Learn English – How to ask a knowledge question without causing offence


By "knowledge question", I mean any sort of question intended to check whether the listener already knows the answer or not. For example:

  • Are you familiar with how an operating system works?
  • Do you know how to vote?

Unfortunately, in certain contexts, these sorts of questions can cause offence because those being asked either

A: Don't know the subject but feel it is common knowledge and so they should know about it

B: Do know the subject and feel they are being patronized

This creates a problem because it is often difficult to tell which way a person is going to go in taking offence, especially if you don't know them very well. Therefore, I can't simply modify the question to "Of course you are familiar with how an operating system works, right?" as this will comfort B but offend A. Similarly, skipping the question entirely will comfort A but offend B.

I work in technical support and usually deal with this situation beginning any conversation with a short script explaining that I try not to assume any knowledge on the part of those I am talking to and that they should ask me to skip stuff if I am going too slowly. I think this is quite clumsy, however, and not always appropriate in less formal situations so I am wondering if there is a way to ask this kind of question more neutrally.

Best Answer

I would ask the question in this way: "How familiar are you with X?".

Asking "Are you familiar with X?" suggests that the answer is either yes or no, while my question is "accepting" to all levels of understanding.