How ya doin? No, really, how are ya doin?

By Emran Hossain

“Ask questions to start a conversation.”

“Ask an open-ended question.”

These simple quotes summarize some of what I have learned about how to dig into American culture in the first month of my stay in Washington, D.C.  

Questions definitely provide the most effective way to learn. Asking the right questions also makes a difference for journalists. Every culture, however, has its own way to make inquiries. Americans, besides their straight-forward questions, sometimes do the perplexing “tag” ask – they make a seeming statement of fact, then tag a questioning phrase at the end (“You detest complex sentences, don’t you?”)   

To my ear, Americans are obsessed about asking questions. Are they curious to a fault?

Perhaps they quiz each other so much because they select their leaders in democratic fashion, including with debates in which the rivals explain their positions in response to specific questions. Their fondness for questions and questioning, perhaps, shows through in their love of all kinds of polls. 

Or, maybe, for Americans, this is merely a technique adopted to deal with their extreme sense of privacy. If Americans answer your questions, maybe they feel they’ve allowed someone to crack their prized privacy. You’ve gotten a glimpse of their inner thoughts and feelings.

Or, perhaps in a hectic society where everybody runs and runs and obsesses about the ticking of the clock, simple questions offer a way to save  time, to keep conversations sort of informative but short, confined and to the point.

But what if you’re unwilling to answer? What if you don’t have time to answer at all? And what happens in conversation when a question gets asked wrongly? 

It is simple. Conversation all too often, it seems to me, just doesn’t occur. Many of the people I see zipping around the nation’s capital don’t take the risk of talking with strangers – or friends. In their free time, instead, I see people all around me immersed all the time in something – young people with their smartphones or iPads, their elders with heads stuck in books or papers. Just look at how many people have their ears plugged with headphones or stereo buds.

If Washingtonians do make rare eye contact, they take shelter in the easiest question: “How are you doing?”

And then they move on, mostly, without even waiting for an answer. And so, without any back and forth, there are no questions, answers, dialogue or conversation.  

“How are you doing?”

I’m embarrassed almost daily with this question. While I hunt for a good answer, especially in the hopes of starting a good conversation, the people who ask me rarely wait for an answer before they race on. I ask back, “How are you doing?” and am chagrined, waiting and waiting for them to answer.

We Bangladeshis ask a lot of questions, too. Not just for the sake of a conversation but for the sake of an answer. We can share our thoughts for hours without relying much on prompting questions. Why is this seemingly so different for Americans?