Sunday, July 16, 2006

Don't Ask A Question You Don't Want To Know The Answer To

Aspazia had a fun little discussion about white lies in which the classic question, "What do you say when your wife/girlfriend asks, 'Does this make me look fat?'" came up. In the discussion, the following exchange occurred between Aspazia and Hanno:

A: The fact is that what women think is "fat" is often not at all fat to their lover's eye.

H: Absolutely true.

A: But, if our lover is getting a bit plumper, it might behoove us to tell the truth.

H: NO, no, no, no, no! Not unless you like pain and suffering, both for your partner and for yourself.

So who is right? The answer is "it depends" (welcome to philosophy). The key here is an insight from J. L. Austin that the same sentence could be used in a number of different ways for a number of different things. We don't just utter language, we use it to do things and the question is what is the partner using the seeming question to do.

Aspazia is assuming that the question is being asked in good faith. A question is a request for information and the partner is, she assumes, asking for information regarding her appearance. If she is putting on weight, then that is a fact she ought to know in order to address it in appropriate ways.

Hanno, on the other hand, is arguing that in our contemporary culture wherein women are constantly bombarded with weight-related messages, the question is virtually never asked in good faith. No woman would ask whether she looks fat unless she already thought she looked fat. The question is a request, but for something else. It might be reassurance that she is attractive. It might be the last push to begin a new diet and exercise regimen. It may be a trap just to see how you are going to respond. A question is not always a question and very often that's a question that is not one.

Frankly, I think the right answer is to go out and get a more comfortable couch.