“So…What do you do? What are your plans?”
I was at a barbecue at my old college buddy’s house with strangers and old friends so these questions were in everyone’s conversation-starter kit.
Given the setting, asking these things was relevant and interesting. I wanted to meet the people I didn’t know. I also wanted to hear about what my friends were doing, where they were living, and how their jobs were going.
But after we shared this information, we seemed to put the conversation to rest until we moved on to the next person, continuing the same rote exchange. No one seemed to want to deviate from the classic social script these questions allowed for. Our discussions started feeling old and tired—in desperate need of a makeover or a Red Bull, or both.
Whether we’re meeting someone new, seeing old friends, or talking to relatives, we can’t escape these conversations. And nor should we—they’re perfectly natural. But what if, from time to time, we dressed the questions a bit differently— completely changed their outfits?
I think we might find a new connection emerging through our sometimes worn-out ways of interacting. What if instead we asked things like, “What do you like to do?” or “What are you afraid of?”
How refreshing would that be? To tell someone how we’re afraid to quit our job and tell our family we want to start a band. Or how much we enjoy fishing and tell the story of the crazy big striper we were barely able to reel into the boat last night. Or how we fear our own anxiety and hate feeling like we’re always on the edge. Or the freedom we feel when we’re outdoors, hiking with a group of friends, racing to see that waterfall.
Think about the kind of passion and authenticity we would experience if we gave each other more chances to talk about the things that make us tick and the things that make us recoil.
But to do this—to sincerely change our banal barbecue conversations—would mean trusting each other and risking feeling vulnerable.
I remember sitting on a porch one night in Thailand with a new acquaintance. We were part of a volunteer program so our temporary housing was the same. During the first few minutes of our first real conversation, we engaged in some of the same familiar banter from the barbecue, “Where do you live? How old are you? Are you in school? What do you do for work?”
These were just our safety net questions—the ones we asked in order to carve out enough time until we could sense whether or not the other person could be trusted, or if we liked them. As two Americans abroad, we started talking about how we both loved to travel and where we had been.
I began to feel an overwhelming sense of security wash over me. I felt ready to see if I could trust her further. She asked if I had any regrets and, before I knew it, I was talking about my family and my fears and all the re-dos I wish I had. I told her I felt guilty and ashamed—almost useless, sometimes—for quitting my job in finance right out of college.
She talked about her parents’ recent divorce and her struggle with anxiety and how she couldn’t sleep a lot of the time because, for whatever reason, something always woke her up. I said, “Me too.”
So there we were: confused and scared and somewhat out of breath, as if we could finally take in air after almost drowning. In no more than five minutes, the anxieties and reservations I released brought me more comfort and hope with this stranger than I have felt with some of my closest friends.
It was at that moment I felt comfortable enough to say “Ummm, hey, so…I think I may have clogged the downstairs toilet” (our only one).
We laughed. Oh man, did we laugh. It all happened so quickly. Once I realized I felt safe enough to be vulnerable, our friendship effortlessly fell into place. We didn’t cover up our fears. We smiled in spite of them and everything felt okay.
When we limit our conversations to the standard, safe questions, we take ourselves in a direction that we’ve already walked. The path has been cleared—there’s no sticking one foot out and seeing if the ground holds. It makes evading discomfort easy, and in doing so we miss out on so much.
“What do you do?” is as easy and comforting to ask as it is to answer. It leaves little room for what brings us joy or what makes us afraid—for getting at the heart of who we are. To dismiss our fear is to drive out its potential to breed change and progress within ourselves and consequently, with each other. Recognizing that our fear is as commonplace as the air we breathe gives us an opportunity to connect with one another and to laugh at ourselves, together.
I understand that there is a time and place for engaging in a “What are you afraid of?” type of conversation. We’re a busy bunch, I get that. I understand that people are reticent. And I understand that we are all different and have different ideas about who feels safe and who doesn’t. What I don’t understand is how we can expect authentic connection without testing the waters a bit more.
Once we’ve tested them, why not take the risk? Go ahead. Tell the person you’re talking to how you’re not sure why but you’re afraid of eating the last bite of food on your plate. Tell them how you have days you wish you were a Beanie Babie-–they have it so much easier!
Growing, changing and improving is part of our human nature—a gradual process of feeling uncomfortable and unsure in the beginning and then adapting to whatever changes our leap of faith brings about. But this progress begins with us, individually. By allowing our own desires, fears and discomforts to surface, we become less likely to close off and more open to trusting others and finding connection and safety in others.
Questions like, “What do you do?” and “What your plans?” aren’t bad, but they’re not helping us grow either.
What would happen if we were prepared to center our conversations more around “What do you like to do?” or “What are you afraid of?” Who knows, they could change an acquaintance into a best friend, a fear into a laugh, or an isolated retreat into a group adventure.
I think if we did this more, we’d all feel freer to show a side of ourselves that doesn’t see the sun much: one that is desperate to poke its head out and stretch its legs.
Author: Andrew Somps
Image: starmanseries/ Flickr
Editor: Khara-Jade Warren