You’ve heard it said that there are some deadly questions out there, murderous vixens of small talk that kill conversations. We’ve all been asked questions that have no happy answer and have us desperately seeking the exit.
These questions have one thing in common; they are based on a lack of knowledge about the person being questioned. They are questions asked by those who, for whatever reason, don’t know enough about the subject to ask specifics. So, they ask vague, broad-based, general questions based on a little bit of information. If the interviewee is in their 20s, they are asked about school. If unmarried, they are asked about current prospects. If the car is free of booster-seats, they are asked about the status of the biological clock. And if none of these conversations pan out to their expectations they ask, “What’s new?”
“I don’t know … not much. You?” The answers to that question make me sound and feel like an idiot. I’m so tired of answering the same question with such monotonous answers that I’m seriously considering making stuff up. “I thought I would get my doctorate and climb Mount Everest.” That should be good for two or three minutes of small talk.
I’m not a good liar, mostly because when I lie I don’t believe a thing I say. And since I remember reading somewhere that lying wasn’t a good thing to do anyway, the Everest climb is out.
Lying aside, I still have a problem without a solution. That “What’s new?” question drags in the air like a lazy fly at the end of summer, and I have nothing clever to say. Every Sunday conversation begins with it, and since I don’t see life without conversation as a possibility, and lying isn’t an option, I must come up with some way to put to death the deadly questions.
The deadly questions are shot into the awkward silences that no one takes credit for and are usually repeated regardless of who is asking or who is being asked. We refuse responsibility for the depth of conversation and recite default answers to all of them; it’s a ritual we perform mindlessly. Perhaps we do it to avoid connecting, or perhaps we are just lazy—though I’m not trying to judge motives. Maybe I’m not the only one feeling like there is more to fellowship then repetitive small talk.
We see it so much in Christian circles, because we gather regularly in places with people to whom we have no worldly bond. Common interests bring us into some places, common ways of thinking or education into others, but a common bond in Jesus is what brings everyone into your church on Sunday, and for some reason, talking about God is not what we do over coffee during fellowship time. We settle for, “What’s new” instead.
Sometimes there is no option; we have to start somewhere. I was asked one Sunday “what’s new?” and instead of saying nothing, I thought of something, and I didn’t have to make it up. I told them that I was going to my mom’s school to take pictures of her class, and then we would gather to celebrate my dad’s birthday. The following Sunday the person who asked me what was new the week before didn’t ask that deadly question, she asked how the pictures came out; what the school was like; did my Dad have a good birthday? The following week we were back to what’s new, but it was a start.
When we were first married, every night I would ask David “How’s work?” I usually got a one-word answer, and the conversation was done. Until one day I got a detailed retelling about the card game he had at lunch. Since then, I’ve learned about the reckless player who is spooky-lucky, the cautious player who hates heads-up with David: I’ve even learned to play. David had decided to share the details and break the pattern that many couples married 30 years longer than us haven’t broken. Now I simply ask, “Honey, did you win?”
Relationships are based on information. The specifics of a question will let you know how close you are to a person. A writer friend has asked detailed questions about this article. David may email me from work to ask if I’m getting any writing done today. Recently, a friend brightly asked, “Oh, are you a writer?” I’m sure someone on Sunday, if I hold still long enough, will ask me, “What’s new?”
Specific questions cannot be asked unless the supplicant knows something about the subject. It’s that way when discussing any subject, personal lives included. If you are talking about me, your questions are going to be more specific if you know a little about who I am. If I reply to your “What’s new?” as though it were an opportunity to talk about that thing I was most excited about, perhaps the conversation would be more enjoyable for both of us. We would leave with some information and perhaps it would be easier when we return next Sunday; we might even look forward to talking again.
We may not see the extinction of deadly questions, but we can seriously limit their breeding. We can answer, “What’s new?” “How’s school?” and “How’s work?” with real answers, and not the standard responses we have been conditioned to reply with. Even more, we can ask more interesting questions, “read any good books lately?” “Do you think there is intelligent life on other planets?” or “If you were a tree what kind of tree would you be?” Once I heard of a girl who never asked, “How are you” or “What’s new?” but only ever asked, “What awesome work is God doing in you?” It made everyone who had ever spoken to her think before asking, “What’s new?” but it’s a good question. It’s a question with life of its own.