On asking questions

Placed in a new environment, presented with a new task or challenge, we are brought up to ask questions, to inquire how and why, in order to consolidate our understanding of a foreign concept, custom, or culture. Asking insightful questions demonstrates curiosity, a willingness to learn, and an open mind – all desirable qualities for which learners are rewarded in most academic and professional settings.

Yet, over the course of my internship in The Gambia, I’ve found myself hesitating and feeling guilty about asking questions. Could there be a potential downside to asking questions in an effort to learn? An article recently published on Medium highlights a consideration that I had been struggling to articulate myself.

“Re: Asking questions, the problem lies in the assumption that marginalized people are always at the ready to enlighten the privileged... In fact, where there is a learner, there is most often a teacher. And teaching, as gratifying as it can be, is labor work that is, even in the best of circumstances, draining.”1

In fact, this one assumption may host several others within it. “They don’t have a voice in the current system, and by asking them questions, I’m offering them an opportunity to tell their story.” “Why would it be a problem? I’m asking them these things so I can understand their needs and help them.”

So how do we continue to learn in a way that doesn’t impose an obligation on those who are marginalized? How do we learn from these valuable ‘teachers’ without exhausting or offending them?

I am by no means an expert, but here are a few nuggets I carry with me from my own experiences:

Assess. Questions are often encouraged under the premise, ask before you assume. While this is completely valid, I would add a prelude: Assess before you ask. Take a second to consider: Have you developed enough trust with this person to be asking this question? Is this the most appropriate time and are you the most appropriate person to be asking this question? How many times might they have told this story/answered this question to date? Where is this person coming from – not necessarily only in terms of their identity, but even considering the type of day they’ve had – and what impact might your question have on them?

Understand your privilege. Be aware of the power differentials at play. Be conscious of the power that comes with your skin colour, gender, sexual orientation, race, religious denomination, occupation, nationality, and your social and financial status. Of course YOU aren’t forcing anyone to answer your question (or I hope you aren’t), but your privilege exerts a silent yet powerful force of its own.

Be grateful. This person is taking time out of their day to facilitate YOUR understanding, to enhance YOUR experience. So say thank you, be humbled, show them the utmost respect, and make them feel valued. That’s what you would do with a peer (or so I hope), and the fact that your ‘teacher’ comes from a marginalized population shouldn’t diminish that standard.

Return the favour. Learning in this sense should be a mutually beneficial exchange. Maybe you won’t have the opportunity to return the favour to your specific ‘teacher’, but you can pay it forward to their peers. Show the same patience and tolerance when you find yourself translating for someone, when you are asked about how things are where you come from and why, when you find yourself playing cultural broker. Translating words, beliefs, and practices between languages and cultures is no easy task. Persevere anyway. And please, please do not brush off a challenging task with, “Never mind.”  You know, those two words you default to when you’re tired of repeating the same word or explaining the same concept to no avail? Don’t do it, particularly where there is a power differential involved. It implies that the learner is not worthy of your time in explaining.

Share your learning. This one’s tricky, as you run the risk of telling someone else’s story.  It demands humility in understanding that what you’re sharing is a truth, and not necessarily the truth. It requires sharing in a way that doesn’t consume the space that has been created for the marginalized, but rather ensures that the same questions aren’t asked again and again. So that your ‘teachers’ and their communities don’t incur the opportunity cost (e.g. time, energy, morale) of answering the same question several times over when yet another well-meaning learner arrives with the same inquiry.

*Though I happened to drawn these reflections in the context of an international development initiative, their relevance extends to any and all interactions with marginalized populations anywhere in the world.


1)      https://medium.com/the-development-set/the-third-world-is-not-your-classroom-9eee1546f565#.wsmyb721t


Mathura Mahendren is working as a Health Promotion and Education Officer at the Nova Scotia Gambia Association in Kanifing, The Gambia.