The Power of ‘Lately’: How to Ask Personal Questions that People Want to Answer


You’ve probably been in the following situation: you’re talking to someone whom you don’t know very well, and in an effort to get to know you better, they ask something along the lines of “what’s your favorite movie?” or “what’s your favorite book?”

Odds are that you now have to start racking your brain in an effort to decide which movie or book you’re going to pick. After all, there are so many great ones you like; it’s hard to pick just one. Besides, there are all sorts of favorites. There is the one that’s most epic, the one that makes you laugh, the one that inspires you, and so on.

The following example illustrates this pretty well:

I always hate it when someone asks me, “What’s your favorite book?” since I never quite know what to say. I have so many books that I love, many of which are in wildly diverse categories. I usually end up telling them that I don’t have a single favorite book, or even a category.

From a discussion on Reddit

This is why questions along the lines of “what’s your favorite X” are generally a bad choice in conversations. Luckily however, you can modify these questions a bit, to make them easier and more fun for people to answer.


The power of ‘lately’

Instead of asking people what their favorite film is, ask them about a good movie that they watched lately.

This makes your question easier to answer for several reasons:

  • It narrows the number of options that they have to pick from.
  • It makes the decision less significant, which takes some pressure off.
  • It focuses the decision on recent experiences, which are easier for people to remember.

Furthermore, an added benefit of using ‘lately’ is that it makes your discussion feel more like a casual conversation, and less like an interview. It also helps you stand out and make a positive impression, since most people will usually go with the default “favorite X” questions, despite the fact that they rarely work well.

Note that you can substitute ‘lately’ for similar variants, such as ‘recently’. The goal is the same: to make the question easier to answer, by making it about something that the other person experienced recently.

However, make sure to use language that leaves it to the other person to decide what ‘recently’ means. That is, avoid using specific time frames, such as ‘last week’, since doing this places an unnecessary constraint on the other person.

In general, you want to use language that is as ‘open’ as possible. Just give other people the prompt, and let them think of something that they want to share. Don’t constrain their ability to share their favorite experiences by placing unnecessary conditions on how they should pick those experiences.


Other types of good personal questions

There are other ways to modify personal questions that you ask, so that they will be easier and more fun for people to answer. All these options revolve around the same theme, which, as we saw above, involves making sure to not ask the other person for a single, definitive answer. For example, two questions that you could ask someone are:

  • What’s one of your favorite books?
  • What movie really made you laugh?

Similarly to adding ‘lately’, using these variations helps make your question feel more like a part of a natural conversation and less like an interview.

Note that you can insert ‘lately’ into these types of questions if you want:

  • What book did you enjoy reading lately?
  • What movie made you laugh lately?


Remember that there are always exceptions

There is no single question that is the best to ask. Which question works best depends on various factors, such as the preferences of the person you are talking to, how well you know them, and the context of your conversation.

While using ‘lately’ in question is often preferable to asking definite questions, there are some situations where narrowing the scope of your question might be appropriate. For example, if you’re talking to someone who just spent their summer in a foreign country, it’s perfectly logical to ask them about positive experiences that they had while they were there.

As such, when asking people personal questions, remember that you can use ‘lately’ in order to improve your questions, but remember also that the best question to ask will depend on the situation you are in. As such, always assess the situation in order to try and find the best question that will work in this context, and don’t be afraid to make modifications as you go along.


Summary and conclusions

  • A lot of people hate answering questions in the format of “what’s your favorite X”, since such questions are difficult to answer, because it’s often hard to pick a single, definitive answer out of all the available options.
  • Accordingly, you can improve person questions that you ask by asking people questions about things that they experienced lately, such as “what’s a good movie that you watched lately?” or “what’s an interesting book that you read recently?”. Using these types of questions makes the conversation feel more natural and easygoing, and helps you avoid making the other person feel like they are being formally interviewed.
  • There are other modifications that you can make to your questions in order to make them easier and more interesting to answer. For example, you can ask people to tell you about one of their favorite books, or about a book that made them laugh.
  • In general, try to use language that is as ‘open’ as possible, and makes it easy for the other person to find information that they want to share.
  • Remember that the best type of question to ask depends on a variety of factors, including the other person’s preferences, and the nature of your conversation. Always try to assess the situation when choosing which type of question to ask, and be willing to adjust as you go along.