Recently, my wife and I had dinner with someone we hadn’t seen in years.
We peppered him with questions about his work, his kids, old friends we had in common, his recent travels, even his views on random topics like internet security and the rise of China. We weren’t feigning interest either. We were genuinely curious.
He responded with interesting and insightful answers. He was polite, engaged, willing to talk about whatever we brought up.
And then he left.
Later, as we debriefed the night, we realised that over a three hour period he hadn’t asked us a single question.
He’d shown no interest in what my wife did for work, how old our kids are now, or what we’d been doing for the past decade.
The thing is, that’s a pretty common social experience for us.
People seem more than willing to answer our questions. In fact, they seem to enjoy our curiosity about their life and opinions. But there’s so little interest shown in us.
Shouldn’t there be some natural desire to ask people what makes them tick, what they like doing, who they like being?
I’m getting to point now that when it happens again I might just let my eyes roll into the back of my head, throw my wine on the floor and go home.
Unless it’s happening in my own home, of course (I don’t want to have to clean up the wine).
Just ask some questions, people!
I mean, enquiring about another person really shouldn’t be an acquired skill. It should be innate. It should be, well, human.
And yet, I’m realising more and more that so few people in this world know how to have a meaningful exchange with another person. Conversations feel like talk-show interviews where I’m the interviewer.
My wife, Caz, suggested we should make up cards like those left on the dinner table by restaurant reviewers: “You’ve been visited by the New York Time food critic. Check for your review coming soon.”
Only she fantasizes about slipping people a card that reads, “Your conversational skills have been reviewed and you received an F for not asking us a single question.”
Maybe it’s because most of our conversations these days are online. We ‘talk’ with our fingers. Briefly. Staccato-style, in texts and emojis. We’ve learned how to express, not enquire.
Maybe it’s because we’ve spent so little time conversing face-to-face that we’ve forgotten that, you know, it’s both nice and polite to ask someone something once in a while. Or perhaps instead, we’ve spent so much time on social media we’re only ever seeing the world through the lens of ourselves. And then because of that, we already think we know what’s news with someone else. No questions are required.
Maybe it’s gendered and men like being the experts, if only on their own lives.
Well, I’m calling BS on all that.
Let’s start a conversational revolution!
Let’s commit to showing a real interest in others. Make it your goal to never leave a social situation without getting at least one new piece of information about every person you had a conversation with.
And when you’re in a conversation with someone who’s more than willing to answer your insightful questions, but completely disinclined to ask you anything, call it out. Say something like, “Sorry, I’ve been dominating by asking all the questions. I suppose you’ve got lots of questions about my life?”
In short, folks, ASK MORE QUESTIONS. We need to foster a culture of genuine curiosity in each other.
26 thoughts on “Why haven’t you asked me anything about my life?”
What’s one of your favourite questions, Mike?
I identify with this—my husband and I often feel like we’re always the ones asking the questions.
As I’ve reflected on this over the years, I’ve realised this is sometimes because of a perceived inequality in the relationship i.e. the person/s we are spending time with (incorrectly) perceive us to be somehow more mature than they are, and so they (incorrectly) assume they haven’t got anything to give to us, even in the form of asking questions. They primarily see themselves as recipients within the context of the relationship.
To ask questions of others, we have to be confident and secure in ourselves, to be prepared to take the lead, as well as feeling like we have something to give to those we are with.
So I think in order to help break down this perceived inequality in the relationship and to free people up to ask questions, one thing we can do is model vulnerability—to proactively share our places of pain and struggle … the places in our life where we don’t have everything “together.” In doing so, it gives permission for others to ask questions, to feel like they can contribute, and to see themselves as equal partners in the relationship.
Of course, there are some people for whom their lack of questions has nothing to do with any kind of insecurity—and it needs calling out … or you need to throw your wine on the floor.
Up until recently I have been actively online dating. It has happened a number of times over the years that:
1. I’ll connect with someone
2. They will respond
3. I’ll tell them a bit about me, and ask them some questions
4. and they will respond
5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until the feeling that they’re not really interested, because they haven’t asked me a single question, becomes too strong to ignore.
There is something to the comment above re confidence. The guy I am dating now – the one who actively expressed a desire to know me through asking questions – has an active faith and knows his identity in Christ.
And social media definitely plays a part, where we are all being trained that my role is to “tell you about me”, rather than “me celebrate you.”
Great Post – thank you
Another great challenge. Have definitely had the same feeling…
there is something so refreshing and uplifting about a great reciprocal conversation.
Ps – I’d love to have you guys over for a meal sometime – I’d love to chat! We live an hour from Sydney and have accomodation too if you like! Hit me on the email if you’d like to make it happen.
I so agree with this. Another problem I have is those that ask questions only as a lead in to tell you about themselves. They will ask one question, listen to your response and then tell you about their answer to it, never asking a single clarifying question or showing any real interest in your life.
We have a monthly dinner with friends (about 20) where we use the Tabletalk cards. Great conversation starters and everyone shares and asks each other questions.
Totally agree. Wish it was just natural for people to inquire about others. When my kids were little and they hopped in the car after school, I would ask them about their day and ‘taught’ them to ask me about my day and ask me how what I did. Great skill and I appreciate great conversations with them now as adults.
Hi Mike- I understand if you don’t want this in the comments because it’s talking about a product… Here 2 Stay – an Aussie bunch who are all about encouraging connections and young people staying in church- made ChatMatters to help push the Q&A conversation starters. It’s free and printable
https://www.max7.org/en/resource/chatmattersstarttalkingaroundthetable in a few languages now- it’s available as a kid-friendly and all adults placemat to encourage conversations about life and faith.
Personally I’ve been very challenged over recent years to press on with asking questions of my friends who are relentless questioners – because they don’t want to talk about themselves (bad day, feeling fragile etc). It’s fraught – the asking questions thing. I’ve staggered away from “chats” like that feeling like I couldn’t get a question in sideways – I’ve raised my hand! LOL. I love your resolution, and I hope the people you love start asking more about you all. Relationships are so important like that.
Ha! I so agree with this Mike. Often when we catch up with people they seem to think we want to know all about them but can go home not even asking us one single question.
Don’t get me wrong. It is wonderful to hear their stories but you feel quite exhausted by the end of the time together rather than energised. And to be honest, we may have done the same, but it is rare.
The people/friends who I truly love and value are the ones that both ask questions and listen with not only their ears but their hearts….inviting further conversation between us all…..and I pray that I will remember/keep practicing to be like that too!
My parents taught me at an early age (circa 9 or 10) that asking questions about people was how you interacted well with people, and was a mark of being an adult.
I hope I’ve done them proud on that. Will try harder.
The Art of Conversation is a very good series – there’s an edition for families, friends, children, couples…they don’t cost much but they are worth a lot!
I’m sometimes the person who doesn’t ask questions.
I might spend my mental energy/space answering the question asked of me, and so not have any to remember to ask questions. I may need some quiet space in the conversation for me to think to ask the other person a question, or to think of a question to ask.
I have left conversations and realised that I have missed the opportunity to find out things about the person I was talking with. It may have been useful to think of things before a conversation that I would like to talk about with the person, and things that I would like to ask.
If anyone you’re talking with is like me, maybe allowing some awkward silence would help.
I appreciate Kathryn’s comment about allowing for awkward silence. It’s not awkward for everyone, it sometimes gives quieter people the time to rally, to consider the flow of the conversation and contribute by asking questions. Thanks for that reminder!
My husband and I recently returned from spending a year doing volunteer work in a developing country. We have been stunned by the amount of people who have asked us nothing about our experience. We have had dinner with people who have filled us in on what happened in their lives during our year away, but shown zero interest in the country we served in, what we were doing, or how we are feeling now we are home.
Can relate to this Elizabeth. This has happened to us too.
I’ve found this to be a common issue for those in leadership positions – I hear all the time in my work with CEO’s of ministry organizations that are also friends how rare it is to be asked how they are doing. Great article and a heads up for all of us.
You know, I have been wondering about this myself. My family and I are moving, not just to a new house in the same state, but half way across the country and I have a few friends that I’ve known for about 10 years now and they don’t ask me how the transition is going, am I excited to move or nervous, or even when the move date is?! I’m trying very hard to wrap my brain around what the heck is going on, but it just blows my mind. It is so awkward!
I don’t typically talk about myself unless someone asks me a specific question.
Question Mike, what would you do?
Oh, and I hope you and Caz have been enjoying your travels and visiting with friends… or at least, most of it! :-/
I’ve got to the point that I am so fed up with people’s fascination about their own lives, and who are so disinterested in other people, that I have occasionally said ‘I notice you haven’t asked me anything about what we are doing”.
At this point, they look at you in stunned surprise. Then a look of puzzlement crosses their face, and they feebly ask one or two questions. However, they soon revert back again to centering the conversation on themselves. As if they are back in their comfort zone.
I’ve come to the conclusion it’s best to try and end these meetings or evenings asap. Why bother? As an active senior citizen, I can tell you from experience, that you will never have a deep and meaningful relationship with someone who cannot carry on with a good TWO-WAY conversation. I also don’t buy into the concept that someone is too shy to ask questions (‘if they are of the Western culture). Often I think it’s because a person is too lazy, or just self-absorbed.
I think the problem is deeper than we realize.
It’s not that people don’t want to ask the question in return. It’s the fact that people tend to get “talked at” so much that when someone asks them a genuine question and really listens to them that is a rarity in their life.
On the Enneagram, I am a 5w4, so I really don’t like to reveal much about myself to the world, unless I feel really safe. (I will share facts and figures, but not who I am.) Therefore, my default is to ask a lot of questions and listen to learn more information. I have found that people often consider me a “nice guy” simply because I ask and listen.
After reading this, I immediately thought of something Micheal said in one of his YouTube videos I watched recently where he suggested, in a very convicting way, that we all as followers of Christ, ought to be leading questionable lives, only turning this phrase on end from what most would think of when hearing it. I love this idea…so much so that I have been sharing it with my church family and anyone else I can get a conversation turned in the direction that it makes sense.
Being a recovering addict and alcoholic, most of my life, I was viewed as a very questionable person on many levels..my motives..my honesty and integrity..my moral values and on and on.
So to take something that was once a huge liability and turn it to the Glory of God by leading a life in such a way that people are curious about who I am and why I operate the way I do..so much so that they can’t help but to see me as a “questionable” individual..and when they ask I must be prepared to give an answer to the Hope I have. What better way to encourage a conversation ?
This has been our exact experience most often, so much so that we are now keeping track, to see if anyone asks us ANYTHING about our life. It’s been especially pronounced since we moved to a different part of the country. Hmmm It’s now the American way, I’m afraid. .. so self absorbed. But how will people know we are Jesus followers? By our love–and not just for our little cliques, but for the world, one person at a time. Thanks for posting this. We talk about this all the time.
This is so interesting… and absolutely down the line for the experience my husband and myself, and now just myself, find normal. I understand asking questions because I’m genuinely interested in the other person and I, and when my husband was alive, we, really loved to know about people. But we often laughed together after people or we had left horrified/stunned/disconcerted that there were NO questions asked of us, no interest whatsoever… and that is even the case with certain family members, including my husband’s brother. I think much of it is innate narcissism… they’re either really well known and mistake our interest in them as being because they’re ‘celebrities’ not even considering that if that was the criterion, we are pretty even … but they wouldn’t know that we have a lot in common because .. they’re not asking questions. Or… the other option is that they actually don’t care… I think it’s normal for ministry persons to either always be the question asker, or to consider themselves to be the person everyone wants to know about.
I’d love for you to write a full treatise on this (and how to position the church to combat it) in a post-pandemic age, when all many people have done is live through social media posts or wait for their turns to speak on Zoom calls. It seems curiosity would be a required first step toward actually “loving your neighbor,” right?
I love this conversation stream. I find myself in similar positions from time to time. Because my wife is no longer able to attend services, one thing we have done is have others from church visit with us bringing the Eucharist to share.
It has become an intimate time with friends, where we spend time sharing our interests and concerns and offering these things up in a prayers for the people style of prayer during the Eucharist.
It reminds me of the early church meeting in people’s homes. This sort of thing could be expanded, even without the Eucharist, by having willing members schedule regular gatherings at their homes. Perhaps on a rotating monthly basis.
A church we were part of once had rotating dinner gatherings at the home of each couple in the group. Each host couple sort of set informal guide lines for get to know you activities.
At the first dinner, our hosts started by introducing themselves with just a cursory mention of their occupation, instead focusing on their family, their hobbies, what they liked to read, and a mention of a challenge they faced.
We found out one of our church friends was a clock mechanic and pump organ builder in his spare time. Another shared losing his job in the airline industry; someone else’s child struggled with dyslexia. A woman we knew as a makeup sales woman found a way to use her organizational skills to put together a greeters group for our church.
Without this dinner group, everyone would have thought she was just interested in making her next sales goal. This was a group that showed us those we prayed with on Sunday were more like us than not.
As someone who struggles to ask people questions about themselves, let me just explain some reasons why that is:
1) To some people it comes across as interrogation – maybe they’re few and far between, but I have encountered those vibes occasionally.
2) My memory is terrible, and I worry that if people tell me stuff about themselves, I will not remember it when I meet them again. It’s better not to know… And yes, I know this is a terrible reason, so I’m not justifying it, only explaining my internal workings!
3) I’m not naturally curious, which means that I find it difficult to come up with follow-on questions. Again, I am working on it, but it really doesn’t come naturally to me.
So please, if you come across something like me, feel free to start taking about yourself, to help me get going!
Great post. This has been my experience too. I seem to be lucky in that I genuinely find the lives of other people interesting and it’s rare that I don’t come away from meeting a new person without learning something.
However it is equally rare that those same people are as genuinely interested in me. Even among friends I find most are more interested in my listening to them than they to me.
After years of being hurt and disappointed about this I’ve decided that perhaps the gift that I can give people is that of being listened to, as it seems such a rarity these days.
Certainly, on those rare occasions when a companion does listen and engage it’s always such an unexpected surprise and delight.
I think the deficit of listening comes from a range of causes- a lack of personal insight, habits, insecurity, relief at being listened to and not wanting to waste the precious opportunity, a lack of curiosity and selfishness. Doubt most people are even aware of how little they listen and engage, so all I can do is model how I would like to be treated and that means listening even when it’s content I’ve heard repeated many times or topics which aren’t hugely interesting to me.