Beyond “How was your day?”

Rabbi's Message - August 17, 2021

Rabbi Tina Sobo

Questions.  Rabbis love questions, we don’t always have the answers, but we are good at asking questions.  I have learned that not all questions are created equal.  

For example – it’s “Back to School” season, which also means it is prime time for terrible questions, well intentioned, of course, but terrible questions. 

Coming back together for the start of a school year, a new season of a fall sport, or another activity that perhaps has been virtual or cancelled due to the pandemic, begs the question of what you did with your summer.  While it is an innocent question, our unstated social contract is that the questioner wants to hear a positive response – how great your vacation trip was, some hobby you picked up, etc.  For the kid in the class whose summer was less than stellar, it asks them to hide that part of it, to meet needs of the questioner.  An innocent question that inadvertently puts the needs of others above the one being asked.  

Another example: how many (as the grown up or child in this situation) have followed the script of, “how was your day?” followed by a one-word response?  And its extension: a frustrated adult because the child ‘doesn’t communicate’.  When my child tells me they learned ‘nothing’ at school, I don’t believe them; but how to get them to talk?

Break the script by changing the question.  You have to ask yourself what it is you are seeking from the other person and as a more specific question, perhaps one that invites openness rather than a scripted response.  Here’s a few examples, but Rabbi Google can give you more if you need inspiration.

  1. What was the best part of your day [summer, weekend, vacation]?  - A child (partner, co-worker, etc.) has to answer something.  If they provide something specific, you can ask follow-up questions.  And if your angsty teen tells you it was terrible and nothing good happened, well even that gives you something to go on.
  2. What is something kind you did, or saw someone do, today? – This question focuses on a value or feeling that is important (pro tip – you can swap out kind/kindness for others) and has the added bonus that if the other party does not really want to share from their own story, they can choose to share something they saw, but in setting up the scene for what they saw, you might find out a bit more of their day.
  3. What’s a problem or challenge you solved today? – Encouraging a growth mindset is about celebrating not just accomplishments, but the effort it took to get there.  This question asks for vulnerability – something that frustrated the person and looks for the victory in working through that problem.
  4. More for adults, but… How many cups of coffee did you have today?  - Just don’t ask judgmentally.  For some of my family and friends, I know them well enough to know that one cup implies a good day while two implies they were dragging a bit, or maybe really busy.  Four would be an SOS.  Those numbers might differ person to person, but is perhaps an easier way to for a more private person to indicate that they need a little more from you… or perhaps just more caffeine?

The questions we ask of another can say something about whether we want a perfunctory answer or a “real” answer.  At times we may simply be looking for logistics – maybe I want to know if your day was more exhausting than mine because someone has to do the dishes and I don’t want it to be me (totally hypothetical, I promise!).  But, hopefully, more often, we are actually seeking connection and truly checking in on the other person’s well-being.  If that’s the case, make sure what you are asking communicates that intent by breaking the script of a question and one-word answer.  And I’ll leave you with one last tip – any of these questions can turn into scripts, so try a variety of them!

At this time of transition in the year, with Rosh Hashanah approaching, what is it you hope to learn this year?

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