‘As soon as they say “that’s interesting,” you’ve lost them.’ These were the words of cosmic navigator, Gahl Sasson at what ostensibly turned out to be a group therapy session about life and death narratives. When I saw a flyer for a storytelling workshop at my yoga studio, amidst others that promised to open up your hips or shoulders, I was instantly intrigued… I wondered whether it would help me with the tedium of telling my least favourite kind of story: the explanation on-demand. You know the one that’s in response to a question about your whereabouts, your choice of a situation or person. It might be the one you have to tell most often… It’s the kind that could prove genuinely, that word: ‘interesting’, but you’ve had to tell it too many times, and now, you, yourself are the most bored, the most lost in the conversation.
In the end, the workshop didn’t really address my practical need. How should I express myself in the narrow parameters of questions like: where are you from? why did you choose that PhD topic? what are you doing now? These questions are usually asked with the benign intention of establishing concrete facts and getting to know me. But, I actually feel that in answering them, I go to some faraway place ruled by memory and rhetorical conventions: it’s not so much my voice I hear, as mellifluous, well-trodden bullshit. Where I’m from is an accident of birth; the PhD topic was chosen 5 years ago, and do you really want me to breathlessly run through my current freelancer’s routine? When you demand that I repeat these old stories, don’t be surprised if I stare at my feet, shudder as I recall an imminent deadline, or in my friend Whitney’s fabulous phrase, ‘check out of the conversation.’
As I’m re-explaining, I notice how my stories evolve over time – perhaps as a means of keeping me, as I am now, awake and in the conversation. The PhD explanation was originally an idealistic narrative that I now can’t quite recall; though in some portion of spacetime it’s 100% true. These days it’s more a collage of Oliver Twist and Girls. I see it spread out before me in Dorothy Lange Depression-era stills: I’m this opportunistic urchin, who tracked down a topic, funding and respectability, so that I could put off my fear – the mundane reality of an adult 9-5 – a little longer. Of course, even this is a romanticised diversion from a truth I’m unsure of… ‘It was right for me at the time!’ I protest finally, echoing my mother, when asked to explain her marriage. This expression is often met with raised eyebrows – to most people it justifies a first marriage better than a PhD. You’re meant to sound more smugly intellectual, less Oprah when explaining a PhD. But I think its timeliness- like a rescuer on a white horse- is a point of pride.
Sometimes, telling the stories that people want to know about your past from the perspective of the present, pays off. You can laugh together, establish a foundation for intimacy and trust, and move on to what’s juicy and contemporary. But, if I’m honest, I still find questions that corner me into explaining myself persecuting. I literally feel like I’m up for trial and will be judged on answers that don’t represent me as I am now. The real me, the part that can connect with others, is getting lost in defensive explanations.
I know I’m not alone in inwardly shrinking when being asked to explain myself. I have some friends who say that being asked where they’re from, feels like an extension of the bureaucratic visa process that allows them to stay in the country, and others who get anxious when asked about their career or relationship trajectory. And do you know, this interview-style Q&A format hinders the moving, funny and personal stories we all have to tell when we let our guard down. Ultimately there is no shortcut to getting to know someone, whether for the first time, or as they are now. Maybe it’s time to stop asking the most obvious questions on autopilot. Instead, why not engage fully in the situation, listen (and not just with your ears) and enjoy the slow process of someone revealing who they are? There, in the story of making arrabbiata sauce at 8am, or in someone’s primary encounter with yoga or death, you have a lead to the essence of a person. Then, go ahead and ask sensitively, always heeding Monty Python’s warning: ‘Remember, nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!’