Why do people ask random questions? I initially thought of answering this question in my trademark, tongue-in-cheek style, but then I realized that people deserve to know why randomness is so darn interesting. (Consider, for example, Slate's attempt to figure out the origin of the "25 random things about me" meme.)
Random questions are primarily social in nature. They can...
1. Impress the asked with the cleverness of the asker.
Probably their primary purpose, if we're honest. Random questions are spiritually akin to the pick-up line.
2. Fill awkward gaps in conversation.
This is the reason we use to convince ourselves or others that #1 isn't our true motivation.
3. Open up new spaces for seeing another's personality.
It's not all about narcissism. Random questions are a kind of cultural shorthand for the new millennium. Their popularity springs from the ubiquity of instant conversation, whether in chat rooms or on social networking websites. They're used as icebreakers on dating / match sites, as introductions to profiles on blogs.
4. Be used as an evaluative tool by potential employers.
Job interviewers like to mix in a random question from time to time, combining the purposes of #1 and #3 above. The interviewer wants to know whether the applicant is creative, thinks quickly on her feet, and has an interesting personality. For example, if you were to be asked, "If you could be any insect, which would you choose?" there's no right or wrong insect. (Okay, "cockroach" is probably wrong.) Whether you wish you could be a cicada or a mantis, the point of the question is for you to create a meaningful response out of the randomness. Good answer: "An ant, because I believe in tirelessly working together with my colleagues to increase profits." Bad answer: "A bark beetle, 'cause I hate trees."
Bust writer's block.
Answering a random question is sometimes the way out of the slough of despair. For a greater challenge, try writing your own truly random questions. It's not easy.
I use random questions for speech or essay or discussion prompts. The process of merely creating the questions, whether individually or collectively, can itself be educational.
Be used in field sobriety tests.
Just kidding. Sort of.
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