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April 09, 2007

In Defense of the Long Answer

Kelly's columns appear with permission from The Hills Newspaper Group.

My husband, Edward, recently told me, in the kindest possible way, that he thinks I “go on” a bit. For instance, when people (by people, I mean people we socialize with, a.k.a. friends) ask me how my book is coming, he thinks they’re looking for something simple, like “good.” When I say, “Well, I handed in a rewrite last week and the editors were happy with it so next week, it goes to copyediting and I’ll get it back in about a month for one more round of changes,” he suspects that may be more than they wanted.

When I pressed him (“But they asked!”), he said it was probably different for everyone but that if he were me, he’d err on the side of too little information (TLI), not too much (TMI). But if we all err on the side of TLI--if everyone’s answer to everything is “good”--it’s gonna be a pretty dull garden party. On the flip side, the possibility that I am verbally overstaying my welcome makes me cringe.

For the record, unless I’m running to the bathroom or standing in the rain, there isn’t anything I’d rather do that hear about the new client you just signed or how your mother-in-law offended you by organizing your daughter’s closet or the NPR story about faith and science that kept you up last night. I’m hoping you’ll give me a paragraph or two, not a word.

Beyond the facts of your life, I’d also like to know what you believe in--who you voted for, if you go to church, where you stand on gay marriage. Oh, and I’d like to know the last time you yelled so loud it hurt your throat. I’m not judging, by the way. I’m calibrating. I know enough to draw the line at money and sex. [However, thanks to a few confidantes, I have a couple key data points on both topics that have served me well over the years.]

I’ve always felt self-conscious about my curiosity, perhaps because my mother and her generation esteem privacy so. (When my mom saw the movie “The Queen,” she called on the way home from the theater to say, “That’s precisely how I feel about things. Some things aren’t meant to be discussed.”)

And also, I have been teased. (Yes, reader, teased!) And we all know that teasing is just a clever, sometimes graceful way to reset the conversation. So when people say, “Kelly, TMI!” I know to pull back and start talking about season six of American Idol.

But then, about once a month I get the housewives’ equivalent of a Kindergarten “All About ME” session--a set of questions in an email that I am supposed to answer and then “Forward to 10 great women!!!!” The questions range from the banal “What is your favorite cereal?” to the traumatizing “How do you know that you are turning into your mother?” What is clear from all of them is that needs are going unmet. Those emails are begging for more sharing!

If that wasn’t enough, Barnes and Noble dedicates considerable retail space to books of questions and games like Scruples or Table Topics, which is a box of cards that have questions on each side. My friend Beth keeps the deck on her kitchen table. Last week, over turkey burgers and beans, I pulled: What is your greatest regret? Each person answered and I left that night feeling connected in new ways to a friend I’ve had for a couple years now. (Mine was a broad-shouldered Lambda Chi back in ‘87, if you must know.)

By definition, sharing is the joint use of a resource and the resource I want more of is life experience. My limits are more clear to me than ever. Your trip to Africa, your front row seats to James Taylor, your meeting with the head of the NBA may be the closest I ever come to any of those things. So please, go on a bit.

My PhD-friend, Christine, refers to sharing as “reciprocal disclosure” and can prove to you through social science that it is the stuff friendships are made of. Moreover, Christine says that 50 years of studies confirm that happiness comes from “meaningful social connections.” So, if you’re looking for those, if you’re looking for happiness, it’s time to say more than “good.”

There you have it: an air-tight defense of the long answer. Sorry, Edward.