It’s time for Christmas dinner – or lunch – or whatever we call that meal that arrives at 4pm on December 25 after the first three tubs of Roses (they keep getting smaller, you know) and six jugs of Bucks Fizz have been emptied. The Christmas drone you unwrapped half an hour ago is already caught in a tree, and there’s palpable tension in the air because somebody just said: “Out of interest, did Father Christmas keep the receipt for this?”
But when the turkey arrives, all other props are set aside and you have to rely on good, old-fashioned conversation during a meal that lasts – if your household is anything like mine – at least three hours.
Fortunately, being a QI researcher provides me with an extremely useful conversational fall back. There are very few awkward silences that can’t be interrupted with an interesting fact. For example:
Mother: I’ve overcooked the turkey, haven’t I? *
QI Researcher: Actually, speaking of turkey, did you know that turkeys’ heads change colour? They blush bright red during courtship, and turn bright blue when excited.
There can be problems with the QI approach. If a topic arises in conversation about which I want to know more, or a question to which I don’t know the answer, I’ll usually hunt out the nearest relevant book, encyclopaedia or Google search box. But during Christmas dinner that feels a touch impolite - besides the bread sauce sticks the pages together.
But more problematic than that is that sometimes, inexplicably, fellow diners don’t want to be told about the adorable habits of the formerly conscious creature they’re about to eat. And occasionally they aren’t excited to know, as they’re trying to force down a Brussels sprout, that the reason they find it so repulsively bitter is that they’re a supertaster. That means they probably have about 10 times as many taste buds as I do (I, to my eternal shame, am definitely a non-taster). I’ve just told them they have an actual superpower (sort of), and yet they roll their eyes.
Spending too much time with me can give my friends and family fact fatigue. Factigue, if you will. They’d sometimes prefer to share cracker jokes with one another, rather than have me explain that crackers were originally called ‘Cosaques’. It’s because when they were invented in the mid-19th century, the sound they made reminded people of the cracking whips of the Cossacks as they rode through Paris during the Franco-Prussian war – but by this point, I’ve usually lost people’s attention, and they might not ever care that crackers went on to be named ‘Bangs of Expectation’.
It’s easy forget as a QI researcher that the main purpose of making these incredible discoveries on a daily basis is not so that we have a stockpile of facts to unleash on a passive audience. I do it because every interesting fact spawns a thousand interesting questions. Which other animals can change colour? Is it good to be a supertaster? And for God’s sake, why on earth did the term ‘Bangs of Expectation’ fall by the wayside?
So this year, instead of bringing a barrage of interesting facts to the table, I’ll be using Christmas dinner conversation to find some interesting questions to pose. It’s my gift to the whole family (a cynic might read this as an excuse for not going shopping on Christmas Eve).
In light of which, here’s a recipe for a Quite Interesting Christmas dinner, with ingredients provided by far wiser heads than mine:
Psychoanalyst Melanie Klein identified three basic human instincts: the life instinct, the death instinct and the curiosity instinct – or, for syllable lovers, the epistemophilic instinct. Nurture that last one, and ask as many (non-inane) questions as you can.
Socrates said: “My way toward the truth is to ask the right questions” and he’s probably the most interesting person who ever lived (I don’t have a source for that claim) so he’s not a bad one to emulate.
2) Digression and imagination
"I cannot keep my subject still. It goes along, befuddled and staggering, with a natural drunkenness."
Aspire to that. Digressions will often yield the best discoveries, and embracing them might help you appreciate that tipsy uncle’s rambling stories a little bit more.
Find creative digressions and take an imaginative angle on a subject. Einstein believed that imagination is more important than knowledge, and he nearly always knew what he was talking about.
You are almost completely ignorant. No offence – it’s true of us all, given the vast amount of knowledge there is out there and the tiny amount of time we have to acquire it. Even the things we think we know are often wrong. Certainty is a dangerous thing - take Bertrand Russell’s word for it:
"The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts."
Those wiser people make for much better dinner companions because they don’t want to show off what they know and they’ll listen more often than they’ll talk.
So there you have the Holy Trinity (you see how I crowbarred it back to a festive theme, right at the last minute?) required for a quite interesting Christmas dinner.
Hopefully that sort of chat will get me out of having to do the washing up.
* This is a strictly hypothetical scenario and I’d like to make it clear – just in case she reads this and I’m deprived of Christmas dinner altogether as a result – that my mother would never, ever overcook the turkey.
Anna Ptaszynski is one of the 'Elves' (researchers) behind the hit BBC 2 panel show QI, and a panellist on the award-winning QI podcast, No Such Thing as a Fish. QI also makes a BBC Radio 4 series, The Museum of Curiosity and a string of fact- packed books. This year’s Christmas offerings are 1,234 QI Facts to Leave You Speechless and QI: The Third Book of General Ignorance.
Look out for the Quite Interesting Year Quiz in the Telegraph on Boxing Day