“Don’t ask me how I am. You are not in the slightest bit interested in how I am”.
“What do you mean?”
“You said to me, ‘Good morning. How are you?’ and you didn’t even realize you had said it. We ask people questions to which we expect no answer. In fact, we would think it odd if people started to answer. If I had started telling you how I was, you would think I was strange”.
His warning about not answering questions had a lasting impact.
“Do you know Muchelney?”
“I do. It was a few miles from my home. My –”. I stopped.
I was about to tell the story my grandmother would tell from the days of her youth. The village was an ancient place and she had heard many stories of haunting and ghosts. Staying there one night, everyone else in the house was asleep. There came the sound of something going down the stairs. Bump, bump, bump, bump-bump”. Plucking up her courage, she had taken a lamp from her room and had gone to investigate. She wanted to see this ghost.
Searching in the darkness, she found nothing. “There was no ghost”, she said, “I found an apple lying at the foot of the stairs. It had rolled down from the top – bump, bump, bump”.
The story had been both disappointing and reassuring: she had seen no ghost, but perhaps there were no ghosts to be seen. Years later, the thought occurred that it was odd that an apple would be lying at the top of the stairs; and, if it had rolled to the bottom, what had caused it to start rolling? It seemed odd that an apple lying on the landing floor would suddenly propel itself down the stairs.
The poor man would have thought me eccentric in the extreme if I had started recounting some distant memory in response to a polite inquiry in the course of conversation. Were people to take seriously the childhood injunction to say what we mean and to mean what we say, ordinary social interactions would become exceedingly complicated.
Perhaps in times past the questions, that are now not much more than the reciting of lines in a pre-determined script, carried much more significance. In conversation with African friends, to inquire with sincerity about the person and about their family is part of basic courtesy. Maybe the questions are considerably more important in communities where life is much more precarious. The better one knows the person, the longer the observance of courtesy takes.
Without descending into the telling anecdotes heard from one’s grandmother, perhaps there is scope for greater engagement with the people whom we meet. Perhaps the building of strong communities means each person having a genuine interest in the answers to all those questions we ask without even knowing.