My friend Ian lamented, in 2004, in but enough about me, our societal lack of intrapersonal curiosity:
Having just returned from another evening deep in the flats of Hollywood, I (shockingly) have a complaint. And this complaint is not even California-centric; it’s just as bad in New York City. Namely: WHY DON’T PEOPLE EVER ASK YOU QUESTIONS ABOUT YOURSELF?
Seriously, I’m not making myself out to be some sort of bastion of social etiquette, but I always ask everybody I meet at least 5-10 questions about their work, their passions, where they’re from, what they’ve done they’re proud of, even slightly personal queries like “are you happy?” I do this because I’m easily bored, and everyone has a story, and there’s always SOMETHING that will briefly excavate a fascinating aspect of an otherwise-tedious-seeming person.
And what does the world ask me? NOTHING. And it’s not just me, I listen to other conversations, I am a damn good verbal sociologist, and it seems like nobody asks anybody anything; they just wait their turn to hurl out their yawp, and hope something sticks.
It’s a post I’ve turned over in my mind dozens of times in the 19 years since I first read it.
Over the last few years I’ve discovered that, despite near-constantly insisting the contrary, I am an extrovert, not an introvert. I’m an extrovert who never learned how to be one: growing up in a generally asocial family, I didn’t learn the basics of social lubrication, the simple conversational techniques, the ways of being comfortable.
A breakthrough came when I realized that, give or take, nobody has reached zipless extroversion: learning this was huge, as it allowed me to view myself as being on an even keel when wading out into the crowd.
Another breakthrough was discovering that following my natural curiosity and asking questions was a ticket toward the social lubrication I sought.
Yet another was when I realized that it wasn’t solely about lubrication, and that I could, indeed, foster real connection by being curious.
Being genuinely curious upon meeting someone, and having them rise to the challenge in their responses, is a delight.
Being genuinely curious upon meeting someone, and having them rise to the challenge in their responses, and return the curiosity volley, is intoxicating.
In one of the versions of my Bumble profile I wrote:
I am inveterately curious, interested in a lot of things, a specialist in none. I easily fall into rabbit holes. I thrive in the presence of other curious people.
That Lisa is so good at asking curious questions is one of the reasons I no longer need a Bumble profile.
Which brings me back to Ian’s question: why don’t people ever ask you questions about yourself?
If curiosity is lubricating, and connecting, and a way of fostering connections, why is it so rare?
Alison Wood Brooks and Leslie K. John offered some thoughts in their 2018 Harvard Business Review article The Surprising Power of Questions:
Why do so many of us hold back? There are many reasons. People may be egocentric—eager to impress others with their own thoughts, stories, and ideas (and not even think to ask questions). Perhaps they are apathetic—they don’t care enough to ask, or they anticipate being bored by the answers they’d hear. They may be overconfident in their own knowledge and think they already know the answers (which sometimes they do, but usually not). Or perhaps they worry that they’ll ask the wrong question and be viewed as rude or incompetent. But the biggest inhibitor, in our opinion, is that most people just don’t understand how beneficial good questioning can be. If they did, they would end far fewer sentences with a period—and more with a question mark.
There’s a passage early in The Joy of Sex, in the section “women (by her for him)”:
No obsessive views about reciprocity – who comes on top and so on evens out during the passing of time: there can be long spells when we are happy to let you do the work, and others when we need to control everything ourselves and get an extra kick from seeing how we make you respond.
In their Harvard Business Review article, Brooks and John write much the same thing about good conversation:
A conversation is a dance that requires partners to be in sync—it’s a mutual push-and-pull that unfolds over time. Just as the way we ask questions can facilitate trust and the sharing of information—so, too, can the way we answer them.
In improv we talk about how the best scenes involve “an exchange of gifts.” This is true in conversation (and sex): we are at our best—we learn, feel, connect better—when we are curious, when we seek the intimacy of the dance, when we find our way to trust and sharing.
And perhaps that is one reason why good conversation (and good sex, and good improv) is the exception rather than the rule: it requires uncommon vulnerability, a willingness, in the curious question, the extended hand, the brave fall into a scene, to trust that our partner will be there to catch us, to return the curiosity, to be alive in the moment with us.
John and Brooks finished their article with:
The wellspring of all questions is wonder and curiosity and a capacity for delight. We pose and respond to queries in the belief that the magic of a conversation will produce a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Sustained personal engagement and motivation—in our lives as well as our work—require that we are always mindful of the transformative joy of asking and answering questions.
In Ian’s post:
During a particularly bad fuckup this week, in which an actor felt grossly mishandled, I listened to her on the phone and said, with emphasis, “I HEAR YOU.” The conversation melded into delight as soon as she heard those words.
Ian ended his post “But do me this favor: at some point today, ask somebody a question about themselves.”
I ask you the same.
May you find transformative joy and delight.