Asking questions of a stranger  

Posted by Denis Haack in , , , , ,

Asking thoughtful questions of people is essential to healthy human relationships. How else will we communicate our care for them as fellow creatures? How else will we gain some sense into how we can walk beside them in friendship, sharing to the extent they are willing, their pain and delight? And for Christians, if our Lord asked questions of the strangers he met, surely we need to do the same—only more so.

In Learning from the Stranger: Christian Faith and Cultural Diversity Calvin College professor of German David Smith helps us understand the process:

Asking respectful questions communicates concretely that I am willing to learn, and that I do not sit already secure in possession of all the relevant knowledge and expertise. Asking questions also signals, at least in principle, a willingness to listen to what the other has to say. For this reason, asking questions (again, as long as they are respectful questions) can be far more disarming than making statements, for it makes the questioner vulnerable and yields authority to the one questioned. Good questions communicate the willingness to not know and to learn from the other. I remind my language students from time to time that they are not learning a new language just so that they can bless more of the world with their opinions.

At the same time, paradoxically, good questions are rooted in prior learning. Questions that show complete naïveté and ignorance about the other’s culture may simply be received as hilarious behavior on the part of a helpless outsider—but they can also come across as offensive, especially if put to relative strangers. Barbara Carvill gives examples of an American college student asking a forty-year-old gentleman in Spain in 1992 if he fought in the Spanish Civil War (thus implying that he was much older than he was), of American high school students asking German exchange students if Germans have refrigerators (they do), and of American travelers in Hungary asking the locals if they “knew Jesus” (leaving them in the angry belief that they had been accused of not knowing about Christianity). Investing in some prior learning can enable one to ask questions that are appropriate and insightful, questions that show that one has already begun to think one’s way into the other’s culture and has respect for his or her context and experiences. Good questions are undergirded by an awareness of the historical context and an acceptance that the reasons why things might be as they are will be complex. Good questions can give the one questioned the gift of a new audience for topics and experiences that may have become old news to his or her usual conversation partners. Such conversations can lead to fresh insight on both sides of the exchange.

Source: Learning from the Stranger: Christian Faith and Cultural Diversity by David I. Smith (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans; 2009) pp. 119-120.

This entry was posted at Friday, July 17, 2009 and is filed under , , , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


Post a Comment