51: The questions we ask.

- November 26, 2017 -

Have you ever heard of something called the Proust Questionnaire?

(I only just recently found out about it myself, so you’re certainly not alone if you haven’t.)

Originally, it was a common 19th-century parlour game, a Victorian icebreaker of sorts. And although it wasn’t created by the well-known French writer whose name it now bears, he was largely responsible for its popularization, so he does have some claim to the legacy.

Back then, it was an activity that was genuinely valued for its insights into the questionnaire-taker. Proust even believed that, when answered earnestly, the questions were so poignant as to be capable of revealing someone’s “true nature.” None of these queries were particularly mind-blowing, though, as they would mainly ask participants non-provocative questions about, say, their “favourite virtue,” ideas of happiness, or most-admired poets.

More recently, though, and for nearly 25 years now, Vanity Fair has been giving its own version of this questionnaire to various noteworthy public figures. And while many of their answers are often comical or trite, there are, as longtime editor Graydon Carter says, “flashes of Proustian poetry” to be found among them. The novelist Zadie Smith, for instance, lists “reading quietly, in high grass, among loved ones (who are also quietly reading)” as her idea of perfect happiness. Jazz singer Tony Bennett notes that his most marked characteristic is “searching.” Comedian Tina Fey writes that her favourite occupation is “being between jobs but having a good one lined up in about a month or so.”

All of this has left me wondering about the questions we ask of the people in our lives, whether they be the people we’ve known for decades or the people we’ve only just met. The go-to questions for getting to know someone, it seems, have remained remarkably unchanged over time, and this despite their lack of earth-shattering insight or fascinating detail. Questions like What do you do?, or Where are you from?, or What’s new?, questions that have become so commonplace that we rarely even give much thought to them being questions at all, i.e., parts of speech intended to request information of some usefulness or value.

I used to be rather dismissive of these types of seemingly empty inquiries, used to disdain them for their lack of depth. It had seemed to me that someone who was really interested in getting to know me would be able to come up with something better than that kind of small talk. But I don’t feel this way anymore.

No, I’ve now come to appreciate these icebreaker-style questions, and maybe it’s even because of their inherent triviality. Because as limiting as they might seem, these questions are an important and necessary beginning, a way of setting the stage or, at the very least, establishing communication.

The way I respond when someone asks me What’s new?, for instance, can vary by leaps and bounds depending on who it is. If it’s someone I’d rather not talk to, I have the opportunity to cut my answer short with a “Not much,” or a “Sorry — gotta go.” But if it’s someone I care about, or someone I’d like to know better, there’s a great deal I can do with a What’s new?. I can talk about how recent events have both shaped and shaken my outlook on the world, or about the myriad of ways in which the book I just finished reading has inspired a new line of thinking in my work, or about the beautiful exhibit I just attended and the extent to which it has refuelled my soul.

That, I think, is what the Proust Questionnaire is getting at, this potential for an unsuspectingly deep jumping-off point, and it may even be what Proust himself was getting at when he said that these questions reveal our true selves. Because, to be sure, the questions which would have originally filled those questionnaires back in the 19th Century weren’t particularly profound. But that was what made them so effective.

The questions were so simple — and so open-ended — that the way in which a participant chose to respond really did have the potential to reveal a great deal about who they were. But doesn’t precisely this same process take place whenever we ask someone where they’re from, or to tell us more about what they do?


Waving from my desk,
– J


This piece comes from Jana Marie’s newsletter, The Sunday Letters. You can sign up to receive future editions below.