How can you ask a question that will get to the essence?
Of course, if you want idle chitchat, you can ask a question about something else: the weather, that tree over there, the painting on the wall. They aren't bad questions, but will they help you truly understand who you are meeting?
A few years ago, I was enjoying an informal dinner with our daughter's classmates and their parents.
I struck up a conversation with a dad, and — after an exchange of our names and daughter's names — I asked the question: "So what do you do?"
"What do I do?" he asked, somewhat surprised at the question. "What do I do? Is that the best you can do? That's the best question you have? What do I do? I'm Mo!"
If this hadn't been in the home of a friend, if this weren't in the trusted community of parents, I would have quickly excused myself, collected my family and headed for the car. It would have felt threatening.
But you don't know Mo. And I'm not going to introduce you to Mo beyond these three statements. He's a fascinating fellow. He told me one of the funniest stories I have ever heard. (I recently told him I would like to get it recorded.) And his response to my question has reshaped how I meet people.
Mo was right.
Asking Mo, "What do you do?" won't get to the essence of Mo. If he answers the question in the usual way, he would reveal a rich career of success, with a worthy turn. But it won't help the new acquaintance know Mo.
Because Mo isn't what he does for money. Because what he does is this: he's Mo.
And so are you. You are Mo.
What the Question Isn't
Eric Weiner, in his delightful and insightful The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World, points out that the first question changes from land to land.
In America, the question for the stranger in the next seat on the airplane may be, "What do you do?" But in Switzerland, boardered by so many other rich cultures — German, Austrian, Italian, French — it's more helpful to find out what nation has influenced your seatmate.
What he or she does for a living just doesn't tell you as much.
I Was Accused of Bullshit.
During a business trip this week, I was seated at dinner beside an ambitious, successful, smart businessperson. He had already heard from me — I gave a short presentation before dinner, to introduce my workshop the next morning — so he knew something of me.
But, no, we didn't know each other well.
At dinner, he asked me who I would be voting for in the upcoming Presidential election.
"I won't tell you," I said.
"Why not?" he asked.
"Because it won't tell you anything about me. You are asking me this question to know me better, but I assure you, my answer won't help."
"That's a bullshit answer," he said. Silently, I thought, "No it isn't, although bullshit questions deserve bullshit answers." But I waited for him to speak.
He did: "So, then, who did you vote for in the last Presidential election."
Again I demurred. I told him a lesson I learned from Danny Maseng, a brilliant scholar, a world famous songwriter-musician, an actor, an inspiring teacher, a friend — and a veteran of the Israeli Defense Forces. At dinner one night, Danny said:
Some people, when they learn that I was in the IDF, ask, "Did you ever kill anyone?" I refuse to answer the question. Not because I am troubled by the answer to the question, but because — if I answer the question — they will think they know something about me.
But the answer to the question — whether it is "yes" or "no" — does not tell you anything about me. I don't want to establish a relationship based on their assumptions about the meaning of the answer. It doesn't mean anything about me.
I feel that way about the answer to the question: "Who will you vote for this fall?"
I told my dinner companion, "On the list of what makes me tick, who I am, my essence, Who I Vote For is way down that list, two-hundredth in importance, at best. Let's start somewhere else. Ask another question."
My Students (Don't) Know.
At the end of each semester, I poll my students, asking for a show of hands. I ask: "Do you think you know my politics?" Everyone raises their hands.
"Who here thinks I am a Republican?" Half the hands are raised. "Who here thinks I am a Democrat?" The other half raise their hands.
I consider this a badge of honor. I don't think it is my role to tell them how to vote.
I just tell them that voting is important — and they must be registered to do it. (It's not too late to register. Here's how, in Ohio. If you register by October 9th, you can vote on November 6th. I directly register 100+ students every year.)
But they don't know how I vote. I think I become less of a teacher and less of a role model, if they are clouded by knowing how I vote.
But this isn't about voting.
This is about the question to ask someone to get to know them better.
Here are some suggestions:
- For what are you famous? Everyone is famous for something. Like my aunt for her apple pie.
- What made you laugh today?
- What did you learn today?
- Where in the world would you go, for a visit, if you had unlimited time, money and courage?
- If you had the perfect student, who would it be and what would you teach him or her? Could you teach it to me?
- If you could meet your great-great-great-great-great-grandparent, what would you ask? And what would you ask your great-great-great-great-great-grandchild?
A hundred questions come to mind. What question do you ask when you are first trying to meet someone?
So, What Do I Do?
People ask that question of me all the time. I meet strangers daily and they always ask the American question: What do you do?
Let me save you the trouble. If you ask me these days, I will answer, "I am an unlicensed rabbi serving non-Jews."
We laugh, and it leads to a meaningful conversation.