The 36 Questions Project is a new series in which Meg Williams takes a politician on a date and asks them the 36 Questions, a series of conversation-starters designed to make two people fall in love. In this inaugural installment, Young Greens co-convenor Williams dates Act leader David Seymour. Will opposites attract?
This is an edited version of a story that first appeared in Craccum, the University of Auckland student magazine. It is republished with permission.
In 2015, the New York Times’ Modern Love column published a piece by Mandy Len Catron about the 36 questions that can supposedly make any two strangers fall in love. The 36 questions are divided into three sections, each more personal than the last. To finish, the pair are instructed to stare into each other’s eyes for four whole minutes. Catron discovered these questions in a study by Arthur Aron called ‘The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness: A Procedure and Some Preliminary Findings’, which resulted in two of the research subjects falling in love and getting married.
The idea behind the questions is that being in a vulnerable position with another person fosters closeness, and so naturally the questions really force you to dig deep and to feel awkward and embarrassed (the questions themselves are listed below).
Catron’s article makes its way back onto my Facebook newsfeed every now and then, and when I saw it pop up again recently I had a wild idea: what if I, co-convener of the Young Greens, did the 36 questions with David Seymour, leader of the Act Party? I’m a girl with some gumption, eager for a good story, so I went ahead and sent him a Facebook message with my pitch. David is well-known for being a good sport, so of course he said he was keen. He did have his initial concerns, however.
“What if it worked?” he wrote. “Then we would end up as star-crossed Romeo and Juliet with Jeanette Fitzsimons and Richard Prebble as Montague and Capulet.” He agreed to go ahead with it, but only do the first third of the questions, and definitely not do the staring into each other’s eyes for four minutes thing. I wasn’t too keen on staring into his eyes for a whole four minutes either, to be clear.
My friends were not without their own concerns. “Meg,” they’d say. “What if it does work?!”
“Well,” I’d reply, “I guess I’d just have to carry out a secret love affair with David Seymour.” There are probably worse things, right?
We arranged to have dinner at Spacca, a little Italian place on Remuera Road David recommended because of the chef’s comical enthusiasm (as well as the delicious food).
I arrived late because I was stuck on a bus in horrendous traffic. When I did finally arrive, I had to stop myself from channeling my inner Julie Anne Genter and begin our date with a seminar on the state of public transport in Auckland.
I sat down and got stuck into the pinot noir David had ordered for me. Gaetano, the enthusiastic chef who David reckons is straight out of the mafia (“Just look at his tattoos,” David said), came over and spoke at a million miles an hour. “Yes,” I said, not really knowing what I was agreeing to. Moments later the table disappeared underneath an abundance of beautiful Italian food. I was instantly impressed – I’m terribly fussy about Italian restaurants because their food can never quite match the Italian food I make at home (I make a damn good seafood marinara), and I don’t mean to turn this into a restaurant review, but shit this food was good.
To avoid small talk and to get the conversation flowing, I suggested we jump straight into the questions. It wasn’t long before one of the questions led David to opine that the worst teacher in New Zealand shouldn’t be paid the same as the best teacher in New Zealand. Of course, what he was referring to were collective agreements won by teachers’ unions which guarantee fair pay for all teachers. The socialist in me found these comments to be a bit of a boner-killer, so I set a rule: no talking about policy. “We can save that for the 36 questions to make two people fall out of love,” I said.
We pushed on. The whole process is only supposed to take about 45 minutes, but after two hours we had only reached question 14. Each question would spark a new conversation; one got me talking about my mother’s breast cancer diagnosis a few years ago, the genetics of breast cancer, Nikki Kaye’s recent recovery; another got David talking about his sports car he built himself in high school. We talked about religion and my religious background and found common ground on our respect for the Anglicans. One question prompted me to explain John Rawls to David, attempting to get him to admit that under the Veil of Ignorance he would believe that all resources should be distributed equally like a communist paradise. We slipped back into talking about policy; David mentioned charter schools, so I snapped us back to the questions.
After we’d gotten through a decent chunk of them (yes, we had gone further than David was initially willing to go with the questions, probably because I’m so darn charming after a few wines), we thought we should probably leave Spacca, having been in there for two hours. We went over the road to a pub to finish the questions, and to continue getting sufficiently sozzled. While we were there, a fan of David’s came over to get a photo with him, which was a little bizarre. We had a couple more beers, meaning we were up to drink number four or five.
We didn’t do all of the questions. Some of them were just a little too personal – I don’t think either of us were prepared to share our most terrible memories with each other, and the question about the roles of love and affection in our lives seemed a little inappropriate. There had to be, after all, at least some level of politician-journalist professionalism. Though I definitely wouldn’t say the relationship that developed between us was as dry as most politician-journalist relationships.
There was one point in the night where I really was taken aback by David’s genuineness. One of the last questions was, “Your house, containing everything you own, catches fire. After saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be?” I set a rule that we weren’t allowed to choose our iPhones, since iPhones are just an extension of our limbs. I said that I would save my teddy bear, which my dad bought for me the day I was born, and has slept in my bed with me every night since.
David’s answer was, to be quite honest, pretty gorgeous. He said that before his mother passed away a few years ago, she recorded a video, put it onto a DVD, and addressed it to David’s future partner. David said that this is what he would save.
“And you’ve never watched it?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “Not yet.” You have to admit that that is fairly adorable.
The end of the night came around and we realised we had taken approximately three and a half hours to not even finish the questions, and we decided to call it a night. Tipsy David decided it’d be unwise to drive home, so we got into an Uber and shook hands goodnight as he was dropped off at his Remuera flat.
I really didn’t know what I was expecting to get out of this bizarre experience. What I did end up getting out of it was actually a nice night with someone who was easy enough to get along with. Did the co-convenor of the Young Greens and the Leader of the ACT Party fall in love? I don’t think so, but (I don’t know about David) it definitely made me realise how possible it is to make a connection with someone, even if that someone is anti-unions, pro-charter schools, and once compared Marama Davidson (the Beyoncé of politics and my dear friend) to Trump… eek.
He did pay for my food, drinks, and Uber home though.
The 36 Questions
David and I only discussed some of them – and sorry, I’m not going to share his replies this time. But stay tuned for future installments in which we’ll dig deep into politicians’ answers.
1. Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
2. What is your most treasured memory?
3. Would you like to be famous? In what way?
4. Before making a phone call, do you ever rehearse what you’re going to say? Why?
5. What would constitute a perfect day for you?
6. When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?
7. If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you choose?
8. Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?
9. Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common.
10. For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
11. If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
12. Take four minutes and tell you partner your life story in as much detail as possible.
13. If you could wake up tomorrow having gained one quality or ability, what would it be?
14. If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future or anything else, what would you want to know?
15. Is there something that you’ve dreamt of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
16. What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
17. What do you value most in a friendship?
18. What is your most terrible memory?
19. If you knew that in one year you would die suddenly, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why?
20. What does friendship mean to you?
21. What roles do love and affection play in your life?
22. Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your partner. Share a total of five items.
23. How close and warm is your family? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people’s?
24. How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?
25. Make three true “we” statements each. For instance, “we are both in this room feeling…”
26. Complete this sentence “I wish I had someone with whom I could share…”
27. If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know.
28. Tell your partner what you like about them: be honest this time, saying things that you might not say to someone you’ve just met.
29. Share with your partner an embarrassing moment in your life.
30. When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?
31. Tell your partner something that you like about them already.
32. What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?
33. If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet?
34. Your house, containing everything you own, catches fire. After saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? Why?
35. Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?
36. Share a personal problem and ask your partner’s advice on how he or she might handle it. Also, ask your partner to reflect back to you how you seem to be feeling about the problem you have chosen.
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