Asking the “second question”

In every conversation, the first question is a simple connecting question.

“What’s your name?”

“How’s it going?”

“What’s up?”

“Nice day today, isn’t it?”

“How about those [insert sports team name]?”

There’s not a lot of demand from first questions. They hardly probe at all. Their purpose is to create a simple, basic connection and to alleviate awkwardness.

Occasionally, I come across someone who is a natural at asking what I call the “second question.” Most of the time, we avoid the second question and merely skim across the surface. But the second question is a diving into the deep end kind of question. It assumes life is too short to live on the surface and takes the plunge.

A friend of mine talks about the mileage his father gets off of his favorite second question: “So, how are you really doing?”

He’s amazed by how many Starbucks baristas and airline passengers and other incidental connections end up pouring out their souls based on that second question alone.

Why is that?

We live in a culture that lives on the surface. Our cosmetic fixation has only increased with time. We long to be known for who we are, but we don’t know how to reveal it, because we’ve been told to pretty it all up. So, we’ve become experts at editing how we present our lives to others. If people’s Facebook feeds were a true representation of their lives, we’d be the happiest nation in history.

The United States has been referred to as 3,000 miles wide and an inch deep. Culturally, that’s true. But personally, many of us are sinking in our depths.

Too often, we’re satisfied with the answers we get from our first questions.

A: “How’re you doing?”

B: “Great!”

A: “That’s awesome!”

B: “How’re you doing?”

A: “I’m doing pretty good.”

B: “Cool.”

Our stock responses to first questions give the impression that we’re not interested in revealing how we’re really doing. When you say, “Great!” to my question of how you’re doing, it takes some guts (not a lot, but some) to question your answer. “How are you really doing?” sounds invasive and contrary, focused on the negative and ignoring the positive. But the reality is it’s not.

The truth is we’re all just one good question away from pouring out our souls. And so the questions we have to ask ourselves are: Do I really care about other people? Do I really want to know what’s going on with them or am I satisfied with their surface answers? And do I have that combination of love and courage to ask a real second question?