Ask That Question by Alice E. Christgau, She Magazine, November 1945

I’ve recently picked up a boatload of women’s magazines from the 1940’s and 1950’s. I’ll be sharing some articles from these in their entirety for your vintage reading pleasure! This is an advice article called Ask that Question by Alice E. Christgau, from She magazine, November 1945.

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In the popular radio quiz programs it is the $64 question that pays the biggest dividends. Sometimes it is a difficult one; sometimes it seems ridiculously easy, and you wonder, “Why can’t I be fortunate enough to earn easy money that way just once in my lifetime?”

But the real and lasting good fortune comes not to the answerers of questions; it comes to the question askers. The people who qualify for and win out on quiz programs are comparatively rare.  But anyone can become an intelligent and sympathetic question-asker and reap the rewards of such asking all through life.

Have you ever been particularly proud of a son or daughter who had won honors in school or out in the world in some specialized field? You were dying to tell about it to interested ears, perhaps even to boast a bit–in a modest way, of course. And have you been chagrined to find that there was no one interested enough at the sewing circle or club to give you the opportunity to tell about it by asking a friendly, interested question?

“I hear that Janie won a scholarship to that fine musical school, and I think it’s wonderful. How did she qualify for such an honor?” Those are not difficult words to phrase; yet too often they go unspoken either because no one cares to take the trouble or because there is a slight, gnawing jealousy over Janie’s progress.

Yet the person who is interested and generous enough to speak those words and give you an opening to tell the things you long to say is the one you will remember with affection long after the actual words themselves are forgotten. You feel that such a person is appreciative and kind, while those who sit by with tightly pursed lips, implying no interest, seem small and mean in spirit by comparison. We know this from personal experience, yet how seldom we ourselves use the simple expedient of a friendly question to enlarge our friendships. We are too preoccupied with our own affairs to give others a chance to talk about theirs, though we know it would make them kindly dispositioned toward us for life probably.

Good social custom demands that we inquire after another’s health upon meeting with a kindly, “How are you?” or words to that effect. Yet how empty a formality we make it, skimming over the words quickly to indicate that we are really not very much interested, would in fact be quite bored if we received a detailed reply. But why not be interested in another’s heath? True, some people are tiresome about their operations and their chronic aches, but probably no more than we are about the things that concern us most vitally.

A real interest in another’s well-being can pay big dividends and need not necessarily be an experience in boredom. It can give insight into an otherwise puzzling personality and explain behaviourist problems to us. I know one woman who courteously inquired after her employer’s health periodically, knowing that he suffered from chronic arthritis and that his irritable behavior was tied up with the nagging pain of this disease. While the other employees in the office hated him as a peevish old tyrant and would not give him the satisfaction of showing any personal solicitude for his welfare, she showed a real sympathy and took an interest in his condition. When he died she was the only one in the office who was remembered in his will. Needless to say, the legacy she received was not the greatest of her benefits. Showing a desire to understand and alleviate another’s pain is the mark of character, and people who have it are seldom left lonely and forgotten when their own time of trouble comes.

Have you ever seen the face of a true hobbyist light up with pleasure when someone inquired about his hobby? He may be a very dull fellow in ordinary conversation, but mention his collection or his roses or his woodcarving and he is interesting and animated at once. And he loves the one who brings out his brilliance.

A friend was traveling in the mountain country of Tennessee and stopped to admire the hand loom craftsmanship of a taciturn mountain woman. She asked several questions in an intelligent, interested manner while admiring the workmanship. The mountain woman, warming to her visitor, gradually lost her taciturnity and removing a lovely finished scarf from her loom, handed it to my friend, saying briefly, “Take it; it’s yourn.”

My friend briefly protested that she was too generous, but the gaunt woman wore the air of a grand duchess as she replied, “‘Taint nuthin’. Folks as shows real interest in my work makes me proud to give something back.”

Others had admired her work before, no doubt, but had probably shown a superficial interest and asked only one question and that the price of the article. Unconsciously, they were being superior and making her feel humble and resentful, while my friend with her interested and intelligent questions established a meeting ground of mutual interest between herself and the weaver. The mountain woman felt kinship between them and took pride in that kinship.

Asking questions is also the surest method, outside of wide reading and study, by which we can increase our store of information. Those who sit smugly silent when interesting facts are expounded and discussed, for fear of betraying ignorance, miss the opportunity of becoming well-informed on a subject. It is said of Edison that he was an inveterate question asker even after he achieved high eminence as a scientist who knew the answers.

Intelligent, interested interrogation is seldom resented, for it is usually recognized as a sincere desire to learn, and most persons enjoy the role of instructor. It differs from mere nosy inquisitiveness which characterizes the conversation of busybodies who are seeking food for future gossip.

The Scandinavians have an expression for the inquisitiveness of children which, translated literally, means “question-wise.” It is a good term and explains why children who have the highest native intelligence are the most active questioners. Intelligence asserts itself by wide-eyed interest and a desire to learn more, and if this attitude continues into adult life, wisdom will follow naturally.

However, the wisdom itself is not all-important. The significant thing is that in the acquiring of wisdom, the questioners have endeared themselves to us. We all like the feeling of importance and profundity that is ours when we are able to answer questions. Yet that requires information and experience chiefly. To be a good question asker requires intelligence, interest, and a friendly out-going personality. Can you qualify?

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