Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

By "knowledge question", I mean any sort of question intended to check whether the listener already knows the answer or not. For example:

  • Are you familiar with how an operating system works?
  • Do you know how to vote?

Unfortunately, in certain contexts, these sorts of questions can cause offence because those being asked either

A: Don't know the subject but feel it is common knowledge and so they should know about it

B: Do know the subject and feel they are being patronized

This creates a problem because it is often difficult to tell which way a person is going to go in taking offence, especially if you don't know them very well. Therefore, I can't simply modify the question to "Of course you are familiar with how an operating system works, right?" as this will comfort B but offend A. Similarly, skipping the question entirely will comfort A but offend B.

I work in technical support and usually deal with this situation beginning any conversation with a short script explaining that I try not to assume any knowledge on the part of those I am talking to and that they should ask me to skip stuff if I am going too slowly. I think this is quite clumsy, however, and not always appropriate in less formal situations so I am wondering if there is a way to ask this kind of question more neutrally.

share|improve this question
add comment

4 Answers 4

up vote 13 down vote accepted

I would ask the question in this way: "How familiar are you with X?".

Asking "Are you familiar with X?" suggests that the answer is either yes or no, while my question is "accepting" to all levels of understanding.

share|improve this answer
    
I agree wholeheartedly here. "Are you familiar with...?" and "Do you know...?" are tantamount to asking "Are you ignorant?" But if instead, you ask "How familiar are you with...?", a customer is almost guaranteed to hear this as "I respect you enough to ask you to explain your level of knowledge to me." Which is funny, because it is almost the same as asking "How ignorant are you?" –  KitFox May 12 '11 at 17:24
    
And also, people love it when you make them feel like they know something, even (or maybe especially) if they can't figure out how to unjam the printer. –  KitFox May 12 '11 at 17:27
add comment

Be forthright. Ask them how much they know. Only the most sensitive will be offended, and anyone with sense will understand the need to know.

Coming at the subject obliquely is more likely to offend since your ambiguity will be construed as confirming their fears.

share|improve this answer
2  
+1 for 'your ambiguity will be construed as confirming their fears'. Very good point. –  Rupert Madden-Abbott May 12 '11 at 15:39
add comment

Asking a person directly about his level of knowledge isn't likely to be effective in the case where he thinks he should know more than he does; he may very well lie in order to save face.

I think that the best way to ask this question is to sidestep it altogether. You need to assess the person's knowledge yourself, not ask for a self-assessment. You need to come up with a few test questions whose answers depend on understanding of the subject, and so will give you a gauge. You ask these politely, as if they were just another part of the script, and use the answers to choose different "knowledge level" paths later in your script.

For example, if you were giving support on a person's car, you might say "Okay, I just need some background info. The last time you changed your oil, did you replace the crush washer on the drain plug, or use the existing one?" Practically no-one will be offended or answer deceptively in response to a question like this. A knowledgeable person who did change her own oil will have a ready answer, and will not feel patronized -- she may in fact be comforted that her understanding is being recognized. A person who did not will not be upset that you assumed she had more knowledge than she does, and more importantly will be unable to deceive you convincingly.

Asking another question or two in this vein should give you a clear picture of the person's understanding of the subject. It will establish rapport with a knowledgeable person, and it will, subtly and politely, make clear to an ignorant person that you are aware of how much he knows.

share|improve this answer
add comment

I think you are already doing it the right way. My answer would be to say "I apologize in advance for any offense I may cause by asking basic questions below your competency level."

share|improve this answer
    
hah that sentence you quoted sounds even more patronizing.. especially if you then ask a question that the listener feels you think they should know –  Claudiu May 12 '11 at 15:33
    
If it's tech support by the minute, I would probably expand a little on the reasons. –  horatio May 12 '11 at 15:35
3  
Starting a conversation with an apology is skating out onto thin ice. –  Ed Guiness May 12 '11 at 15:39
    
I agree that the original strategy is basically sound. I'd add that I'm technically very knowledgeable and am not offended if the opening question is way too simplistic. What makes me mad is when the tech cannot change gears, acknowledge that I'm very knowledgeable and skip ahead or go off-script. (Of course, this depends on whether their knowledge level and corporate system/policy allows them to skip ahead or not.) –  Wayne May 12 '11 at 16:49
    
@Ed Guiness: in tech support, there is no right answer. The average person is an idiot, and 50% of the population is below average. And when its idiot proof, the other 50% are no idiots. –  horatio May 12 '11 at 17:15
show 2 more comments

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.