to filter questions with a multiple choice: “Do you want me to lie or tell the truth?” Unfortunately, nearly no one chose the correct option, and I would be forced to divulge boring reality. I no longer ask, and choose for myself. If the tale in my wicked mind is tall enough, wild enough and amusing enough (Andy Kaufman theory of comedy: “Hey, I think it’s funny.”), I will go with the lie. I trust the yarn to be twisted so preposterously that its falsehood transparent. Otherwise, asker beware.

A Good Answer

Let us not wander further into these quizzical woods without considering the answer. If you truly respect the art of the question, true questions flowing from an earnest need to know, then you will want to be a good respondent. The best answers include the content of the question to acknowledge the intent of the posit and couch the information in a meaningful context. Even the standard rejoinder, delivered with a shrug, can have meaningful context: “I am sure that subject has been thoroughly investigated without a substantiated result.”

Where’s the Tip?

A well-mannered Every Word Counts about questions would give you, the reader, interesting and insightful tips about how to ask a good question. Lots of research indicates that articles about “Six Good Ways…” “Three Keys to…” and other snappy promises of a facilitated solution get more attention than a less specific guide. But the truth is, readers open those articles, read the subheads to catch the tips and surf on to the next wave.

All we did today is consider the question, and I hope that it counts for something.

San Antonio copywriter gary s. whitford grapples, toys and dances with words all day. You can read more of his writing on the Extraordinary Words website and in his personal blog.

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San Antonio copywriter gary s. whitford is a partner in Extraordinary Words, providing clear, compelling content for business and non-profit communications. gary has lived in San Antonio for 2/3 of his...