Asking good questions

Part of our hospitality practices must include welcoming speech that invites our guests and friends to relax, be themselves and share a story or two.

The sights, smells and touch of Christian hospitality are easily observable and deeply important, yet it is the spoken word that provides the intellectual framework to the material practices of hospitality. Christian hospitality weaves the experience of being welcome with the conversational practices of asking good questions and listening with curiosity. With inviting words and active listening, we signal to our new acquaintance that is a place where God is present to them.

When we meet a new person at a friend’s house, church, work or on the sideline of a youth soccer game, we’ve been conditioned to ask the same question, “What do you do?” By that we mean, “What do you do to earn money, to prove your worth to society? What is your paid job?”

This question is broken. For many, perhaps even a growing number of people, employment is a painful and disappointing topic of conversation. The frustrating dearth of meaningful employment spans the generations. It affects the nurse in her 50s who was squeezed out of her hospital job to make room for a less-qualified nurse who is poorly paid on a short-term contract. It’s a dangerous topic for the immigrant who works without government permission. The military combat veteran struggling with the physical and emotional scars of war doesn’t want to discuss his current disability status. And for the worker who is just plain bored with her office job, conversations about work conjure up images of lifeless cubicles and soul-sucking meetings.

Instead of inviting conversation, the question, “What do you do?” prompts a defensive spinning of deeply disappointing and frustrating stories into a socially acceptable, “I’m a freelance contractor, an unpaid intern, and a barista on the side.” Or, “I am between things.” Most of us are working to scrape by a living and pay off our debts; few of us are lucky enough to “do what we love.” Reducing our introductions to employment statuses reduces our personhood to our ability to produce and contribute economically.

As Christian people, we know a person is so much more than his or her employment, economic contribution or ability to produce. Part of our hospitality practices must include attention to welcoming speech and conversation that invites our guests and new acquaintances to relax, be themselves and share a story or two.

Just as we prepare a room to receive guests, we can rehearse the kinds of questions we might ask new people who we meet. We can ask questions that invite thoughtful storytelling: What’s making you laugh these days? In your opinion, where is the best place to spend a Saturday afternoon around town? What brings you to the sideline of a youth soccer game?

These questions may feel awkward because they depart from the script we’ve been handed, but they signal an interest in the person that extends far beyond their economic contribution. Delivered with a smile and a touch of humor, these new questions carefully disarm our new acquaintances and create space for safe disclosure, hearty conversation, and possibility of everyone involved noticing God’s presence in the conversation and in the room.