Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Follow-Up Question

My picture pops up every few seconds above…does this look like the face of someone you should tell everything to?  No?  Well, if so, you’re in the minority, because everywhere I go, I hear at least one life story in a day.

No kidding.

My husband always remarked on my ability to make small talk with people around me, perfect strangers even, and wonder what it was that made me a magnet for people who have stories to tell.  It was our friend, a retired New York City Police detective named John, who came up with the only theory to explain this phenomenon.

Apparently, I ask the “follow-up question.”

What is the “follow-up question,” you ask?  Well, seemingly, it’s that one extra question that will get the person telling you the most intimate, darkest secrets of their life despite the fact that they’ve never laid eyes on you.  It’s the question that I guess lets the teller know that you want to hear every single detail of their story—of their life, even—and that you won’t rest until you do.  It’s the question that keeps you molded to the same spot in the local pharmacy or in the parking lot at Target or on the phone with “Marco,” in India, who is helping you reconnect to the internet after a recent storm.  It’s the question that separates me, just your average writer/housewife/mother/textbook editor from anyone else I know.

A less generous friend calls me a “psycho magnet,” but I don’t think that’s what I am.  I am just a person who is interested enough in some lonely—or maybe just talkative—person’s life to ask the one question that will set the monologue wheels in motion.  John, the detective, said that if the textbook thing (my day job) ever went south, I should apply to the police department and focus on interrogations.  Jim says that if assigned to the terrorism task force, I would be busting terrorists left and right.  People tell me stuff even if they’re not supposed to.

Unfortunately, I usually hear a lot about intestinal trouble or a diatribe about the horrendous service at _________________ where the person telling me tried to buy ___________________ only to have no one wait on them.  That usually dovetails into a more personal story about their spouse, or their children, or a wayward niece of nephew.  Don’t ask me how we get there, but somehow, we always do.

But there are other, more interesting stories that come out of the follow-up question.  Case in point:  the day my first book, MURDER 101, was published, the only place that had copies was a local gift store which was owned by a dear friend who had placed his order early and had what seemed like the first copies printed.  He had set the books up on a large round table in the middle of the store, announcing their arrival with much fanfare.  He called me the minute the display was up and I headed over to the store to see what it looked like to have fifty copies of your first publication displayed in the middle of my favorite store in town. 

It was fabulous.

As I was gushing over the incredible display, a woman sidled up beside me.

“These your books?”

They were, I assured her.

“What are they about?”

This was back in the day before I had perfected my “elevator pitch;” you know, the one-sentence description of the book and the series that would perfectly describe what it was and let the potential reader know if it was right for them.  I set about describing the book from start to finish. 

The woman held her hand up to stop me when I got to around page fifty.  “So the murder is fiction?”

Rather than tell her that I thought it was compelling and leapt off the page, despite being “fiction,” I let her know that it was and asked her what she liked to read.  She shook off that question.

“I know about a real murder,” she whispered, clearly dismissive of my character, Alison Bergeron, and the body in the trunk of poor Alison’s car.  (In the interest of full disclosure, this was not a confession on her part.)

By this time, my husband and the owner of the store had wandered off to peruse the latest men’s offerings from Crabtree and Evelyn and I, despite my internal warning system, said, “Really?  Who got murdered?”  Most people, when confronted with a woman with wild hair, and even wilder eyes, would have probably joined Jim at the Crabtree and Evelyn display to see if their razor balm really did cut down on razor burn, but to me, this was too good to pass up.  The woman proceeded to regale me with stories of her “research,” and how she kept it all in a safe deposit box lest someone else get a hold of her ideas and the story.  It was just that good, in her mind.

I let her ramble on and then the kiss of death: I asked the follow-up question to the follow-up question in the form of “have you started writing?” which led her to a list of reasons as to why she hadn’t. (She, apparently, was very busy.  At the time, I had two children, a husband, a dog, and a full-time job.  Oh, and daily chemotherapy to attend to.  I wasn’t busy at all.)

I never did find out who got murdered and I also don’t know if she ever wrote her story, never mind get it published.  I used to see her around town and she would always give me a look that would either say “Do I know you?” or “Now that you know about the murder and the safety deposit box, I have to kill you, too!” but I couldn’t tell which it was.

 So there you have it, one example of where the follow-up question can lead.  And trust me:  it’s never good.

Hey, Stiletto friends…are you one of those people to whom others tell everything?  Do you ask the follow-up question to your own detriment?  And thanks to my friend and fellow Stiletto blogger, Susan McBride, for prompting the topic of this post.  After reading about her sharing with her A/C repairman, it dawned on me that I, too, had this special gift called "tell me your life story."  Thanks, Susan!

Maggie Barbieri


  1. Oh my gosh, you would not believe all the information people tell me when all I asked was "how's it going?".

  2. Maggie, I'm still trying to figure out if it's a gift or a curse. ;-) (You make me laugh!)

  3. I get taken for the sales clerk in stores all the time and whenever I have to say "oh, sorry, I don't work here but I think I saw the xyzes about two aisles that way" it flips a switch in the person to tell me all about why they need that item, what they were doing before coming to that store and where they need to be after, whose waiting on them to finish this errand, what they think of this store and about some unrelated product that they get a good deal on here and what they use that bargain for, etc.

  4. Being far older than all of you, when I'm in the grocery store old men always ask for my help in finding things.

    But I do have people telling me way more than I want to know a lot in stores etc., but I'm always in such a hurry I don't encourage it.

    I usually say something like, "Oh, I'm so sorry to hear that. I'll pray for you." And off I go.


  5. So it's not just me! However, I've noticed that we haven't had any men weigh in. I think it may be a gender thing. Are we women too polite not to ask the follow-up question?

    Marilyn, I think the men who are asking for your help in the grocery store are actually hitting on you! Don't tell Hap! Maggie

  6. Oh, Maggie, you did make me laugh. Hap's the one that gets hit on all the time, he has a following from all over. Pretty good for an 80 year old.


  7. Marilyn, I have a crush on Hap just from the way you describe him and I've never met the guy! Doesn't matter how old you are--if you've got "it," you've got "it." Sounds like you're a lucky lady. Maggie

  8. Great post, Maggie. Fun to read! Yes, I'm always the person who ends up next to the nut at a wedding or funeral or in the check out line. I find they're often quieted when I reach for my cell and say, "Oh, you'll excuse me for a moment, I have to check in with my parole officer..."

  9. funny, but yes! I'm always the person who sits next to someone who NEEDS to tell me everything. And I used to ask the follow-up question. Nowadays, I don't - at least not when my husband is around. When he isn't...sometimes I just can't help myself!


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