We all know an impolite question when we meet one. They’re easy to recognize when you’re the person asked the questions; not so easy to recognize when you’re the one asking the questions.
One way of looking at impolite questions is in terms of positive and negative face. So, an impolite question would be one that attacks a person’s positive and/or negative face needs. Questions attacking positive face needs—that is, the need for approval, for confirmation, for compliments—would include those that imply the person is not deserving of positive expressions (“Did you really try hard enough?” or to use Deborah Tannen’s book title, “Are you going to wear that?”). Questions attacking negative face needs—that is, the need to feel autonomous and in control of one’s own behaviors and not to be imposed upon—would include those that make demands on others, the questions implying “you should” and “you have to” (“Don’t you think you should call your mother more often?” “You ought to save more money, don’t you think?”).
Another way of looking at impolite questions and perhaps a much more intuitively satisfying approach is that they ask for disclosures that you normally don’t want to make. In terms of the Johari Window model—repeated in most if not all communication textbooks—impolite questions ask you to take information from your hidden self and move it to the open self, a move you may not be willing to make at this time or to this person. Often the information asked for is inappropriate for the relationship you have with the questioner; it may be too personal or too unpleasant to discuss serious health problems, for example, with a casual but nosey acquaintance.
Impolite questions are a major part of ineffective communication but have been little studied by communication researchers, at least as far as I can tell. So, I thought I’d start collecting impolite questions. Here are just a few:
1. How come you never had children? Or “How come you didn’t have another child?” [often accompanied by a well-intentioned but grossly impolite “I’m sure Janie would have loved a little brother.”]
2. You look like you lost weight. Were you ill? A question such as “How are you doing?” enables you to express your interest and also enables the other person to respond generally or specifically as he or she wishes. On the other hand, a question such as, “Have you lost more vision since we last met?” requires specific information about a specific ailment.
3. Where are you from? This is a tricky one and I read this in a letter to the editor column. At first, it seems a fair and not impolite question—when you expect an answer like “I’m from the Bronx.” But, this writer was Asian in appearance and a fifth generation American and resented the implication that the question implies that he somehow didn’t belong here, was from someplace else, was somewhat alien, an outsider (to the insider asking the question).
4. Financial questions are well-known to be impolite and yet they’re extremely common: “How much did you pay for your apartment?” “What do you pay for rent/maintenance/taxes?” “Was that expensive?” [A backhanded way of asking the price?”] “You earn a good salary, I assume” [with a rising inflection, waiting for the salary figures].
5. “How come you never married?” Or it’s variant: “How come you’re not married yet?” beautifully portrayed in the classic film Marty where the Bronx butcher is asked this by a customer with the added note that even his younger brother got married.