Does it bother you when someone asks you the question: “Why are you upset?” It’s on my mind because it’s come up in argument a few times in recent memory. I know that it bothers me when someone asks me that question, or questions like it, such as, “Why are you angry?” or “Why does X bother you?”

This is intended as an analysis of my own behavior — my reaction to a particular kind of question. I can say, based on my own self-awareness, that I used to ask questions like these of other people, and I had the practice thoroughly (not to mention painfully) beaten out of me. It might seem like a semantic difference, but now I make statements like “You seem upset,” and questions like, “How do you feel right now?”

Because I learned the behavior in reaction to a hostile environment, I don’t fully understand it. I had to adapt, I wasn’t really allowed the opportunity to explore it and discover it on my own, though I’ve had time to think about it in retrospect. Now that it comes time to explain the difference to someone else, I find myself at a loss. Why is the difference important? Am I in the wrong for wanting it a certain way?

I know one of the main problems with “Why are you angry?” is that it’s biased. I was unable to find a page on Wikipedia that dealt specifically with biased questions, so instead, here’s a link to a page on the cognitive bias of observer-expectancy. The person asking the question makes the assumption that the other person is angry and unintentionally manipulates the situation based on their assumption.

A common result is that a person who may previously have been mildly irritated, confused, or frustrated will actually become upset or angry with the person asking the question via confirmation bias. If the frustration was based on miscommunication, the assertion that one person is angry or upset inadvertently inflames the situation.

I don’t remember the definition of a biased question and I’m having difficulty finding references to help back me up, so I’m going to use an example from the class where we discussed them. Take, for example, the biased question, “How long have you been wetting the bed?” If you ask this of an individual who has never wet their bed before, they’re saddled with the responsibility of explaining their answer.

The question is unfairly structured and can cause social anxiety. Asking a question like this raises many other questions. “What made you think I wet the bed?” “Why do you want to know?” “It simply isn’t true!” (A problem with this example is that it’s of a personal nature … I hope the “biased question” part got across though.)

In any case, a better question to ask is one that’s more direct and unassuming. “Are you angry?” Though to a sensitive individual, this can be just as bad as, “Why are you angry?” Simply asking, “How do you feel right now?” and, “Why do you feel that way?” is not only safer, but more likely to get you the information you need to defuse the situation before it devolves into an argument.

edit: Sorry, I spent so much time explaining the problem, I don’t think I actually got to why it bothers me, or what can be done about it. I’m going to have to revisit this.