The psychological alchemy of questions

Last updated on: Published by: Andrea 0

There’s an alchemy in questions. Somehow that combination of words, tone, and curiosity blend to create conversation, emotional response, and social connection.Asking a question creates a shared framework for communication, and opens us up to possibility. It’s part of why I believe asking questions is one of the most respectful things you can do.

How? Stick with me here, my research nerd is about to show.

Uptalk, or how I learned to quit worrying and love the high-rising terminal.

There’s a linguistic quirk in English that I reference in my TEDx talk. In that speech, I called it “uptalk” or “high rising terminal.” In short, it’s that lift at the end of a sentence that generally indicates that the sentence ends with a question mark.

It’s important to note two things. One – uptalk and high rising terminal aren’t the exact same thing. As Mark Liberman points out in a 2006 Language Log post, there is a difference.

I believe that the “high rising” idea came out of a contested 1990s theory of intonational meaning, which posited a qualitative distinction between high rises and low rises, and assigned uptalk to the category of “high rise” for theory-internal rather than empirical reasons. It’s also possible that some geographical variants of uptalk are really high rising in general, though I haven’t seen any careful studies that support this conclusion.

Second, the term “uptalk” was coined in a 1993 New York Times On Language column to describe using a rising tone at the end of a declarative sentence — when you don’t intend to ask a question. And that article kicked off a veritable flurry of debate and discussion over this so-called “Valley Girl” talk, called everything from a linguistic disease to a complete scourge on our language. It’s a surprisingly similar debate to the one about vocal fry, right down to the fact that it’s nearly entirely female speakers that become the focus of the discussion.

Keeping all of that in mind, in general, lifting your tone at the end of a sentence is a fairly reliable way to indicate that you are asking a question. 

So – what does that mean? I think figuring that out means taking a very close look at how our brains process superstition. Yes, superstition, and how we try and avoid nebulous threats or perceived risks.

Physically pushing away the psychological threat

In a 2013 article in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, Jane L. Risen, associate professor of behavioral science, Yan Zhang of the National University of Singapore, and Booth PhD student Christine Hosey published an article that looked at the rituals performed with the intention of warding off bad luck.

These are rituals that will probably sound familiar to many. Knocking on a wooden table, throwing salt over our shoulders, or spitting. All of these are actions that are generally taken to protect one’s self from a perceived jinx – a nebulous psychological threat.

Over the course of five experiments, the researchers determined that these physical rituals did, in fact, tend to make people think that they had protected themselves. Their theory is that these superstitions tended to work because of the physical act of pushing something away — called an “avoidant action.” Nearly every superstition about pushing away bad luck includes physically pushing something away from yourself. That act has the subconscious impact of feeling like we’ve pushed what isn’t physically in front of us away as well.

When you ask someone to reverse that action, however — knock up on a wooden table, for example, everything switches. After taking actions that were NOT avoidant, the research subjects felt that they hadn’t protected themselves at all.

In short, pushing things away physically means pushing what you’re thinking about away psychologically. Taking action that welcomed things towards you meant your brain believes that you are welcoming in what you’re thinking about.

How questions open us up to possibility

So – what does that mean for how we ask questions? I’d make the argument that our physical intonation of words has a similar impact as our physical actions. When we have a flat tone at the end of a sentence, we are declaring. That flat tone is the same physical impact as neither pushing something away or pulling it towards you.

We are marking our ground and taking a stand, verbally. When we are feeling like we need to push someone away, make a threat, or otherwise appear like the conversation may be over, we drop our tone. We take an avoidant verbal action, pushing away the perceived threat.

When we ask a question, we lift our tone. By lifting our tone, we’re taking a physical action similar to knocking UP on a table, instead of down. We’re opening ourselves up to the possibility, and welcoming in what we’re thinking about. It’s a physical action that psychologically welcomes in the shared context and indicate our willingness to listen. We subconsciously welcome in the possibility of conversation. It’s a vulnerable place to be. It’s kind of scary. And that is part of what makes it so beautifully powerful.

So, I’m curious…

what framework are you creating?