At the end of an engaging live conversation between Tom Hanks and Ann Patchett about the former’s new book of short stories, Hanks answered questions from the audience. The delightful part – in addition to Hanks’ answers – was that the questions were submitted in advance on index cards. So Patchett, who conducted the interview, could screen out the narcissistic or self absorbed questions.
If you have been to a talk by an accomplished and celebrated person — and you stayed the entire time — you know what I’m talking about. Join me in some phyllo pie with butternut squash, kale, and goat cheese while I rant.
I experienced the narcissistic questioner a few days ago at a lecture about learning. A woman approached the microphone and prefaced her question about… Let me restate this. The audience member focused on her preface and at the end asked a short question. Her preface recounted in detail her personal and familial medical history. Admittedly the woman had a compelling story of overcoming the effects of two strokes in her 40s — but it was too long. She could have asked a question about learning after brain injury without the personal introduction. After all, hundreds of people paid to hear from an expert and time was precious. Given a choice, an audience wants to hear more from the expert they came to see and less from that person in the next row.
Narcissistic questioners often focus on personal and family health crises. I remember when an audience member at a 2017 National Book Festival talk by author Diana Gabaldon described the cascade of health problems that led to the death of her newborn grandchild. A horrific story but this was neither the place nor the time to present it. Then, remembering that she was supposed to ask a question, this woman acknowledged Gabaldon’s recent status change to grandmother and asked if the writer liked this new role. Gabaldon was sympathetic and gracious and answered the question. It seemed to me that the audience member was more interested in an “audience” with the object of her fan club than an answer to the grandmother question.
A narcissistic questioner may also be a narcissistic “friend.” Do you have a friend like this? If you tell your friend about something that happened to you – whether good or bad — the friend may briefly acknowledge your news but then he or she transitions to a story about experiencing the very same thing. Conversation hijacked, sometimes ad nauseam.
Let’s get back to the questioner issue. I have a suggestion for all the audience members who would like to ask a question. It’s okay to briefly compliment the speaker, e.g.: “Thanks for writing some of the best books I’ve read” but then go right into the query – about the speaker or his or her work. Don’t share your issues. If you want to make a personal statement, tweet, post on Facebook, or actually talk to your friends and family.
Until next week, happy ranting or not ranting.