When I was a journalist in Ohio, I was often astonished by the incredibly indiscreet things people would blurt out for the record. For instance, I was once interviewing a friend for a piece called “What Women Think Men Should Know About Sex,” and she told me, “Men know nothing about pleasing a woman.” I could never view her husband quite the same way after that.
How did I get people to open up? Usually by simply taking out a tape recorder or flipping open a notebook. My penetrating investigative technique usually entailed a starter question such as “What made you take up juggling?” or “How many hours a day do you practice the violin?” Half an hour later I was privy to every known fact relating to their career, their best friend’s extramarital affair, their dog’s embarrassing struggles with incontinence, and how they would improve things if they ruled the world. I would frequently end an interview by backing out the door, saying for the fifth time, “Well, that certainly covers it! Thanks for your time!” Some would then follow me to my car, saying breathlessly, “And another thing that happened when I was sixteen…”
So for our upcoming train trip through Central and Eastern Europe, I’m not too worried about getting people to open up a little and say diverting things that I can report back to you on this blog. But I did wonder if it might be interesting to come up with a question or two that I’d slip into all my conversations, so that later I could do some sort of comparison.
I was still mulling this over when I heard a podcast from NPR about young Andrew Forsthoefel who, out of work and seeking a project, decided to walk from his Pennsylvania home to New Orleans and on to the Pacific Coast, interviewing people along the way. He started out asking everyone a thoughtful question about life transitions that essentially elicited blank stares. Then he hit on a new approach: “If you could go back in time and give your 23-year-old self one piece of advice, what would it be?” He got marvelous responses – funny, touching, sad, inspiring, filled with self-compassion. “I would tell myself not to be so afraid,” a lot of them said.
I loved this question, and while I was considering stealing it, I tried it out various friends. They all said, “Yeah, great question.” Full stop. Blank stares. Vigorous prodding would elicit a short response, but it was clearly not opening up the kind of floodgates that would make them follow me out to my car to share more.
Last week, while having dinner with my sister and her family, I went around the table asking each person what they had been doing when they were 24, the age Forsthoefel was during the latter part of the project. Each time, their face would soften and a nostalgic gleam would warm their eyes— even the 27-year-old, who wasn’t looking back all that far. And they’d speak with fond amusement about early jobs, young loves, dumb mistakes… A treasure trove of revelations that mattered. I figured I might be on to something.
A few days later, I ran across a book called 4,000 Questions for Getting to Know Anyone and Everyone. Expecting the usual “What’s your favorite ice cream?” and “Where do you want to be five years from now?” I was pleasantly surprised by the breadth and depth of queries such as “What do you really wish your parents would have told you when you were still a kid?” and “Are any illegal acts justified under certain circumstances?” My favorite was “If you could ask God one question, what would it be?” I know what mine would be: What’s the best question to ask people on the upcoming train journey?
Since I haven’t (so far as I am aware) received any specific direction from the Almighty in this matter, let me put the question to you:
What question do YOU think I should ask the people I meet on our train journey?
And by the way, what were you doing when you were 24?
I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
As we journey through the pandemic together, my blog provides a regular supply of survival tips, comfort food recipes, and the wry humor we all need to lighten our hearts on dark days.
I think of my blog as an ongoing conversation, so please join in and leave comments at the end of my posts.
Sign up below to get updates when I publish anything new.