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Saturday, February 11, 2012

What's in a question?

Last Thursday's salon paid tribute to the question...Probing, prodding and poking away at that most basic act of conversational seeking or questing; discovering in the process that the art of questioning is complex and full of nuance and, well, not so basic after all.

The evening opened with an exercise in the “yes-no question”...A quick round of that old party icebreaker - “What am I?” - reminding us of the challenges inherent in eliciting information when the only possible answer is a monosyllabic “yes” or “no.” Noting how such monosyllabic responses in the context of a dinner date or radio interview, say, can present a whole other set of challenges, we discussed the difference between questions that open up the conversational field and those that shut it down. For indeed, our exploration of the question centred largely around the role questions play in creating a “felicitous” exchange between people...Though just what makes for a good ol' chin-wag varied as much from one person to the next, as did our respective boundaries when it comes to what we consider to be an engaging question and what we consider to be downright rude.

If we agreed to disagree on what constitutes the “pleasurable” conversation and with it, the“good” question, we did find surprising consensus as regards the questions we considered to lead to a conversational dead-end. That cocktail party favourite - “What do you do?” - was almost unanimously dismissed as dull, lazy and - for women working in the home or in a job that didn't carry much social status or out of a job altogether - potentially deflating. For reasons of inappropriateness and intrusiveness, the question “What do you earn?” was equally on the dead-end list. That said, our probing of the “U-turn” question yielded a compelling array of personal strategies designed to detour round those dead-ends - amongst them, the boomerang, the back-pedal and the buffer! And as for the questions we dread being asked and at the other end of the interrogatory spectrum, love being asked...Well, if context proved to be a key determiner of when and where and in the company of whom we would entertain either, a consideration of Cicero's list of rules for conducting a good "ordinary" conversation - drawn up in 44BC, no less - highlighted how little the standard conventions around what constitutes good conversational etiquette have changed over the past 2000 years or so.

Stepping back even further in time than Cicero, we re-visited the 4th Century BC Athenian polis and "Socratic Questioning" - Socrates' method of philosophical interrogation that we have already experimented with in past salon evenings, but which we explored on this occasion for its efficacy in getting at the “true” nature of so-called “universals” such as beauty, courage, friendship and justice, as well as showing up the kind of authoritative answers that those in positions of power tend to use to shut down people and thinking. We also re-visited that other "Golden Age" of conversation - the salon culture of late 17th Century and 18th Century France - where an emphasis on stylistic twists and flourishes certainly seemed to be more in keeping with a theatrical performance than with a cozy heart-to-heart.

A discussion of Virginia Woolf's particular conversational style - "spinning off into fantastic fabrications while everyone sat around and, as it were, applauded" - raised the question of the ultimate purpose of conversation and with it, the observation that the etymological origins of the word itself - "to turn around (versare) together (con)" - might be more in keeping with a participatory activity than with a piece of entertainment. Bringing home the many ways that we can conceive of the act and art of conversation, this reflection also provided a fitting segue into our brief look at "women's language" and with it, the issue of the "tag question."

We first considered Robin Lakoff's suggestion that the tag question - literally, the question tagged on to the end of an affirmative statement such as "We're enjoying ourselves, aren't we?" - is a linguistic construction used by women to avoid conflict with others and to skirt around having to commit themselves to a firm position on any one issue. Against this notion of the "tag question" as an indicator of female tentativeness and uncertainty, we considered Jennifer Coates' more empowering interpretation: that is, as a strategy used by women when they talk amongst themselves to create a "collaborative floor" in which each person feels heard and valued, and through which participants hammer out a kind of shared world view. Here, the "tag question" has a facilitative function: no answer is expected but rather, it invites others to join in and it makes sure we are all on the same page - "Women make great conversationalists, don't they?"...Well, the time had come to find out.

Applying French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu's understanding of habitus as "the principle of regulated improvisations" to our experiments in creating good conversational habits, participants were assigned an opening question with which to launch a lively 2 minute exchange with the person sitting next to them. Some of the questions were drawn from "the world's most boring conversational openers" list - the idea here being to improvise away from an unpromising start so as to turn a potentially yawn-invoking conversation into a sparkling one. Other opening questions were sparkly from the get go, giving conversing partners the chance to strike out on an adventurous limb or to negotiate their way back to a place less conducive to conversational vertigo. As the sound of women's voices and laughter filled our Montreal salon, one could not help but feel that our celebrated Parisian salonniere precursor, Madame de Stael, would have approved. Conversation, in her view, was "a means of reciprocally and rapidly giving one another pleasure...A sort of electricity that causes sparks to fly."

We rounded up the evening with a cup of tea and a slice of Martha's Mocha Cake - a family favourite in Linnet's home growing up, yet one that raises a question in itself...Why Martha's Mocha when this plain white cake contains not a coffee bean nor cocoa bean to speak of? We never did find the answer, but then, neither did Socrates...A fitting end to an evening celebrating the question over the answer, the art of conversation over the act of information exchange.

Before we parted, Rona shared with our valued members and their friends - and we were pleased to welcome a number of new friends on this particular evening - the latest news about the wwp roadtrip coming up this summer. If you want to find out more about our route and schedule, make sure to check out details on our website. And if you want to come along to our next salon, entitled "Women Making Waves," it is happening on Thursday, March 8th...Can you think of a better way to celebrate International Women's Day?!