Not all questions seek answers

This post is also available in Dutch.

All kinds of well-known Dutch people have been in the news recently who “wanted to ask questions” about the government’s corona policy. But asking a question doesn’t necessarily mean someone is looking for an answer. What can a question actually imply?

An example of a celebrity who questioned the corona policy is top model Doutzen Kroes. She posted questions on Instagram in July like “Do they want us to be healthy? Is it easier to control a fearful driven society?” Or check out the more recent fuss about the hashtag #ikdoenietmeermee (I no longer participate), in which a number of celebrities seemed to indicate that they would no longer adhere to corona measures. Afterwards, the musicians Bizzey and Tim Douwsma, two participants of this initiative, defended themselves by claiming that they “merely wanted to ask questions”. In his programme, Arjen Lubach replied: “People who only have questions do not necessarily want answers”. And here Lubach is definitely on to something, because people indeed ask questions for different reasons, and questions can have many different functions.

In science, such functions are called speech acts. Every time someone says something, that utterance has a function. In that way, you can do various things with language, and asking a question is no different. To illustrate this, you can ask for information (“Where is the Lange Hezelstraat?”) or for a confirmation of information (“Is it true that you are allergic to shellfish?”). You can also ask questions to make sure that you and your conversation partner are in agreement, for example by referring to shared information (“Remember I told you about that Tinder date last week?”) or by checking that the other person still follows your story (“You know what I mean?”). You can also ask a question to empathize with someone (“It sounds like that was really tough, wasn’t it?”) or as an invitation (“Would you like to come over for dinner this weekend?”).

It isn’t always easy to recognize a speech act, but it is very important, as the speech act determines the appropriate way to respond. If you ask the question “Do you want to pass the salt?”, a joker at your table may simply reply: “Yes, I do” and, consequently, no further action is taken. In such a case, they are acting as if they misunderstood the speech act of your question. It is still unclear exactly how listeners recognize a speech act, but it seems that, in addition to the exact words, context, intonation, and body language also play a role.

And what about our influencers, such as Doutzen Kroes, what kind of speech act do they want to implement with their questions about the corona policy? It seems that they used a question to make a point. For example, Doutzen Kroes asked: “Do they want us to be healthy?”. But because of that question further on – “Is it easier to control a fearful driven society?” – it becomes clear that she probably means something along the lines of “I don’t trust the government to do their utmost for our health, I think there are other reasons behind their policy”. This was not a request for information, because if she had really wanted to know the government’s intention, it would have been addressed to the government and not to her followers.

A critical attitude is not wrong, of course, and whether you do or don’t agree with these celebrities’ messages is up to you. What we can learn from the science of speech acts, however, is that the function of a message is the same, whether you put it into a question form or not. If you regret that message later, you can just say so, as for example singer Famke Louise did as a result of her participation in #ikdoenietmeermee. But you can’t hide behind the excuse that your utterance is just a question, because these statement-like questions are also questions.


Original language: Dutch

Author: Marlijn ter Bekke
Buddy: Jeroen Uleman
Editor: Floortje Bouwkamp
Translator: Ellen Lommerse
Editor translation: Marisha Manahova

Photos by Jules Bss via Unsplash

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