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There is Room to Ask: How, What, and Why

By Melissa Young

“In the Church, we want everyone to feel welcome, safe, and valued, and of course, there is room to ask questions. But how we ask is just as important as what we ask.”
–Ally Isom

In this statement regarding communication in the Church, Ally Isom makes a distinction between the “how” of questioning and the “what.” To begin with, I’d like to address the interpretation that what we ask or say is less important than whether the message conforms to a contextually appropriate how. Most people, I think, can feel the untruth of this. As one friend put it, “Saying it sweetly don’t mean you’re sweet.” Some refer to this as the “bless your heart” phenomenon—the idea that linguistic venom can somehow be alleviated by adding a little semantic sugar. But even under sugar, bitterness can still be tasted. The what matters, and being sweetly or jokingly mean is still being mean.

The second aspect of Isom’s statement, the how, has frequently been reduced to one word: tone. Often, tone is understood to mean the emotional characteristic of voice, either written or spoken—whether we sound happy, upset, depressed, angry, contemplative. Some may also understand it as referring to register—formal, casual, direct, etc. (speaking differently with our friends than we do with our boss or colleagues or our children). Tone can also involve language features such as word stress, pitch, volume, and speech rate, all of which contribute to meaning.

In all of these instances, tone is an aspect of pragmatics, which is a branch of linguistic study dedicated to explaining “how language users are able to use context to interpret utterances, to ‘do’ things with words, and to ‘say’ things without actually uttering them” (Parker & Riley; emphasis added).

Language philosopher John Austin described speech acts as having two elements: a locutionary act (what is said) and an illocutionary act (what is done; also referred to as illocutionary force). John Searle, a student of Austin’s, created a taxonomy of illocutionary acts, or descriptions of what types of things can be done with language. Some of these include:

Representative: a description of some state of affairs
Directive: a speech act designed to get the hearer to do something
Question: a speech act used to get the hearer to provide information
Commissive: used to commit the speaker to do something (promising, volunteering, pledging)

There are times when the syntactic form of the locutionary act (the words) and the illocutionary force (the expected action or result) are mismatched. For example, the question “Could you be quiet?” takes the syntactic form of a question but the illocutionary force is a directive (“Be quiet.”)

As syntactic forms of locutionary acts become more removed from the illocutionary force (i.e. more implied and indirect), they are often perceived as being more polite. Increased politeness is a result of greater distance between form and force. As important as it is to understand cultural influence on perceived politeness, the concept of distance is also important, in part because it is less generally understood. Take for example the distance between the form and force of the following statements:

1. Get me some water.
2. I need a drink of water.
3. Can I have a drink of water?
4. Do you happen to have any water?
5. It’s really hot.

The first example has the least distance between the words and the action–it clearly states what the speaker wants to have happen. The second is a representative (a description) with the implied illocutionary force of either a question or a directive. The distance between what the words say and what the speaker wants to have happen is greater.

The third directly questions, but because it is a yes/no question, the directive for the hearer to actually supply water is still implied. The fourth is an even more indirect question, with the desire for water implied.

The fifth is a representative statement that does not address water explicitly, relying heavily on the listener’s ability to intuit any possible directive or question. It demonstrates the greatest amount of distance between what the words say and what the speaker actually wants to have happen. As the distance and subsequent politeness increases, the speaker takes an increased risk of misinterpretation (both unwitting and malicious) by the hearer. This risk is one reason why speakers may be hesitant to change tone in the direction of politeness.

With each statement, emotional tone may also convey meaning. If the speaker in the first example is intense or angry, it might signal desperate need or frustration. The emotions are part of the message. The form also implies a power difference between the speaker and hearer, as it would be unlikely for a speaker to use such a direct imperative to anyone other than a subordinate (unless context came into play–finishing a marathon, for example). If the same words are phrased as a question, the message changes. The urgency and sense of demand are gone, which actually changes the content of the message.

This is part of why a request to modify tone is worth discussing–because when the how is modified, the unspoken aspects of the what change as well. It is nearly impossible to change one without changing the other. For those who have a precise concept of their what, there is often little room for negotiation on the how because of this alteration in unspoken meaning. Anger, frustration, serenity, sarcasm, even an awareness of power and relationship–they are all part of the message encoded in the how that materially affect the what.

While there are arguments over whether it’s fair for an institution, culture, or individual to impose standards of appropriateness that may inhibit expression among less-empowered members, the reality is that how a message is framed has always been an issue. The old cliché “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar” is a relic of this reality. However, recognizing the interconnectedness between tone and content allows us an alternative to changing tone–it enables us to consider the varying effects of changing the message instead. Changing content alters the effect of tone, particularly when it involves providing context, or the why. Showing people the flies may help them get on board with any method of killing them, be it honey or vinegar.

Trying to make a message more palatable by changing tone may feel disingenuous because of the increased distance between form and force, but helping an audience effectively understand the why can often go a long way toward enabling them to also understand content and accept tone. The why illuminates both and helps to mitigate the tension between force and form, distance and honesty, the how and the what.

Parker, F., & Riley, K. (2010). Linguistics for Non-Linguists. Boston, MA: Pearson.

Note: Since writing this a couple of weeks ago, I have started reading the book Quiet. Chapter one frames the idea of knowing “what to say and how to say it” in a historical, economic, and even geographic context–turning from a 19th century culture of character to a 20th century culture of personality. This sociocultural shift was fueled in part by increased business and urbanization, and demonstrated in one way by the meteoric rise of Dale Carnegie and his book How to Win Friends and Influence People.

There are so many ways to look at how we perceive others and are perceived ourselves–why we choose to speak and how/what we choose to say. What is your take?


About Melissa Young

(Emerita) is a native of Utah and lives in Cache Valley, Utah, with her husband and three of her four children in their emptying nest. She has an MA in TESOL from Brigham Young University and currently volunteers with the English Learning Center.

11 thoughts on “There is Room to Ask: How, What, and Why”

  1. Thank you for sharing this Melissa–I thought it was really fascinating. I think that switching to mostly written communication online has really highlighted how hard it is to read other people's tone–in most languages tone is often communicated through gestures as well as pitch and volume of the voice, in addition to the words chosen. Tone is really easy to misread in online discourse, especially since when we are communicating with others online, the only "real" person in the room is ourselves. It's really easy to project our feelings onto another person. I know I am often tempted to add a lot of emoticons to my messages just to soften what I've said or to make sure that people don't mistake what I have said. In person I tend to be somewhat indirect and ironic with my friends, but it's hard to do that online.

    I also find it interesting to spend time learning other languages or to be with speakers of other languages, because the way they convey tone is often different. I know it's common for native English speakers to assume that speakers of some other languages are more upset than they are, just because the quality of their language sounds like an angry or harsh tone would be in English

  2. Yes, it's definitely even more complicated when people are speaking a language that is not their native one. I think it's a great way to build awareness–to "hear" how you sound to someone else with a different cultural and linguistic background.

    This doesn't have anything to do with tone, but I also love hearing non-native English speakers pray because they rarely use the pre-set phrases that native speakers do. Sometimes I don't even realize something is a phrase until I hear someone say the same thought in a different way.

  3. Austin actually spoke of a third level of meaning for speech acts: perlocutionary acts.

    It is at this level that many questions are transparently hostile to the church.

  4. Jeff, you're right–it might be worth another post on perlocutionary acts/effect. Of the three, I think it's the most complex.

    I'm wondering, do you think that questions are "transparently hostile" because of speaker intent or do you think questions are perceived as hostile by the listener simply because they are questions? That's not an entirely fair question because you are likely not in position to know speaker intent in most cases, but I'm curious as to why you categorized questions as hostile.

  5. I think it varies from case to case. With some people, legally trained people asking the same question over and over into t.v. cameras is clearly aimed at a subversive goal. But that does not at all mean that those who identify with such people have the same intent. I think a lot of people truly are sincere in their questions, but many are clearly not.

  6. Yes, the variance (in both speakers and hearers) is part of what makes interpretation so difficult.

    Thanks for commenting–I'm glad you brought this up.

  7. This is a thought-provoking take on the statement by Ms. Isom. I should say at the outset, that I have not read the entire interview with Ms. Isom, so my comments relate simply to the quote you include here. Having said that, I have often said something similar to the assertion that "how we ask is just as important as what we ask," but my meaning had little to do with tone and much more to do with attitude and process.

    In matters of faith, asking the right questions using the right process is critical to finding truth and answers. I think back to President Uchtdorf's wonderful talk in the October 2013 conference, in which he reminded us to start from a position of faith. I think back also to a talk (I believe by President Eyring) some years ago in which he reminded parents rather forcefully of the damage they can do to their children's faith by addressing their doubts in front of them. We ask, we seek, we wrestle–and as we do so, we need to be mindful of those around us whose faith and understanding are immature and vulnerable. I also think of one of my favorite scriptures in John 7:17–so often the testimony comes only after we live the doctrine for a time. These are some of the things I think about when I ponder the "how" of asking questions.

  8. Melissa, considering all these variables, it's a wonder that any of us ever has a remote understanding of what anyone else says! As I read your post I was pulled into memories from when I taught Gospel Essentials in my Florida ward. Class participants came from far-flung backgrounds that made communication challenging.

    Some attendees reflected lifelong Church membership (spanning weekly attendance by shiny new missionaries straight from the Missionary Training Center to periodic visits from the mission and stake presidencies); they spoke fluent "Church-speak." Many participants brought with them the backgrounds, understanding, and Bible Belt "faith-speak" of other Christian traditions. A few held religious perspectives from outside Old or New Testament Judeo-Christian cultures. Atheists also attended. Some who visited the class spoke many languages; some held multiple advanced degrees; others were barely literate in their native tongues.

    The reasons these wonderful people attended varied as much as their histories. They came–of course–in response to inspired missionary and member invitations. They also arrived due to dares and trade-offs ("I'll come to your church if you'll come to mine"). Some attended for the sake of domestic peace-making ("I'll come if you'll stop nagging me"). More than a few showed up via walk-in curiosity (about Mormons in general … and about our nonstandard, built-in-the-'50s building in particular–picture a stake center emerging from the peak of an old Pizza Hut!).

    As class instructor, my primary job was to communicate by the Spirit. Though it was essential for me to study and present each lesson's content to the best of my ability, no lesson material was as important as the Spirit in which it was conveyed. It wasn't my place to determine the motives of those who asked questions or offered comments. My role was to listen more than to speak–and to make sure that when I did speak it was by the Spirit.

    Most questions came from sincere motives. The questioners wanted to understand what our teachings meant (either intellectually or spiritually), even if they disagreed. Some wanted to know how to apply them in their lives. One dear, humble brother (now deceased) brought a long, long list of questions every Sunday after having pondered each line of scripture he'd read since our last class. It was easy to respond to his questions with love and understanding, even when I had to defer to look up answers and get back to him.

    On the other hand, a few folks brought quadruple-combination sized question chips on their shoulders week after week after week, daring me to answer confrontational assertions. Their body language, tone, and words made their argumentative intent apparent. It wasn't easy to give loving answers while under fire from their prickly quills. Yet they deserved Christlike, Spirit-driven, respectful responses, too.

    None of us have the ability to direct how others communicate their ideas and questions. (It's hard enough directing our own.) In deciding how we will respond, however, we have the responsibility to be "wise as serpents, and harmless as doves." We cannot control whether another will be offended by our words, but we can try to present them without intending offense. We're not supposed to judge our neighbors (or their communications), but I believe we should judge (and often self-censure) our own words and tone.

  9. Teresa, I know–it's a wonder we can communicate at all! It's interesting, though, that sometimes those unspoken elements–the feeling you get when someone is talking to you–is the most powerful aspect of the speech but we can have a hard time articulating why we have the feeling we do, especially if things like body language and tone are not aggressive in an apparent way. What an interesting experience to be in that class!

    Juliana, I think attitude and process are very much a part of "tone," and when I've tried to change my tone when speaking about something it has almost always involved taking time to work through the issue again from a new perspective. Thanks for your thoughts.

  10. This is a very thought-provoking piece. I have been trying lately to work more on reflective listening and validating my interlocutor. I can be a very assertive conversationalist (which my grad training in rhetoric only further encouraged), and I need more balance that mirroring the other person can offer. I'm way, way, way too practiced at asserting my own claim at all costs. So I guess I'm trying to increase representative style language (representing the other person's point of view) and decrease the other three. Thank you for taking the time to explain this model with explanation, examples and implications. Rhetorical food for thought!


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