Some people collect sneakers. Others collect action figures. I collect questions.
It was a habit that started back in my teens. I can recall nights when my sister, our friends, and I would sit outside Starbucks, getting lost in conversation. Hours passed without notice. We’d swirl our straws in the long-melted ice, occasionally sipping at the diluted mix that used to be a Frappuccino, slurping noises punctuating our discussions. They went on all sorts of tangents, revealing details about ourselves previously unknown—even to those giving those details.
These nights often started with one good question. What’s a flaw in a partner that you think you could live with? was one of the earliest ones I could remember. Someone in the group had asked, we talked until two or three in the morning. I kept that question in my mind’s back pocket ever since.
These questions have come in handy in all sorts of situations. For one, it was a way out of the dreaded How are you? loop. When I lived in the US, a cultural quirk that stuck out was everyone’s affinity for asking how you are: Total strangers in stores would act like they were interested in my day. I, on the other hand, only wanted to find a new pair of Vans. At the church I attended, people from the ‘connections team’ asked how I’ve been. We’d bounce little updates back and forth, all in an attempt to deflect the fact that despite his team membership, there was absolutely no connection between us. It was odd, considering just a week prior he was talking to me about the ultimate fate of my soul. To avoid this, I often beat them to the punch. Rather than How are you?, I would ask What was the highlight of your week? This variation kept us from doing yet another round of verbal volleyball. Instead, we could actually have a genuine interaction.
A good question can chip away at all our assumptions.
When I moved back to Manila in 2014, I found myself struggling yet again. It wasn’t a matter of blank greetings; people did like to talk—a lot. But I couldn’t quite get into a lot of the topics. I am well aware this makes me sound like a snob, but I have little patience for shallow conversations. I can only go so long talking about whether we’ve all eaten, recapping the latest episode of whichever show, and gasping at who’s dating whom. When I did try to veer conversations into topics I had enjoyed, I would get this comment: “Wow, deep.” (It wasn’t a compliment.)
I had these questions in my head, but with most, asking them wasn’t enough. There was rarely ever a good occasion to segue them into that I needed to come up with a way in; something approachable and familiar. One night in 2016, when board game cafés were popping up all over Manila, I figured it out: I’d turn these questions into a card game. That was my Trojan horse.
It was a simple idea, but the package made a significant difference. Because it came in the form of a simple ‘pick a card’ game, people were relieved of the pressure and awkwardness of steering a conversation. If someone was asked a question that was too intimate, they could blame it on the cards.
Thus, So Cards was born. I made sure they didn’t look like something that belonged in the guidance counselor’s office. It had to be just like a regular pack of cards; keeping it playful took away a lot of the questions’ perceived weight. Since launching via Kickstarter, these decks have gone all over the world.
Every now and then, I get stories in return: One girl explained how she, her boyfriend, and their friends went on a four-hour road trip through the French countryside. One of them brought the cards and they filled the air with conversation instead of letting the radio take over the ride. I heard one account of a single mom who played it over dinner with her teenage son. The question If everyone had a polar opposite, what would yours be like? led to a discussion on his insecurities as well as the traits he’s most proud of. Their dialogue was a far cry from the monosyllabic, monotonous responses to How was school?
People were eager to get into deeper conversations; they just wanted a safe space and someone to give them permission.
These were accounts of people who had gotten closer despite years of already knowing each other. But would anyone be willing to answer these questions with people whose names they’ve barely just learned? I got my answer in August 2018 when I launched an event called Beyond Small Talk. It was the antithesis to the typical networking event: For the entirety of the night, people weren’t allowed to talk about work, school, news, or the weather. I could see their unease when I told them this rule, growing even more as I handed them a So Card each.
Now, this wasn’t just a matter of giving strangers questions and letting them prod at each others’ most intimate details. At the start of each event, I’d go up on stage and set the tone, tell a story, and give rules on how to go about conversations. I talked about the importance of listening (and not using someone else’s turn to think of your own cool answer), vulnerability (your openness gives others permission to be vulnerable as well), and being present (no phones).
No one knew how that first gathering would turn out. We figured—hoped—that maybe 15 would show up. And there were indeed 15 people... within five minutes of opening the doors. By the official start time, we had fifty men and women in eight groups. During the first round, I walked around eavesdropping. What I heard shocked me; it was difficult to believe none of these people knew each other just a few minutes prior. They discussed childhood dreams, heartache, insecurities, past trauma. At one table, a woman was weeping as others listened intently.
We had struck a nerve. People were eager to get into these deeper conversations; they just wanted a safe space and someone to give them permission. And after three hours in Bikram-level heat and humidity (this was at the peak of summer in Amsterdam), we reached the end of the program, but people still stuck around, refusing to leave their newfound friends.
I asked them if this was worth doing again. “Yes! Do this every week,” shouted Rohan, one of our most eager participants.
I did not have the energy to hold the events on a weekly basis, but it did become a monthly fixture in Amsterdam. Word about the event spread, and I started receiving invitations to launch in other cities. A couple in Rome had asked me to fly over and host Beyond Small Talk at their hostel. That night was unusually cold and we expected maybe 40 guests to huddle in their garden. But 20 minutes after we had opened the doors, we had run out of seats. Peeking outside, I saw a line had formed reaching the end of the block. As it turns out, the residents of Rome were eager storytellers. Who would have guessed Italians loved to talk so much?
Like a mosaic, these pieces came together for a night where we might not all agree, but we did agree to listen.
It was the opposite in Tel Aviv: Our venue was a cavernous exhibition space at the back of a bar. There was no line, and people trickled in. Unlike Rome where elbows bumped against one another, here there were more empty chairs than people. From the outside, one might mistake this as an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Another might even deem this outcome as a bit of a disappointment. And while it may seem so, the smaller numbers actually gave way to more depth. Months after I had left, our Instagram account would still receive updates from the Tel Aviv attendees: They sent notes of gratitude and photos of them hanging out. These meetings weren’t what I called emotional one-night stands; real friendships are formed.
In the span of seven months, I had hosted Beyond Small Talk in Amsterdam, The Hague, Berlin, Rome, Florence, and Tel Aviv. I had seen this craving for deeper connection cross cultures and languages. The one place I had yet to bring this to was my home. Then in February 2019, I set a date for Manila. The journey had come full circle.
The same concerns from years ago filled me with both anticipation and anxiety. In a culture where people liked to stay with the same circle of friends from high school until heaven’s gate, would anyone really want to spend a night with a bunch of strangers, let alone divulge their deepest secrets with them? I wondered if anyone at any point in the night would utter those two dreaded words: “Wow, deep.”
The night came and guests started trickling in. We usually allot half an hour for everyone to come in before we start, but considering Manila traffic, I set an hour and a half. Though tickets had sold out, resting my concerns over levels of interest, I still worried about how everyone would respond. Before starting, everyone was free to roam, order drinks, and talk to whomever. That didn’t quite happen in the beginning: Those who came in groups stuck together. Those who came alone were tapping away on their phones. Maybe, just maybe, this was going to flop.
Then we started, and once again, I saw what a good question could do.
While there was some initial hesitation, people shuffled around the room joining new groups, like electrons moving about to form new atoms. Between rounds, when I’d ask people to share their favorite answers and stories, they were eager to grab the mic. Even self-admitted introverts felt comfortable enough to speak. Everyone listened.
In one group, a girl had answered the question, What were you best known for in high school? She told a story of putting pebbles inside candy wrappers and offering them to her classmates. One boy had the card that asked, In what ways are you a difficult person to live with? He spoke of how he apparently cleans too much, leaving no chores for anyone else. Everyone joked they would gladly take him in.
Another person tackled the question, What are signs that you have chemistry with someone? As he gave his little monologue, I looked around at other people’s faces, observing how they received his thoughts. I realized something both startling and reassuring: Not once did it feel like he was in any danger of ridicule. No one put him down. “Wow, deep” never reared its ugly head. I had made all these assumptions about a culture I had grown up in, and to my surprise and my delight, I was wrong.
At the third round of each event, everyone puts away their cards. The whole group is asked just one big question for everyone. During this event, the one I prepared made a bit nervous, for two reasons: First, it had to do with sex. In a country still entrenched in the Church and its values, not everyone is comfortable talking about this, at least out in the open. The other reason was that in attendance was a single mom and her 14-year-old son. Before asking the question, I asked her if she would be comfortable letting him be part of this discussion. She said, “Honestly, after these first two rounds, I know I can trust you, and I think it might be easier to give him The Talk after this.”
With her consent, I started the last round. I asked everyone, Which one of these do you consider to be a more serious act: sex, or holding hands in public? I asked those who thought sex was more serious to go on one side of the room, while those who believed holding hands held more weight went on the other.
I had thought there would be more people flocking towards the sex side, but it was a fairly even split. Yet again, I my assumptions had been subverted. I thought most would shy away from the conversation, but that microphone kept bouncing from hand to hand.
These meetings weren’t emotional one-night stands; real friendships are formed.
One girl described her experiences with casual sex, and both the enjoyment and emptiness that follows. An older woman brought up the difference between sex and making love, and mentioned the importance of intention. Another talked about how holding hands, especially to the LGBTQ+ community, had so much more meaning than having sex as it was a public declaration. In a culture where they’re not as accepted, this says, You mean more to me than my fear of discrimination.
On the other side of the room, a gentleman made his point: “Both things mean a lot to me, but when I found out my ex had sex with someone else, it hurt so much more than if she’d just held hands with him.” His voice cracked as he described his pain, and then continued, “I also know that every single person in this room is here because of sex. If that doesn’t make it the most intimate act, I don’t know what does.”
Finally, the mother took the microphone. She cleared her throat and spoke words that utterly shifted how I saw Beyond Small Talk: “I just want to take this moment to thank everyone. All of you have started this conversation better than I could have. You brought up points that we might have missed if I had done this myself.”
This room was filled with faces from across the spectrum of age, interests, and beliefs. On the surface, so many of these individuals, didn’t seem like they’d fit with one another. Still, like a mosaic, these pieces came together for a night where we might not all agree, but we did agree to listen.
I had never seen a discussion like it, especially in the Philippines. I also know it wouldn’t have worked if we had begun with a sledgehammer like the last question. It all began with letting people’s walls down first, with questions that asked them first about who they are instead of where they stand. Just like the So Cards themselves, these first two rounds, with their personal-yet-approachable questions, were the Trojan horse to this more serious discourse.
A good question can chip away at all our assumptions—I know mine were pulverized by the end of the night. These questions can expound our knowledge (“I never knew that.”) or make us feel less alone (“I never knew anyone else felt that way too.”)
When I think of other people’s collections, much of the value comes from how well each piece is preserved: Sneakers and action figures are supposed to stay in their boxes, kept in their pristine state. With my collection, it’s the opposite. Questions are supposed to be out in the open, scuffed up, repeated, regurgitated, and mistranslated. Their value doesn’t go up the longer they stay in boxes, but as it goes through one’s mouth and into others’ ears; collecting opinions, stories, perspectives, and in every assumption it has broken.
This story was originally published in GRID Volume 08.