Question strategies

Given the potential difficulty of understanding what is meant and the increased risk of creating misunderstandings, questions are particularly important in communication. Generally, the following rule applies: it is better to ask once too often, than be understood wrongly and then act incorrectly. However, over-application of this rule entails the danger of seeming less competent. For exactly this reason it is worth paying particular attention to the wording of questions. Thus, competence can be displayed when formulating questions by not beginning them with a question tag (who, when, where, how much, etc) as in a police interrogation, but rather by explaining the reason behind the question. If uncertain whether an indirectly formulated demand is to be understood as a question or an instruction, one can expressly enquire about its illocutionary significance:

I am not sure how I should understand that: do I have to do it immediately, or is it up to me whether I do it?

The dangers of failing to do this are illustrated by the following request directed by an Austrian manager to his Russian secretary:

Could you, if you have time, rewrite the letter to the magistrate?

The secretary heard what, according to Russian conventions, was a non-binding observation and did not act. The boss could, of course, have added a meta-communicative comment:

I mean you to do this right away.

In intercultural business communication, it is especially important to strive for maximal clarity if facts and regulations which are not particularly well-known are involved. Specifying questions and enquiries for ensuring understanding are useful when there is the least doubt. Here it is worthwhile to explicitly address potential interculturally-determined differences, e.g.:

What does ... mean?

What is usual in your country if... ?

Do you also take a break if the negotiations are at a standstill?

Questions are generally a problematic speech act because of the association with exam questions. Even in everyday situations, if someone requires information, they do not always ask for it; in some circumstances, they may be fearful of showing weakness or being regarded as uninformed. This is supported by studies, notably for men (cf. Tannen 1991: 62-65). Additionally, some questions are actually more problematic in intercultural situations than in one’s own culture, e.g., questions about age or social situation, which are of a private nature (cf. Borge 2007). Nevertheless, it has been shown that good negotiators ask around twice as many questions as less successful ones (cf. Gorgen 2005:110).

The following excerpt is from an interview carried out by Ljubov Kostyleva (K) in Vienna during December 1999 for her diploma thesis with a controller from the company Bosch (B). It shows that practitioners too are fully aware of the question strategy (cf. Rathmayr 2008a: 413):

K: Do you have problems understanding your colleagues [in the Bosch office in Kiev, founded in 1993], are suggestions always formulated clearly?

B: Sometimes there are problems understanding someone, or I’m not sure if they have really understood me. They answer yes, but if I ask the opposite question, they still say yes. And I know they didn’t understand something. This displays the principle of enquiring. If you ask a question and receive a “yes” and then ask the opposite question, you should get a “no” in return. But you have to be extremely careful as we also have colleagues who speak excellent German [...] and who are offended and answer “you just asked me this question but the other way round”. Therefore you have to know exactly when to use this.

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