People tend to tell me things. Whether it’s something big they’re dealing with or just who they have their eye on at the moment, I am often privy to the inner secrets of the people I know – even though I can’t keep a secret. It’s actually a well-established fact that I’m rubbish at keeping things to myself, although I hope I’m at least somewhat better at it than I used to be, so why is it that I continue to find things out from people, even in spite of this fact? This strange phenomenon has quite a simple cause: I ask.
I ask people all sorts of questions without really thinking about it. If a friend gets a new job, I have no qualms asking if the money is good. If someone offers an opinion, I like to probe into why they think that, and where they think that comes from, instead of simply taking it at face value. For me there are very few questions that are off-limits, very few that are not appropriate to ask. And while I admit this hasn’t emerged out of anything more grand or high-minded than sheer nosiness, strangely enough, by and large, people are all-too-happy to answer almost anything I ask.
Now, sometimes this trait of mine has got me into trouble. In fact, asking a slightly personal question, and putting my foot in it, has become known as “doing a Chloe”. But it hasn’t stopped me asking, and some amazing conversations have come out of my possibly obnoxious questions. Part of it is just my personality and a detest for small talk, but mostly it’s because I think you miss out on so much about a person by being overly polite. People are like icebergs; there’s so much more going on under the surface, all we need to do is follow our curiosity to discover it.
Some people don’t need you to ask anything. I don’t think I’ve ever had to ask my brother, “So, what’s going on with you?” because every time I see him he just offers that information freely, assured in the knowledge that he’s that interesting, and of course people would want to know. But most of us aren’t like that. Most of us are up to all sorts of exciting things, or have all kinds of interesting insights and ideas, but we just don’t realise, or we don’t think anyone would be interested, and so we don’t share that information – not until someone asks the right question.
And really, when you think about it, even everyday small talk questions – the ones most people are happy to put to most people – can often be more personal than we realise. We ask single people how their love lives are going. We ask when a couple is thinking of having kids. I’ve been asked a lot of questions in my time, and none has offended me as much as the seemingly innocuous “So, how’s married life?” I told you I’m not good at small talk…
I’m not saying going in with a big question leads to wonderful results every time. Sometimes you might not quite know a person well enough to pry into their deepest, darkest secrets. Sometimes you might have to offer something personal or even vulnerable about yourself before someone else will say, “Yes, that happened to me too and here’s what I’ve learned from it.” You might worry that a question is overstepping the mark, but if they don’t want to talk about it, they won’t. It’s that simple. Just because you ask the question, it doesn’t mean they have to answer. There’s no harm in asking, and it’s just so worth it.
So ask more questions. Ask better ones. Ask real ones. Be a little nosier, and a little less British. Life is far too short to spend it talking about the weather, or asking what a person does for a living and probing no further. Everyone you know has a story, everyone you know has opinions and ideas and experiences that can deeply enrich your own. We all love talking about ourselves. We all have expertise and wisdom to share. And the right question is often the key to getting a person to open up and reveal something incredible.
Written by Chloe Satchell-Cobbett, Deputy Editor, Liberti