That Question

The other evening, some colleagues and I were having dinner with some higher-ups who’d come from back East to our office for a visit. My boss, who must have been a game show host in a former life, was doing his usual bang-up job of keeping the conversation going.

“It’s really fascinating, the things our staff members like to do in their free time,” my boss noted. Let’s everyone say something about what they like to do. Julia?” he gestured to me from across the table. “You go first.”

I knew what he expected me to say. What’s more, I knew that if I didn’t discuss knitting as my passion, he’d only goad me into it. I replied, “I’m a knitter,” trying to sound as enthusiastic as I could about being forced to share this factoid with the visiting Alpha Male.

“You’re a what?” asked Alpha Male. His expression was incredulous, as if I’d slipped into some foreign language that he couldn’t understand.

“I knit,” I replied, being careful to enunciate, without over-doing it. This conversation was going exactly where I expected it to, sadly. I was about to remark about my other hobbies — things that might actually spark Alpha Male’s interest — when my boss chimed in.

“Tell him what you’re doing this weekend!” my boss implored. Now, given Alpha Male’s reaction to the knitting thing, this was definitely not where I would have directed the conversation, if it had been left up to me. My boss knew that I was going to the regional alpaca show this weekend, and that I was super-excited about it. We know these things about each other in my office. My office is like a family — dysfunctional at times, but by and large, we celebrate each other’s interests outside of work.

I looked at Alpha Male. “I’m going to an alpaca show,” I stated matter-of-factly. I was careful to not sound apologetic about it. I decided some time ago that if others had some sort of issue with my knitting as a hobby, that problem was with them, not me. I’m neither apologetic nor defensive about it, but I tend to not go on and on about it unless I’ve found a kindred spirit.

“A what?” Alpha Male responded. This time, I could detect a slight patronizing expression on his face, which he quickly adjusted. I might as well have been speaking ancient Greek. This conversation was at a dead end. Others at the table who had been involved in side chatter, were beginning to take note.

“It’s a show put on by local alpaca ranchers featuring alpacas, and that has fibers and yarns and demonstrations and such,” I replied. Then, I changed the subject. “My family is really involved in Scouts,” I offered, hoping that this would give us something else to talk about, or that someone else might chime in with a hobby Alpha Male could relate to. “I’ve got one son who’s an Eagle Scout and another pretty close,” I continued optmistically.

At that, Alpha Male looked relieved, like I’d slipped back into English. “Oh, I understand that’s something that requires a lot of parental commitment,” he said. I agreed, and the conversation moved to other people and other hobbies.

With the attention diverted from me, I sat back, took a sip of beer, and thought about how I wished this conversation had gone, and how I directed other, similar inquiries in a somewhat different direction.

I’m asked That Question on a fairly regular basis: “So, what do you like to do in your spare time?” In my mind, though, I tend to see past the question to what the questioner really wants to know: “What sorts of things do we have in common?” I’m always searching for that common ground, too. I find that I wind up having two kinds of conversations: maker-centric and non maker-centric, depending on the interests of the other person.

Just how I answer That Question depends on the inquirer. If I think the questioner is a maker, or perhaps loves one, I’ll put knitting front and center: “Oh, my biggest passion is knitting, and I do lots of other things, too, like Scouts, gardening, and food preservation.” Typically, one of those things will trigger a good conversation with a maker or someone who values us. We find that commonality.

Before we went to dinner the other night, I’d studied up on Alpha Male, and was pretty darn sure that he wasn’t a maker. We are roughly the same age and are on (ahem) rather different career tracks. Alpha Male was at the top of his classes in undergraduate and law schools. For my part, I had respectable, if unremarkable, grades. Alpha Male has had a high-powered, consuming career. I chose a path that was interesting and fulfilling to me, but which allows ample time for me to pursue my outside interests. I get the feeling that when Alpha Male isn’t doing something high-powered and legalish, he’s exercising himself half to death. He’s a little intense.

So, chatting about knitting with Alpha Male wasn’t high on my list of get-to-know-you conversation topics. Instead, had I been posed That Question and not been goaded into discussing knitting, I’d probably have said something like, “My family loves the outdoors here, so we’ve been very involved with Scouts. I also like to Nordic walk, go to the gym, read, garden, and knit.” When I phrase my hobbies like that, it’s often a good segueway into a discussion about Scouts, hiking, or the last books we’ve read. Someone might pick up on the knitting angle, but if not, that’s fine, too. It’s about finding that commonality.

As for Alpha Male and me, we never did find that commonality. I suppose that’s going to happen, sometimes. Perhaps we’ll have another opportunity at some later date to discover that connection.

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