Gina Greenlee, Author
Did Your Family Throw Plates?
The headline comes from journalist Warren Berger’s The Book of Beautiful Questions. The question is intended to find out about conflict resolution patterns inherited from parents. Good to know for people who are planning to marry, writes Berger. Even if you’re not, what a helluva fun way to go beyond the reflexive nature of questions in every day conversation.
What do you do?
“Not only is this a rote, superficial question but it’s also understood as What do you do for a living? And thus forces a person to talk about their job when they may have more interesting stories to share (and may not have a job at present).”
I agree with Berger. Rather than grouse about being on the receiving end of tired questions, instead, I took responsibility for my discontent. My challenge: query and respond to common questions in surprising ways.
To the question What do you do? I’ve answered:
As little as possible
Dance every day
Laugh at my own jokes
Memorize favorite movie monologues
Craft paper dolls
If no one asks me which movies or books, or to tell them a joke, that’s good indication the conversation will be short lived. I mean, if ever there was an opening…
No matter. I’ve entertained myself, toppled my rut and weeded out dull exchanges. I feel better already.
How are you?
“We use questions to establish contact with others, including people we’ve just met,” continues Berger. “However, at critical moments of introduction or reintroduction, we tend to rely on generic, superficial questions – How are you? How’s it going? What’s new? These rote questions lack the ingredients – genuine interest, curiosity, and wonder – that tend to invite a more meaningful answer.”
Such dry exchanges had become daily interactions, even with people I liked. They left me feeling hollow and lonely. Perhaps that’s because “a rote question often evokes a rote answer followed by an echo of the original rote question (“How are you?” “Fine. How are you?”). “Instead of providing a good starting point, it is more to be a conversation stopper.” Me quoting Berger again. Did I mention I like his book?
In answering the question, How are you? I’ve experimented with these responses:
All systems go; all zones secure
Oh Happy Day (sung)
On fire (whispered)
So on top of it, Oprah’s been calling for advice
Livin’ the dream; sellin’ it online
So good, vitamins need to be taking me
Working my wattage
On fire about being on fire
Giddy as a baby on a swing
I could have danced all night
Pumped with purpose
Dwarfing Mt. Olympus
Adding texture to the master work that is my life
Excited about the possibilities
What was the most interesting thing that happened to you today?
This stops people in their tracks.
Way more specific than “how are you?” it gives pause. People’s eyes float upward in reflection as they scroll through images of the day. After several beats, they respond. Often, they smile first.
During the years I’ve been playing the “How are you?” Game, rarely do I receive a Dougie Downer answer. Instead, people are eager to retrieve, then share, a unique aspect of their day. Ripples of good energy abound.
“How was your weekend?”
Not a fan of this one, either. I’ve been listening to it for decades. I stopped asking because I realized I didn’t care – based on phoned-in answers.
A tweak boosts the nutrient quotient of this question: “What was the best part of your weekend?”
For me, it’s waking up organically. I’ve never enjoyed being alarmed into consciousness. To wind my way slowly into the day opens much creative space in my energy and psyche.
Instead of “How was your vacation?”
Try, “What was the most memorable part of your vacation?”
Upon his return from a cruise, a 60-something year old man told me, “Spending time with my childhood friend. We’ve known each other since we’ve been six years old and it was great just to spend time with him and talk about our lives.”
I was so touched by his response, which revealed a sensitive facet I’d not previously experienced.
Instead of Where are you from? Try, What’s the strangest/most interesting thing about where you grew up?
What are you most looking forward to at this gathering?
How did you get to this party?
What are you excited about in your life right now?
What foods gross you out?
What phone call changed your life?
Why did you choose that shirt?
What’s your biggest disappointment?
When people come to you for help, what do they usually want help with?
What weird little thing sticks out in your mind from this week?
What book do you wish you’d written?
What foods inspire you?
When was the last time you sang at the top of your lungs?
What did you try and fail at this week?
What have you done today to make you feel proud?
“Being curious and asking questions creates engagement,” writes movie producer Brian Grazer in A Curious Mind: the Secret to a Bigger Life.
Try it and see what happens.