The Question. It’s all over America.
And every region has its own. It’s the first thing people ask, right after saying hello. They can ask the same familiar folks day after day, or use it to establish a relationship with a person they’ve just met. James and Deborah Fallows give regional examples of The Question in their book Our Towns. (My favorite was “How’s your mama & them?” in parts of Louisiana where there is a chance that a new acquaintance might actually know your mother.) When I visited rural Maine, it was “Got family here?” In Kansas, church-going people have asked me “Where do you fellowship?” In Boston there was “How was the parking out there?” or “How ’bout them Sox?”
At our office, it’s “How Was Your Weekend?”
The point seems to be “We all made it back! F Troop all present and accounted for.” It’s a light friendly ritual.
Does anybody else have a hard time with this?
Me, on Monday morning I show up and log in — completely absorbed with plans for the day and week, spreadsheets and priority lists and process management procedures.
Then, someone with the best intentions asks “How was your weekend?”
My chain of thought snaps. Looking up from a spreadsheet, I give the questioner a perplexed look. Weekend? Which time interval from Friday evening to Monday before breakfast? How much detail would people like? In what amount of time? What level of factual or emotional honesty? What would they like to hear?
Etiquette says that all I have to do is smile. Say that it was nice and restful.
Except around here, “Fine, thank you,” is not enough of an answer.
The followup will be “Did you do something fun? Spend it with family?”
And in these parts, the questioner will share that he/she and his/her spouse went hiking, or rock climbing, or kayaking, or skiing. (It’s a big outdoorsy town. People run around excelling at sports I’ve never even heard of.)
And to be fair, on Mondays it is a blessing just to have a conducive job, with co-workers who are friendly and who greet me.
So to hold up my end of the dialogue, sometimes on Sunday I rehearse a news bit to offer. “Thank you; I updated my advance directive medical paperwork. And you?” Usually that sort of pastime earns a laugh and perhaps a concerned look. So sometimes I try asking The Question first. Then I can just take in the gladness in stories and photos of real people with real lives: the new baby, the family reunion, the overnight boat cruise and B&B with someone special, the movie with the grandkids. And even when their lives have troubles, everybody shares it together. It sounds like a good way to live.
I should have this ritual down pat by now.
But every Question brings another cold chill of sadness, and anxiety about not fitting in to office conversations. And my every smile and “Fine” reply feels like another layer of clear turtle-wax, burying over a personality that would like to be real. Some day if an actual potential let’s-do-everyday-life-including-weekends person ever shows up, how will he or she even know that under all this clear wax varnish there is me?
The other day, a super-bright enthusiastic new young colleague asked me. But this time, the high-gloss smile cracked under the weight of accumulated truth.
“Sad. Weekends are hard. I’m sorry; just trying to focus on Monday here.”
“Okay OKAY!” He hurried away, and I felt sorry for saying the wrong thing and making the office a little less bright because of it.
And now, by repeated popular demand, here is my weekend.
One new social gathering or more, to strike up conversations with new people and take an interest in them.
Chores: grocery shopping, cooking, ironing, balancing checkbook.
Getting ready for Monday.
Research emotional intelligence and social bonding, and how to get some.
Then, bedtime before the leaf sweeper truck passes by the window at 8:45 pm.
The leaf sweeper is a mournful sound. It marks the end of the weekend, and the end of one more chance to forge new permanent social connections. So the idea is to be in bed and halfway asleep before the leaf sweeper passes by.
Now there’s an answer: “It was great, thanks. This week I beat the leaf sweeper!”
How would that sound around the water cooler?
Update: After writing this I went to work early next day.
One of the top brass authority figures was there early too. He’s a military officer retired, tall imposing yet friendly guy who walks super fast leaning forward like he’s braving a head wind. He said “How was your weekend?”
For some reason, this time I actually answered the question, throwing my hands in the air and getting vehement about life and the meaning of it all.
He surprised me then. He stood there with wide eyes and listened to the whole outburst and said “That sounds very hard. I am so sorry.”
I went over and gave him a slappy patty shoulder hug.
He said “That was actually the idea I had in mind too. Everybody ought to get a hug sometimes.”
I thanked him for listening.
He said “My first reaction was ‘Gee, I better make sure I never ask her THAT again.’ But you know what? After talking to you, I will be here at the office on Monday mornings to ask that same question every week, just to check up on you and see how you are doing.”
He probably will, too.