Questions that Aren’t Really Questions

Do you ever ask questions that are really requests, not questions? Or maybe your wife does this to you.

Less than honest © Elnur | 

The other day I heard a wife ask her husband if he wanted to do something – something along the lines of “Do you want to go change your shirt” after it got a tiny bit dirty. He had already brushed his shirt off, and he said no, he did not want to change his shirt. End of subject, right? Thing is, it was clear to me his wife thought he should change his shirt. I suspect she was annoyed he did not take her “suggestion”, which is what her question actually was. If he was aware she was doing something other than asking a question, I suspect he was annoyed she did not just come out and say “I think you should change your shirt”.

Why did this woman hide her request in a question? Was she trying to manipulate, or did she think the way she put it was kinder than being blunt? Maybe she knew her husband would not want to do what she suggested, and asking it as a question made his “no” feel like less of a personal rejection. Maybe she feels unsure of herself, or maybe she was trying to help him out without starting a fight. Whatever her reason(s) she was not being open and honest, and she set up a situation where one or both of them could feel wronged.

If you think I am being too hard on this woman, realise I know I am often guilty of the very thing of which I am accusing her! I have a bad habit of doing this, especially with my lovely bride. If I ask her something and she does not do what I think she should (being honest here) it bothers me. Of course, at that point I really cannot ask her to do it, as I should have in the first place. I am not sure how I developed this habit – probably left over from my passive-aggressive days. I think it is mostly a way of expressing things I think are not fair to ask. It’s as if I am saying “I’d like you to _____ but I know asking you to do it is unfair or petty, so I’m doing it in this dishonest way.”

Having seen this so clearly in another person has forced me to look at myself and I must say I do not like what I see. I am going to stop doing this to my wife; if something really matters to me, I will ask and she can make a choice. If it is not important enough for me to ask her outright, I am going to let it go.

Do you do this? If so, I suggest you think about it, and consider changing.

Does your bride do this? Sending her this post might not be the best way to deal with it. If you know she does this, start to hear her non-question questions as what they are, and deal with them accordingly. Rather than a simple yes or no, address what it is she wants you to do or not do. Be kind about it. Don’t make a big deal of it, just address the request rather than the question. Maybe doing this will result in her changing how she speaks to you; at the very least it will mean you are talking more openly.

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7 Comments on “Questions that Aren’t Really Questions

  1. I’m not sure if I do it with my husband, but I know I do it with my kids. Honestly, I think it’s just habit. I try to be aware of how I state things, but sometimes it’s out before I realize how I’ve worded my request. I”ll have to listen to myself ask my husband things to see if I do this.

  2. While there are certainly passive-aggressive people who use indirectness in a manipulative way, the reality is that we all do this for a variety of reasons, most of them innocent. Experts in the field of linguistics have studied this kind of speech quite a bit. Often it falls into the realm of “politeness theory”. We develop the habit of framing our requests or statements in an indirect way because it complies with cultural expectations for polite discourse. That’s why we say to a waiter, “I think I’ll have the chicken,” rather than “Bring me the chicken.” It just sounds nicer. And the waiter knows what we mean – we aren’t just thinking about chicken, we really want it. This isn’t dishonest manipul;ation, it’s just normal, polite behavior.

    I was at a party with my husband when he borrowed my camera to take some pictures and then put it in his jacket pocket. Later I wanted the camera back, and I could have said, “Please give me back my camera.” But for some reason I said, “Is my camera still in your pocket?” He smiled and handed it back to me. Was I being dishonest and manipulative? No, just normal. My husband interpreted my statement correctly and responded appropriately.

    However, some people in some situations may not always interpret our indirect statements in the way they were intended, especially if we have developed the habit of being extremely indirect (perhaps unconsciously out of a desire to avoid conflict). So it does pay to learn to be more direct, particularly if we really want a specific result. And it pays to ask for more clarification if you notice that a statement or questions seems vague.

    • Rosemary – Great thoughts and information – thank you!

      I agree that there are innocent uses of this, and I have no problem with those. I realise that for me I have sometimes felt unhappy that my wife said “no” to this kind of a question when what I really wanted was for her to do what I “suggested”. This seems to me to be a problem.

      Thanks again!

  3. Yes, it can be really annoying when our spouses don’t take our suggestions. But is the problem that the spouse doesn’t understand the question or doesn’t like the way the question is asked? Or is the problem that they understand us quite clearly, and we want them to do what we want them to do and we don’t like it when they prefer not to? My guess (and I could be wrong – it wouldn’t be the first time!) is that if the woman in your example had said, very directly, “I think you should change your shirt,” her husband might have answered, just as directly, “I don’t think so.” Anyway, I’m not trying to be contentious here. But I do think that sometimes the real problem almost all of us have at times is trying to get our spouses to do things our way for our reasons, rather than being content to let them do it their own way.

    • I agree with Rosemary 100%. If a husband doesn’t want to change his shirt, he’s darned well not going to regardless of how he’s asked. Especially if his wife is in the habit of trying to dominate in this area. It would be a whole different story if we’re talking about her sweetly asking his assistance with something. “Sweetie, do you want to bring me a glass of water while you’re up?” Would most likely be met with “Sure!” in most healthy marriages. There is a huge difference between her trying to tell him what to do vs. her asking a favor of him.

  4. I totally do this, in an effort to be polite and not bossy. I am not my Hubby’s mother, so I am not going to order him around. (I’m an oldest sister… I can be very bossy.)

    Hubby, being a philosopher, will answer quite honestly. “Is my camera still in your pocket?” “Yes, it is. Do you want it back?” We have lots of these style conversations.

    He also doesn’t understand the “polite” factor, and so we have had several conversations about how a small change in the word order or choice can make a huge ‘polite’ difference. I’m a linguist, and so our conversations can get very technical!

  5. My husband has a tendency to do this. I recently started bringing it to his attention in a kind way as it can be upsetting at times. Once, as he was leaving the house in a hurry, he wanted me to make a cup of tea so he could take it with him. He said, “You want to make me a cup of tea, don’t you?” After I did so and handed him the cup, he forgot to thank me and left the house abruptly. Another time, both recliners in our living room were being occupied. He said, “Which one of you wants to give your chair up for me?” When I confronted him on this issue, I said, “Please don’t make statements like we’re reading your mind and wanting to do what you want us to do. Simply ask the question. “Would you please make me a cup of tea?” and “Would one of you please give up your chair for me?” are polite, to the point, and reasonable requests. He recognizes my point and realizes he needs to work on communicating more clearly, so now when he does it, I’m able to bring it to his attention and he corrects himself. I don’t recall this being an issue for a long time; I think he simply picked up the habit somehow. Thankfully, he sees the problem and is making an effort to break free from it.

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