Why Don't Young People Ask Me Questions? And, Are We Having Too Little Sex?
This week's advice column
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Hello Hugo — For many years I have noticed that my daughter’s generation (millennials) seem not to understand or value reciprocal conversation. When I am socializing, I naturally ask others questions about their lives, and that is true whether I’m talking to people my own age, significantly younger or significantly older. I was taught by my parents that it is polite to show interest in other people, and it is self-absorbed to want the entire conversation to revolve around yourself. I grew up asking my parents, aunts, uncle and grandparents about all kinds of things, and vice versa. And I don’t mean intrusive questions! I just mean normal, casual ones. Now that I’m in my 50’s, I notice that members of the younger generation are happy to talk with me about themselves but rarely if ever ask me anything about my own life, as if maybe I don’t have one! At first I thought it might be that younger people just are not interested in my life because I’m “old” or that they might not realize I am still working and basically…doing interesting stuff! But even if that’s the case, were they not taught that it is rude to never show interest in the lives of their elders? It’s become a joke between me and my husband. We’ll go to a family party and on the way home, one or the other of us will ask, “Hey, did any of the nieces or nephews ask you anything?” The answer is always “nope!” What do you think is going on? – Rebecca, longing for reciprocity
While I do think there are plenty of millennials and Gen Zers who do ask thoughtful questions, I have noticed the same issue.
My theory is that a generation raised on reality TV (which is roughly 30 years old, going back to the debut of MTV’s “Real World” in 1992), are accustomed to conversation as performance. Each person is entitled to share their truth, but each person is responsible for declaring their own.
This seems to work for many of them. Listening to the conversations of the young, it seems a cycle of affirmation and interruption is at play. Person A announces something has happened to them, and Person B nods, says “Yes!” and then offers their own barely-related anecdote. Person A listens to Person B, and then returns to their original story. It’s like listening to two speeches, recited in counterpoint. No one asks anyone anything, but neither seems to think the absence of questions is rude. It’s just “declaration” followed by polite silence in which you are invited to declare something, followed by another declaration.
Those of us raised with traditional etiquette are at a disadvantage. We were taught that to be civilized is to show interest in another person, and to draw out even the most dull. I had it drilled into me that a gentleman is “interested, not interesting,” and even as a boy, was required to learn how to ask questions and make good conversation. I teach my children the same, and they do do it – but only with “old people.” Their own friends seem content with the “conversation as simultaneous monologue” model that you and I find so bewildering.
(A therapist once suggested that my habit of being polite and convivial with others while being incredibly self-destructive in my private life was my way of forcing people to move beyond polite questions to more difficult ones My eating disorder that took me down to skin and bones? My self-injury scars, just peeking out from the collar of my shirt? All passive demands: “You need to ask me what’s really going on, but rest assured, I won’t tell you if you don’t insist. If you never ask, I will simply get more and more dramatic, until someone else announces that I won’t be at Thanksgiving dinner because I’m in the hospital.”)
Honestly, Rebecca, one of the reasons I find social media so intoxicating and helpful is because it allows me to thread the needle of the very problem you describe. Here, I can post some very intimate stuff about my life – and then, when I chat with people in person or via message service, I can return to polite focus on them. I’ve overshared what needed oversharing, and I know they’ve seen it, and it’s their choice to bring it up or not. As for me, I’m happy to not bring it up in conversation, and instead direct my questions to asking about what’s going on with my interlocutor. And it isn’t a fake politesse -- I’m really interested in other people! Because I’ve taken responsibility for sharing what I need to share, rather than waiting to be asked, I can be focused on their needs rather than resenting their lack of interest in my life.
Talking about myself on my own time, as it were, allows me to still fulfill propriety in actual conversations.
I don’t know that we can change the conversational habits of the Millennials, the oldest of whom are rapidly approaching middle-age. Perhaps we just all need to start sharing more on Facebook!
My boyfriend and I had a very active sex life when we first got together. Three times a day was not unheard of! We had incredible passion together.
We’ve been together five years, and I think we had sex all of five times in 2020. The last time was maybe in October.
Here’s the weird thing: it doesn’t bother either of us. I don’t love him any less, and he seems to still love me, and as far as I can determine, neither of us wants anyone else. We just aren’t into it anymore.
Do you think this is something to worry about? Or just a normal progression?
Comfortable Celibate Cuddler
If sexual frequency is a reliable diagnostic of a relationship’s health, than almost all of us are in real trouble. You’re probably experienced enough to know that intoxicating erotic chemistry is no guarantor of long-term happiness. Most of us have had at least one relationship that was characterized by great sex and general misery everywhere other than the bedroom.
We’re force-fed a steady diet of images and advice that tell us that happy couples are powered by the battery of sexual intimacy. A couple that stops having sex, or has it “too infrequently,” will inevitably have a problem. Sex, to the modern mind, functions as part of a healthy diet, perhaps like Vitamin C (or maybe Vitamin S) – too little, and the body will sooner or later suffer.
While it is certainly possible that there are underlying resentments that can lead to less sex, and it’s possible for two people to just be too tired, it’s also possible that the reduction in sex is nothing more than a sign of your relationship’s evolution. Sex does indeed serve as a recharging station for many couples, but it’s hardly the only way to refill the batteries.
Assuming that sexual frequency is a reliable barometer for relationship health isn’t helpful or accurate. If you’re both happy, then rejoice in that comfort and compatibility. Don’t assume that something is being hidden or denied. This is perhaps who you two are right now, and it’s perfectly fine, and it will be fine if the frequency increases again or decreases further.