Remember 20 Questions? It was one of those “keep the kids busy during long car rides” games that has faded into memory as children stare at movies on tablets or play games on phones to kill time.
I’ve revived 20 questions as part of my strategy as a volunteer in an English as a second language program that is based on a one-on-one conversation model. I started using it with my first conversation partner/student when I realized that she was prompting me to be the dominant speaker in our conversations and I was working hard to switch roles. As I was the person answering YES or NO in the game, she was forced to be verbose in comparison.
Inevitably, the end of a game of 20 questions would prompt a natural back & forth conversation about the object of the game—the mysterious person, place or thing. This is when I learned what she did and didn’t know about the history of her adopted country, and other topics that we could explore together.
I played a few round of 20 questions with my current conversation partner and it prompted an interesting discussion about what questions people ask of new acquaintances, and why they choose those questions. In many instances, it’s cultural.
Is it OK in a particular social or business setting to ask a stranger about work? Sometimes it’s the logical first question, sometimes, it feels rude and intrusive. In social dance circles, it’s easy to dance with a relative stranger for years before learning that he’s a lawyer or a train conductor or a research scientist. One of the great pleasures is the “leveling” that occurs when you don’t know, don’t ask, and don’t even care what the other person does for a living.
In real estate obsessed NYC, my student (a real estate agent) locked on to “where do you live?” as the most popular question. I asked him why he thought it was a common first question and he said it was all about status. Where you live communicates a great deal to the other New Yorkers. Although I pointed out to him that we were in a city where people of disparate financial backgrounds can live in the same building, he’s right in the general sense of LOCATION and STATUS being connected. He then laughed and said that in Russia you ask what people they drive and that reveals, status too.
I think that the choice of question reveals as much about the questioner as it does about the person being queried. Good to know when writing detective fiction!