How to ask better questions.

I like to hop onto Quora every now and again and answer people’s questions about moving and living in new cities and countries. It helps me better articulate my thoughts on these subjects and generates ideas for my blog and future courses or books I might offer.  I’m selective about which questions I actually answer, only chiming in when I think I might really be able to connect and help.  If you haven’t been on the site before, check it out: anyone can ask and answer questions and topics range from practical advice to getting really into the weeds with philosophical questions. It’s easy to go off onto a tangent clicking interesting questions and reading the long threads of answers. After you spend some time on there, you’ll see that when people ask better questions, they get better answers.

Maybe there are no dumb questions, but there are poor questions.

There are a lot of questions that are asked poorly and you’ll see that they don’t get many answers, or worse they are attacked or mocked. I’m not talking about grammar or spelling, but when the question has no context that allows someone to reach out and give you what you really need. When asking questions, think about what kind of feedback you are really looking for. Consider the other person and meet them half way. Make it easy for them to give you what you want.

Example: Should I move to New York?

Ummm, the city? Somewhere else in the state? Are you going for a job, or following a loved one, or just looking for a change? Why? What’s your goal? What’s your budget?

How can anyone even start to answer this question in a way that truly will help the asker?  Even if their question is sincere the barrage of follow-up questions and irritation from the answerers might make the asker feel rather under attack.

Ask a better question.

People are more willing and more able to help if you take them right to the problem spot.

A better version of that first question, as an example: I have a good job and friends in my hometown in the midwest but always dreamed of living in New York City someday. I have some savings and am confident I can get a similar job there but I’m worried because I won’t know anyone. Should I go for it? If you went through a similar situation I’d love to hear your advice.

Sometimes, through working out a better version of your question you actually organize your thoughts. This hypothetical person may not have realized that their anxiety really stems from fear of being lonely in her new city. Just in creating a better question she’ll uncover some answers.

Plus, in asking a better question you are targeting your answerers, the people who can talk to you about your specific problem.

Of course, this isn’t really about Quora, or any other online platform. In life, when we ask better questions, we get better answers, even when we are just asking ourselves the question.

How travel increases your social skills.

How travel increases your social skills.

Picture the stereotype of a bad tourist; loud, obnoxious, asking questions about things that seem obvious to everybody else, and probably dressed a little funny for the setting as well. They are not displaying the best social skills, the ability to pick up on what’s appropriate to their setting and situation and act accordingly.  Take it down to another scale, have you ever gone to a restaurant or bar that catered to a group you didn’t feel you fit in to (think a punk club or a super-ritzy place)? That discomfort comes from not being sure exactly what to say and how to behave.

Navigating a cafe interaction.
Navigating a cafe interaction.


Learning how to navigate these fish out of water situations is a learned skill that gets better with experience.  For some of us these experiences can trigger some anxieties and fears, so you may have to go a step to further to dig in to those issues.

So, how can you do this, now, before you even embark on your next out of town adventure?

Observation exercises:

  • The next time you’re eating a meal out spend some time observing how people interact; eye contact, body language. Mentally note what patterns you see and how people react when patterns are deviated (as described in Vemkat’s article).
  • Look at different groups of people where you work and consider the codes in dress and speech that differentiate them (men, women, executives, service staff…)

It’s these exact observation tools that help you adapt to a new culture or setting. When traveling abroad, if I ever begin to feel a bit overwhelmed or like I’m being very conspicuous my best bet is to stop for a minute and just watch everyone. Taking a moment to assess the situation always reveals a good next step to take.

Read this great article on Fluent in Three months for more perspective.

If you’re already living or traveling abroad can you identify an experience you had that should have been simple, but you seemed to have done everything wrong?  Mine would be the time I tried to hug someone goodbye in Thailand (our lovely host on a village stay). Don’t do that. If I had just paid attention to the action of those around me I could have easily avoided that embarrassing situation. I wonder if that guy still looks back on that moment with horror!  Haha.

This article was prompted by an excellent, in depth article on Vemkat’s Ribbonfarm blog that you should read here.