Tag Archives: questions

461. 25 Deceptively Difficult Questions (with Amber, Paul & Sarah)

An episode about the tricky little questions that we use when socialising. What are the appropriate answers? What are the subtle differences? How do native speakers use these questions? Can you take the test and get all the right responses to my list of deceptively difficult questions?

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25 Deceptively Difficult Questions – Proper Introduction Transcript!

Hi everyone,

This is an episode about social English, the kind of English you use when you’re socialising, particularly the little things you say when you greet someone or at the beginning of a conversation.

There are many ways to say “hi” and also lots of ways to say “how are you?” or “what are you doing?” The tricky thing is being able to judge the subtle differences in the questions with the presence of auxiliary verbs or modals which change the meaning slightly from the past, to the present to the future or with slightly different levels of formality.

I’d like to do a test in this episode today. I am going to test you, so get ready.

A Test

Here’s what’s going to happen.

I’ve prepared a list of 25 questions. I’m going to read them to you in a moment.

As I say each question, what I want you to do is to think really quickly and really naturally about the first thing you would normally say when you hear that question. What’s the first answer that comes into your mind?

Let’s see if you answer correctly.

To find out the proper answers we’re going to listen to me directing those questions at Amber, Paul and Sarah. Then you can listen out for how they answer them and the comments we make afterwards, which should explain these tricky little bits of English.

Not only can you learn some essential social English in this episode, you can also hear plenty of humorous conversation between the four of us.

Sarah’s baby is also there in the background. I’m sorry if this bothers anyone. I’ve removed some of those noises but a few are still there. I think it sounds fine and adds a bit of atmosphere and after all she is a very cute baby.

So, the test. Let’s get started.

Are you ready? Just give the first answer that comes to mind.

Also, you should know that some of the questions are intentionally incorrect. So, if you hear a question which is grammatically wrong or just not used ever, you can say “wrong”.

Ok, so, your quick answer to the question, or “wrong” if it’s incorrect.

I’ll say the question once quickly, once slowly and once again quickly.

Some of these questions may seem extremely simple – the point of this is the pragmatics of social English and how you should give certain stock answers to some questions. They get a bit harder as they go along.

Also, you can try to repeat the questions too.

They’re going to come pretty quick, so use the pause button if you want.

Here we go. You might think these are easy, but that’s why this is called ‘deceptively’ difficult questions.

*4 questions are intentionally incorrect. Can you spot them?

  1. What are you doing?
  2. How are you doing?
  3. How’s it going?
  4. How are you going?
  5. What’s happening?
  6. What’s going on?
  7. What’s going down?
  8. What’s going up?
  9. What’s up?
  10. How do you do?
  11. How are you?
  12. How have you been?
  13. How have you been up to?
  14. What are you up to?
  15. What have you been up to?
  16. How long has it been?
  17. Can I use your phone?
  18. I can’t use your phone, can I?
  19. Do you mind if I open the window?
  20. You don’t mind if I open the window, do you?
  21. What are your plans for later?
  22. What are you up to later?
  23. Can you tell me where is the best bar in town?
  24. Do you know how long is it going to be?
  25. Would you be prepared to give me a 5% discount?

Ta = thanks

You’re now going to hear all those questions and how Amber, Paul and Sarah will respond to them. See if you got them right or wrong!

I’ll go through them again quickly at the end.

Listen to the whole episode for all the correct answers and explanations.

Don’t be a ninja! Let me know your thoughts in the comment section.



453. The 36 Questions that Lead to Love (with Amber & Paul)

Listen to Amber, Paul and me answering questions designed by psychologists to help couples or friends become closer and more intimate.

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Hello, welcome back to Luke’s English Podcast, this podcast for learners of English hosted by me Luke Thompson. Hi.

The general idea of this podcast is to help you to improve your English by providing you with content to keep you listening regularly, for longer periods of time, to authentic English as it really is spoken. Sometimes I teach you things on the podcast and other times I play conversations for you to follow, like in this episode.

This episode is entitled 36 Questions that Lead to Love

In this one you’re going to hear the tangential trio of Amber, Paul and me talking about this set of 36 questions, which was compiled by a group of psychologists as part of a study into ‘interpersonal closeness’ or intimacy between people.

Amber first found out about it in a podcast published by the New York Times. Here’s what the NYTimes website says about this study, which is where the 36 questions come from.

The study by the psychologist Arthur Aron (and others) explores whether intimacy between two strangers can be accelerated by having them ask each other a specific series of personal questions. The 36 questions in the study are broken up into three sets, with each set intended to be more probing than the previous one.

The idea is that mutual vulnerability helps to create closeness and intimacy. To quote the study’s authors, “One key pattern associated with the development of a close relationship among peers is sustained, escalating, reciprocal and personal self-disclosure.” Allowing oneself to be vulnerable with another person can be exceedingly difficult, so this exercise forces the issue.

The questions are now used to help build intimacy or personal closeness typically between couples that want to fall in love, but also between anyone looking for ways of finding out more about each other and developing a closer or deeper relationship.

Amber’s going to tell you more about it in a moment.

These 36 questions are available for you to use or read online at NYTimes.com https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/projects/modern-love/36-questions/

In this episode you’ll hear Amber, Paul and me asking each other those questions.

Let’s see what happens.

  • Will the questions bring us closer together?
  • To what extent will the intimacy level rise?
  • Will they make us fall in love with each other?
  • Or will we just learn weird truths about each other that will disturb us, ultimately causing us to drift apart as friends, and then they’ll never appear on this podcast again?
  • Will these questions help you get to know us more?
  • What could be revealed by this set of questions designed by psychologists to become more and more intimate as they go?
  • Is it possible for 3 British friends to take the whole thing seriously enough for the questions to have the intended effect?

Listen on to find out more.

Here we go…


OK so if you were counting the questions you’ll see that we skipped some but that’s our choice isn’t it!

I think, on balance, we probably did become slightly closer than before. There were some particularly revealing moments there where Paul was talking about his lack of confidence in social situations, which is a bit of a surprise considering how I often observe him showing no obvious signs of social awkwardness.

Of course, we didn’t take it all completely seriously. For example, you’re supposed to stare into each other’s eyes at the end of the questions, for four minutes, but that wouldn’t have been particularly interesting for you to listen to.

All the questions are available on the NY Times website – here https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/projects/modern-love/36-questions/

So check them out and use them yourselves – either on a date, with friends, or with your language partners or language groups.

They could provide a nice way for you to practise talking about feelings and personal thoughts in English.

And, if you fall in love with someone as a result, that’s a nice bonus isn’t it!?

If you’ve fallen in love with Amber’s voice and you’re wondering when Amber’s podcast is coming out – it’s not ready yet and I will announce it on the podcast as soon as it is online. It takes a long time to get these things ready – getting your head around the technology, writing, recording, working out how to publish, building a website, setting up your podcast feed, getting on the iTunes store and all of that stuff – it takes time and it’s not as easy as you might think, so just hold your horses for a bit, it’s on its way.


452. A Conversation About Language (with Amber & Paul)

Discussing language with Amber & Paul, including issues such as errors made by native speakers, language change, whether language standards are declining, the effects of technology on language and how to cut an avocado without injuring yourself.


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The other day Amber and Paul came over to my flat do a podcast. We were having tea, chatting and getting ready to record something, and we just started talking about language, I think because Paul said that he found it weird that even though he can speak 3 languages really well, he knows nothing about language – he doesn’t know the grammatical terms, the rules of what makes something right or wrong or somewhere in between, and we were talking about it, and I quickly managed to press the record button and ended up recording about 50 minutes of us rambling on about language – all totally unplanned and spontaneous.

You’re about to listen to it. This is an Amber & Paul episode so you’re going to hear an unscripted and natural chat between friends so there might be a bit of swearing.

Before you listen to us discussing language-related issues, consider these questions, which are at the heart of our conversation.

  • What are some common errors native English speakers make in English?
  • How do native English speakers feel about mistakes in English, particularly mistakes made by other native speakers?
  • Are some errors worse than others?
  • How does a language evolve? Are errors a part of that process?
  • Has your language, or English, changed much in the last 100, 200, 300 years?
  • Is your language, or English, getting worse than before? Are standards of language declining?
  • Has a language ever totally broken down and died due to falling standards?
  • Why did latin die out as a language?
  • On a slight tangent, what’s the safest way to cut an avocado?
  • Back on track, how does Charles Darwin relate to language development?
  • What effect is technology having on our language? Is it making us better or worse at communicating?
  • Are we better at communicating than we used to be? Are we getting better at communicating? How do you even measure that?
  • Do you know more about English grammar and so on than most native speakers of English?
  • Do you know more about English grammar and so on than Paul Taylor?
  • Are you better at cooking than Paul Taylor?

Watch out for answers, and general rambling on the subject of those questions as you now listen to our conversation about language.

That’s it! Leave your comments below.

So there you are, that was our conversation about language.

I invite you to take part in the conversation by getting into the comment section.

Let me remind you of those questions from the beginning. (see above)

There were a few unanswered questions in there, and I think I might be asking David Crystal about some of them.

Remember that? I’m going to interview the world’s leading voice on language – Professor David Crystal. It’ll be a chance to ask him various questions about language. I’ve already collected some questions from my listeners, and I have loads to ask him too, but feel free to offer up a question or two and if I get a chance I’ll ask him.

Actually, I’ve already interviewed David Crystal, so it’s too late to send me your questions! Episode coming soon.

274. Q&A Session #4

In this episode I’m going to respond to questions that my listeners have asked me in the teacherluke.co.uk discussion forum. I’ll also deal with some other questions I’ve received from listeners in different ways, either on Facebook, twitter, email or as comments posted on my website.

So this is a Q&A episode – Q&A, obviously means Question and Answer. It’s not the first time I’ve done this on the podcast before. The first time was Episode 17 “Hello To My Listeners Around the World”, then episode 51 “Luke Answers Your Emails and Questions”, then episode 126 “Your Emails, Comments and Questions” – and that was the last time I did an episode devoted to your questions and comments, although I did do the “Your English Podcast” series which featured lots of comments from listeners, and some Q&A in other episodes like “Rickipedia” with my Dad or “A Cup of Tea with…” with friends like Pierre Gaspard, Sebastian Marx, Sarah Donnelly, where we answered questions from Facebook. But really, this is in fact the 4th episode devoted solely to answering listeners’ questions. That’s why this episode is called Q&A Session #4. This is something I plan to do more regularly. If you’d like to send me questions to be answered in the podcast, listen up and I’ll tell you the best ways to get in touch with me.

So, thanks for attending the LEP Q&A Session for May 2015. Make yourself comfortable. Pull up a chair, there are plenty available. Help yourself to biscuits. Let’s imagine that this virtual meeting is taking place inside a pod which is orbiting the earth. Let’s hope there’s no space debris like in that film Gravity with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, that could be disastrous, but also entertaining and with great 3D effects. No, there’s no need to worry – during this Q&A meeting, we’re just going to cruise around the atmosphere in total comfort while I carefully respond to different questions and queries which have been sent in to LEP via the matrix, I mean, the internet.

Just before I answer those questions from listeners, I’d like to just mention a few other things – these are some things that I would like to deal with and I think now is an appropriate time. Feel free to use this moment as a chance to just get comfortable, pour yourself some space coffee, get used to the zero gravity conditions, have a power-nap, whatever you’ve got to do.

Recent Episodes
I’m very glad to see that recent episodes of the podcast have been well received by the international community of LEP. Comments have been encouraging, particularly for the ones involving Amber and Paul which I uploaded over the past week or two. Those episodes were a lot of fun and I plan to feature Amber and Paul with their lovely voices, on the podcast again soon, perhaps to do some more improvisation games and language focus.

Audible Sponsorship
You can’t fail to have noticed that most of my episodes now contain mentions of an audiobook offer from Audible.com. There’s usually a pre-show spot of about 1 minute when I remind you to go to audibletrial.com/teacherluke where you can sign up and get a free audiobook. Now, why am I doing that? Well, it’s quite simple really. I’ve arranged to have sponsorship from Audible for several reasons. The main one is that it’s a way for me to monetise this podcast which I spend so much of my time working on. I love doing LEP and I spend quite a lot of my time on it, and I work alone except for bits of assistance from some LEP Ninjas who manage google docs for transcriptions. Basically, I have to be able to justify doing this – if I can’t get some remuneration for my efforts, then why should I keep spending so much time working essentially for free? Obviously, doing the podcast not completely thankless or anything – it’s wonderful and I love it! I receive so many encouraging comments from my listeners, positive responses, and I am able to connect with so many cool people around the world and that is massively rewarding, and I am so grateful for everyone’s support. However, I think it’s time I made a little bit of cash from my efforts, and sponsorship is one of the ways for me to do that. Also, I’d like to keep LEP free for you to download, rather than making everyone pay for episodes. So, how can I generate some income while keeping the podcast free? Well, sponsorship is one of the answers. Loads of other top podcasts have sponsors – Marc Maron, Serial, This American Life – they’re all sponsored by someone. That’s how they make it work. It’s the industry standard for monetising a podcast. Now, my mentions of audible.com might distract you slightly, or perhaps even make you feel that I’ve gone commercial or something. I understand that. But for me, sponsors are just a normal part of any successful podcast. Also, I believe Audible.com is an appropriate sponsor for LEP. Listening to audiobooks can be a great way to get loads of English input. I know there may be free audiobooks available out there – but frankly they’re not recorded using professional actors who can bring these stories to life. Also, Audible has a really wide range of stuff for you to download, or listen to on their website. I use Audible, and generally I’m happy with the service and I used their 30 day trial, got my free book and continue to use them, getting a new audiobook every month as part of my package. This month I downloaded a book by one of my favourite British journalists called Jon Ronson – the book is called “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed?” and it’s all about the modern phenomenon of public shaming on social networks (e.g. when someone writes something stupid or controversial on Twitter and is then attacked by hundreds of people in a kind of feeding frenzy of public criticism.) Ronson is a brilliantly insightful and humorous writer and he narrates the book himself. Here’s a link to Jon Ronson’s books if you’re interested.

So, I like Audible, even if their iPhone application sucks. I mean, it used to be great, but since a recent update it hasn’t been working properly so I just download the books to my laptop and listen there, or transfer them to my phone using the cable connection.

So, anyway, what I’m trying to say is: The fact that my podcast is sponsored is absolutely a good thing. It’s good for me, it’s good for the podcast and it is good for you, because you can take advantage of their offer and get yourself an audiobook. You’ll just have to put up with me mentioning my sponsors from time to time – but don’t worry, I’ll try to keep those mentions brief, informative, light-hearted and not too intrusive.

Join The Mailing List
Have you done this yet? You should!
teacherluke.co.uk is my base and this is where I post not only episodes of Luke’s English Podcast but also where I post other things that are worth sharing with you my lovely audience – like for example if I’ve been interviewed one someone else’s podcast or even featured on TV! If you join the mailing list you’ll get an email whenever I post a new episode or something like that. Don’t worry though, I definitely won’t spam you or send you loads of unnecessary things that just fill up your inbox. I hate that. You’ll just get an email with new a notification of a new episode or special extras whenever I add them. To join the mailing list just enter your email address in the space provided in the right of this screen.

How To Get In Touch With Me
There are lots of ways to get in touch with me.
LEP is on Facebook and you can leave comments there or send me a private message. Click here for the FB page.
I’m on Twitter, and you can tweet me there. Click here for my twitter (@englishpodcast)
But the best way is to contact me via my website – either publicly by leaving a comment on one of my episodes, or by sending me an email.
You can email me through the website quite simply. Just click on CONTACT in the menu and you can write your message there. It will be sent to me as a private email.
Also, I always welcome your thoughts, questions and suggestions – so please send me your feedback. I’ve set up a feedback form, and you can find it by mousing over the word CONTACT in the menu on my website.

The Discussion Forum
There’s also the discussion forum which is a cool way to chat with other Lepsters and make friends.
Have you seen it yet? – just visit teacherluke.co.uk and click “Discussion Forums” in the menu.
There are various discussions going on there, on different topics and you can add your own topics and pose your own questions. There’s a Skype group too, where people share Skype details and then chat with each other online. That includes the chatcast which is pretty cool. https://teacherluke.co.uk/forums/forum/general-discussion/

Please send me your questions – I will aim to answer them in episodes of the podcast
I haven’t done a Q&A on the podcast for quite a long time, but I love doing it.
In fact, that’s what this episode is all about – answering your questions and queries.
For future reference, you can send me your questions – either in an email via the CONTACT page, or in the discussion forum.

In June 2014 I posted this in the forum:

Luke – June 13, 2014 at 12:18 pm
Send me your questions for the podcast
This is where you can ask me questions that you’d like me to answer on the podcast.
Ask me a question here and I’ll answer it on the podcast (probably – I do reserve the right to not answer questions if I want).
Feel free to ask me about ANYTHING.
It could be a question you’d like me to discuss, in order to hear my opinion.
It could be a question about English.
It could be just a fun question that you’d like me to ramble on about.
When there are enough questions here I’ll make a podcast and respond to you.
Let the imagination run wild…

Questions from the Forum & Some Other Places
Here are the questions which were sent to me.
The questions are varied – some things about grammar or vocabulary, some questions asking for my opinion about language teaching or learning, some asking for my opinion or thoughts on other topics, some suggestions for future podcasts, some bits of flattering praise (oh thanks!) and some random far-out philosophical musings.

I may have made a few subtle language corrections to the comments you see below, but some errors may still be present – I mean, I haven’t completely re-written the comments or questions.

There are some questions which were written in the forum or sent to me which I am not including in this episode, either because I’ve covered them in the podcast already, or because they have been answered in another way.

So, let’s talk to the LEP community.

Anonymous (actually via FB messenger)
Hey Luke,
What’s the diference between “Never mind” and “(it) doesn’t matter”?

They both have the same effect, which is to mean “It’s not a problem”, although the two phrases achieve this meaning in slightly different ways.
Never mind = don’t worry about it = it’s not a problem (you should never mind about this = you shouldn’t find it important)
It doesn’t matter = it’s not important = it’s not a problem

A Spoonful of Mustard – June 13, 2014 at 12:19 pm
Greetings comrades,
A friend of mine is absolutely convinced that some animals have accents, so to speak. Being a professional rider, she’s quite au fait with horses. Going by her, an Icelandinc colt neighs in a conspicuously different way from, say, an Italian colt of the same breed. Although it sounds preposterous, I don’t think she’s made that up. What do you make of it? Have you ever noticed that everyday, common animals, pets and suchlike, sound slightly different abroad? If you have, please, tell me what animals exactly were those.

Comment on the homepage on 23 May 2015
Hello Luke,

Hope you are having a good day.

Needless to say, this is the best English podcast in the whole universe!

I have a question about pronunciation :-)

Could you enlighten me on the differences in pronunciations (British English) between these: “salt” and “[sult]an”, “haul” and “hole”?

Perhaps it’s my ears, but most of the time I hear them pronounced similarly.

Thanks much in advance!

EDGAR HERNÁNDEZ – June 13, 2014 at 1:18 pm
Alright! Luke. Well I would like to know your opinion about this question. Should non-native speakers try to sound like someone who is native. What I’m getting at is that if it isn’t fake or not. Some people believe that if they do so they will lose their identity. What do you think about. What I think is that it is very good way to improve our English. Cheers!!!!

1. Clarity is the most important thing. Can people understand you? Is the message being communicated effectively?
2. Some traces of your original accent can be quite charming, and it shows where you’re from. Ultimately, your variety of English is just as valid as another one, as long as you’re able to communicate effectively with the people you’re talking to.
3. You can choose your own accent – but people might judge you for being inauthentic. Authenticity is quite a big issue. It’s your choice in the end.
4. Copying a British accent is a good way of practising and developing your pronunciation, but be careful of faking it in your normal interactions, or at least – if you do fake it, make sure you fake it really well! In the end, it’s your personal qualities and your humanity that will come through – put that first and people will forgive you for faking an accent. Be a genuine person that people can understand clearly. That’s more important than having a specific accent.

That’s all for this episode. My time ran out really quickly, as usual! But I have loads of other questions from listeners and I will do more Q&A sessions in the future.

Remember, if you want to send me questions, use the CONTACT button in the menu.

Thanks for listening,
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Chords and Lyrics
Phil Ochs – “Changes”

G A D Em
Sit by my side, come as close as the air,
G A Bm Em A
Share in a memory of grace, and wander in my words,
D Em A D
Dream about he pictures that I play, of changes.

Verse 2
G A D Em
Green leaves of summer, turn red in the fall,
G A Bm Em A
To brown and to yellow they fade, and then they have to die,
D Em A D
Trapped within the circle time parade, of changes.

Verse 3
G A D Em
Scenes of my young years were warm in my mind,
G A Bm Em A
Visions of shadows that chime, ’til one day I returned, and
D Em A D
found they were the victims of the vines, of changes. The

Verse 4
G A D Em
world spinning madly, it drifts in the dark,
G A Bm Em A
Swings through a hollow of haze, a race around that stars, a
D Em A D
journey through the universe ablaze, with changes.

Verse 5
G A D Em
Moments of magic will glow in the night, all
G A Bm Em A
fears of the forest are gone, and when the moment breaks, They’re
D Em A D
swept away by golden drops of dawn, of changes.

Verse 6
G A D Em
Passions will part, to a strange melody, as
G A Bm Em A
fires will sometimes burn cold, like petals in the wind,
D Em A D
We’re puppets to the silver strings of souls, of changes. Your

Verse 7
G A D Em
tears will be trembling, not here, somewhere else, one
G A Bm Em A
last cup of wine we will pour, and I’ll kiss you one more time
D Em A D
And leave you on the rolling river shore, of changes. So

Verse 8
G A D Em
sit by my side, come as close as the air,
G A Bm Em A
Share in a memory of grace, and wander in my words,
D Em A D
Dream about he pictures that I play, of changes.

240. Politicians Avoiding Questions

In this episode we’re going to look at the way politicians deal with tough and challenging questions from TV and radio interviewers. We’ll listen to some examples of politicians avoiding questions in interviews and examine some of the ways they get themselves out of tight situations while also promoting their ideas. [Download]

Small Donate ButtonI’m not sure what you think about politics. I don’t talk about it a lot on Luke’s English Podcast. I did an episode a couple of years ago called “82. Votings, Elections, Government“, in which I talk about the political system, and various vocabulary related to politics, voting and elections. Now, a lot of people find politics to be quite boring, and I used to think that too, but more and more (perhaps because I’m growing up finally!) I think that politics is fascinating and really important. I’m particularly keen on watching debates between politicians, and watching the way in which politicians cleverly deal with challenging questions in interviews. It’s fascinating to watch them very skilfully squirm their way out of tight situations, or use all manner of linguistic and rhetorical skills to persuade people live on TV.

British journalists tend to interview politicians in an aggressive manner. Politicians are getting very good at avoiding questions. And this is what I’m particularly interested in studying in this episode of the podcast. How do politicians avoid questions? Let’s have a listen, and find out.

Here’s a clip from the satirical comedy show “The Day Today”. This programme makes fun of the news. It takes the mickey out of the way that news readers speak, and their interview style. In this clip we hear an interview with a politician who is facing allegations of ministerial misconduct – he’s being accused of lying in front of the House of Commons about a deal. The interviewer is not aggressive or challenging enough, and in the end he lets the politician get away with lying to the house. He’s too nice! Then the newsreader in the studio takes over and has a go at the interviewer for not asking challenging or tough questions. I think it’s really funny. Let’s have a listen and then consider the ways that politicians deal with tough interviews in TV.

That’s just a comedy clip, but in terms of real situations, here’s an example of what I’m talking about. Here the interviewer wants the politician to admit that he was wrong about the Euro. Clearly the politician doesn’t want to admit he was wrong, and so he pushes another line: The UK at the moment is not willing to be part of the Euro. Listen to the way the interviewer asks about his mistake over the Euro, how the politician attempts to avoid the question, and how the interviewer has to quite aggressively force him to deal with the Euro problem.

The politician: The energy secretary Chris Hune (in government)
The issue: He said that the Euro was going to be a big success and that the UK is missing out.
The politician doesn’t want to admit that he’s wrong, and instead wants to push the idea that the UK is not willing to be part of the Euro at the moment.

Some ways that politicians avoid questions
They have a pre-planned message, or line, which they have prepared carefully before going into the interview. Often this is in the form of soundbites – snappy, quotable phrases which can be used in newspapers.
Their aim is to present this line, despite the questions they will be asked.
As long as they are talking on the same topic, and they look presentable, reasonable and professional, we just don’t notice that they are not responding to the question.
Social conventions of politeness and communication make it hard for the interviewer to break this down. If the politician doesn’t really answer the question, it’s hard for the interviewer to a) identify that it has happened, b) respond to it quickly, c) find the right questions that will force the politician to really answer the question.

Smooth interviews break down when an interviewer is tough, aggressive and skeptical. The interviewer has to take an aggressive line in order to fight against the slick tactics of the politician. It’s very hard for these interviewers because they have to go against instinctive social conventions in order to break the politician’s spell. If the interviewer is too aggressive or emotional, the interviewee wins because he comes out of it better – he looks like a calm reasonable person, and the interviewer looks like a mad man. If the interviewer is not precise enough in his questions, the interviewee wins again, because the interviewer does too much talking, while the politician sits there in innocent silence.

The best politicians manage to make it very hard for the interviewer to put them on the spot. They use techniques to distract the conversation away from the tough questions, they don’t get emotional, they manage to come across as reasonable, modest, ordinary people. Likeability is vital to a politician’s career nowadays. We tend to vote for people who we like, rather than thinking purely of their policy, which is a terrible symptom of our image driven culture. So, clever politicians are able to construct a likeable image – as family oriented, hard-working, sympathetic, strong or humorous. That likeablilty acts as a kind of defence mechanism or even a distraction, so that viewers on TV let them avoid questions and so on. Research has shown (and I refer to a Harvard Business Paper called Conversational Blindness: Answering the Wrong Question the Right Way Authors: Todd Rogers and Michael I. Norton Publisher: Harvard Business School, Working Paper No. 09-048 Date Published:  October 2008) that we just don’t notice that a politician has avoided a question when the answer is related to the question asked and is given with confidence and conviction. So, it goes like this:
The interviewer asks a question.
The politician responds with an answer that relates to the topic of the question, but doesn’t really answer the question specifically.
We don’t notice that the question is being avoided, because the answer is on-topic.
Politicians also use the phrase “Let’s be clear…” as a way to redirect their answer towards their point, while making it look like they are clarifying and directly answering the question. “Let’s be clear…” + their point.

This all breaks down, when tough interviewers manage to put politicians on the spot. Perhaps they take them by surprise, perhaps they are willing to come across as crazy by repeating the question over and over, or perhaps they manage to keep the courage of their convictions in order to verbally spar with these master debaters. So, when interviewers bring their A game, it can be pretty fascinating to watch a politician have a really hard time. It’s like car crash TV. It’s also pretty bizarre. These kinds of conversations rarely happen in normal situations. People talking over each other without stopping. People answering direct questions with completely unrelated answers. It’s weird.

Let’s listen to some examples!

“Did you threaten to overrule him?” Paxman vs Michael Howard
The accusation: Paxman questioned Howard relentlessly about a meeting he had had with prisons chief Derek Lewis about the possible dismissal of the head of Parkhurst Prison.

Chloe Smith on Newsnight (total disaster for Chloe Smith)

Excerpt from The Thick of It. “Answer the question you fat fuck!”

Why do interviewers in the UK have such a direct style? Because we believe they should be accountable for everything they do. We don’t have much deference for people in positions of power (and The Queen is not a person in a position of power actually! If she did exercise genuine power over us, we wouldn’t have the same level of respect for her I can assure you) and this style is a way to prevent politicians avoiding the question. If you’re too soft on people (and it’s not just politicians – it’s also heads of corporations or anyone with some duty to the public) then they will just use the interview for their own purposes. Also, I think audiences in the UK (and I’m sure it’s the same in many other places) believe that these people should be given a tough time, especially the ones who are not serving us well, or who are privileged in some way.

If an interviewer is too soft on a politician, we feel that they’ll just get away with murder.

Sometimes it seems to me that interviewers have got into the habit of being tough in interviews, and sometimes they do it when it’s not appropriate or necessary.

The Day Today – Jam Festival

This is funny on two levels: On one hand, it parodies the aggressive style of BBC journalists (especially Paxman). It’s also poking fun at people who do charity work just so they can make themselves look good.

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