Asking Questions

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.


Ton Zijlstra's picture
Ton Zijlstra on July 5, 2023 - 05:51 Permalink

Good post, Peter. It made me go back to our earlier mail conversation about curiosity and presence or lack thereof. So thank you for the nudge to reflect a bit more.

Olle Jonsson's picture
Olle Jonsson on July 5, 2023 - 10:07 Permalink

Oh. Good post.

(I got there via a Webring's directory of updated blogs. Wonderful.)

Olle Jonsson's picture
Olle Jonsson on July 7, 2023 - 11:55 Permalink

I referred, in my head, to this post, when I met wonderful people yesterday. I asked. They answered. Sometimes, they were taken aback by their own answers. Sometimes, they waded too far out, too deep. It's tricky, inviting others to share.

Oliver's picture
Oliver on July 5, 2023 - 15:28 Permalink

Yes, if everybody were always happy and in love, I think probably we’d be much more routine askers of questions. I doubt the psychology at work is something many could simply decide to feel regardless, so that they ask more questions. But I think “fake it ‘till you make it” may well apply

Oliver's picture
Oliver on July 5, 2023 - 15:59 Permalink

Among other things, faked curiosity seems a possible route around the circumstance where, if you’re never being asked, it could be in part because you’re inadvertently and/or unconsciously signaling somehow that you prefer distance. There’s that possibility of ye olde “breaking the ice.” But I guess fakery might need to become makery to reliably proceed much beyond that phase.

Leo's picture
Leo on July 5, 2023 - 17:21 Permalink

I think the art of conversation including natural curiosity is something that needs to be fostered and emulated. Taking an honest interest in others has enriched my life and even led to treasured friendships.

Olivia Rukavina's picture
Olivia Rukavina on July 5, 2023 - 21:13 Permalink

The Last Sentence is what We want from the Future!

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on July 6, 2023 - 14:40 Permalink

Me too!

Nathan Upchurch's picture
Nathan Upchurch on July 5, 2023 - 21:55 Permalink

Neurodivergent (ND) people often have a conversation style that centers around an exchange of stories: you say something about yourself, and I reciprocate with a story / fact of my own. After I say my piece, I'm expecting my conversation partner to return something of their own, and if they don't, or they follow up with questions, I tend to assume it's because they're very interested and want me to keep going. It feels unnatural to me to ask preconceived questions in conversation, and I find that asking questions for the sake of a technically well executed conversation makes for a dull one; I'm much more interested in hearing what thoughts and opinions someone may have on an interesting subject that emerged naturally than I am in hearing rote answers to rote questions. I think that this conversation style tends to extract the meat of someone's personality; you come to learn what someone is absolutely burning to say! Maybe that's why I have more fun speaking with other ND people; conversations can start anywhere and take all sorts of twists and turns when you're not constrained by the rubric of 'conversationalism!' Then again, I almost always have something bubbling in my head to talk about; I suppose those in need of a conversation starter could do worse than prepare some questions in advance.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on July 6, 2023 - 14:36 Permalink

Thank you, Nathan. I need constantly remind myself that our different brains have different modalities.

oliver's picture
oliver on July 6, 2023 - 02:43 Permalink

I used to think there was no better response I could offer than to tell a person whatever their story has just reminded me of in my own life. But at some point I received some pushback, and now at least I aspire to caution. Not everybody inevitably understands these leaps as meant well, I guess because it can be hard to distinguish from being self-absorbed.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on July 6, 2023 - 14:39 Permalink

The “tell a person whatever their story has just reminded me of in my own life” style of conversation is one I was rooted in for a long, long time, and still am to some extent. I was woken up to its limits when Catherine was living with cancer: so many cancer conversations are of the “well, my dad had cancer and X and Y and then A and B, and then he died” that I wrote a blog post about it, quoting Celeste Headlee:

If they’re talking about having lost a family member, don’t start talking about the time you lost a family member. If they’re talking about the trouble they’re having at work, don’t tell them about how much you hate your job. It’s not the same. It is never the same. All experiences are individual. And, more importantly, it is not about you. You don’t need to take that moment to prove how amazing you are, or how much you’ve suffered.

It’s not the same. It’s never the same. Perhaps this matters less with “I also installed a garage door opener, and yes it was hell to install.”

Oliver's picture
Oliver on May 23, 2024 - 13:33 Permalink

Yes, “I also installed a garage door opener, and yes it was hell to install” is definitely a scenario where "it's not the same" wouldn't seem like the natural assumption or default mode to be working in. Of course, I'm assuming in this scenario that the other person had not accidentally killed their dog while installing their garage door opener, and that neither had you. I think to an extent you can predict when it's going to go badly to assert a likeness, and definitely you shouldn't go there thoughtlessly and without minding the risk. I think that one can demonstrate consideration in ways besides omission or silence, and with a preamble or finesse at least sometimes you can cite experiences of your own without it going badly. I think the risk is often worth taking for potential benefit of both you and the other person feeling more connected in the moment than you both would otherwise. With someone who is in misery, though, I tend to feel bets are off.