Thursday, June 26, 2014

The importance of asking the right question

I've just finished reading a Neil Gaiman book - The Ocean at the End of the Lane.  It's a bit different and offbeat... although perhaps that's the same thing as saying 'it's a Neil Gaiman book'.  In any event, the main character said something that really has me thinking.

In part of the story, the main character is a child.  He's speaking to someone, and begins to think she must be older than he thought, so he asks her "How old are you?"  And she replies "Eleven".  Now, initially, he'd assumed she was about eleven, but as I said, some things had happened that made him think she must be older than that.  He considers her response for a moment, and then asks "And how long have you been eleven?"

Wow.  Now that's a question.  A good question.  And a terrific lesson.

You have to ask the right question, if you want the right answer.

This isn't anything new.  I've annoyed more than a few people over the years, because if someone asks me if I know what time it is, I typically say 'yes'.  If you want me to tell you what time it is, you need to ask me what time it is.  When people get annoyed, I point out that I answered the question they asked.

Then I got to thinking.... what would Siri do?  Well, interestingly enough, when I asked Siri if she knew what time it was, she told me the time.  Hmmm... a bit disappointing, actually.  You see -- I already knew what time it was... I just wondered if she knew.  In this case, I asked the right question, but Siri answered the question she thought I intended.

So maybe the problem is that people don't necessarily answer the question you asked, instead they answer the question they thought you should have asked.

Kind of feels like a chicken and an egg sort of problem.  Which came first, the bad question, or the bad answer? While I don't know the answer to that question,  I do know that I just received a new shipment of tea... and I always think better after having a cup of tea.

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