There’s a quote attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt that I’ve always loved: “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” Short and simple, the saying reminds us that gossip is neither intelligent nor creative and that we ought to aim higher in conversations with family and friends. Enough said!
But I can’t help but think that if Mrs. Roosevelt were alive in 2020, she’d have to tack on an addendum: “All minds discuss coronavirus.”
Because I’ve moved around a lot in the course of my life, I have a fairly diverse group of friends, family members, and acquaintances from Republicans to Democratic Socialists, Orthodox Jews to atheists, people who have barely left their home state to those who have visited every continent. Thanks to this diversity, my conversations ordinarily run the gamut of topics, but lately I’ve had the feeling that, no matter who I am talking to, we’re discussing coronavirus.
It’s understandable. As this global pandemic shakes nearly all aspects of our present experience, of course we want and need to discuss its details. But I had the realization a few weeks ago that not only was the near-constant processing, speculating, and lamenting of our current reality provoking anxiety, it was also boring me. There isn’t really a more profound way to put it: I’m tired of talking about coronavirus.
So, I decided to return to my three favorite conversation starters during upcoming Zoom sessions, Google Hangouts, and phone calls, and I’ve been rewarded for my efforts. If you’re looking for both laughter and deeper connection with loved ones, (or just a break from coronavirus conversation) try asking these three questions:
What rabbit holes do you always go down?
Given how well I think I know my family and friends, it has shocked and delighted me to realize how surprised I am to learn what random topics fascinate them. For instance, one friend relaxes by watching YouTube videos of people trying on ballet shoes while another loves reading random lists such as “15 neighbors who definitely make life more interesting.” The answers that I receive to this question remind me that not only do I have unique and curious friends, but also that the internet contains an unfathomable breadth of absorbing content.
What’s your “controversial opinion?”
I’ll start with mine: I don’t like Disney World. I rarely disclose my failure to feel the magic not only because I fear seeming like Oscar the Grouch, but also because I don’t want to offend people who feel differently than me. After all, there’s something insulting about a person disliking your likes, and hey, hurting the feelings of my loved ones isn’t my prerogative. But I think that my tendency to bite my tongue is precisely why I so appreciate this question. It opens the door, in a safe and light way, to hearing typically non-expressed thoughts and feelings of the people in my life.
For example, I learned that one of my friends would consider getting plastic surgery, and that another mixes her lights and darks in the laundry (controversial opinions can be trivial, too!). I will be the first to say that it’s really hard to answer this question, but summoning the vulnerability to share honestly and listen to answers openly has fostered a deeper connection with everyone to whom I’ve posed this conversation starter so far.
If you could get paid to do anything, what would it be?
A twist on the old classic “what’s your dream job,” this question reveals a couple of things, including how the people in our lives are likely already spending a chunk of their time, what they enjoy doing, and where they consider themselves particularly skilled. When I ask this question, I’m rarely surprised by the answers, and that in itself is comforting. One friend said that she’d appreciate compensation for offering “not so by the book” baby tips, and another would like to be paid to write quippy tweets from her couch. The fact that I could see both of my friends thriving in these non-jobs was an affirmation of our understanding of each other. It’s also just plain fun: Who doesn’t like to dream about a world in which we could pay the bills by petting dogs?!
No matter what’s going on in the world, it is always a good time to learn more about the people who matter most to us, and getting a break from discussing topics that cause stress and boredom is an added perk. These questions have done the trick for me.