I once had a friend who talked constantly. If you asked her one question, she’d monologue for over 30 minutes. And not on her “off-days”; on a regular basis. Example:
Me: “Are you dating anyone these days?”
Friend: “Yes, I am! I’m dating this person I knew in college…..
Friend (10 min later): “…..and then I went to Europe and met him again on the Euro-Rail, you know, his friend really liked to play lacrosse in college. The lacrosse guy was on a gap year…..”
Friend (20 min later): “……Which was just like my former high school teacher. Did you know that he was gay?…..”
Friend (26 min later): “….I really like that type of cheese they eat in Texas, queso I think they call it? And so I was going to the store to get some queso….”
Friend (29 min later): “…..Then when we kissed for the first time in all those years, I kept thinking about that Texan-cheese queso-thing, because I just had eaten some…..”
Friend (30 min later): “So yes, I am dating someone these days.”
Eventually, the way my money does when I go to Good Vibrations, our friendship floated away.
Last summer, I met a Chinese-American woman who happened to work in a place with only white and Asian-American colleagues (that’s who lived in the town she worked in). She discussed what she saw as the “white” way of communication. In her opinion, it was this:
1. “White people I know freely talk and share at the drop of a hat. They expect you to interrupt their monologues and then share your stories in return. For example: If I ask a white person, ‘How was your weekend?’ they go on to tell me all about how they went snowboarding, shopping, and had a family issue at the same time.”
2. “Asian-Americans share their basic answer to your question, and wait for the next one. This is to ensure the listener is actually interested in what you have to say before you launch into a monologue. For example: If someone asks me, ‘How was your weekend?’ I say, ‘It was good. I went to a family reunion,’ and then I wait for the next question. But only Asian-Americans ask me the follow-up questions.”
Obviously, generalizations are not hard-and-fast rules for every single individual. Whether it’s cultural? I couldn’t say. But I sure related to the way she broke down conversation styles: the questioning style, and the talking style.
Recently, I told Friend Y that I wished we had deeper talks. Later, I realized this is what I meant: I wish we asked each other more meaningful follow-up questions.
Questions like, “How was it to see your long-time enemy after so many years had passed?”
Questions like, “What are your family reunions like for you?”
Questions like, “How are you feeling?”
Whether it’s cultural or not? Friend Y turned down my request. Their reply was something like, “Nah, it’s cool. You don’t need to ask me any questions at all. You don’t need to analyze everything or say anything back to me when I talk. We can just talk.”
(And Friend Y is right: not everything needs to be analyzed; I happen to have an analytical mind. And there are times we don’t want questions. I respect those situations……
………but what I want to know is……….
How do I know that people care to listen deeply if they don’t ask a meaningful follow-up question? How will we ever learn anything new without meaningful questions?)
In short, I felt sad and heartbroken after Friend Y’s response. When Friend Y said we shouldn’t ask follow-up questions or reflect on each other’s answers, I heard Friend Y saying to me:
“I don’t really care to know you better.”
36 research-based questions, published in the NY Times recently, were touted as “The 36 questions to ask & answer in order to fall in love with someone.” If you read them, each question grows deeper and more meaningful than the last.
There’s likely a darn good reason those are “36 questions to ask someone,” not “36 things to spout at someone.”
When we feel like someone cares enough to ask after us — and when we feel like someone cares enough to listen — isn’t that the first step towards love?
What is love, after all, but being seen, felt deeply, and accepted for all that we are — and all that we want to become?
Once, I had a dearly beloved friend who was transitioning. During the last year of our friendship, he faced tough questions: Should he get top surgery or not? What would it be like to be a trans-man? How would he benefit from all the sexism in the world that he’d once been a victim of?
My friend was going through real turmoil and I was uncomfortable with that. In fact, I was so uncomfortable with his turmoil, and my own discomfort (because I was new to supporting someone in this situation), that even though we lived together, I avoided the topic of his transition.
I didn’t ask “How can I help?” or “What is going on with you?” or even really “How are things?” I didn’t know how to feel comfortable, so I passively waited for him to talk at me. Fearing my judgment if he shared, he waited for me to actively show him that I cared.
We ended that year no longer friends: he was hurt because I was unsupportive; I didn’t even know who he had become.
Lots of people — especially men (but all of us, too) — aren’t socialized to go deep with someone; to ask heartfelt questions; to follow-up; to sit with our uncomfortable emotions; to be vulnerable. I’ve been in romantic relationships where “conversation” was a litany of superficial questions: How many family members do you have? How old were you when you lost your virginity? What is your favorite TV show and why? What music do you like? I’ve been in far fewer relationships where we grow closer through meaningful questions. I imagine that’s why those 36 questions to falling in love are successful. It doesn’t have to be those 36 questions; the questions simply provide a road-map into depth and meaning that few know how to travel.
The hardest part about asking meaningful follow-up questions: learning how to set aside my own discomfort in order to empathize with a friend. When I didn’t know how to do that, I lost a friendship.
It’s tough sometimes, but I try to show someone I care by asking them the next question — how are you doing? how was that for you? can you say more? The option for someone to not-respond is always there, but through asking people these questions, I show that I care. I learn something new. I understand myself a tiny bit more.
And the best part about asking meaningful questions?
All the same things.