Maintaining your balance… by asking silly questions

Coffee with a funny face enclosed in a heart drawn on the foam

Image cc license from Flickr user s_w_ellis (

Have you ever had that realization that, when asked “How are you doing?”, the only responses you can think of are how much progress you made on a project this week or how far along you are in writing the latest draft of your dissertation or major paper?  If yes, has this been followed by the revelation that your ability to talk about all other subjects has become rusty from disuse?

The other day, a friend was explaining to me how, while out on a date night with her husband, she came to the uncomfortable realization that she had very little to talk about that didn’t involve her children, what they were learning, what they’d done that day, or something funny the oldest child had said over lunch.   I can appreciate the feeling — there have been moments when I realized that all I could think to talk about are the queries I received that day, how low morale has sunk at the office, and my plans to revamp the library system when I win the lottery. Botheration, I’d think, I’ve become boring and I no longer have anything interesting to say.

However, when I got together with my friend recently, we spent only scant minutes talking about her children and my work. Sure, we talked about our current frustrations, joys, and concerns that are tied to the two subjects, but we also talked about all the movies we wanted to see but had somehow missed when they came out in the theatres and the books we had on our to-buy list that we were going to snatch up the minute the next paycheck came in. Similarly, when I met up with colleagues in a social setting over the weekend, we only talked about work for a small fraction of the afternoon. We were too busy discussing our in-laws, iPads, hacking and computer security, food and wine.  Some of us talked about how we wished we had more time to garden, while others bashfully admitted that they did not enjoy gardening at all and wished someone else would take care of everything.  We proved that we could actually talk about topics that were interesting, but weren’t related to those subjects that seem to occupy every spare inch of our brains so much of the time.

This got me thinking — how do we make this happen with greater frequency? How do we find other subjects to talk about when we are preoccupied with more urgent matters?  I am still developing an answer to these questions, but here is the method I have divined so far:

Step 1. With a friend, colleague, or fellow student, find a coffee shop or café.

Step 2. Order something to drink. Hot or cold, alcoholic or non-alcoholic, it doesn’t seem to matter what you drink so long as you order something. I like ordering tea because of the ceremony it involves — steeping the tea, adding the cream, stirring in the sugar so it doesn’t all stick to the bottom of the cup and create a syrupy goo.

Step 3. Introduce a subject that is as unrelated to your work or studies as possible. For most people, these questions could include, “If money were no object, what area of the world or monument would you visit first?”, “Who would win in a head-to-head battle: a zombie or a unicorn?”, “What do you think happened after the final scene in *insert name of movie or book here*?”, “Why does Superman wear his underwear on the outside of his clothing?” “How do you choose your lottery ticket numbers?”

The exact question is just as unimportant as your beverage choice.  The point is to make each other laugh or smile and enjoy a flight of fancy, even if just for a few moments, and prove, if only to yourself, that you haven’t forgotten what it’s like to have a normal conversation with another person. In our working and studying lives, we try to keep abreast of the latest developments and keep our skills sharpened and honed;  I would posit that it is equally important to try and maintain our connections to our other interests, as they help us stay well-rounded and balanced.

By the way, I’d go to Petra, I’d bet on the unicorn, I don’t understand Superman, and I don’t have a method for choosing my lottery numbers. How about you?


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