16 APRIL 1921, Page 8

KIND INQUIRIES. T HE Census paper is never 'welcomed. We are

all conscious of a certain irritation as we " fill it in." It is necessary, we understand, to explain again an f again to simple people that the Government really desires all this information for the advantage of the world at large and incidentally of each informant, and is moved by no personal curiosity as to Mrs. Smith's age or Mr. Jones's income. The ordinary Englishman hates to be catechized. He is a sincere man by nature ; but even his sincerity is not proof against inquisition. As soon as he realizes that he is being questioned, he takes instinctively an attitude of self-defence.

It is an interesting subject, this subject of interrogation, and has in England some intimate connexion with a graded society. We tend, perhaps unconsciously, to make immunity from this disagreeable one of the privileges of distinction. We are speaking, of course, of private life and not thinking of public heckling. Well-mannered people do not closely_ question- their " superiors," whatever they may mean by the term. A subordinate does not set himself to satisfy even his most justifiable curiosity with regard to his chief by means of questions, well knowing that from his own subordinates he would not stand it. When we arrive at the top of the tree we get to the vanishing point of the rule. The King is not questioned at all. It is no doubt one of the greatest privileges of a position perhaps more envied than delightful.

There is no doubt that in the past this very good principle of manners was very much presumed on. Men and women, especially women, asked questions of those they regarded as their inferiors in a manner provocative of class-bitterness. It would not be too much to say that in the past many very real philanthropists were unconsciously responsible for the erection of a barrier between benefactors and those who may be said 'without too much cynicism to have regarded themselves as their victims. The mistake belongs to the past, but its fruits remain. Nowadays no kind people press children for the answers that they do not wish to give in the way that old-fashioned disciplinarians pressed them. The whole idea of early education is con- structive. Fancy is not violently overthrown. The Socratic method of preliminary destruction is followed later, if at all. For all that, there never was a day when public cross-examination was so devoutly believed in as a method of getting justice. Does any great public injustice force itself upon the conscience of the world, and instantly every one cries out for a " commission." The matter in the abstract gets no consideration at all. There is seldom any attempt to grasp thesubject at issue, but only to " go into ' it. Endless witnesses are examined, and on the result of the examination - the decision entirely depends. Even mental and physical " cures " are now referred to skilful questioning, and that of the most personal kind. No one seems to have any very clear idea of why distress of mind and consequent physical suffering should be thus relieved ; but we suppose that at the root of auricular confession, and still deeper at the root of the impulse to " make a clean breast of it," lie the same facts of human nature. The cure must be a painful one. Yet in spite of all that we have been saying, how much that is most delightful in social intercourse depends upon the tactful asking of questions, even personal questions! The very best flattery, the sort of flattery that has really more to do with charity and a genuine liking for one's fellows than with ankthing lower, • makes use of this method. Perhaps the reason of the unwholesome- ness of the flattery offered to kings, the sort of flattery which is supposed to have poisoned the soul of William. II., is due to the fact that this harmless kind can never be administered to them. They are fed upon the praise which is but the subtle expression .of self-interest and not upon that which owes its sweetness to the flatterer's genuine interest in human nature and wish to placate in order to draw near. That our friends are really interested in us and in small matters concerning us must give us pleasure, a sort of pleasure we can get from nothing else. Do we not all know the man who, seemingly hail-fellow- well-met, never pauses in his flow of amiable conversation to inquire about our health, wealth, or happiness, or that of those dear to us ? He always appears to be congratu- lating his interlocutor upon he knows not what, and leaves him with a feeling that his welfare is a matter taken for granted and could never be the cause of the slightest anxiety.

It is, of course, impossible to say precisely where per- sonal questions leave off and abstract questions begin. Some men can endow almost any abstract question with a personal interest and give to any personal question an abstraction which renders it inoffensive. The present writer has always wished to see a first-class novelist develop the idea of a man who got all the information he wanted on every subject by asking irresistibly ; a man who had this gift might become a political power of the first magni- tude without any very stupendous mental powers in other directions. We suppose certain political women have hitherto come nearest to this ideal • but then they have not been in a position to use their information and are not always impervious to the temptation of giving it away. Indeed, that is generally what they want it for. A very good test of a man's right to be called a man of the world would be how many direct questions he could ask in an hour without giving anyone the impression that he was being pumped—unless the impression was, as it can some- times be made, a source of pride. " He has been picking my brains ! Confound. him ! " we say to ourselves. But even to ourselves we do not always speak the truth. " He knows how -well worth picking my brains are," is what we really mean, if the questioner is astute enough and sympathetic enough. Again, where personal matters are concerned, while an awkward person's efforts to learn gossip may be very much resented, the graceful questioner who is interested in his neighbours gives as much pleasure by asking as by telling, lending, by his attitude as a learner, a little kudos to his informant. But no one should make a habit of asking questions unless he is quite sure he has the gift for doing it well. Let him take warning by those horrid plagues, the mendicants of society, who follow their acquaintance about asking for information as they might ask for alms. It is no good to them when they get it. They turn it to no sort of account. They go on from ignorance to ignorance, and the last state of their stupidity is worse than the first.