Calling questioning into question

It bothers me that this isn't the most disturbing tattoo I've ever heard of.  Picture source:
It bothers me that this isn’t the most disturbing tattoo I’ve ever heard of. Picture source:

As we saw the other day, asking a question can put you in a position of power–it demands a response from another person.  Perhaps that’s why small children will ask why? over and over–it lets them make adults do something for a change–talk.

But, questions are more complicated than that.  Asking a question can also put you in a position of weakness–it’s an admission that there’s something that you don’t know.  It’s not an accident that you’ll rarely see the president of the US ask a question. You might use questions in both of these ways in a single context.  Maybe you’re in a meeting, and you ask a pesky underling a question about what they’ve accomplished that week–you’re showing that you’re above them in the hierarchy.  Then you ask your status-conscious boss a question that shows that you implicitly admit that they know more than you do.  Pay attention as you go about your day today, and see if you can guess what motivates people to ask the questions that they ask–what they gain by asking them, and what they surrender.

It’s sort of a stereotype that men are not as willing to ask questions as women, at least in America.  A quick Google search reveals no actual data on this, though, and I would be really surprised if there weren’t all sorts of interactions with many variables that go into determining something like this–is it a male/male, female/female, or male/female conversation; are we talking about behavior in a group, or behavior in private; are we talking about people with higher or lower status; people of the same age, or of different ages; maybe it’s different in different parts of the country.  And, do we count all questions equally?  Is an actual request for information to be counted the same as browbeating?  Is a perfunctory question to be counted the same as a genuine question?  When you start trying to count things in language, it can be a lot harder than you would think.

One of my linguistic themes these past few days has been trying to figure out the many ways to translate the word question from English into French.  Here’s one that you might not have seen before:

  • remettre en cause: to call into question.  Cela inclut la communication de nouvelles informations sur les propriétés dangereuses, ainsi que d’informations susceptibles de remettre en cause la pertinence des mesures de gestion des risques recommandées par le fournisseur.  This includes the communication of new information on the hazardous properties that become available as well as of information that may call into question the appropriateness of the risk management measures recommended by the supplier.  (From the web site.  Original source

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