“Thank god you picked up,” I whispered to my best friend. I was huddled in the sticky, single-stall bathroom of an Asian fusion restaurant in Washington, DC, just one closed door away from the dating equivalent of Chernobyl.
I had met the guy–Chernobyl–on Tinder. A few minutes later, my friend called with an “emergency” story we concocted in the stall, and I ran for the exit.
On paper, there was nothing glaringly wrong with the guy: he was attractive, smart and claimed to like deep-dish pizza as much as I did. In real life though, he was a jerk–and conversationally catatonic. In the 45 minutes we’d spent together at dinner, he had asked me only a single question.
To be fair, Chernobyl hadn’t cared for my question style either. Shortly after I made my escape, he sent me a screenshot of a text message he’d sent to his roommate. “I’m pretty sure I just went on a date with a journalist who was writing about Tinder,” he’d written. “She barely touched her wine, and wouldn’t stop asking me questions.”
What was behind our conversational breakdown? Both men and women on the dating scene are hungry for great conversations, as evidenced by the massive popularity of the 2015 New York Times piece that offered up 36 questions “scientifically” proven to help people fall in love. But in my experience, men who ask questions—the kind that show they’re actually interested in the answers—are rare and wonderful unicorns. And if my date’s opinion was any indication, I had plenty of room for improvement in my own style of inquiry.
In my search for answers, I interviewed a wide range of psychologists, dating experts, consultants, entrepreneurs, teachers, and couples. I discovered that many men and women searching for love share my desire for richer dialogues—and that questions matter quite a lot for anyone who wants to cultivate more rewarding connections.
Knowing how to ask questions well is about the closest the average person can come to having a super power. And yet most of us take them for granted, hobbling our relationships across romantic, platonic, and professional spheres.
To find out more about how men and women ended up at our current communication impasse, I turned to an unlikely source: reformed misogynist Tucker Max. He’s recently attempted to rehabilitate his image after writing such infamous bestsellers as I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell and Assholes Finish First—books that detailed his often-appalling efforts to get women to sleep with him. In the fall of 2015, a few months after the birth of his first son, Max published Mate, a book he says is designed to give men actual dating advice. (That is, the kind that would perhaps inspire men to behave more like humans and less like feral wolves.)
Max devotes a section of Mate to explaining why men need to ask women questions—and how they can do so better. It was asking the right questions, he says, that ultimately allowed him and his now-wife to get closer and fall in love.
But first, Max had to override what he says were basic instincts directing him to dominate the conversation with his own opinions and anecdotes. “Most young guys are basically just waiting for you to shut up so they can talk–and I was just as guilty of this,” Max tells Quartz. “Once I stopped doing that, and started listening to what women said and responding to it, all of a sudden the world opened up to me that I had been too self-absorbed to see before.”
Max, along with a few other experts I spoke with, agreed with my observation that men tend to ask fewer questions on dates than women. This is in part due to gendered differences in communication styles.
Before we get into what those differences are, however, a caveat: These theories don’t apply to the behavior of all men or all women, and I am talking specifically about heterosexual dating scenarios. (I spoke to two experts on dating in the queer community, both of whom told me that the question conundrum is much less prominent in LGBT relationships. When it does come up, they said, it’s more likely to be because of personality differences than gender biases.)
All that said, men and women tend to think differently about the purpose of conversation on first dates—and about conversation in general. This phenomenon was documented in You Just Don’t Understand!, a 1990 book on language and gender written by Georgetown University sociolinguistics professor Deborah Tannen.
For many men, according to Tannen, the goal of conversation is to negotiate for status in the social hierarchy or to preserve independence. They do this by “exhibiting knowledge and skill, and by holding center stage through verbal performance such as storytelling, joking or imparting information,” Tannen writes. On a first date, this instinct may translate into a 90-minute pitch about a guy’s incredible Ivy League education and his swanky apartment. He’s showing his plumage to signal his worthiness for date number two.
Women, on the other hand, use conversation to establish connections, emphasizing “similarities and matching experiences,” writes Tannen. In the context of a first date, they’ll try to find connections that reduce their uncertainty about potential partners. This means they may wind up asking more questions in an effort to determine whether the man across the table is a potential match.
Women are on the right track with this strategy. Slowly reducing uncertainty about another person through disclosures is a “key to the advancement of any relationship,” Anita Vangelisti, a University of Texas professor and expert on interpersonal communication between romantic partners, tells Quartz.
The problem arises when women drive too hard at this goal, peppering their date with questions as if they were FBI interrogators. (Not that I would know anything about that.) Reciprocity is key to building relationships. So both people need to be revealing information and asking questions in roughly equal measure in order to build strong connections, Vangelisti says.
Another crucial point is that the quality of questions can be far more important than the quantity. Even if both conversation partners are asking questions, some types of inquiries are better at fostering close connections than others. Experts including How to Win Friends and Influence People author Dale Carnegie write that it’s important to ask questions with genuine curiosity. That means asking questions you don’t already know the answers to.
This sounds simple enough. After all, curiosity is at the heart of what it means to be human. But so is a fear of asking questions, according to Warren Berger, journalist and author of A More Beautiful Question, a book about the power of queries. It’s a practice that can leave us feeling naked.
“There’s a strong relationship between questioning and confidence,” Berger tells Quartz. “If we aren’t confident in a situation, then we are afraid to ask questions because it could be seen as a sign of weakness, admitting we don’t know something. People don’t think they will impress anyone by asking questions—which is a cultural misperception. They think they’ll impress someone by telling great stories and talking about themselves.”
In other words, asking questions challenges the ossified part of human nature that resists social vulnerability and craves protection from derision, criticism, and discomfort. Yet it’s possible for us to learn the art of asking. Here are a few rules of thumb, as recommended by the experts.
Pick up on conversational clues
“I was once talking with a group of people, and a woman said something about how she had come to Los Angeles after her sister committed suicide, and was loving the city,” entrepreneur Andrew Warner, who teaches a course on interviewing, tells Quartz. “People said, ‘Yeah, isn’t LA great for starting over?’”
No one followed up on the important detail the woman had dropped about her sister—perhaps because they didn’t want to appear intrusive. But the fact that she had brought up such a sensitive subject probably meant that she wanted the group to make further inquiries. “We aren’t observing those little cues, allowing ourselves to talk about what we are most curious about,” Warner says.
Be authentically curious
It’s important to gear your questions around the subjects you’re most interested in. Bookworms will naturally want to know what their dates have been reading lately. Political junkies will be curious about what their potential romantic partners think about the Republican primaries. Pick a subject you’re passionate about, and you’re much more likely to have a great conversation.
“You would think most questions would be based on curiosity,” Berger says. “But a lot of times we’re asking questions as a formality, or we’re asking rhetorical questions where we know the answer. People not only have to ask questions, but they have to ask genuine questions rooted in curiosity.”
Throw away your agenda
Focus less on making a good impression and more on having an enjoyable and interesting conversation.
“The biggest problem, for most people, is they have what I like to refer to as ‘asking blinders,’” Michael Roderick, founder of the consulting company Small Pond Enterprises, tells Quartz. He’s encountered many people who want something so badly—like a second date—that they get tunnel vision. “They spend the entire time pitching, and as a result they are basically just asking things that will get them what they want, never taking other person into account,” he says.
Mirror your partner’s question style
If she asks you about your favorite type of taco, you should ask her, too. According to the University of Texas psychologist James Pennebaker, who has studied the way people use language in speed-dating, the more closely people paralleled one another’s language, the more likely they were to select those people to go on dates. (Critically, this type of behavior tends to be involuntary–people unconsciously mirror the conversational styles of people they’re interested in.)
Think of questions as a source of strength
“The act of asking a question is a communication act that means something,” Vangelisti tells Quartz. “You can ask a question to show interest. You can ask a question that shows hostility, or power. You can do powerful things with questions that will affect the way your relationship develops.”
Armed with the advice from experts, I recently had the opportunity to test it out when I met up with a guy for coffee. The stakes were low–primarily because I had no idea if it was a date.
We both asked each other questions–and though I probably asked a few more, I tried hard not to keep score. The conversation bounced between the goofy and the philosophical as we recounted travel anecdotes and noted quirky food preferences. If I wanted to tell him something, I simply brought it up, rather than waiting for him to ask me with my arms crossed. And because I was aware we were likely to have different conversational styles, I knew I shouldn’t assume that fewer questions on his part was a sign of disinterest.
He texted afterwards–this time not with a strange screenshot, but a message about how much he’d enjoyed our talk. The only problem, he said, was that “there were some other questions I had wanted to ask you but we were really flowing.”
I told him to save them for next time.