Meeting new people - why do they not ask questions about me?
March 27, 2018 12:52 AM   Subscribe

I've living in Vancouver, BC and there's one thing that gets me is that many people I've met are very willing to share details about themselves, at times telling me things I have never asked, and yet they don't seem to care about asking details about me. Is this a cultural thing?

It's quite a change from other countries/cities I've worked at, and I'm not sure if I'm actually being the one that's being intrusive, or just happened to meet folks that are already at full emotional capacity.
posted by TrinsicWS to Human Relations (30 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
I'm in Canada and my experince has been that generally people share what they are comfortable sharing about themselves. Asking questions seems to put someone on the spot, and seems intrusive, invasive, nosy and prodding. There are many things people don't want to share or answer to for any given and valid reason, so why make them uncomfortable by doing so. Maybe it is a cultural thing?
posted by OnefortheLast at 12:59 AM on March 27, 2018 [15 favorites]

I suspect that this varies strongly between social circles. But to me, asking you about yourself (I'm assuming this goes beyond your standard "how was your weekend" blah blah) would be pretty nosy! When I share something about myself it is like an invitation to share a corresponding detail, if you want (e.g. if I shared an anecdote about my hypothetical children, it would be an opening for you to talk about your kids if you had them, but obviously it could be a sensitive subject so you're also free to shift the focus elsewhere without having to do so explicitly). You don't want to take it to an extreme where you turn every conversation back to talking about yourself, but some reciprocal sharing of details is an acceptable way to get to know each other.

source: have lived here basically all my life (but see above caveat about variance among social circles - especially in a city like Vancouver where many people are originally from somewhere else)
posted by btfreek at 1:06 AM on March 27, 2018 [15 favorites]

I think this may be where the "Canadians are polite," stereotype comes from:
It is impolite to be nosy, and it is impolite to not answer a question, therefore interpersonal and informal conversation tends towards offerings of sharing, (without expectations from the other party) which is of course, quite polite. YMMV.
posted by OnefortheLast at 1:41 AM on March 27, 2018 [11 favorites]

I'm not from Canada, but I'm from New England and that's... closer to Canada than some other places!

We New Englanders are the same, and yeah, it's perceived politeness to not ask questions. Have you ever seen the movie, A Fish Called Wanda, where John Cleese despairs of being English, because you're petrified of asking about someone's family and having them tell you they all died in a fire last week? That line always struck me as exactly how I was raised.

I'm 14 years in California now and juuuuuuust starting to experiment with asking people questions. In controlled circumstances. With great trepidation.
posted by greermahoney at 1:56 AM on March 27, 2018 [19 favorites]

Are you a good listener? If so it is rare enough that it may be the bane of your life to be stuck hearing everyone's stories without a pause to inquire about you. (Or it could be politeness).
posted by InkaLomax at 3:15 AM on March 27, 2018 [4 favorites]

Agree with this: When I share something about myself it is like an invitation to share a corresponding detail, if you want

As you already know, one good way to keep a conversation going is to ask questions about the other person. Another technique (one I still struggle with) is to share anecdotes or details about yourself without necessarily waiting for the other person to ask. It's nicer when they ask, but not everyone is good at remembering to ask and some people don't ask because they don't want to be nosy. So sometimes we have to just share something relevant, and it becomes an opportunity for them to share back. Over-sharing would be odd, and making it all about yourself would be rude, but opening up a bit keeps the conversation going. Sounds like you've found yourself in a culture where asking too many questions is nosy so you'll have to initiate more of the sharing without being asked.
posted by Tehhund at 3:31 AM on March 27, 2018 [4 favorites]

At least some of them may just not think to. In general, I've found that people are much more eager to talk about themselves than they are to learn about others.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 4:04 AM on March 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

I'm like this too but it's not because I'm polite or Canadian. It's because questions are boring, they bore me. It makes me bored to answer questions and the answer to anything one can (ok, politely) ask someone they don't know well is going to be boring. I don't care about the informational facts about where you're from or what your job is or how old your kids are or how married you are. Boring.

What's not boring is learning these things in a freeform way. Just tell me what you've got going on that you want to tell. Am I talking about something that happened at my job today? Great opportunity for you to share something about yours. Guy down the table just shared a story about his kid eating a crayon this weekend? Perfect time to tell us about your 4 year old cutting her own hair. Assume everyone wants to know the good stuff about you, because they do. You are more than the boring factoids of your life.
posted by phunniemee at 5:06 AM on March 27, 2018 [12 favorites]

It’s certain-Canadian-areas-and-groups etiquette, analogous to the way in Toronto public spaces its polite to pretend we don’t notice each other unless absolutely necessary. I was hanging out with a West Coast intellectual American lately and I felt under barrage.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:17 AM on March 27, 2018 [4 favorites]

Like others said, it could be that you are a good listener. And the sound that the majority of people love the most is the sound of their own voice.

Have you tried chiming in with remarks like "Ooh, that's interesting - I have done this and that and my experience was different to yours because xyz [therefore inviting people's opinion and questions about you" to see what happens?
posted by longjump at 5:27 AM on March 27, 2018

I was about to say how I'm from Oregon and even after 20 years in nosy-as-heck France I still have a hard time bringing myself to ask people questions. I'll never forget being raked over the coals by a couple from London who told me with great vigor how haughty and rude I was having spent an entire half an hour talking with them without asking a single question. Cue uncomfortable silence. After which I managed a cautious "are you enjoying your tea?"

Then I read warriorqueen's comment and wondered which part of the West Coast their intellectual is from and/or whether it's their original home :)

At least where I grew up, ditto all the other answers about how polite back and forth is key. Questions are an imposition. My feathers still get ruffled when a new acquaintance asks me questions.
posted by fraula at 5:47 AM on March 27, 2018 [5 favorites]

Canadian here. I’m not sure if this problem is uniquely ours, but rather a shift in a world that is increasingly self-focused. I am fortunate enough to travel a fair bit, and converse with people from all over. Even on OKCupid, I’m noticing that people rarely ask questions.

It frustrates me.

I’ve had to reframe and think of this as an opportunity to strengthen my conversational acumen. As a shy person, I have had to insert myself into the conversation by sharing things about me that I would (and sometimes already have) asked of others. I do wish people were better conversationalists. Particularly in a dating context. I tire quickly of doing their work for them. It’s a sign it’s not a good fit.
posted by nathaole at 5:54 AM on March 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

I'm from the PNW just south of BC and the conversational model I grew up with was taking turns disclosing information about oneself. Asking questions feels like interrogating someone and it's very difficult for me to remember to do that now that I live in a different part of the country.
posted by Jacqueline at 7:04 AM on March 27, 2018 [4 favorites]

i'm originally from the Maritimes, where everyone asks each other pretty much everything, stranger or friend or otherwise. moving to toronto was a staggering culture shock. it often feels like people talk about themselves nonstop & just use me as a set of ears: and then have zero curiosity about me! even a decade in, i really struggle with it, and i'm def not the only maritimer i know who finds it tough.

out east, it's considered "big feeling" and rude to just share bits of yourself without asking any questions. people are v concerned with appearing self-centered, and as such, will nurture intense curiosity about others & ask a zillion questions to make sure the other person is at the center. basically the opposite of everything i'm reading here! when both ppl do this, it's a hilarious dance of conversational generosity, which i really adore & appreciate.

reading all of these responses has been *super fascinating* and even kind of healing to understand WHY people don't behave this way in toronto, tbh. and learning how i might be coming across as nosy when i think i'm just being friendly! *mind blown*
posted by crawfo at 7:22 AM on March 27, 2018 [25 favorites]

Wow, interesting! I definitely share things with the expectation that the other person will join in if they’re interested and will reciprocate with similar info or stories. If they don’t, my natural inclination is to become more cautious, fearing that I have overdone it and bored them. That makes me even less likely to ask questions.

Decades of living in different countries has trained me to ask a few safe questions, but not asking doesn’t mean lack of interest in many places.
posted by rpfields at 7:35 AM on March 27, 2018 [4 favorites]

Fraula, I have learned they are a Midwest transplant. Also, SF Bay area. :)

understand WHY people don't behave this way in toronto, tbh

When I arrived in Sackville, NB, for university eons ago, I went down to the Stedmans to get batteries. The cashier was like "oh, you must be in your first year! I haven't seen you before! How's it going, settling in?" I felt like...who is talking to me right now? How can she comment on my newness in public?! Even worse, I bought cold medication at the pharmacy and the next time I went in the pharmacist asked me how my cold was! I thought I was going to die of exposure. It felt really naked and intrusive.

All of which is really to reiterate I think it is a cultural dance and it's good to talk about it. OP, maybe you could gently share your experience and see if that gets the ball rolling for you.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:43 AM on March 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

My family and closest friends are all in Vancouver, so while I don't live there it's a second home to me. I've always found it hard to meet people there, and I don't know what it is exactly. It might be the circles I run in, but there's a cliqueishness and reticence that make you feel like you don't know somebody even though you've met a dozen times; the next time you're in the same place you'll act like you've never met. I'm not the only one who's had this experience.

It's also not necessarily a Canadian thing; when my wife moved to Toronto from Vancouver, her biggest reaction (other than that it's uglier) was, "Wow, people are actually nice here!"
posted by Beardman at 8:12 AM on March 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

it often feels like people talk about themselves nonstop & just use me as a set of ears: and then have zero curiosity about me!

This has been my experience for pretty much all of my life -- first growing up in the southern U.S. and then 20 years in northern New England.
posted by JanetLand at 8:17 AM on March 27, 2018

I’m also originally from the Maritimes and have gradually moved west. Since leaving the east coast, I’ve found people horribly self-absorbed at parties, never asking a single question or seeming to have any interest in me. It never really occurred to me that it’s a cultural thing! Fascinating.
posted by bighappyhairydog at 8:18 AM on March 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

Grew up in Southern Ontario, live in Western Canada now - I can confirm that this is a cultural thing, and you not volleying back with your own stuff looks like more of a social mistake than them not asking you questions. If you don't give people something to work with they'll either assume you're disinterested in them, uninteresting yourself, or both.

Toronto doesn't feel like this as much, probably because there are so many immigrants from places with different conversational norms who'll almost err towards being intrusive in trying to draw you out.
posted by blerghamot at 9:16 AM on March 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

I have this experience and frustration too, particularly in the U.S. I am introverted and a good listener, and frequently people tell me all about themselves and their lives without asking me anything. I get that people are afraid to be intrusive, but it actually hurts sometimes to feel that people aren't concerned.

I do think it's largely cultural too. I lived in china for several years, and people will ask questions there! Same as mexico where i spent a semester. In the Jewish subculture i was somewhat a part of (at least in terms of my family),i feel that people were "nosey" too. So perhaps people get frustrated by this due to cultural expectations- in a lot of cultures, being "nosey" is showing that you care.
posted by bearette at 9:32 AM on March 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

I don't like it either when people that I don't know well inflict whatever they feel like talking about on me without reciprocity. Asking and returning polite questions with near-strangers is the form of establishing safe rapport and finding common conversational ground. There are a lot of things I can talk about with comfort and not just one or three things that I'm dying to tell whoever happens to be in front of me. With someone I know better, we're able to understand better how to direct the flow of the conversation towards topics that we are both interested in without the structure of asking and answering questions. I want to talk about sports or cats or board games or literature or children or politics and not about movies or television or dogs, and there's not really any way for a stranger to know that. I *can* talk about dogs, I'm not a monster. But I don't really care about your dog, and plenty of the people who blather at me about their dog also think that an interest in sports is visible evidence of mental deficiency and aren't shy about saying so. It's tough.

I'm from Ohio and live in Seattle and I don't experience this as a regional variance as much as a personality variance-people who know how to navigate a conversation with a stranger, which involves showing interest in and care for your interlocutor by asking polite questions, exist in equal numbers in both places. People who do otherwise are asking me to do their conversational labor for them and it isn't fun, but you get used to it. I suggest continuing to seek other social groups, there are definitely groups out there in BC that will function as you expect.
posted by Kwine at 9:42 AM on March 27, 2018

Sounds from the thread like there are both geographical and personal variations in this!

I grew up and live among Jews in California, so lots of quasi-personal questions, and even at my ripe old middle age I still (a) dislike being asked these questions by new acquaintances and (b) have to force myself to remember to ask them in return, as I know it's considered to be how one shows interest, even though I myself hate being asked and don't care what the answers are.

I *am* absolutely interested in other people: what they think about, what they care about, what they love, what they enjoy... and I like to share that about myself... but I couldn't give a shit where you grew up or how many siblings you have, and I find it boring, intrusive and distracting to be asked. But I am definitely the odd one out as far as these preferences go, in this part of the world at least.
posted by fingersandtoes at 11:13 AM on March 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

Hi folks! Thank you for your answers, they've been quite illuminating, and I will have to do a more detailed sift once I get home.

I would like to add two data points:

- I've worked in Montreal, UK, US, Asia and Australia. In my experience, most of the people I've met rarely ask intrusive questions, but definitely stuff like work, what you do/did over the weekend, hobbies etc. Surely those questions are not off the table?

- I think I'm a great listener, and I also know how to inject my own flavour into the convo for folks to latch on and ask. It is rare that folks here take that bait.
posted by TrinsicWS at 2:54 PM on March 27, 2018

If people are sharing things with you unprompted, the assumption is that you will reciprocate.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:20 PM on March 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

>- I think I'm a great listener, and I also know how to inject my own flavour into the convo for folks to latch on and ask. It is rare that folks here take that bait.

R u me? And do I live in Vancouver now??

I'm not totally buying that it is 'polite' only to speak about oneself. As you implied, if you offer 'bait' and no one asks follow-up questions, how the heck is that polite? I am having a very similar experience as you are and I live in a different country altogether (my 4th country). I have had this conversation repeatedly with my partner after a night out with acquaintances: Why the heck does no one ever ask me any questions about myself, my life?? I have spent many hours with some of these people and I bet you that some don't know that I have a sibling or that one of my parents is no longer living. How is that 'friendship' not to know these sorts of things about someone else?

Like you, I will 'tell stories' if someone else tells a similar one (to show I identify with their experience), but it is the RARE instance these days that anyone asks me follow-up questions (as I usually endeavour to do after they tell their bit), let alone ANY questions whatsoever. It is more than a little hurtful, not to mention befuddling.

My take on this is twofold: (1) Something to do with trying to get to know NEW people when you are all past your 20s (what are the 'standard questions' any more?); (2) And something to do with the ME-ME-ME focus of modern culture.

Asking > 0 questions ≠ interrogation: It is a sign of being interested in someone's experience other than your own.
posted by Halo in reverse at 6:06 PM on March 27, 2018 [6 favorites]

Maybe I'm way out to lunch here, but wouldn't it be more "ME culture," for those who expressed extreme dissatisfaction and personal upset that everyone wasn't asking 101 questions about them?
Because of all the people I know, (many, or most of) none of those who refrain from asking, and use less direct prompts and suggestions for a more natural conversation flow, none of those have ever or do ever express any negative feedback regarding the absence of conversational subject matter directly related to them, nor do they express anything but positive feedback when the other person in conversation takes up a cue to share something about themselves.
Just a thought from a "polite Canadian"...
posted by OnefortheLast at 10:00 PM on March 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

This is completely a cultural thing to Western Canada. I remember the first time I went out to BC to talk with customers and it was pretty ridiculous. I'm from Northern Ontario originally, which can be an emotionally reticent place with a strong self-deprecating humour, so I can come on pretty cold and snarky. So some of the meetings I had were kind of comical. Because of my distance, people treated me like I was some kind of high powered business man (I'm really not) and really didn't get my humour. At business meetings, people would share crazy (and for me largely inappropriate) stories about weird parties they went to or what drugs they were taking when they conceived their children. It was such a bizarre experience.
posted by Ashwagandha at 8:11 AM on March 28, 2018 [3 favorites]

Lived in Vancouver for five years — this was my experience too. Definitely cultural.
posted by lukez at 7:07 AM on January 11, 2019

It has been my experience with Canadians living in BC as well. Though less so in Vancouver than theisland, as I'm in much more diverse social circles, culturally, here than in Victoria.

I do appreciate the relative reticence to ask personal questions, it has always felt more appropriate to me, but growing up I often came across as distant or shy. But I also feel self-conscious about sharing-as-a-conversation-starter, so I've gotten into the habit of asking generic, harmless questions or, better yet, commenting on the surroundings ("I expected this venue to be much smaller, I'm impressed. I hear it was built pretty recently...") with inkblot-type stuff where people can latch onto whatever detail they'd like to keep the conversation going. Seems to work.
posted by ipsative at 4:04 PM on January 13, 2019

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