There are usually a couple of questions I ask potential students within the first month of training, or even before they begin training. I usually don’t ask it in so blunt a manner, but they are usually in some form of “Who are you, what do you do, and why do you want to train with us?” Journalism students will quickly recognize that this is a subset of what they are supposed to search for in researching a story: Who, what, when, where, why and, of course, why should it matter to the reader?
There are several reasons why I ask these questions, some obvious and perhaps some not so apparent at first.
Obviously, I want to get some idea of who you are. My club is so small that any new person will alter the group dynamics substantially, and so I want to know from the start what you are like, where you are coming from, and what kind of prior knowledge (and stereotypes) you are bringing to the training. Who are you, what do you do?
Who are you? What do you do? In America, we tend to categorize people based a lot on their occupation. It’s not that I’m a social snob. You don’t need to have a white collar job. But if you are an adult, don’t have a job and are mooching off your significant other, your parents or some sugar daddy or mommy, I’m going to wonder if you can afford to help pay the monthly dues that covers our dojo rental fees. Also, what does that say about your ability to stick things out, to work hard at a concerted, extended effort? The economy being what it is, there are legitimate reasons why you might be out of work. There are also warning signs to me if you simply don’t have a job not from circumstances beyond your control, but because you just want to mooch off someone else.
What prior martial arts background do you have? Some martial arts will complement what we do. Some will only hinder you learning our own style, so I will have prior knowledge of what I need to be aware of. We could sure use new members to help pay the rent but because I don’t make a living off teaching martial arts, I don’t really need to pad the class with students to help pay my personal bills. Perhaps your experiences and mindset are not the proper fit for what we do. I sometimes suggest other martial arts schools that prospective students might enjoy more than ours. We’re not the answer to everyone’s quest for the martial arts that suit their purposes.
Why do you want to train in our dojo? There’s actually no pat and simple answer for this. Of course, if you say something like “Because I need to fight the ninjas that are coming out of the walls in my padded room,” I may ask that you focus on taking your medication regularly instead of learning how to fight invisible ninja. (Seriously: I encountered someone who wandered into our dojo, feet encrusted with street dirt, asking about ninjas coming out of the walls, and I said they don’t do that in our dojo anymore. He got offended at my flippant remark and began to get belligerent until I pulled out my cell phone and told him I was calling the police. He must have had prior encounters with the boys and girls in blue because he immediately changed his tone, got very conciliatory, and backed away and disappeared down the stairs as fast as he could.)
But when I thought about it, even I have a hard time establishing my reasons for doing budo into a set of short, simple sentences.
So why even ask when I can’t answer my own question succinctly? And why ask the other questions if the case is that more often than not, I allow students to train, usually regardless of their social status or occupation?
The reason that’s not so apparent is that in the asking, I’m not just recording the quantitative answers: what your job is, what prior training you’ve done, why you want to train (even if you struggle on that last answer). I’m looking at your answers in a qualitative way. How are your answering the questions? What kind of emotional and personality traits are you exhibiting when you talk about yourself, past teachers, past training? Are you SAYING all the right words, but are your mannerisms and body language in opposition to the words coming out of your mouth? Then there’s something not quite right with what you’re saying.
Again, I’ve rarely told people to leave and not come back after I talk to them, save for that derelict who wandered in off the streets. But it does give me a quick handle on how you will fare, and after accumulating years of experiences with different kinds of people, I’ve gotten a pretty good idea of how long you will last.
Two people can say the same things, but how they say it and their body language may tell me totally different things about those two.
“Oh, I trained/am still training in X martial arts, but I’m really not that good at it…” That’s the usual way people will talk about their martial arts experience. There’s humble, though, and there’s false humility. One person can smile self-deprecatingly, shake his head, and the entire body language will show humility and a willingness to learn something new. Another person, like a short-term student who I encountered some months ago, said the right words, but he puffed out his chest, stuck his chin out and looked down his nose when he said it, as if his words were saying, “I’m humble and willing to learn,” but his body was saying “But I’m a badass!” He didn’t last all that long. His cup was too full, and he had a hard time adjusting to our training. Moreover, he didn’t think anything about showing up with patches up and down his training outfit promoting his other martial arts style. And he wasn’t a badass. He was just bad.
Then again, there are those students who I thought wouldn’t last past one month, and for some odd reason, they keep coming back and training, year in and year out. I can’t figure those people out. And I’ve also been conned in the past. As I tell my students, my bullshit meter is not totally foolproof. But it’s a lot better than it was ten or twenty years ago. So maybe I’m not perfect, but my meter is getting more and more calibrated.
In a way, talking to prospective new students is like speed dating. How do you get a handle on this new person in only a few minutes, who might barge into your life and stick around every training session, three hours a week, week in and week out, through a cursory interview? You can end a speed date right away if your creep-ometer senses that the potential partner is a jerk. But a jerk in the dojo may hang around for a long time. That’s something I’m still learning to fine-tune, I must admit.
And if you are that new student, are you self-aware enough to know what kind of impression you are conveying to other people, not just in the dojo, but also in the rest of your life? Is that impression positive or negative? Are your words saying one thing, but is your body language giving away your true nature, and is that nature something you actually like or is it time for a change in attitude?