How are you?
What size would you like that?
Do you want any cream or sugar?
What have you been up to today so far?
Oh yeah? Where do you work?
How long have you been doing that?
Do you enjoy it?
What do you wish you were doing instead?
Here, will caffeine help?
How’s your semester been?
What class is this for?
What’s the assignment?
Do you know what you might want to work on with this paper?
What do you think about your thesis?
Is this what you meant by this sentence?
Do you see any way you could make that paragraph better?
Do you have an idea of what you need to revise when you take this home to work on it?
I have two part-time jobs: one as a barista at a drive-thru coffee place and the other as a writing consultant at my university’s academic resource center. Both have helped teach me what I’ve come to believe is the world’s great secret:
It’s a secret that unlocks a lot.
It’s the secret to successful conversations, to getting to know people, to making friends. It’s the secret to loving people well. It’s the secret to understanding yourself. It’s the secret to keeping peace. It’s the secret to learning. It’s the secret to caring. It’s the secret to avoiding ignorance and arrogance.
People want to talk about themselves, and when you give them a space to, and when they answer as honestly as they know how to, it can be an oddly spiritual experience.
Once, I walked into Burgerville with a friend, thinking we were just going to order our raspberry shakes and leave. But my friend started asking questions to the girl working the register, and I suddenly knew all about the girl's job plans, home struggles, academic future and more. I suppose one could have the view that it was a waste of time and postponed our milkshake-consumption, but to me it seemed wildly meaningful, and somehow magical, that I learned so much about that girl just from a few questions my friend was daring enough to ask. I haven’t looked at Burgerville – or the power of asking questions – the same ever since.
A book I read last semester – John Mill – explains why you shouldn’t suppress anyone’s speech. If their opinion is wrong, or contrary to yours, then that’s all the more reason to listen to it; if you believe something, you should want to ensure it’s true, and if it’s true, what’s the harm in letting a contrary opinion test and strengthen it? If their opinion is contrary to yours, and right, you must hear that and let it affect what you already believe. John Mill says you shouldn’t suppress innocent dissention. I might go as far as to say you should sometimes seek out that dissention. Through asking questions, whether the answers are “right” or “wrong,” you’re constantly refining, improving and understanding your own beliefs.
And because of that, the benefits of asking questions are endless.
Ask why you believe what you believe. Ask others why they believe what they believe. Ask your friends about the things that matter to them. Ask a book what it means. Ask that deep movie you watched what it wants to tell you about the world around you. Ask a meaningful question when small talk might be tempting. Ask a small question when you might rather ignore a situation. Give people a way out – the opportunity for a simple answer, but leave them a way in – the opportunity to be understood. It’s as simple as, How have you been lately? What are you up to today?
Ask questions. Listen to the answers. Then ask more questions.