The Coffee Ring: November 2014

Q: What is my “foot secret?”

A: Yeah. That’s right. What’s your foot secret? Everybody’s got one.

Q: Huh?

A: Okay. Let’s start at the beginning.

We’d been talking about having a Well Done Marketing book club. We were psyched. We could come up with a cool book club name, like The Coffee Ring. We could have that name and a logo put on the back of bomber jackets (still in the works). We could drink a lot more coffee than we ordinarily do and get donuts from the Great American Donut Company. Oh. And read the book. We were absolutely psyched about that part, too. Seriously.

Q: What book did you read?

A: It’s so funny that you should put that in the form of a question. Because the book we read was all about questions, and why we should ask more of them.

Q: Are you seriously going to keep making me ask these questions?

A: No. You can stop for a while. Otherwise, we might start to annoy our readers.

For our first book, we chose How Did You End Up Here? The Surprising Ways Our Questions Connect Us, by Davy Rothbart. He’s an author, obviously, but also a This American Life contributor, editor of Found magazine, and the emcee of last year’s TEDxIndianapolis. In 2012, just before embarking on a 79-city Found Magazine anniversary tour, Rothbart was visiting his father in Michigan and happened to notice how the elder Rothbart would befriend strangers “simply by asking them questions about who they were and what made them tick.” He decided to incorporate the practice into the upcoming tour and meet a stranger at every stop. On stage. In front of the audience.

In order to do this, he needed questions. So he solicited those from the audience, passing out tabs of paper and having people fill them out ahead of time. For the book, Rothbart arranges the different questions he collected by theme. “What’s your name?” (or variations on this). “How are you, really?” (or variations on this). And so on.

There’s more to the book than just a list of questions, but not a lot more. Rothbart expands a bit on how each type of question uncovers an aspect of the answerer’s personality and helps to form a connection. In many ways, the book is kind of a conversation starter. Which made it the perfect choice for a book club in which we actually planned to talk about the book (as opposed to using it as an excuse to eat donuts).

Q: So you did actually talk about the book?

A: Boy, did we. A lot of us around the table had experienced anxiety around talking to strangers, and we were interested in the idea of having this “toolkit of questions.” Those who had started using the questions had a wide variety of experiences. They’d gotten some illuminating, if brief, insights. They’d gotten some weird looks, or awkward responses. Or they found out more than they might have wanted to know. For example when someone’s bartender at a hotel in Mexico revealed himself to be a Nazi sympathizer.

Q: Who knew there were Mexican Nazis?

A: Not us. That’s for sure.

Nazis aside, one of the advantages to expanding your repertoire of questions seems to be that you can get beyond the polite chit-chat to things that actually matter to a person. Not just “what do you do?” but “how do you feel about what you do?” or “what does a person who does what you do…actually do?” You could find out how people “ended up here” (either in the sense of “in this time and place,” or in a more philosophical or metaphorical sense). You could find out the best story they know. What makes them happy or sad. You could find out their foot secret.

Q: What is a foot secret?

A: That’s a good question. Rothbart himself says he’d never heard of a foot secret, but after hearing the question, he realized he had not just one but two. An unexpected question can provide a leap to another level of conversation, one that nobody, even the questioner, has been expecting. In this way, the simple act of meeting a stranger can be an adventure, an opportunity, even the start of a friendship. Which is a powerful thing.

Q: Okay. So what is your foot secret?

A: I am in possession of…one of Abe Vigoda’s toes

Q: But Abe Vigoda is still alive. Right?

A: I dunno. Is he?

 

 

Davy Rothbart photo by Dorothy Gotlib (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ADavyRothbart.jpg) via Wikimedia Commons.

Feet photo (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ATribute_money_18.jpg) via Wikimedia Commons.

Abe Vigoda photo by ABC Television (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAbe_Vigoda_Fish_Barney_Miller_1977.JPG) via Wikimedia Commons.