Don’t Quote Me: On Grown-ups and Numbers

Years ago I read Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic, The Little Prince. There are many memorable lines in that book, but I think of one quote regularly because it’s so true.

*The Little Prince was written in French and translations vary; since my French skills are horrendous, I’ve simply picked my favourite English version of this quote.*

Grown-ups like numbers. When you tell them about a new friend, they never ask questions about what really matters. They never ask: ‘What does his voice sound like?’ ‘What games does he like best?’ ‘Does he collect butterflies?’

They ask: ‘How old is he?’ ‘How many brothers does he have?’ ‘How much does he weigh?’ ‘How much money does his father earn?’ Only then do they think they know him.

If you tell grown-ups, ‘I saw a beautiful red brick house, with geraniums at the windows and doves at the roof…,’ they won’t be able to imagine such a house. You have to tell them, ‘I saw a house worth a thousand francs.’ Then they exclaim, ‘What a pretty house!”

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

Too often I fall into this trap; when the kids come home from school I don’t think to ask if any of their classmates collect butterflies or stamps or what games they like to play. I’m far more likely to know what each parent does for their career or where they live or the sibling structure in their household.

We think we “know” people by learning a list of facts. But as every child intuits, this simply isn’t true. We know people by learning about their likes and dislikes; we know people by discovering their emotional cues; we know people by engaging with them in shared experiences; we know people (and places) by paying attention to what makes them uniquely beautiful.

While the modern social disconnect may play a role in this tendency to focus on metrics, it also seems to be an age-old consequence of growing up. And that’s a shame. Because we’re all so much more than just numbers – in a bank account or on the scale. Wouldn’t relationships be so much richer and more satisfying if we spent less time discussing numbers and more time asking questions about what really matters?

Your turn. What does your voice sound like? What games/activities do you like best? Do you collect anything? Do you have pretty flowers in a backyard garden?

Header photo by Casey and Delaney on Unsplash

18 thoughts on “Don’t Quote Me: On Grown-ups and Numbers”

  1. SO TRUE!!! I remember having this discussion with a friend a long time ago, about how in the U.S. (and I’m sure many other places, too) as soon as you meet a new person, one of the first things you often ask is, “What do you do?” As if someone’s job is who they are, or the most interesting piece or something like that.

    I am also totally guilty of asking my kids what so and so’s parents do. (I do think someone’s career is indeed an interesting thing to know, because I do think it says at least something about that person’s interests or strengths, generally speaking. But it probably doesn’t deserve the focus we put on it!). I think I sometimes feel that to “know” someone I need to know: what they do, where they are from, maybe where they went to school, how many kids they have, etc. But maybe it’d be better to lead with something like, “What do you like to do in your free time?” Or something like that. 🙂

    1. I met someone last weekend who asked “what do you do?” and I was absolutely stumped. It took me way too long to figure out she was asking about my job! I basically said “I have a job I don’t love, but I read, walk my dog, and write a lot of letters to my elderly relatives” and she laughed, so I think I pulled it off.

      1. Couldn’t love this description – especially the part about writing a lot of letters to elderly relatives – any more if I tried! Gold star.
        I hate the “What do you do question” because I find it so complicated and like there needs to be this short/quick answer. Since I technically have 3 distinct (ALL part-time!) working roles + being a mother, I actually usually laugh and start off by saying “It’s a bit complicated…”

    2. Yup. This is the same in Canada, too! And I agree with you – someone’s career is interesting and can help jumpstart a conversation into deeper things.
      I love your icebreaker suggestion though of “What do you like to do in your free time?” – I think this is genius and fully intend to use this suggestion soon!

  2. Yes, this is so true. The funny thing is, if I ask my daughter questions like that about her friends (what their parents do, or if they have brothers or sisters, etc.) she usually doesn’t know. Things like that aren’t important to her.
    Years ago, when I was working in Germany (long story) I learned that Europeans think it’s kind of weird that Americans are so obsessed with what people do for a living. They really don’t focus on that when they’re getting to know someone. I do agree with Kae that it’s an interesting thing to know- I mean, I’m curious to know how people spend their days- but it definitely doesn’t tell the whole story.

    1. I’ve noticed the same with my kids – I’ll ask them a specific question about the same metrics you mention here and they’ll have no idea. And isn’t that wonderful?
      I know that realistically some of these things change as we get older – sometimes as a parent or co-worker we really DO need to know these “boring” details, but so often (as an adult) it just seems like the only thing we consider.
      I had no idea you worked in Germany! And yes, the European take on this (and many other North American norms) is very interesting.

  3. I appreciate the usefulness of numbers but am a wordy girl at heart. Words tell you so much more about a person.

    Answering your questions:
    What does your voice sound like? More nasal than I like, but not awful
    What games/activities do you like best? I like board games. Old school, I know
    Do you collect anything? I don’t collect anything but my husband collects hourglasses.
    Do you have pretty flowers in a backyard garden? We have flowers, annuals and perennials, all around our house.

    1. Sigh. I am just not a game type of girl. I really wish I enjoyed board games more. I can handle a fair number of games of UNO, but would NEVER seek it out.
      Hourglasses – what a fascinating collection. Another reader here has a father who collects (I think I remember this correctly) antique eyeglasses.

  4. Well you can hear exactly what my voice sounds like if you listen to today’s BOBW podcast because I was a guest and talked about my return-to-work experience! I do not collect anything, and we do not have many flowers in our yard. I would like to work on landscaping but that has fallen by the wayside in this stage of life and I think we’d need to hire someone so I need to convince my husband that it’s something worth spending money on. 😉

    But for activities, I love to read, do puzzles, go for walks, go to dinner with small groups of people/host small groups of people (like less than 10 people, but ideally one family), travel, and nap!

    This is such a good point, though. We can focus on the wrong things as adults and miss so much of what matters about a person.

    1. This is wonderful Lisa – I can’t wait to hear your voice – both literally and proverbially!
      Somehow it doesn’t shock me you’re not into collections. I think we’re kindred spirits on that front.
      Our landscaping is basically a lesson in what not to do. So much needs to be done, but it is not the priority right now as we finish off some structural repairs to our house. Little by little it will come together, though.

  5. so true. I like numbers, evidence, stats… as if that’s all it matters. I think over time I’m getting better at looking the soft side of things.. as that’s mostly how kids see things. not everything is quantifiable. I’m learning to value more qualification as I get older, in life and at work. 🙂

    1. I think this is, for the most part, a lesson we all have to learn as we age.
      It comes naturally toa child – to appreciate and know someone for who they are and what they like vs what they do. Then we forget for a while because numbers make our adult world go round.
      But, with any luck, we start to remember again as we get older and change our focus on what really matters and satisfies and delights us).

  6. Jon and I had this conversation so many times… because he doesn’t work, the question “what do you do” usually irks him, not because he doesn’t have an answer, but because he knows people are asking about a job, not the things he enjoys doing… I’ve been much more aware ever since and try to ask anything but “what do you do” when I first meet someone.

    To answer your questions:
    What does your voice sound like? Much like my sister’s (to my Mom’s dismay haha)
    What games/activities do you like best? I love scrabble.
    Do you collect anything? I used to collect all kinds of things when I was younger, but all I collect now is “rocks” (when I am outdoors ;))
    Do you have pretty flowers in a backyard garden? I wish – every pretty flower pot I’ve planted eventually dies. I don’t know what I am doing wrong (probably over- or underwatering).

    1. Because my working situation has always felt complicated (various streams and hard to quantify things easily), I still feel like a deer-in-headlights when someone asks what I do. I feel foolish for not just perfecting a 30-second blurb, but then again it would be significantly easier if almost-strangers didn’t regularly ask me what “I do!”

  7. Oh, my goodness, you are SO right about this! I suspect part of it is conversational discomfort, in addition to the uniquely American focus on work-work-work-work. Sigh. I love the idea of asking how people spend their free time, or what they like to do in their free time. I’m usually a very uncomfortable conversationalist, so I may tuck that one in my back pocket when I Am at a – literal! – loss for words upon meeting someone new… 🙂 Love these seemingly random yet highly relevant topics! <3

    1. An interesting point about the cultural implications – I suspect this would be a lot less common in many other regions of the world. Work is such a part of adult identity in North America, and I suspect this trend is spreading throughout the world, too!
      I also loved the “free time” idea and think it’s a great conversation starter.

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