A few years ago, an essay in the New York Times’ Modern Love column went viral for a good reason: It provided a recipe for falling in love.
The formula is simple. You ask your future soulmate 36 questions and then silently stare into each other’s eyes for four squirmy minutes. The questions don’t require you to solve Fermat’s last theorem or posit an answer to the problem of evil.
They are, in fact, rather banal: Whom would you most want to dine with? What’s your most treasured memory? Your most terrible memory? What would you save from your burning home? What would you change about the way you were raised? Do you have a hunch about how you will die?
Asked and answered, Cupid draws, loads and lets his broadheads fly.
Here’s the takeaway: If you want to get to know another person in a meaningful and intimate way, ask them questions.
Most of my 800 first dates have followed the same pattern: A reasonably attractive and age-appropriate man will sit across the table from me. He will talk about himself and ask me not a single thing. After an hour, my coffee gone cold and undrunk, I’ll check my watch and say, “Oh, look at the time.”
He’ll respond, “This was a lot of fun. Wanna go out on Saturday night?”
Here’s the thing. I love hearing people’s stories. I ask many questions and have managed to find a career that allows me to indulge my nosiness professionally. Listening to narratives of lives and experiences different from mine lets me armchair-travel through time and distance and reminds me how interesting most people are – if you bother to try to find out.
When I find someone who has a job I know little about (flight instructor, FBI agent, professional bull rider) or has expertise in an area in which I’m ignorant (pretty much everything), I’ll happily listen for hours to lectures on anything from the latest ski technology to the baking properties of egg wash. I’m never afraid to appear stupid.
It’s not always been this way. When I was much younger, I knew, well, everything. As a student at a fancy pants university, I learned to talk about books I hadn’t read. I developed a bravado commensurate with my vast insecurity. It took years to get over the nagging feeling of being an impostor. And to embrace asking questions.
But these days I find I am rarely asked anything. I pay attention to conversational dynamics. I notice who is doing the talking and for how long, and how inclusive the exchange is. Far too often, it seems, we’re playing the linguistic equivalent of a game of jacks. You take your turn, and, when you’re finished playing by yourself, you hand over the ball. It’s not about volleying.
Recently a friend told me about a book his daughters gave him titled “Your Father’s Story.” It seems to be not much more than a notebook with prompts, the kinds of questions that lead to love. He said he’d been thinking about which to answer first and how honest he should be.
I love the notion of creating an artifact that will last. How differently this book will read depending on where his daughters are in their own life stages and where he is when he writes. It’s a way for children to see aspects of their parents they tend not to be interested in until, often, it’s too late to ask.
The idea isn’t new, and technology has made it easy for people to create their own oral histories. You can even do it with your phone. I like the book idea because I like books, but I understand that not everyone is comfortable writing.
But really, there’s something about personal interaction, the ability to watch the changes in a person’s face as she recalls a beloved childhood pet or he talks about the career in music he wished he’d been able to pursue, that is more difficult and important to capture. That’s what creates moments of true intimacy.
We’ve become a nation of spouters. We sound off about politics, about the weather, about who’s going to the Final Four. We say what we think often without asking the person we’re talking to what she thinks. Social media allow people to rant into empty space.
The neologism “mansplain” might be sexist at its root, but the concept isn’t gendered. Plenty of women have condescendingly explained to me things I already know.
When we want to know something these days, we whip out our devices. We call up facts and tutorials and rely on our devices more than we do our neighbors. I’ve had doctors give me diagnoses and prescriptions with instructions to google.
While we can in a few clicks find answers, I prefer a more interactive and human approach. I like seeing how people’s minds zig and zag. I like engaging with them.
Now that we’re living in an era when the thought of a holiday family dinner sends many into a cold sweat, the clouds of current politics chilling and darkening the room, I wonder how many tables would be warmed and enlightened if family members took turns answering basic questions about their lives.
What if, instead of listening to Uncle Charlie drone on about “kids today” and trot out the same old war stories, someone asked questions summoned by genuine curiosity. Why did he join the Army? What was it like for Aunt Rose to leave home at 18? Why did cousin Sally run off to an ashram, and why did she leave?
When people brag and boast, when they complain or assert their certainty, it’s easy to turn off. But when someone tells us something real and true, something that reveals vulnerability, we lean in. We listen more carefully, and, usually, if we’re really paying attention, we can’t help but take their side.
That Modern Love column likely went viral because everyone wants a one-size-fits-all fix to getting what you want, and most of us are in the market for love. When it comes to dating, you’d think the goal would be to find out about the object of your right-swiping rather than blather on about yourself. But I think the bigger lesson is that we’ve lost the art of conversation, the sharing of personal histories.
Sometimes, all it takes is for one person sitting around a table at, say, a holiday meal to start asking questions and for everyone else to agree to listen. Some folks are happy to grab the mic and monologue. The more reticent need to be prompted and encouraged. Many of those who are unaccustomed to the spotlight have stories that will amaze and delight.
Who knows? You might even come to appreciate your least favorite family members.
Rachel Toor is a professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University. She is the author of one novel and five books of nonfiction.