Tell me about "Tell me about" ... if you'd be so very kind.
May 9, 2008 3:16 PM   Subscribe

Every time I hear a journalist say "Tell me about ..." when interviewing someone on television, I get really annoyed. It seems so incredibly presumptuous, pompous and impolite to demand an answer of a guest like that. Yet it happens all over the world. Is this standard journalistic practice? What's the reasoning behind it? Anyone else feel the same way or am I being a relic?

The presumption seems to be that it is the interviewee's role to answer the demands of the interviewer. I've talked to many different people from around the world and I don't recall anyone in polite conversation saying "Tell me about your trip to Spain". They would say "Hey so what was Spain like?", "Did you have a fun time in Spain?" etc. In a more formal setting like at a formal dinner they might say "Would you mind telling us a little bit about your amazing trip to Spain?" A close relative or friend might say "Tell me about" but that's because friends are allowed to be a bit presumptuous.

(I also notice it happens on AskMetafilter and I always avoid answering those questions demanding we answer them. Maybe I am just not hip to the latest interpersonal presumptions.)
posted by zaebiz to Human Relations (39 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
One of the rules of good journalism is to never ask a yes/no question. It makes for boring interviews. So instead of "Did you enjoy your vacation?" They'll say "tell me about your vacation."
posted by Ostara at 3:23 PM on May 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

FWIW, I don't think someone saying "Tell me about X" is rude or presumptuous in any way (barring a demanding tone or something ). I had to read your question twice before I could even start to understand what you're asking. If I was talking to someone and they said, "Tell me about your weekend in Seattle." I would tell them and not think twice about it. *shrug*
posted by Nelsormensch at 3:25 PM on May 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

The rules for journalism interviews are completely different from the rules for "polite conversation," especially television interviews. Interviewees know this; it's not a surprise. The interviewee/interviewer relationship is not strictly a guest/host relationship, or not at all a guest/host relationship, depending on the show. It is certainly not a friendship.

The interviewee is also getting something out of it - publicity - and it's in their own interest that the interview be interesting.

And what Ostara said.
posted by rtha at 3:28 PM on May 9, 2008

Asking "Would you mind telling us a little...", would be unnecessarily annoying for the interviewer and -ee, as well as listeners. Unless it's a very fragile subject.

IMO, journalists are there to get the facts of the story. Or your opinions of them. When you agree to be interviewed that's what you get - they're not your friends, and it's not a conversation.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 3:29 PM on May 9, 2008

It's not presumptuous because people love to talk about themselves, and love the idea that someone else wants to hear about what is important to them. So someone "commanding" a person to tell them about their vacation or whatever would really seem to be more of a compliment, and should make the interviewee feel as though the interviewer is interested in their vacation.
posted by DMan at 3:29 PM on May 9, 2008

An interview on TV or radio is not at all a casual conversation.

The interviewee is expecting to answer questions in a storytelling way with a microphone in his face and a camera rolling. In many cases, the person being interviewed knows how the whole thing is going to play out anyway. Watch Letterman or Leno (for instance). The whole "conversation" is pre-determined for the most part.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 3:32 PM on May 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

No more presumptuous than going to a job interview and being asked to tell someone about why you are qualified for the job. The interviewee isn't generally going to be surprised that they are expected to talk about themselves and their experiences.

Also, guests and hosts on tv shows aren't filling the same roles that guests and hosts have when you are a guest in someone's home.
posted by yohko at 3:35 PM on May 9, 2008

Ostara hits the point.

I'll add that the best interviews are one where the subject is telling a story, with a setting, characters, a plot, some drama or comedy, a resolution, etc.

"Hey so what was Spain like," begs the answer, "It was cool and I had a fun time." That's boring.

"Tell me about Spain," elicits (hopefully) an answer that is more descriptive and comes with a story. "Spain is a wonderful country. Great people. Great food."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:37 PM on May 9, 2008

The times I have asked a "tell me about" question in an interview, the topic was also part of the warm-up or preparation.

The interviewer will say "I'd like to ask you about Burma, maybe something about your trip there, would that be all right?"

I'll say "Sure, but the trip to Botswana was much more interesting", they'll say "Oh, oh, great idea." and then the interview will start.
posted by rokusan at 3:37 PM on May 9, 2008

...the first question of which will be, of course, "Tell me about your trip to Burma."
posted by rokusan at 3:37 PM on May 9, 2008

the times I HAVE BEEN asked...
posted by rokusan at 3:38 PM on May 9, 2008

Ostara is correct. "Tell me about" is a good way to invite someone to tell a story to you, instead of being on the receiving end of questions.
posted by johngoren at 3:38 PM on May 9, 2008

I picked up a "tell me" construction from my days at Cal (bottom of article), but I guess it's not for everybody. It's not so much a "tell me about x" thing, though, more "Tell me you want to do x" where x can be "lend me $5" or "help me move" etc. Instead of relying on someone to help you because they feel they ought to, it's "I'm being an asshole, are you going to help me or not?" Which in twisted way is more polite than something like "could you please help me with..." because it frees the person being asked from feeling bad about refusing.
posted by juv3nal at 3:49 PM on May 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

I haven't done any journalism, but for a qualitative research project where we wanted to basically let people tell us what was important to them about a topic (the places they had live), I perfected the vague, open-ended interview question. "So, you grew up in Los Angeles. What was that like?" "You lived right downtown? How would you describe it there?"
posted by salvia at 3:50 PM on May 9, 2008

Best answer: I teach documentary production at the moment, and this is something I teach my students. Ostara is right - you want to ask open-ended questions that can't be answered in a few words. Besides "tell me about" there's also "how did that make you feel?" or "how do you feel about" if you're trying to get more to someone's emotions.

Interviewing someone is about extracting footage that you can use - it's not an actual conversation. Interviewers shouldn't interrupt the same way you do in a conversation, you should give people time to answer, etc.

There's nothing rude about it, IMHO. It's standard operating procedure.
posted by MythMaker at 4:02 PM on May 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

You know, I hear the "tell me about ____" construction in real life all the time. Not as a dead lead-in, of course, and probably not between complete strangers, but after a bit of polite conversational banter to catch up. "Jane! It's been forever. Tell me all about what you've been up to over winter break!" Or some such. It's a bit blunt, but also a way of expressing enthusiasm about the teller. You're so awesome I want to hear aaaaaall about you.

Besides journalistic convention as discussed above, one can presume that for television they've simply cut out all the warm-up banter, eh?
posted by bettafish at 4:20 PM on May 9, 2008

I say "Tell me about X" in polite conversation all the time. It is usually to elicit much more than a generic canne answer. I've never been reprimanded in any for doing that, and sometimes I get a "No" but then I just press on.
posted by P.o.B. at 4:47 PM on May 9, 2008

...canned answer...
posted by P.o.B. at 4:47 PM on May 9, 2008

I've been trained during negotiation course and communication courses, that the "tell me about it..." construct is used to open up a conversational thread. It invites the other party to provide more detail and is more useful than questions that can be answered yes/no.


Q: "So you were in the lead actor in X?"
A: "Yes"


Q: "Tell me about your experience filming X"
A: "Full sentence, possibly leading into additonal information"

Forms part of the question "funnel" as I believe it's called.
posted by arcticseal at 5:07 PM on May 9, 2008

Yeah. I don't really get the bristling hackles on this. Certainly it could be said in an unpleasantly demanding way, but to me it seems like a perfectly ordinary conversation-booster.
posted by ottereroticist at 5:19 PM on May 9, 2008

As far as talk shows go, there is almost always a pre-interview done by a producer who finds out what the guest wants to talk about, funny stories he can tell, and how he wants to present whatever book, movie, album they're promoting. This producer makes notes of everything, which are on the cards for the TV host.

Usually the "tell me about" is an easy tee up for the guest to tell his pre-planned story or joke.
posted by sharkfu at 5:37 PM on May 9, 2008

um, i ask my friends to "tell me about x" all the time. it's called starting a conversation. i've never thought it was demanding...
posted by misanthropicsarah at 6:30 PM on May 9, 2008

Also, media seconds are money and interviews are under immense time pressure. Much like how people in sitcoms hang up the phone without saying "goodbye", "Tell me about..." rolls off the tongue quicker than the non-demanding substitute phrases I can think of.
posted by -harlequin- at 6:35 PM on May 9, 2008

To specifically answer your questions: Yes, it is standard journalistic practice. The reasoning behind it? As noted already, sometimes there's a preplan to this -- the interviewee has a story or anecdote to relate, and this is the cue (it beats: what was that funny thing that happened to you on your trip to Spain, that you told me about before the cameras got switched on?) And, are you being a relic? Yes, you are being a relic.

While "tell me about X" is technically not a question, it is a perfectly reasonable thing for the interviewer to say to the interviewee. In lots of interviews, interviewers say lots of things that are not questions, to which the interviewee reacts. It's conversation, not just questions and answers. There's very little difference between the open-ended "tell me about X" and the vague question "what was X like?".

And, while we are at it, tell me about why your question is not chatfilter. Whoops, sorry: Why would you think this question is not chatfilter?
posted by beagle at 6:37 PM on May 9, 2008

From a discourse analysis perspective:

"Hey so what was Spain like?"
- preferred responses: "nice", "not so great", or other short descriptors
- possible to expand on this answer, but this is possibly rude (if the asker doesn't have the time or interest)

"Did you have a fun time in Spain?"
- preferred responses: "yes", "no"
- possible to expand on this answer, but possibly rude

"Tell me about your trip to Spain"
- preferred response: more detailed description
- possible to give a one-word answer, but this is rude

In general conversation, the first two options give the responder the option to be brief or to go into detail, depending on their sense of the asker's intention (i.e. politeness or true curiosity). This allows them to balance the conversation so both have equal speaking time, if desired. In an interview, it is already agreed that the interviewer will be asking short questions and the interviewee will give long answers. Thus, the interviewer chooses a short question that prefers longer answers, and which makes answers like "It was alright" seem downright uncooperative. This is not rude, because of the agreed-upon nature of the interview.
posted by heatherann at 7:22 PM on May 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

I should also note that the following exchange would be very rude:

- Tell me about your trip to Spain.
- No.

In a casual conversation, this makes a demand upon the person's time and effort. If someone doesn't really want to tell you about their trip, this would be a rude way to try to force them to do it, whereas in an interview, it simply guides the interviewee in performing a duty they've already agreed to.
posted by heatherann at 7:26 PM on May 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Usually, when I do an interview with someone, I ask the 'tell me' question all the time. As others have said, "tell me about..." is open ended and elicits more interesting responses.

I just did an interview with an Olympic Gymnast, and my first question was "tell me about your preparations for the Beijing team trials". I could have asked "how are you preparing for Beijing" but almost any other question construction I can think of starts to close down possible responses.

But I really wanted to address the point about the demand implicit in this question, which the OP mentioned.

Yes, journalists do demand a response - but this is very important. Many journalists speak to people who don't want to be interviewed, or who don't want to talk about a particular subject. The demand is real, it is there, and no, it isn't always friendly or polite.

Do you really want a journalist interviewing a corrupt politician/criminal/etc to be deferential and chatty, for instance?

In an interview, I, the journalist, am asking you, the interviewee, to answer not just for me but for the public, the readers, the viewers, the listeners.

And this can be the hardest part of being a journalist - transcending the usual rules of politeness and social convention and asking the hard or unpleasant questions.
posted by jasperella at 8:07 PM on May 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I just took a long class on oral history interviewing where this was specifically taught, for all the good reasons above - that it invites the speaker to elaborate.

Other recommended openers:
"Can you describe...."
"Show me [the house where you grew up, your boss, your school...]"
"What do you remember about...."
"Take me through [a typical day, a church service, the launching of a new ship...]"
"What else can you recall about that?"

It was emphasized that "tell me about" is very respectful of the interviewee, because it gives the speaker the reins and prevents leading questions. Say the interviewee had escaped from a terrible fire. The interviewer could say "That must have been terrible!" or "You must have been very scared," or "You probably feel very lucky to have escaped," but those are leading statements that project the interviewer's feelings onto the subject. In fact, the subject may have feelings or want to make statements we can't even imagine. "Tell me about..." is one neutral opener that lets the interviewee make any statement they want to without feeling like they're not answering the interviewer's question right. And people have a strong desire to do things 'right.'
posted by Miko at 8:29 PM on May 9, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for all the replies. Not meaning to sound facetious but what's wrong with a "Please tell us about ..."?
posted by zaebiz at 8:39 PM on May 9, 2008

what's wrong with a "Please tell us about ..."?

Whatever you're hearing on the radio has been edited from a much longer interview. A four-minute radio piece probably draws on an hour or more of tape. The pleasantries and courtesies have been edited out.

Once you've been talking for an hour and established a rapport, you don't need to begin every question with "please;" especially since you probably began the interview by thanking them and telling them how appreciative you are and couching your requests in polite language, and will end it the same way.
posted by Miko at 8:52 PM on May 9, 2008

Seconding Miko. NPR, in particular, is known for editing interviews meticulously to remove all the um or uh "utterances" that normally pepper speech. They might also do something like speed up a person's responses to sound peppier and with-it. What you're hearing is hardly ever exactly what was said, the same way that a print reporter will pick out the one zinger somebody said in an interview and make it the article hook.

One thing not mentioned above is that "Tell me about" is sort of the archetypal softball question. Charlie Rose uses it a lot. Arguably, serious journalism should avoid this approach, because you're basically allowing the interviewee to frame the presentation. But Rose and other good interviewers like Tom Snyder use this because the person being interviewed is the subject.

It's not as bad as, say, asking George Bush "So has it been a difficult presidency with all of the liberal attacks?" But it is just as far from asking "Mr. President, how can you justify ________________?" It's roughly the same question as "tell me about", but with a little spin that starts the person with a little deficit.
posted by dhartung at 9:54 PM on May 9, 2008

Best answer: "Talk about" bothers me a lot more, in interviews. At least "Tell me about" implies that one is interested in the answer... "Talk about" just feels like "i need a pull quote on this, monkey boy"
posted by softlord at 10:42 PM on May 9, 2008

Remember that politeness involves arbitrary rituals. The message of politeness isn't arbitrary. The message is "I respect you." But the specific words and gestures we use to show respect differ from culture to culture and time to time.

For example, I was born in the mid 60s. None of my peers say, "Please pass the salt." To me and my friends, that sounds overly formal. It sounds like, "I formally request you do me the honor of passing the salt." But we imply "please" via our tone of voice when we say, "Could you pass me the salt?" We all understand that as a polite request.

And yet when my grandmother heard our table manners, she was horrified. She couldn't hear our implied "please."

Like Nelsormensch, I didn't understand your question at first. I thought, "What's rude about 'Tell me about X?'" Having thought about it, I absolutely understand your reasoning. Given certain cultural expectations, it would be rude. But I'd bet many people wouldn't think of it that way. At least not people I know. My friends and I say, "Tell me about X" all the time. It's not meant rudely; it's not taken rudely. Again, there's an implied "please" that comes across via tone of voice: "(Please) Tell me about X." It's not understood as a demand; it's understood as a request.

Which is not to say you're wrong. It's just dependent on local, cultural rules. I see from your profile that you're from New Zealand. I know nothing about New Zealand rules for politeness. But I feel fairly confident that "tell me about x" would feel polite to most Americans of my generation and younger. And world-wide journalistic practices are probably highly influenced by America, given the spread of CNN and the like.

I feel like answers here are way too focused on journalism. Those answers are all correct (an interviewer's first job is to elicit interesting answers, not to be polite), and I see they're the ones you're marking "best answer." I worry you're confirming your own bias that this practice stems from the needs of journalism. I don't think it does. I think it stems from contemporary American manners. Journalism just benefits from it.

By the way, compared to my friends, I'm an overly formal person. I have a bug up my ass about rudeness. I'm one of those "old before his time" people who is constantly shocked and appalled by anything rude. (For instance, where I live, it's customary for people to walk up to strangers in the street and say, "Can you tell me how to get to 6th Avenue?" Whenever anyone does this, I feel a strong urge to say, "Start over. Come up to me and say, 'I'm very sorry to bother you, Sir, but would you mind giving me some directions?'" I don't do this, because intellectually I understand the that the people asking directions don't intend rudeness. They're not being rude by local standards. I'M the one out of tune with those standards. But it still feels like they're being rude to me.) Yet I still don't hear rudeness (or even a demand) in "tell me about X."
posted by grumblebee at 7:07 AM on May 10, 2008

I should also note that the following exchange would be very rude:

- Tell me about your trip to Spain.
- No.

In a casual conversation, this makes a demand upon the person's time and effort. If someone doesn't really want to tell you about their trip, this would be a rude way to try to force them to do it, whereas in an interview, it simply guides the interviewee in performing a duty they've already agreed to.

Wow. It's amazing how different people are. Like I say, I'm hypersensitive to rudeness. But in the above exchange, it's the "no" I find rude, not the "tell me." Again, it's because I assume there's an implied "please." So I hear...

- (Please) tell me about your trip to Spain.
- No.

I'm shocked, because I expect to hear this...

- (Please) tell me about your trip to Spain.
- I'm sorry. I'm not very comfortable talking about it.
posted by grumblebee at 7:12 AM on May 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

But in the above exchange, it's the "no" I find rude, not the "tell me."

Yes, I meant that it's the "no" that is rude, but it's rude partially because of the way "tell me" sets it up. If the asker had said "How was your trip to Spain?" instead, the answerer could say "It was fine" and choose not to go into detail, and it wouldn't be rude, whereas if the asker uses "How was your trip", then this answer is rude.
posted by heatherann at 1:15 PM on May 10, 2008

(hit post too soon)

By forcing the answerer to choose between going into detail or appearing rude, the "tell me about..." form forces a longer answer. This can be rude in certain contexts. For instance if I'm clearly busy or I don't like you or I'm late for something, and you say "tell me about X", it's pushy. It's an interviewer's job to be pushy.
posted by heatherann at 1:17 PM on May 10, 2008

I use 'Tell me about...' (or, more usually, 'Could you tell me about...'/'Would you mind telling me about...') questions all the time when interviewing people - they're very effective for the reasons as others have said. The thought that anyone would think I was being rude has never occurred to me, and I'm a pretty scrupulously polite type. That said, I do tend to ask a couple of softer questions that prompt short, usually useless, answers before the 'tell me' stuff, if I get the impression the interviewee is uncomfortable. But I'm always interviewing folk for newspaper features - in a broadcasting situation, especially live, there's no time for that.

Also, it's worth noting that, in pre-recorded broadcast interviews, what you see or hear may have little in common with what happened at the interview. The interviewer might have asked a scrupulously polite, long-winded question, then re-shot it as 'Tell me about x', much like the standard practice of filming 'noddy shots' - shots of the interviewer's 'reactions' recorded after the interview is over. Indeed, the interviewer you see on telly may not even have been present at the interview, and you'll never know how the lowly researcher who actually asked the questions behaved, or what exact questions they asked.
posted by jack_mo at 1:23 PM on May 11, 2008

Grammatically, "Tell me about your trip to Spain" is an imperative. But then "Please tell me about your trip to Spain" is also a grammatical imperative. "I would like you to tell me about your trip to Spain" is, grammatically, a declarative sentence.

However, it is a mistake to confuse the grammatical imperative with a functional demand. Just as "I would like you to complete this task by Friday" may well be a demand if it comes from your boss, "Tell me about your trip to Spain" is, functionally, a request, not a demand (in most situations), despite the fact that it is a grammatical imperative.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:00 AM on May 12, 2008

Way after-the-fact response to this question, but I recently attended a seminar on interviewing for journalists. The presenter claimed that demanding, rather than asking, elicits the best quotes. When you start with "Tell me about... " the answerer will respond with a complete question, which a print interviewer can use as a complete quote and the video/audio interviewer can excerpt in whole. When you start with a more traditionally phrased question, you're more likely to get an incomplete sentence that won't stand well on its own.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 10:40 PM on October 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

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