Shortly following a cross-state move, I was feeling homesick for familiar people and places. Besides the fact that a pandemic has made physical proximity more difficult, friendships have also become more precious in the last years of my twenties. As Julie Beck notes in a 2015 Atlantic article, late young adulthood is the time in which other relationships and work duties often supersede friendships:
We aren’t obligated to our friends the way we are to our romantic partners, our jobs, and our families. We’ll be sad to go, but go we will. This is one of the inherent tensions of friendships, which [interpersonal communications professor William] Rawlins calls ‘the freedom to be independent and the freedom to be dependent.’
In a culture largely used to frequent moves—often to pursue career opportunities—we develop what Rawlins calls “relaxed expectations” for our friends. What’s produced is a flexible relationship, as Beck notes: “It’s sad, sure, that we stop relying on our friends as much when we grow up, but it allows for a different kind of relationship, based on a mutual understanding of each other’s human limitations.” It’s a lesson I’ve slowly been learning as I’ve watched my friends move or enter into marriage and our relationships change.
So, when the opportunity came to gather virtually with some friends in the city I’d just departed, I jumped at the prospect of relationship maintenance and seeing the faces of my friends in real time. This is how I first encountered Proust’s Questionnaire, a game that deeply connected me to friends at a time when I really needed friends.
When a friend suggested Proust’s Questionnaire as an activity for a Zoom hangout, I was intrigued. According to a 2016 New Yorker article by Evan Kindley, novelist Marcel Proust’s name became attached to a common pastime of his day:
A fashionable parlor game originating among the Victorian literate classes, the “confession album,” as it was known, presented a formulaic set of queries on each page—“What is your distinguishing characteristic,” for instance, or “What virtue do you most esteem?” The album’s owner would pass the volume around among her friends, collecting their comments as a kind of souvenir, not unlike the notes that high-school students leave in one another’s yearbooks.
If confession albums were so popular among Victorians, how did Proust’s name get attached to these questions? Two sets of Proust’s answers to confession album questions were published, and as Kindley relates, “By the nineteen-fifties, versions of the questionnaire, usually addressed to writers and other literary intellectuals, began to appear regularly in upmarket French magazines, eventually becoming a staple of European middlebrow journalism.” These days, the questionnaire is still used by publications like Vanity Fair for celebrity interviews.
Preparation for this game was simple. My friend and I chose fifteen questions to share with our group. We sent the questions to our friends in advance so they could ponder them (there’s definitely nothing wrong with asking the questions on the spot—the particular friends we asked to play this game have personalities that value time to think about their answers). We then screen-shared the questions during the group hangout. One of us chose a question and then we took turns answering. A few of the questions we decided to ask are below:
- Who is your favorite character in fiction?
- What do you consider to be the most underrated virtue?
- What is your motto?
- What is your most treasured possession?
- What quality do you value most in your friends?
- Where would you most like to live?
- What is your most marked characteristic?
What delighted me most about this exercise is that these questions took conversation beyond the “How are you?” and “What have you been up to?” pleasantries, and even beyond talk about daily life events. These questions were novel because I wouldn’t have thought to ask them if not for the game. And like those Victorians who played before me, I recorded my friends’ answers. For me the goal was not only to enjoy learning about my friends in the moment, but to be able to return to these answers to better love and understand my friends.
Proust’s Questionnaire surprised me because it was the act of taking time out of our busy lives to be with each other and ask meaningful questions that allowed us to discover new things about each other. I learned, for example, that almost everyone in my group would most like to live in a place outside of the United States. I got to see one of my friend’s most treasured possessions—an old Polaroid she found in a used book she’d purchased.
When it came to answering the question about our most marked characteristic, we decided to let our friends answer for us first. For example, though I felt my most marked characteristic was kindness, my friends revealed other characteristics that stood out to them—one friend mentioned I was good at practicing hospitality and another said I projected peacefulness and calm. As might be imagined, allowing friends to answer this question led to genuine voiced appreciation for each person in the group. I was touched by how friends could see parts of my personality that I could not.
I left this hangout feeling not only like I knew my friends better, but that I was better known. In a world where so much communication is casual or even anonymous, sharing deeply with good friends is a blessing I want to engage in more often. For those needing a good boost of conversation and connection, consider making this parlor game part of your next gathering.