Why you should care

Because you don’t want everyone in the room cursing you for wasting their time. 

Trying to make yourself understood? From the minds of OZY, the kings and queens of clear communication, comes Crossed Wires, a series of immodest solutions for all of your communicative problems.

Yep, we all have, so often that it’s time to discard the shibboleth that there’s no such thing as a stupid question. “We teachers are a fan of saying that, but none of us actually believe it,” says Jerry Roberts, a 30-year veteran of the classroom and author of School House Diary: Reflections of a Retired Educator. Though Roberts would never call out a student for asking a stray question. Neither would most of us — we just curl our toes and silently curse the orators of ego for wasting our time. Or maybe that’s just me.

Perhaps, we should rework the motto as follows: “There’s no such thing as a stupid question so long as it ends in a question mark.” The problem is many queries aren’t queries at all. They are about someone seeking attention or looking to provoke a reaction, says Art Graesser, a University of Memphis psychology professor and Oxford researcher.

If everyone could just get past their social paranoia, we could get somewhere.

Art Graesser, psychology professor at the University of Memphis and researcher at Oxford University

And we, at least in part, have teachers to blame for our poor inquiry skills. Kids are naturally curious — why? how? what would happen if? — but educators don’t much encourage such intellectual aimlessness. Instead they want kids to know the answers to who, what, when, where — or so-called grill and kill questions. “Our school systems have removed curiosity from kids,” Graesser says. “It’s not socially sanctioned to ask the questions that actually matter.”

That may be because teachers know they don’t have all the answers. Or because they don’t want to derail their lesson plans. Graesser’s prescription for the stupid-question epidemic is that teachers present students with dilemmas that are based in genuine uncertainty, where they can be co-explorers in the search for knowledge.

That won’t necessarily stop stupid questions, of course: They mostly come from blowhards who set their personal agendas before the group’s goals. It doesn’t occur to them to find the answer on their own time. “Generation Me.”

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