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Conversations That Barely Scratch The Itch to Know

By Henry Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 2, 2000; Page C01

It sounds like mystic wisdom of the Himalayas, the kind of paradox you find in little books sold next to the cash register, but it's the plain fact of meeting people: What you can ask, you don't want to know. What you most want to know about them, you can't ask.

Like: How much money do you have? How old are you? Are you pregnant?

You're at the "Howdy, Pardner" poolside party at the sales convention: Some guy is telling you how bad the traffic is back on Long Island, how great some movie he rented is--and you're checking out the drape of the eyelids, the hand gestures: Italian? Maybe Jewish?

You're not supposed to think this way--it's offensive, politically incorrect. You're supposed to talk only about the things you have in common, not the things that set you apart. But--so boring.

If only people still introduced themselves with their last names. Why doesn't he just make some crack about his Jewish mother or what Italian cooking does to his waistline? He must know you want to know because he's sizing you up. But if that's true, why don't you tell him you're a French Canadian from Rhode Island, your wife's a neurosurgeon making big money and you're 41?

Because you don't want to. Because it would sound like you were either bragging or confessing. Because you don't want him tagging you as that French Canadian guy with the rich wife. But that's the stuff you both want to know about each other.

Actually, you want to know it about him, but don't want him to know it about you. That way, you get an edge on him. Knowledge is power--it's like people around the world who get hold of your hair clippings and use them to put a hex on you. Voodoo. Or like car salesmen "qualifying" you, they call it--You need a car for business or pleasure? Ah, commuting--both of you? Where from? Oh, that's nice out there, you got one of those new houses I see going up?

Suddenly you feel he's got a handle on you, an edge.

Anyway, you're standing there by the pool with the guacamole and the tiki torches and you think: Maybe Iranian.

You feel ashamed of yourself, you're snooping. What the hell, he's snooping, too, with that question about the schools where you live, so he'll get stuff on the wife, maybe find out you're Catholic if your kids are in parochial school. Next he'll be asking where you went to college, which sets up the age move: "Yeah? What year? I play golf with a guy who went there."

You decide to cement the relationship with a full introduction, both of your names this time. He does the same.

You head for the bar. Was that Capezio or Shapiro? You should have asked for a business card. And that no-color color of his hair--was that Grecian Formula?

After all the openness, intimacy, sharing, frankness, multiculturalism, ethnic pride, confessing, confronting and gotta-be-me self-esteem we've practiced ever since the '60s, we're still living in a Henry James novel.

So many questions, so few answers. You have them everywhere, male and female:

What social class do you belong to? Are you adopted? Are you planning to have children? Are you not looking at my breasts on purpose, or are you just not looking at them?

You may argue that these questions are unaskable simply because they're too personal. Why, then, is it so hard to say "No" when someone says, "May I ask a personal question?"

More often than not, lately, the personal question is actually evangelical: "Have you taken the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal savior?"

Anyway, after all the TV where you watch guests discuss their Mafia hits, sexual acrobatics, spouse betrayals, liposuctions, animal sacrifices; after putting your age, marital status, household size, race and country of origin on any number of Census documents, jury selection forms and product guarantee cards; after learning that anyone can get on the Internet and find out that you're a single-parent Hyundai owner who subscribes to Leather 'n' Lather magazine, for people who have sex in bubble baths while wearing motorcycle gear; after all this, you can't interrupt small talk about how the best thing on television is the ads, and how horrible leaf blowers are, and ask, "How old are you?"

"I think she's older than he is," says the husband, after the party.

"She's got very young children," says the wife. "But I think they're from an earlier marriage."

"I don't think they're married. I think he's just a friend," the husband says.

"That's why they drove up in a car with out-of-state plates," the wife says.

"I kept getting this very slight gay vibe from him."

"I know what you mean, but I don't think so. More like an ex-priest vibe," the wife says. "You know how priests sometimes look a lot younger than they are, especially the Episcopalians?"

"Then they wouldn't be married. Her name is Ginsberg."

"That might have been her ex-husband's name," the wife says.

"Maybe the ex-priest is an ex-rabbi," the husband says. "Funny, he doesn't look Jewish."

"Or gay, in my opinion."

"Maybe he converted."

"From what to what?"

So many questions:

Are all your children by the same father? Did you have a nose job? What did you get on your SAT?

Meanwhile you're talking about the virtues of cable vs. dish, and does anybody really like driving a minivan?

You can't pay attention, you're so busy studying the accent, pricing the shoes and looking for plastic-surgery scars. It's like when you've got "The X-Files" on, and you realize that Scully hardly ever closes her lips when she talks, and pretty soon you're just watching her lips and you don't hear what she's saying.

Sex how many times a week? Any chance she'll have it with me? Tonight? Right now?

It's strange: You can never go wrong asking a woman if she's from California, but you can frequently go wrong asking her if she's from New Jersey.

If you're with the famous and powerful, you're afraid to talk to anyone for fear of not knowing who they are.

"What do you do for a living?"

"I'm an actor," says the kid who just introduced himself as "Leonardo DiCaprio."

You'll remember that moment for the rest of your life and visibly wince every time, prompting companions to ask if anything's wrong.

No, just an old root canal flaring up, you'll say.

You can't admit you wince at embarrassing memories. You can't ask if anyone else does either. (How embarrassing to even think about. Doesn't this whole subject make you a little uncomfortable? You don't have to answer that.)

The English learn much of what they want to know from accents. Koreans learn a lot from hearing which of six verb conjugations is used to address which person. And we have our rituals of inquiry into peer groups.

So much can be discovered with the "who-do-you-know" ritual. First, establish where the person grew up, went to school or spent summer vacations. Then:

"I had a lot of family used to live one town over . . ."

"My grandmother was the first woman principal there . . ."

"I used to visit my roommate right down the coast . . ."

The response: "What name? Hemsath? Any relation to Duncan Hemsath? And his sister Maggie? I can't believe this, I was in 'Our Town' with her in high school."

Old-line WASPs probing for class and money ask each other where they go in the summer, after they've checked out accent, sweaters and dullness of jewelry.

Phrasing is important.

"Where do you summer?" implies that the questioner summers in a big old New England shingle house with lots of porches, a weedy tennis court and a beloved old sailboat. And thinks you do, too. Or is one-upping you.

"Where do you go in the summer?" implies the questioner visits the cousins who own the big old house.

Perhaps you say you don't care, that these questions are vulgar trivialities obscuring our essential humanity. If so, you are lying. These trivialities mean everything to you and you know it. If by some weird semi-psycho chance they don't, you don't like people very much, and they certainly don't like you. You can tell--they never try to find out anything about your love life, your money, your class . . .

 
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