What’s your favorite color that’s not a color?

So we’re gonna go around the circle and introduce ourselves. Everybody tell us your name, where you’re from, where you go to school, for what, and what year you are, or where you work and what your job is, and…

Everybody needs a good icebreaker.

Between college, church-related activities, and [what I can only describe as the retarded hybrid test-tube baby of spontaneity, whimsy, the inability to say ‘no’, and an awkward introvert’s varied attempts to be social], I have found myself in more of these self-interrogation circles than I ever would have imagined, much less could possibly count.

The questions asked are remarkably predictable (and alliterative):

  • Who: Your name, of course.
  • What: do you do? Job and/or major.
  • Where: are you from, or where do you work/go to school.
  • When: How long have you been doing whatever it is you do?/What year in school are you?
  • and finally, Wildcard: You thought I was going to say “Why”, didn’t you? WRONG.
  • (One of those Ws may be omitted, especially if answers are expected to be similar.)

Who makes sense. Names are helpful. What/where/when are smalltalk standards, good to get out early, as a function of our culture more-so than actually being relevant to substantive conversation. The Wildcard question is where things get interesting.

The Wildcard is, as you might guess, at the discretion of the group leader or organizer. They might go for profound (ie: most memorable something-or-other), immediate (ie: highs & lows of the past week), or just silly (ie: favorite breakfast cereal). The more groups you do this with, the more they get redundant, so you try to think of new and interesting questions.

A few years ago, I found myself in one of those recurring events for which the group varies so we were used to doing the go-round each time for the benefit of new members, but on this particular occasion, it was a smallish group and we all knew each other, at least as far as the standard Ws went, so the group leader posed what might be considered the ultimate icebreaker: Come up with an icebreaker. We each thought of a question, and everyone answered each. Some were goofy, some forgettable, some awkward. Mine quickly became my favorite thing to ask people. 🙂

What’s your favorite color that’s not a color?

I couldn’t explain it well enough, so the lousy approximation that came out of my mouth was as much riddle as inquiry. It became as much about trying to see who understood my brain to “get it right” as people actually sharing their favorites, and after a few attempts at explaining it, my friend Elliott seems to be convinced that the question is entirely subjective and dependent on my brain, Jeff thinks we should put it to a vote, and only a few people seem to be catching the general drift of the question’s intent. (I think Rachel knows what I mean.) So it’s time to try to put this into words that are valid outside my brain.

“What’s your favorite color?” is a common enough question, and while interesting, and I love colors, the vocabulary that answers that question is so limited. “Blue”, “red”, “orange”, even “teal” are so vague, and tell me so little about what a person is actually liking.

Even more specific color names like “sky blue” or “brick red” describe only the hue and maybe shade of the color at best. But they’re really just largely-arbitrary labels assigned to a generally-accepted range of wavelengths in the visible spectrum. A sky blue car looks very different than a sky blue t-shirt, and neither actually looks the same as a sky blue sky. Color needs context.

What I’m interested in is not the label attached to the range of hues you usually prefer, but the whole and specific swatch of reality you find most visually appealing. It’s not cobalt blue, but cobalt blue glass… not brown, but the last half-inch of black coffee in a white mug… not just orange, or even soft orange, but Jim’s orange sweater. Big threatening clouds just before a sudden storm. That red plastic water bottle. Antique silver dinnerware. Polished mahogany. Even more complex things that don’t fit into traditional color names, like “Oil slick in the parking lot” or “the tv screen when it’s off” or Royal Stewart Tartan.

There’s depth to it. Texture. The way the light plays with a surface. It’s specific, so that assuming you seen it before too, you instantly know what the person is referring to, and don’t have to wonder “this part? or that one?” (Not just trees, even a certain tree, but the bark, or birch bark, or pine needles, or looking out over a valley of autumn leaves just before sunset. It brings to mind a certain mental picture that you can say, “Yep, that’s my favorite,” and when someone else hears it, they picture essentially the same thing and can say, “Ah, that’s their favorite.”

Blue corn tortilla chips. Copper (not merely “copper colored” but copper metal, like a brand new penny). #FF00FF on your computer screen (I have yet to see that one exist in nature). That greenish edge on a glass table. Orange juice. Tail lights. Blacklight. Black cat fur. Bluejeans. Blue raspberry Jolly Ranchers. Gold star stickers. Red rose petals. Beets.

Get the gist? I think I can rephrase the question better now. How about:

What’s your favorite [specific visual stimulus] that isn’t [an arbitrary label for a range of light wavelengths]?

Or better yet:

What’s your favorite color? Answer with a noun.