Is Asking Questions Rude?

I had an interesting conversation with a colleague who is my age (42) but works with a group of 25-year-olds. It provided much food for thought about generational diversity.

She had brought in a financial expert to do a presentation to her staff about their 401k benefit, as this can be fairly complicated topic. When the presenter finished and asked if there were any questions, no one raised their hand. My friend was a bit surprised, but when the presentation was over, she went back to her office.

Then the instant messages started coming in. One of her staff started IMing her with questions about the presentation, and as she was answering them, other staff started doing the same. She ended up cutting and pasting some of the responses to answer questions that were similar.

Later she asked one of her employees about why the employee hadn't asked her questions during the presentation. The response: "I thought it would be rude." Basically, this (Millennial) employee felt it would be rude to take up everyone's time with her particular question. Selfish, almost. Why take up the group's time when you could send the question directly electronically? my colleague pointed out that maybe other people would have the same question, so asking and answering it in a group would contribute to everyone's learning. This hadn't occurred to the younger employee.

So my friend pushed a bit farther and asked how they handled this when they were in classes in college, and she was told basically the same way–they would IM the Teaching Assistant with questions and get responses.


So this story has me thinking. First, notice that the younger generation did not assume that learning required a group of people to be having a synchronous conversation in person. In fact, they thought it was "rude" to make people learn that way (I'm extrapolating a bit here, but you see my point). Second, notice that the boss did not sit these "kids" down and give them a talking to about proper ways to learn. She says now after she has a meeting, she runs back to her office and gets ready to handle all the electronic questions, cutting, pasting, making sure everyone is on the same page.

So is your organization that flexible when it comes to inter-generational approaches to learning? Might there be ways to learn and share information other than what you are doing right now?


  1. 14.01.2009 at 6:12 pm

    Or THEY, not the organization, should be flexible about ways to learn and share information.
    They should know that asking questions in a group is NOT rude, unless you totally dominate the discussion (which, perhaps, they think they are doing). Learning in a group is valuable. IMing and other private conversations are extras, not the main event.
    By the way, Jamie, you think of the darndest things.

  2. 14.01.2009 at 6:27 pm

    I should have realized that many people are shy or embarrassed about asking questions publicly and prefer private conversations.
    However, I just can’t believe that all of the people you mentioned feel that way all of the time.

  3. 14.01.2009 at 9:16 pm

    Maybe its as much not wanting to have a public f2f conversation as thinking its rude? So maybe the answer isn’t directly to accept IMing but to create the online space for conversation after the meeting?
    In any case it just goes to show that we shouldn’t take much at face value … thanks for exploring the idea!

  4. 14.01.2009 at 10:25 pm

    So the way this person “learned to learn” is so sacrosanct that the manager would never think of explaining to them the value of asking questions in the group so said manager wouldn’t have to waste valuable time and money “cutting and pasting”?

  5. 14.01.2009 at 11:02 pm

    Kevin, we certainly don’t have enough data from the story to know whether or not the cutting and pasting is more or less of a time than convening a meeting. Personally, I’m trusting the manager to know the difference (she’s really smart, actually). And I can certainly imagine situations where cutting and pasting would be MUCH more efficient than convening a meeting and hoping that people ask the right questions. And she DID talk to them about the value of asking questions. But seriously, what if they still don’t see the value. Why NOT be flexible and creative about it? Obviously you have performance to manage so if it’s wasting time you need to do it differently, but I push back intentionally because (generally speaking) people tend to reject alternative ways of seeing the world out of hand…to our own detriment frequently.

  6. 15.01.2009 at 11:01 am

    Great post Jamie and the comments are also very enlightening. It is clear that the challenge of effectively managing people is going to be more complex as time goes on.
    I was at dinner recently and watched a group of people in the early 20’s at another table engaged in a very thoughtful conversation while at the same time texting and using PDA’s to gather additional informaiton. It was amazing and scary.
    How many non Y’ers would looke at that and the first reaction would be “How rude!”
    My reaction was wow…”how cool, a fully interactive conversation.” It also scared me, because I realized we are totally unprepared to serve this demographic both as members and staff.
    Is it too early for me to retire?
    Thanks for sparking some great thought!

  7. 16.01.2009 at 1:40 am

    Hi everyone, I’m new here, but wanted to present another perspective.
    Having recently graduated as an adult (your age Jamie), I am able to say that my Millennial classmates had no problem asking questions either during class or outside meetings. The professors did have online groups set up if there were questions, but it was rarely used.
    I believe the two pronged approach would be best. Yes, they need to know why asking questions in a meeting is a good thing, but also having an online group to ask questions would bring a good balance as that supervisor’s time is also important. If a question was asked, it only need be answered once, also providing a log to refer back to, great for documentation.
    As Greg mentioned, I love the ability to have a “fully interactive conversation”. I’m constantly multi-tasking or looking for more information to add to a discussion. My Millennial friends understand, but when I’m with my peers or older, I have to be conscious of it as some have wondered if I was “with them”.
    Going back to school was the best thing I could have ever done in the name of “generational diversity”. I loved it!

  8. 16.01.2009 at 9:33 am

    Thanks for joining the conversation Karen! Good points. As always, I will point out that the behaviors of a few individuals NEVER represent an entire generation, just as the generalizations about generations cannot be pasted on to specific individuals. Let’s not oversimplify here. Yes asking questions in groups is valuable. Yes finding ways to communicate online is valuable. Yes young people do both. Yes old folks (like me!) do both. Just pay attention to your assumptions and pay attention to how you have the conversations with the old/young folks about it.

  9. 16.01.2009 at 3:53 pm

    Hey, Greg. How do you know the folks were texting and using PDAs to gather additional information for their conversation? They may have been conversing with other people and not with any of the people with whom they were seated.
    It’s important to be aware of alternative social interactions and be flexibile enough to include them when necessary. But don’t judge behavior to be positive just because other people are doing it. They may not be any more correct or flexible than you are.

  10. 17.01.2009 at 9:38 am

    Wait a second. How many of us older folks have followed up after a meeting to send a question for reasons other than preferring to communicate via text?
    For example:
    They didn’t want to appear stupid among our peers. Any trainer can give you a bunch of examples proving how prevalent this behavior is. It’s not tied to generational communication patterns as much as it relates to corporate and career competitiveness. The business world (whether it be at for-profits or non-profits) is highly charged, especially in today’s economy. Why risk sounding like you can’t comprehend something you think others will “get” more quickly?
    Asking questions in meetings isn’t the norm. Some leaders — despite thinking they create an environment of open conversation — actually discourage questions. If this is the culture of the office, then they won’t ask questions.
    Just a few other things that might be going on….