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.

3 Answers 3


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.


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.

  • 2
    +1 for 'your ambiguity will be construed as confirming their fears'. Very good point. Commented May 12, 2011 at 15:39

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."

  • 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
    Commented May 12, 2011 at 15:33
  • If it's tech support by the minute, I would probably expand a little on the reasons.
    – horatio
    Commented May 12, 2011 at 15:35
  • 4
    Starting a conversation with an apology is skating out onto thin ice.
    – Ed Guiness
    Commented May 12, 2011 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
    Commented May 12, 2011 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
    Commented May 12, 2011 at 17:15

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