This I Believe: I Believe In Asking Questions

Jul 25, 2016

Talia Cowen.
Credit Emily Reddy / WPSU

I have this friend who gets to know people by interrogating them. It’s as intense as it sounds. She starts with the basics: “Where did you grow up?” “What’s your favorite movie?” “What’s your favorite color?” But it quickly gets more and more obscure. “What was the first concert you ever went to?” and “What’s your favorite kind of bread?”

And so on. She is relentless.

I’ve seen it happen several times, each time wilting in shame and embarrassment by proxy. I anticipate how weird the interrogatee must think she is, and how bizarre I must seem by association.

But the thing that surprises me every time is how these questions seem to put strangers at ease. With every question, they open up more and more, beginning to enjoy themselves and embrace the new sensation of being asked a question. I have seen the most impervious people soften after only five pointed queries.

So, thanks to my friend, I believe in asking questions.

Questions are a social lubricant we don’t use often enough. They break the ice. But, other than being a way to make nice, I believe questions are the most important tool we have to get to know someone. Without questions, we stay strangers, talking past one another.

While perhaps there is a limit to the number of questions you can ask someone, I think Hallie’s approach makes me question whether the limit can ever be reached. While I rarely regret asking a question, I often regret not having asked more. I wish I would have asked more questions to my late grandfather, or that person I sat next to for a whole semester and only made small talk with. A questions is the best way to let someone else know you care about them, or want to get to know them better.

As someone who hopes to be a journalist, it would be remiss for me not to mention the value of questions in my chosen field. Questions are the best—and often the only—way to get a story, usually from a total stranger. I’ve always been told that the best interviewers are those who start with some good questions, and can grow those questions naturally into a conversation. I know I have a long way to go before to get to this point, but since I began my foray into journalism, I’ve had a few interviews like this. There was a government professor, a state government official, and a local artist. And while not all of them made it into stories, they were each interviews where thoughtful questions grew into conversations I won’t forget.

While journalists-in-training like me are repeatedly instructed on how to ask questions, asking good question doesn’t require years of training. All it requires is a genuine interest and a little curiosity.

So, I guess my question to you is: I believe in asking questions. Do you?

Cowen was an intern at WPSU-FM in the summer of 2016.

She recently graduated from Bowdoin College. She also earned a Fulbright scholarship and will be teaching in South Korea until the summer of 2017.