In Praise of the Silly Question
Competitive Advantages of Stupid Questions on Clever Questioning
Who hasn’t ever recanted before asking a stupid question? The famous question that burns our lips but which we fear will betray our ignorance in the eyes of our interlocutor, disqualify us in the company of experts, or even annoy the person we are questioning.
When in doubt, we keep this question to ourselves, leaving the others to deal with the intelligent questions, i. e. requests that advance within a marked perimeter. So much the worse if all the questions only confirm what everyone more or less already knows. It’s a bit redundant, these questions have everyone’s approval.
Yet dumb questions have a competitive advantage: they really do open to a better understanding of things where the clever question often only pushes a door ajar. By going off the beaten track, they prove to be better antidotes to the tongue-in-cheek or bullshit language that conveys almost no information. By the very fact of being a little out of frame or even off-topic, silly questions also invite the interlocutor to redefine his frame or his subject, thus giving a deeper vision of his subject. Moreover, hearing the answer “But that has absolutely nothing to do with it! “is often very informative.
Icing on the cake, silly question produces an emotional stimulus. The way in which the interviewer reacts will in itself be additional information that is sometimes more valuable than the answers themselves. Silly questions, by moving forward without preconceived ideas and making fun of the agreed implicit ones, fully play their role as a real question. Whereas clever questions only seek confirmation.
This naive approach is one of the components of the Socratic questioning. This famous maieutics that Socrates was fond of: an iconoclastic way of bringing ideas to life in his interlocutors, whoever they may be. Actually, it is a strategic naivety which, although it sometimes irritated his interlocutors, proved to be devilishly effective in bringing out the truth. This technique more than once allowed the Greek philosopher to trap the Sophists, those perverse rhetoricians who were always convinced that they were the cleverest, at their own game.
A lesson that would be learned much later by another character who raised the silly question to the level of one of the fine arts: Columbo. Interpreted by the genius Peter Falk, Columbo added, as we know, to his crumpled gabardine, his swaying gait, his strabismus and his confused elocution, a virtuoso use of the art of stupid questioning.
With his implacable modus operandi, he distils his silly questions into an apparent blur. The destabilized interlocutor goes through several phases: annoyance, irony and self-pity. But at no time does he suspect the ingenuity of the lieutenant, who moves forward masked behind his seemingly wobbly and spineless questions. Until, just as he is about to leave the scene to say goodbye to the suspect and end the interrogation, Columbo stops. After a slow U-turn, slipping his hand through his hair, he says to the caller, “Oh, I almost forgot… one more thing”. Too late… The unmasked culprit can only show his admiration for the one who managed so stupidly to trap him…
Recent events have given us scathing proof of the terrific effectiveness of naive questioning: with the hearing of Mark Zuckerberg made by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. We remember that some time ago the senators have been humiliated by the young CEO of Facebook.
Despite tens of hours of interrogation, they had remained confined to a superficial, supposedly intelligent questioning. In fact, they were stuck at the idea of revealing their ignorance, and as a result, they had allowed themselves to be fooled by Zuckerberg’s technological flour. While the young democratic representative in only 5 minutes with simple, direct questions, without a priori — so “silly” in the end that nobody before her had even had the idea to submit them — liquefied her interlocutor.
When stupid questions prove their devilish effectiveness.¶
From our essay “Les Vertus de la Bêtise” (Editions de l’Observatoire)