That’s a Great Question! (Ep. 192 Rebroadcast)

Listen now:

Verbal tic or strategic rejoinder? Whatever the case: it’s rare to come across an interview these days where at least one question isn’t a “great” one. 

Listen and follow our podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.

*      *      *

Hey there, it’s Stephen Dubner. Some of the Freakonomics Radio episodes we make have an agenda. That’s the case with the one you’re about to hear. We made it back in 2015 because I’d noticed a disturbing trend in the interviews we do for this show but also throughout the media, academia, politics, you name it. I was hoping this episode would not only call attention to the problem, but help solve it. Well, dear listener, we failed. We did not solve this problem at all — at least as evidenced by how often I still encounter it. So maybe this time around it’ll work? Hope, they say, springs eternal. And if there’s anything I have in abundance, it’s hope.

*      *      *

We’ve been doing this show for a while now. And I’ve noticed a trend.

ARCHIVAL TAPE MONTAGE: Yeah, that’s a great question. So, that’s a good question. That’s a very good question! So, it’s a great question.

Look, I’m going to be honest with you. Most of the questions we ask? They aren’t really all that great. But it’s like there’s a verbal tic going around.

ARCHIVAL TAPE MONTAGE: Well, you know, that’s another good question. That’s a really good question. Good question! Great question. Great question. Good question. So, those are good questions.

And you know who has this tic really bad?

Steve LEVITT: You know, that’s a great question. 

Yeah, Steve Levitt. You know who Steve Levitt is, don’t you?

LEVITT: So, that’s a great question. 

Levitt’s my Freakonomics friend and co-author. He’s an economist at the University of Chicago. Levitt, you’ve been at Chicago for quite a while now, haven’t you?

LEVITT: Uh, that’s a good question.

And you seem to think that when it comes to what makes a good question, absolutely no topic is off-limits, wouldn’t you say?

LEVITT: Oh, that’s a good question. Yeah, it is true that people like their cows to have gotten to walk around a lot and eat fresh grass.

Stephen DUBNER: So, Levitt, do you have any recollection of saying that same phrase about 150 times? Is it something you know you’re doing?  

LEVITT: That’s a good question.

*      *      *

“Hey, that’s a great question!” I’ve heard this over and over and over the last several years — and not just on our show. You hear it in all kinds of media interviews, during the Q&A portion of tech conferences, academic conferences. But just because I’ve heard it a lot — that doesn’t mean much. We needed professional help.

Arika OKRENT: My name is Arika Okrent. I’m a linguist.

Okrent knows several languages.

OKRENT: I speak about six at a very, at a faking-it level. So, I can go for a while and have you, have you convinced until you bring up something I’ve never talked about before and then it all falls apart.  

For the purpose of this discussion, we’re sticking to English and the phrase we’re discussing today: “That’s a great question.”

OKRENT: I started looking into it. Has it really been on the rise?

Okay, so how do you figure this out?

OKRENT: It’s hard to measure that because it’s hard to find a corpus of data that will show spoken language over time that way. You can’t look for it in Google Books or something because people don’t normally write this phrase.

But Okrent was able to find a couple big collections of spoken-language data.

OKRENT: One of them is the British National Corpus

That’s a 100 million-word database, which includes transcripts of everyday conversation, as well as government meetings, media interviews, and so on.

OKRENT: And I did a search on the phrase there and it only showed up 35 times in a corpus of like 100 million words. And a lot of those instances were fiction. So it wasn’t too common over there. And then I took a look at the Corpus of Contemporary American English and there it was over a thousand times. And most of the instances were interviews on C.N.N. or N.P.R. or different one-on-one interview situations where there was an expert being interviewed about something. So it definitely seems to be more of an American thing.

N.P.R.: We’re hearing from leaders in the House and the Senate, they both say they want to pass a bill by next week. The big question: what happens if they don’t? 

N.P.R.: Well that’s a good question and—.  

N.P.R.: Does this bump hold up, do you think?

N.P.R.: That’s a good question. 

FOX: Well that’s a good question. 

C.N.N.: That’s a very good question. 

C.N.N.: That’s a very good question. 

C.N.N.: Well, you know it’s a good question. 

M.S.N.B.C.: Why has that not been enough to get him off of death row in Texas?

M.S.N.B.C.: This is a really good question. 

Okay, and where does Arika Okrent think this habit has come from?

OKRENT: In looking around for it I found that it’s actually an explicit part of media and P.R. training.

Bill McGOWAN: I think it’s still on the rise.

That’s Bill McGowan. He does media and P.R. training for C.E.O.’s, athletes, artists, even the best men at weddings. His company is called Clarity Media Group, and he wrote a book called Pitch Perfect: How to Say It Right the First Time, Every Time. McGowan says that some people say, “That’s a great question” to serve as what’s called a bridge.

McGOWAN: The bridge is what happens when the person interviewing you or asking you questions wants to go down one conversational road.

OKRENT: You use it as a way to go from a potentially dangerous question back to your talking points, back to the point you want to make.

McGOWAN: You don’t know anything about what lies in that road, or you don’t want to talk about that subject, you have a different conversational road you want to go down, so you need a bridge to get from one road to the other. 

OKRENT: “That’s a good question” is one of the phrases that allow you to do that. You get the question. You say, “That’s a good question.” It buys you a little time. And then you just jump right in with the point you wanted to make and often people don’t notice that you haven’t dealt with the question or responded to the question.  

McGOWAN: “That’s a really good question” is the most elementary bridge possible. 

Now, when Bill McGowan says it’s “elementary” — he means really elementary.

McGOWAN: I did a training for a non-profit organization and I had to role-play as the interviewer with five or six of them. And there was one gentleman who sat in the chair and he started every single answer with “that’s a really good question.” Even when I asked him, “So, how long you’ve been with this organization?” “You know, Bill, that’s a really good question.” And I had to stop him and say, “No, it’s actually not a good question, that’s a really terrible question. It’s just a conversation starter,” and he saw the absurdity of starting his answer with that.

It was absurd because it had become such a habit that it lost its meaning. Nearly all of us have some kind of linguistic tic, some go-to phrase we probably don’t even know we use. I, for instance, begin way too many sentences with “So.” As in: “So, what have we learned so far?” Or: “So, what McGowan is really saying here—.” Or: “So, even President Obama uses a verbal bridge.”

McGOWAN: He has two words he uses that accomplish the same thing. One of them is “look.”

OBAMA: Well, look, you know, I think Bill, the nature of being President is that you’re always—.

McGOWAN: And the “look” means, he’s trying to convey it as, “let me be frank with you.” Or the other word he uses is:

OBAMA: Listen, as I think some of you saw as I was out on the campaign trail—.

McGOWAN: “Listen.” And whenever you hear “look” or “listen” come out of the President’s mouth, that means he is no longer answering your question; he is answering his question.

But “look” and “listen” are not the only bridges used by President Obama:

OBAMA: Well, Katherine, this is a great question. And, you know, I was raised by a single mom—.

So, what exactly is saying “That’s a great question” meant to accomplish? 

McGOWAN: I think people do it because they think it accomplishes two things simultaneously: it allows them to stall for time, and it flatters the interviewer. 

OKRENT: It’s for keeping the good vibes going. We’re friends here. You’re asking good questions, I’m giving good answers. It keeps a good feeling going. And things like “that’s a good question,” “look,” “the point is,” “what I’m saying is” — all of these phrases are meta-discourse phrases. They don’t have to do with the content of the discussion or the things that you’re talking about. They’re about the discussion itself. And what they do is lay out a map or a path for the people listening to the discussion or the people involved in the discussion. So you say, “Ah yes, the argument is, the point is.” And you can do that, lay out these little pebbles, when the discussion actually isn’t going that way, but you give the illusion that this is what’s happening. And when you’re actually in the discussion, you get the feeling that points are being made, and important things are being brought up and good questions are being asked even if they might not be.  

In other words, as Arika Okrent sees things, it’s linguistic B.S.

OKRENT: Any phrase like that, they start somewhere and then people pick up on it, people start using it sincerely, and if it works well, it starts to become a crutch or a tic, and then people start to notice it, and they start to hate it and complain about it.

McGOWAN: I believe that saying “that’s a really good question” is about as outdated a tic or a strategy as telling people to envision the audience in their underwear. 

But not everyone has soured on the phrase.

*      *      *

The media coach Bill McGowan thinks that people should just stop saying, “That’s a great question.” He thinks it’s nothing more than cheap flattery or a stall for time. But some people do use the phrase strategically. Andy Kessler is a former hedge-fund manager who now writes about technology and markets. In a 2015 Wall Street Journal column, Kessler wrote about a trick he admires, used by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs at board meetings. “When an investor or outside board member asks a stupid question,” Kessler writes, “the C.E.O. says ‘that’s a great question’ and then gives the questioner an action item, something like: ‘Okay, can you survey the competition and report back on their capital plans and hiring ratios? Great, let’s keep going.’ Eventually,” Kessler writes, “the stupid questions dry up and people who ask them may stop coming to the meetings.” Okay, so you can use the phrase as a form of retribution. Steve Levitt sees another use.

LEVITT: I like to try to, in everything in life, try to reward the people around me and acknowledge when they say funny things or smart things or they look good or act kind or things like that. So as a general rule I’ve adopted, especially since I’ve gotten older, to try to do really nice things to people as much as I can. Especially if they’re very low cost to me, I like to do nice things that don’t cost me anything, but are good to other people. And so I think that’s one very strong piece of saying, “It’s a great question,” is really just acknowledgement that someone who’s sort of in the background is actually doing something that’s cool or interesting or challenging.  

Let me be clear on one thing: when it comes to saying, “that’s a great question” — perhaps saying it disingenuously — I myself am not innocent. When I’m on the other side of the microphone than I am now, I am a menace:

DUBNER: Yeah, that’s a great question.

DUBNER: Yeah, that’s a good question.

DUBNER: Yeah, that’s a great question.

DUBNER: Wow, that’s a really, really good and really hard question. I like it a lot. That’s the kind of question that I would like to have thought to ask someone much smarter than me to see what they said. 

And I know where I caught it. I caught it from Steve Levitt:

LEVITT: Maybe I invented it. Maybe I’m the inventor of “that’s a great question.”

DUBNER: I remember when I first heard you say it. You were giving an academic talk. I think at the University of Chicago. You were discussing research of yours. And in an academic setting, especially, when someone challenges either methodology or findings or data or whatever, I guess I expected that the first response would always be to just shout it down immediately and show why, “No, I already thought this through. And here’s why you’re wrong. And here’s why I’m right.” Because that’s what you see so much in politics. Nobody ever acknowledges that the opponent has a valid point. But I remember you just saying, “You know, that’s a really good question.” And something to the effect of, like, “I wish I’d thought of that while doing my research, because it might be right, it might be wrong, but it certainly would have broadened my thinking on this.” So that, I remember, is where I first heard it, from you.

LEVITT: I’m sure I stole it from somebody, but I can’t pin my finger on who that particular genius would have been.

DUBNER: All right, well, Levitt, I feel indebted to you because I feel it’s if not valuable, then at least useful, and I use it now and again. And so I would like to return the favor, to give you something that you can use in certain circumstances. So here’s the thing. Do you ever have a circumstance where you’re interacting with someone, maybe kind of in passing and they say something to you and you don’t quite catch it, or they say something to you that you don’t want to have heard but you kind of need to say something? You ever have that at all?

LEVITT: Yeah, all the time.

DUBNER: All right, so here’s what you say. You ready? You might want to write it down.

LEVITT: Yep.

DUBNER: You say, “reebusacassafram.” Let me hear you say that.

LEVITT: Say it one more time.

DUBNER: Reebusacassafram.

LEVITT: Reebus Acassafram?  

DUBNER: More like one word. Reebusacassafram.

LEVITT: Reebusacassafram.

DUBNER: Good. Right. So, that is a phrase that was invented that was by some genius. I don’t know who. I do know where I learned to say this was from the former dean of students at Darmouth and he was always getting in these conversations in passing where he had to have the response but he had no idea what the person was talking about. It might have been talking about a relative of yours or a former encounter. I could see you using this a lot. And you want to say something on your way out, you don’t want to be rude but you have no idea what the response is. If you say “reebusacassafram,” the human ear will interpret that in one of a hundred different ways and they will almost certainly think that you actually said something real when you didn’t.

LEVITT: That’s great, I love that.

DUBNER: You’re welcome.

LEVITT: I love that. Reebusacassafram.

*      *      *

Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Suzie Lechtenberg. Our staff also includes Alison CraiglowGreg RippinJoel Meyer, Tricia Bobeda, Mary Diduch, Zack Lapinski, Brent Katz, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, Jasmin Klinger, Eleanor Osborne, Ryan Kelley, and Jacob Clemente. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers. You can follow Freakonomics Radio on Apple PodcastsSpotifyStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:

SOURCES

  • Steve Levitt, professor of economics at the University of Chicago and co-author of the Freakonomics books.
  • Arika Okrent, linguist and author.
  • Bill McGowan, communications coach and founder/C.E.O. of Clarity Media Group.

RESOURCES