I recently blogged about the tendency of some Americans to monologue and subject those around them to a never-ending stream of information about themselves that the world never needed or wanted to know. Well, I realized the opposite can also be true. In addition to incessant talking, some Americans have the equally annoying habit of incessant questioning.
I went out for dinner with a female acquaintance the other week, looking for nothing more than to get to know each other better and enjoy a nice restaurant meal together. The meal ended up being delicious. And the woman was nice enough. But by the end of the meal I felt exhausted – because she had been asking me non-stop questions the entire time. I barely had a chance to chew my food, or ask her any questions in return, or maybe just enjoy a moment of quiet together over a glass of wine.
Now don’t get me wrong. Asking a person questions is something you do when you have a genuine interest in getting to know that person better, and on the other hand it’s off-putting when you meet self-involved people who never ask you any questions about yourself (I do always wonder how such people are so lacking in curiosity about others). But you don’t just get to know a person by asking them questions about their self, their past, and their preferences; you also get to know a person organically and naturally by spending time together and discussing topics of common interest.
I have noticed in the the US that people tend to ask a lot more personal questions, a lot more directly, and a lot more up front in the getting-to-know-you process. (American people also tend to volunteer a lot more personal information about themselves directly and up front.) I’m comparing this to British people, who tend to be much more private and reserved. The Brits avoid direct personal questions, which could be perceived as nosy or invasive; they tend to stick to “safe” common-territory conversation topics such as the weather, current events, sports, or something that both parties can moan (read: bitch) about together, like the London Underground.
These even plays itself out in the form of introductions. I remember in the UK, I would sometimes talk at length with someone – for example a random person I met at a house party, and spent most of the evening chatting with – without them ever asking my name (or me theirs). Then, at the very end of the night, when you part ways, one person might say, “Oh, by the way, what’s your name?” or even “Oh, by the name, my name is Ritch.” You introduce yourself as an afterthought, as though even asking someone’s name too soon in the conversation might be too pushy.
This is of course exactly the opposite of the American style, which is all about bulldozing right in there, proactively walking up to someone at the party with your hand extended, ready for handshake, and blasting “Hi, my name is Bob, what’s yours?” I appreciate that American forwardness and ease of talking to strangers. But I do wish sometimes that conversation could occur a bit more naturally – and part of that is sometimes silence occurring naturally.