How old are you?

How old are you“How old are you?” All of us have wondered about the age of someone we’ve met, but asking this question can be awkward, even during a one-to-one conversation. Making public the ages of hundreds of people in a meeting room — well, that’s even more awkward! Body voting (aka human spectrograms) can uncover this information in a few minutes, but because age can be a sensitive subject, I’ve always demurred requests to have participants line up by age at a meeting.

Until last week.

One approach —feel free to lie!

One way to make a sensitive statistic safer for participants to reveal is to give them permission to lie. When appropriate, I tell people they get to decide what answer to give, and that I’m not going to check up on them.

This works well for “fuzzy” questions like “How long have you been in [this profession]?” But, in my experience, some people will still be uncomfortable lying about their age — especially if there are a few people present who know how old they actually are!

A safer approach

Last week, I facilitated two meeting design workshops for the fifty (day 1) and 150 (day 2) cardiologists and staff who create and lead conferences for the American Heart Association. During each workshop, after participants had experienced several body voting exercises where they met peers living near them and those with similar roles, I asked what else they’d like to know about each other.

How old are you
Adrian running body voting at American Heart Association meeting, January 29, 2020

The first day I was co-leading with eminent cardiologist Professor Emelia Benjamin, who is keenly interested in creative and fun experiments for faculty development and meetings. A participant asked for an age spectrogram, and I gently refused the request and moved on.

Emelia was present the second day, when we again received a request for an age spectrogram. She rushed up to me and suggested “How about an emotional age spectrogram?” I immediately loved the idea so we did it. I asked everyone “How old do you feel you are?” and asked people to line up in order of their emotional age.

Once everyone was in place, after much amusement, I asked them to raise their hand if their emotional age was less than their real age. More information and fun for all!

Emelia suggested it would be interesting to do a two dimensional version with actual age versus emotional age. Because, I was concerned about safety plus lack of time, we passed on this.

Possible improvements

Afterwards, with a little Googling, I discovered a neat alternative way to ask about emotional age:

“How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are.”
American baseball player Leroy Robert “Satchel” Paige

I also came up with a version of Emilia’s two-dimensional spectrogram that supplies blurred information about actual ages.

Have people form an emotional age spectrogram along a center line in the room. Once they’re lined up, indicate four additional lines they can move to, when instructed, above or below their current line, corresponding to how much their actual age relates to their emotional age. (Or they can stay where they are, which means their emotional age is around the same as their actual age.)

The five lines indicate a person’s actual age is:

  1. A lot more than their emotional age.
  2. Somewhat more than their emotional age.
  3. About the same as their emotional age {original center line}.
  4. Somewhat less than their emotional age.
  5. A lot less than their emotional age.

Once participants understand these options, ask them to move simultaneously. As with any human spectrogram, have them observe the distribution in the room and their neighbors, and add any pertinent observations.

How old are you? The next time participants ask for this information via a human spectrogram I’ll know what to do. Thank you Emelia Benjamin!


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