There is one question that haunts my dreams. One question that I have tried to master my entire life, but still find myself quaking in its presence. This question rattles me to my core, it can make me reconsider absolutely everything in my life, and can even make me want to stand up from a conversation and run all the way home.
This question is: What’s new?
Meant as a breezy conversation starter and a ticket to deeper connection, to me this question often feels more like a challenge. It asks, “what have you been doing with your time since I last saw you—I hope it’s impressive!”
I once had someone say, “So, what’s new? And DON’T say nothing.”
In one sense, I understand what they meant. If I say, “nothing”, or its neighbor, “not much, how about you?” the conversation takes on a staleness that is hard to break out of. It’s polite and awkward and feels more like playing a robotic game of catch rather than a leisurely round of catch up. I get that, and if I was the one starting the game of “what’s new”, a reply of “nothing” would discourage me too.
But then, this seemingly simple question also makes me feel very nervous. It asks too much of me without really asking anything at all. When asked, even by a close friend or family member I’ve known my whole life, I feel like I’m suddenly on stage in front of thousands of people, with a hot spotlight shining bright on my face. I feel like the question asks me to prove that I’m living a meaningful life, that I’m being productive, that I’m successful, that I am worth the time this person is spending with me.
The question bounces around in my brain, searching, begging my memory banks to pull something from the last few weeks or months—anything I can tell them that might make them say, “wow!” or “that’s exciting!”
I look for a story or a big life event or a punchline that can kick off the conversation and make them glad they decided to talk to me.
But most of the time, unless I have something specific at the ready, my honest answer will be “nothing.” Not because I have been standing stationary, eating nothing but beans since the last time I saw them—though this would probably make for an interesting story—but because I get so nervous that my answer will be unimpressive or boring, that I can’t think of a single thing.
The truth is, I usually have a lot to say. And I want to open up and share those things, but it just takes me a minute. My mind has to survey the situation, seeing if it feels safe enough for me to let the walls down and let you in on everything—to really tell you what’s new. But chances are, a lot of “what’s new” is completely internal. Maybe I’ve learned something about myself, or untied a knot that held me hostage for a long time. Maybe I did a workout the other day that gave me the slightest bit more confidence in my body, or just started working on a creative project that I’m really excited about. Maybe I’ve been harping on something I don’t know how to express yet, or I had a dream that has puzzled me since the morning I woke up with it fresh in my mind. Maybe I’ve just been going about my routine, content as ever, but am worried that is not exciting enough to tell you.
I have never been good at conversational shortcuts. People who can sit down and immediately tell you what’s on their mind have always amazed me. Because I need time. I need to take the long way. I need you to do the heavy lifting while my brain boots up and prepares all of the funny or inspiring moments I might have experienced since the last time I saw you. I want time to remember all of the interesting anecdotes I’ve recently learned from podcasts, articles, movies, tv shows and books. I want time to recall the questions I have for you, that will perhaps invite us into the deeper conversation we’re both hoping for.
I know I can’t stop people from asking “what’s new?” And honestly, I’m not trying to. I understand it’s purpose in the conversation universe, and I understand that much of my distaste for it stems from my own insecurities. At the end of the day, we all have a lot of “new” because we’ve all woken up each morning and experienced day after day, with countless thoughts, ideas, hopes, desires, heartbreaks, frustrations and delights. Sometimes it’s just hard to recall them in a few seconds, after a two-word question, when it feels like the fate of a conversation is in your hands. You know?
So this week, as we walk into the holday season, maybe we all just give each other a little time. Ask the question but maybe follow it up with something more specific, like “what was the best part of your week?” or “have you read/watched/eaten anything good lately?” or “what’s something you’re excited about?” Something that might spark a memory in the other person rather than leave them floundering in their mind, wondering if they’re doing anything with their life.
Give conversations room to take the long way around. It’s not always easy, but it’s always worth it.