A reader asked:
People tend not to answer me when I ask a question, even if it’s something I need to know. It’s particularly bad with regards to planning or getting background information on what is happening at a given time. What might I be doing that tells people answering me is optional? How can I emphasize that getting an answer is important? (I’m pretty sure I’m the problem, since no one else has trouble finding things out from the same people I am talking to.)
I actually have this problem too. To the extent that sometimes I get confused about whether I actually even *asked* the question, because people seem to have completely ignored it.
I think it might be that they don’t realize that you’re asking a question because they rely on certain cues to know that they’re being asked stuff. There are a few things I’ve figured out in this regard. For instance:
- Most sighted neurotypical people use eye contact as part of the way they initiate a question.
- They look at the person they want to ask, that person looks back, then they ask
- People who rely on eye contact to tell when someone is asking a question might have trouble understanding that you want to ask something if you’re not looking at them
- It might help to look in their direction when you ask them something, even if you’re not actually doing the eye contact thing
- I don’t know how to describe this, but there’s an inflection most people use when asking questions
- If you’re not inflecting questions that way, it might be hard for some people to detect the question
- I don’t know how to describe this, but it might help to listen to how people who are successfully getting their questions better are inflecting them
- It might be that you’re speaking too quietly and people aren’t noticing that you’re talking
- This can particularly happen if you’ve been socialized not to take up space
- It might be worth trying intentionally talking louder
You might want or need to provide cues in a different ways:
- Not everyone can provide the inflection/volume/eye contact cues.
- They can be useful strategies if you can do them, but they’re not the only ways
- If you can’t do it that way, there are other ways, for instance:
- Saying explicitly, “Can I ask a question?”. (It can be especially useful if you say the person’s name, because then it’s easier for them to know you’re talking to them.)
- In some contexts, raising your hand is an effective way to get someone’s attention. It’s likely to be perceived as childish though, and people will often laugh at you for it. But it does often work.
Ask questions through email, texting, IM, or phone calls:
- Sending a message one of those ways automatically implies that you’re trying to get that person’s attention
- So it replaces the eye contact and other body language things you might be having trouble with
- If you’re asking email, it can help to put “question” or “time-sensitive question” in the subject
- (Or something context specific like “Wednesday plans?”, “Need some background for the hamster project”)