We’ve been doing this show for a while now. And I’ve noticed a trend …
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.
And you know who has this tic really bad?
Steven 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 – an economist at the University of Chicago. Levitt, you’ve taught there quite a while now, haven’t you?
LEVITT: Uh, that’s a good question.
Stephen J. DUBNER: 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.
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.
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“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 and 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 and I write for Mental Floss and The Week.
Okrent knows several languages.
OKRENT: I speak about six at at a faking-it level. So I can go for awhile and have you convinced until you bring up something I’ve never talked about before and then it all falls apart.
DUBNER: 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?
DUBNER: O.K., so how do you figure this out?
OKRENT: It’s kind of 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, you know, 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 CNN or NPR 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.
NPR: 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?
NPR: Well that’s a good question and …
NPR: Does this bump hold up, do you think?
NPR: Well, that’s a good question.
FOX: Well, that’s a good question …
CNN: That’s a very good question …
CNN: That’s a very good question …
CNN: Well, you know it’s a good question, John …
MSNBC: Why has that not been enough to get him off of death row in Texas?
MSNBC: This is a really good question.
O.K., 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 PR 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 wanna 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 allows 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: … “You know, that’s a really good question” is the most elementary bridge possible.
DUBNER: 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 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 that 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, 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, they’re 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, 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. Coming up on Freakonomics Radio: Steve Levitt reveals another purpose it serves:
LEVITT: 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.
And we’ll hear from someone who really does try to ask great questions:
Charlie ROSE: It would be clearly naïve of me to say that I don’t think about the craft of the question. I think about that a lot.
And here’s a question for you: if you do not subscribe to Freakonomics Radio, don’t you think you should? It’s free, it’s easy — on iTunes or wherever else you download your podcasts — and four out of five economists surveyed recommend the Freakonomics podcast for their patients who listen to podcasts.
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The media coach Bill McGowan thinks that people should 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 entrepreneurship. In a recent 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: ‘O.K., 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.” O.K., 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.
Last May, when Levitt and I published Think Like a Freak, we went on a long book tour, first in the U.S. and then in the U.K. The whole time, it was back-to-back-to-back-to-back interviews and Q&A sessions.
LEVITT: We get interviewed so much that when we hear something new, something that we haven’t thought about, it’s just, it’s fun. It’s actually somewhat fun to be interviewed and to answer questions. Being interviewed can range from incredibly dull and boring to really really fun. And I think of just our own experiences. So somehow the times that we’ve gone on the Charlie Rose show.
CHARLIE ROSE: Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner are here. Their 2005 book Freakonomics used economic theory to offer surprising insight …
LEVITT: I have been completely stunned because the way he asks questions and what he says, end up being super interesting and fun and getting me to say things I never would have said to anyone else …
CHARLIE ROSE: … there are people sitting at home saying, “This is so basic, fundamental common sense, you know?”
LEVITT: I think for us even it was embarrassing as we sat down, “cause we thought maybe there was some magic to what we did because people tell us there’s magic. But the more we thought about it, there’s no magic at all!” And then finally, at the end we said we better really make it clear to people right on page one there’s no magic here, “cause there really isn’t. I mean … “
LEVITT: … And it’s an incredible gift. And you have a little bit of that yourself. I’ve watched you do that to people that you’re really good at getting people to say and answer questions they wouldn’t. And if you think about when we did our book tour, you know, some of the people who interviewed us were amazingly clever and well-prepared. And so I think that it’s almost for me, saying “Great question,” is just a way of saying to the interviewer, “Hey, this is actually fun. And in a world in which this can be so little fun, you’re making this fun.”
DUBNER: Hey, Charlie!
ROSE: Hey, Stephen. How are you?
DUBNER: I’m great, how are you doing?
DUBNER: That, of course, is Charlie Rose.
DUBNER: I’m curious, who have you interviewed so far today, Charlie?
ROSE: I interviewed John McCain and John Dickerson. And then last night I interviewed Diane von Furstenberg, who’s gonna be on the show at 11 o’clock tonight.
Charlie Rose is the dean of the television interview. In the a.m., he can be found at CBS “This Morning,” along with Gayle King and Norah O’Donnell. At night, the show is simply called “Charlie Rose.” He has interviewed more people – especially more smart people – than anyone I know of.
DUBNER: How do you take it when someone says – let’s say you’re sitting down with, you know, maybe it was Steve Jobs, maybe it was President Clinton, and you ask a question, and they look at you across the table, and say, “Charlie, you know, that’s a great question.” Does it feel like they’re trying to flatter you? How do you take that?
ROSE: I think they’re trying to flatter me most of the time. Or they believed it, I mean whether it is egotistical and I think it was a good question and I agree with them, because I thought about it and structured it and gave some consideration to it. Or, B) it’s spontaneous and flattering, and less so, it’s simply buying time as they crystallize their thought.
DUBNER: It strikes me that you’re someone who works hard to ask the kind of questions that people think are really good questions, that are really good questions.
ROSE: I do, I mean, it would be clearly naïve of me to say that I don’t think about the craft of the question. I think about that a lot. How to ask the question, what I expect to get from the question. And so how the question is perceived makes a difference to me. I structure the question hoping to get the best possible response. I used to make longer questions. With some assumption that I had to explain the question. I spend more time now simplifying the question.
DUBNER: Take us a little further into that. When you say that you structure the question hoping to get the best possible response, I guess what I want to know from you is, how do you know what the best possible response is? In other words, are you trying to, like a prosecutor, get the answer to a question that you sort of know already?
ROSE: Well, let me do something first. I would be tempted to say, “That’s a very good question that you just asked me.” But because of this conversation I’m not gonna say that.
DUBNER: O.K. Cheers.
ROSE: But it … I would say that because that is the right question. Um, it’s not, for me, that I want them to say something that I think they’ve said before and I want them to repeat it. So, I’m not asking questions to have someone tell me what I want them to say or to tell me something that they’ve already said before. What I want them to do is surprise me with an answer. To go deeper, wider, more interesting than they have before. And there is a kind of moment in which you try to say something that is … that just captures the moment and makes the person be caught up in the question rather than simply, you know, repeating something that they’ve said a thousand times before.
DUBNER: You know, it strikes me hearing you talk, I care a lot because I do interviews. You know, I do sort of what you do, but for most people listening to this, there are gonna be a million people or so who hear you talking about this and they don’t do interviews, typically, but I wonder, Charlie, if you think what you’re describing in how you think about a question can be generalizable for any person in not doing an interview, per se, but just having a conversation with another person, whether it’s a friend, family member, or stranger.
ROSE: Oh, I do think that and I encourage that. I encourage it at a couple levels. One, just in normal conversation, I mean be genuinely curious. You don’t have to make a conversation serious, but make it in the moment, but let your curiosity inspire you. And that will help. The other thing that happens to me is that, you know, there’s an interesting thing…people come to my table expecting to talk about themselves, their work, their relationships, their hopes for the future, their experience — they come expecting that. Most of the time, you know, in regular conversation, that’s not what happens. So, sometimes people come to me and say, “Gee, you asked my friend questions that I could never ask them.” You know, because they expect you to ask them, that’s who you are. And my point to them is, no, you should ask them. You should engage in conversations that have to do with something — not all the time — it should often be simply, reacting to the moment in the moment that we all do, whether it’s sports or entertainment, or relationships, but there are those profound questions that I think all of us would be better off if we occasionally dived into.
DUBNER: All right, last question for you, Charlie, and then I’ll let you go. If we’d been in the opposite seats today, if this lame idea that I had was your lame idea, and you were interviewing me about it, what would have been your first question to me about the topic of the rise of, “Hey, that’s a great question.”
ROSE: Why do you think people frequently say, “That’s a great question?”
DUBNER: Mmm. I’ve been schooled by the master. That was the question. I never asked that one. But I learned, and now I will do better. Charlie, thank you so much.
ROSE: My pleasure.
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. So, uh …
DUBNER: Yeah, that’s a good question so that’s one …
DUBNER: Yeah, that’s a great question …
DUBNER: Wow, that’s a really, really good and really hard question.
DUBNER: 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, you know, 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, right? 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, “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 kind of 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. You say “reebusacassafram.” Lemme hear you say that.
LEVITT: Say it one more time.
LEVITT: Reebus Acassafram?
DUBNER: More like one word. Reebusacassafram.
DUBNER: Good. Right. So, that is a phrase that was invented 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 Dartmouth 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. Like 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.