Ask A Human
TAoN No. 80: Building a library of curious conversation. Plus a new Missing Word, and more
Apologies in advance if this issue feels rushed or rickety; the Substack CMS mysteriously ate the original version when I was about two-thirds done, and I had to rewrite the whole thing from scratch. :/
Thanks again to everyone who attended the online TAoN event last week. I will definitely have more to say about curiosity as the research continues — and in some cases builds on tips and feedback from you all. I particularly enjoyed the Q&A segment, really good questions. Further comments on that event (and thoughts on future ones?) are still welcome. email@example.com or:
In the short term I’d like to recommend three concise posts from Austin Kleon (one of which I think is responsible for a lot of new subscribers: welcome!). This one on ignorance & curiosity that I cited in the talk; this one following up, and including the very pleasing drawing above (thanks Austin!); and this one following the ignorance & curiosity theme one more beat. Which is what I’m about to do, too. So onward!
Conversations Are Books; Build A Library
The element of the talk that seemed to resonate most was the assertion that while curiosity often gets treated as sort of cool add-on behavior that we engage in when circumstances allow, it’s actually vital in day-to-day ways. In short: curiosity is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.
In particular I’m currently interested in what that means in terms of “social curiosity” — one of the five dimensions of curiosity described by psychology professor Todd Kashdan. (Thanks for that handy summary link, Steve Portigal.) Basically this means actively checking in or attending to other people, what they’re thinking, what they know, whether you’re connecting as well as you assume, etc. Two interviews I happened to listen to recently add up to a useful way of thinking about why this is so important.
The first was this On Being conversation with author Jason Reynolds, from 2020. Much of Reynolds’ work revolves around, as he puts it, trying to “activate” the imaginations of young people. Here’s part of what he said:
“How does one keep an imagination fresh in a world that works double-time to suck it away? … I think that the answer is, one must live a curious life. One must have stacks and stacks and stacks of books on the inside of their bodies. And those books don’t have to be the things that you’ve read. I mean, that’s good, too, but those books could be the conversations that you’ve had with your friends that are unlike the conversations you were having last week.”
Clearly I love every word of that, but I’m particularly smitten with his way of thinking about “books” — and including conversations you have that are unlike the ones you had last week. I like recognizing that value.
I think that value is even more apparent when you consider how much time we seem to spend avoiding having conversations. Or at least that’s what struck me from this separate, recent interview, on The Ezra Klein Show, with L.M. Sacasas. Talking about how technology has changed our behavior, Klein brings up an example — “how many conversations with other people I do not have, because of search engines.” He continues:
“How many times when my map of knowledge to fill something in would simply require, and did require when I was younger, just asking. Do you know… ? What do you think? Where should I go to dinner? Do you know this person’s phone number? Have you heard of … ? Do you remember that president? Do you know when this happened?“
Now, of course, we reframe those questions for Google. And Klein acknowledges that we can get more “precise” information from a search engine. But we also lose things: additional context and nuance, and relationship building. In other words, we miss the opportunity for those “book”-like conversations that Reynolds is talking about. And so:
The prompt: Instead of using a search engine to circumvent the need for a conversation, have the conversation. Ask someone; call someone. See where it goes.
Now, one should obviously be reasonable about this. Nobody is suggesting you ring up a long-lost friend and ask her to tell you the population of Latvia. But maybe try to be just a little more socially curious — even if that means being a little less efficient.
In the On Being interview, Reynolds returned to his idea of acquired and collected knowledge beyond books, and recalled someone at a lecture telling him that in Senegal, when a community elder dies, “they say that a library has burned.” I have not fact-checked that, but the point is that this notion of a human library of information, built from personal curiosity, is clearly an important one to Reynolds. So one last quote from him:
“Just step out of your neighborhood. Just talk to somebody different, because we underestimate what this does for the mind. … We underestimate what it does for the imagination. And as long as those imaginations are firing off, then [our] libraries will continue to be filled.”
Dictionary of Missing Words is an exercise in paying attention to phenomena you encounter — sensations, concepts, states between states, feelings, slippery things — that could be named, but don’t seem to be. More here and here.
This week’s missing word is from reader Ann Booth, from the comments:
The feeling you have when hearing the garbage truck outside and you haven't put the garbage can at the curb yet . . . .
I like this one because it’s so everyday, but also because there are so many relatable variations on it: that moment of knowing you just missed it.
What else should we add to The Dictionary of Missing Words? Leave your suggestion — or respond to this one — in the comments.
Next week: a new icebreaker. (The Dictionary of Missing Words series now alternates with Icebreaker of the Week, and Something to Notice.)
—> I’m taking next week off! <—
TAoN No. 81 will be Monday August 23
But this week, in Thursday’s email for paid subscribers, the return of the Summer School series: ideas about taking walks when you’re sick of taking walks.
Reminder: If you really want to get the paid-subscriber posts but it’s truly not in your budget, please reach out and let’s see what we can sort. firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m especially happy to help out educators. And anyway, asking is definitely more effective than whatever this person was trying to achieve by signing up with this email:
Sheesh. Obviously I greatly appreciate the paid subscribers who make this enterprise possible; I also really appreciate those of you who just want the free version. I try hard to make it valuable.
In Other News
The lagniappe section of the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Weekly Briefing newsletter includes a nice shout-out to the TAoN icebreaker series: “If you need a new icebreaker for the first day of class or for a team meeting, here is a treasure trove.”
Really useful NYT/DealBook look at whether the hybrid office will leave remote workers behind, by Sarah Kessler.
Okay that’s it!
As always, I value your feedback (suggestions, critiques, positive reinforcement, constructive insults, etc.), as well as your tips or stories or personal noticing rituals, things we need a word for, and of course your icebreakers: email@example.com. Or use the comments!
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And thanks for reading …
All this by Rob Walker PO Box 171, 748 Mehle St., Arabi LA 70032
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