MOUTHWASH — An Offbeat Experiment
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Koreen Odiney and the Art of Asking the Right Questions

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We’re not really strangers. An endearing sentiment that pushes us to believe we have more in common than we’d like to think. Spearheaded by Koreen Odiney, the brand finds itself gaining massive traction through charming introspection — ordinary attractions become moments of reflection.

Koreen describes the brand as a public diary, her profession based around asking all the right questions without having all the answers. So for a journal story with a professional question-asker, I thought it made sense to come with no questions prepared. No agenda, no points to hit.

This conversation has a special energy around it. This wasn't the first time I have talked to Koreen, but we were by no means close. As we maneuver through topics, some serious, some irrelevant, you can feel the air shift into a place of familiarity, a memento to the fact that growing together is as simple as asking the right questions.

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MW: What’s up Koreen? What have you been doing today?

KO: Today has been a lot of meetings. Trying to figure out what to order on Postmates. And a lot of decision-making and tweaks. I’m trying to get better at giving notes to people. I’ve done this for so long by myself that any notes I have live in my head. But if I’m not the one doing the execution, it can’t be in my head anymore. So learning the art form of critique and giving direction.

MW: Yeah definitely. It feels like something we’re all still trying to figure out. For me, art school and hours of critique really informed how to give constructive criticism in a way that is helpful for the receiving party.

KO: It’s really tough. Because a lot of times I’m not sure what the best answer is. Today we were talking about our phone cases and the product photography, and I offered a solution that I wasn’t even sure was correct. Maybe what I was seeing in front of me was already the best solution, and I’m the one who’s wrong. It’s hard to strike that balance.

MW: It seems like the first round of phone cases went over really well though.

KO: Yeah they have been, which is always exciting. And we have new designs coming out soon as well.

MW: What was the timeline on something like that, from start to finish?

KO: About a year. We had been wanting to do phone cases for a very long time, but those designs that you guys photographed were conceptualized about a year ago. We had to find the right phone case vendor, observe how the print shows up on the case, and see if the quality was right. There’s so many little things that go into it, as you know.

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MW: It’s exciting though. Have you found that as you’re conceptualizing these ideas, your confidence in your ability to execute them grows each time something new comes out? Oftentimes, it can feel impossible to make even something like a phone case. Like where do you even start? It can be incredibly paralyzing.

KO: That’s a good question. Are we getting more confident? Maybe? I’m not sure. But I can resonate with the mindset that the process can feel unmanageable. Sometimes it seems like each step in making anything, a phone case, a sweatshirt. Each step can feel like an infinite distance. It can make you put the idea to the side. But the more we make, the more I see that the stuff in between the idea and the final product is doable, especially when you have other people to lean on. That’s why finding you guys was such a breakthrough for me. It was just clear to see that you guys got it. It makes little things feel more attainable. Now the question shifts to: What ideas are worth pursuing? The last thing we want is to spend a year on a concept and bring it to life and say: Is this it? Was this the idea?

MW: Naturally. But I think that’s the mature answer, right? Because it’s not easy. A lot of people have really big ideas, but not the foresight to say: “I’m not actually ready to tackle this yet. The pieces aren’t all in place.” Instead of trying and failing and getting discouraged, understanding that the means to create this idea aren’t there yet.

KO: I’m glad you think that’s the mature answer. Honestly, we’re still trying to figure it all out for ourselves.

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MW: I played the card game recently, so it makes sense we talk about it here, I think.

KO: Amazing! How was it?

MW: It was so fun. How do you come up with the questions? Are you the only one, or are there multiple voices in there?

KO: There’s multiple voices. I was writing questions for something like five years. The other voices you’ll hear besides me are interactions I’ve had with people. Sometimes friends, sometimes random strangers. Certain questions I can remember the exact moment they came about. I would always tell people I’m working on this card game. Everyone knew me as this card game girl. A stranger at Soho House one night told me I should add : “What’s the last thing you lied to your mom about?” And then he told me to add : “Have you ever told someone “I love you”, but didn’t mean it? If so, why?” He just randomly gave me these amazing questions. I typed out anything I heard that resonated with me on my phone. Sometimes a friend would come home from a date that wouldn’t go well, and questions were created from those conversations. From exploring what went wrong and trying to make sense of it all. The game took so long to make because I obsessed over the idea of these questions aging well. Is it something that will last for multiple years, for multiple relationships? And the game is still changing and growing. The version that exists now is different than the one we launched with.

MW: I’m just so curious to know what your Notes app is looking like. Is it a mess?

KO: It’s funny, because I feel like there’s different types of Notes users. Some are very organized, everything is labeled and in its place. And then there are the messy ones, like myself, who have a hard time making sense of it all.

MW: I spent an entire day a few months back cleaning my digital space. I went through my Notes app and was just disgusted. There were just so many random notes that had a single sentence or idea in them, and made absolutely no sense upon revisiting. It felt like a fever dream. Like, who does that?

KO: Do you find any value in going through those things? When you see that one sentence, does it trigger a new idea? Is the chaos valuable to you?

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MW: Definitely. I have a diary that I keep and generally write most things down in, but the Notes app definitely keeps things from falling through the cracks. I’m really interested in Diary Films, which is this subgenre within experimental filmmaking that usually consists of the filmmaker narrating their thoughts and feelings over certain images. So for me, my diary and my notes app is the fuel for the fire. Most of the stuff in my Notes is junk, but every now and then you’ll glean that diamond in the rough, and find an idea or thought worth expanding upon.

KO: If you could look at anyone’s notes, who would it be?

MW: Such a good question. It’d probably have to be Steve Jobs. I would love to have seen how he used his own creation.

KO: Oh, that’s so good. Jobs would be up there for me too. But Kanye West would be really interesting to see as well. His mind seems all over the place, but you have to respect his level of taste.

MW: So talking about these cards, and gathering these questions that have come to you through conversation. What makes a question good? How do you decide what makes the cut?

KO: It’s one of my favorite topics to talk about. I get chills thinking about it. I think the biggest metric of success for me is understanding how a question makes you feel. We’ll run ourselves in circles trying to reword a question, so at some point we have to take a step back and ask it to each other. And you’ll know when there’s a feeling. Pupils dilate, your mind goes to a certain place almost right away as you think it through. A good question is specific, it should lead to an emotion almost immediately. Even if you’re stumped by it, the truth is in there and you’re left to confront it. 

MW: Do you think the answer should be the same way? Should people hear or read one of your questions and know the answer immediately? Or is there a required amount of reflection needed?

KO: Yeah I think so. And I take that for granted a bit, if I’m being honest with myself. Because I do questions all the time. It’s my job to ask questions. But when a question feels very new, it can stump me and I have to pause for a second. And that doesn’t mean it’s bad. Usually it’s the opposite.

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MW: Do you have a question that stands out in your mind as the North Star? All other questions should aspire to be like that one.

KO: The first one that comes to mind is probably : “What’s the most pain you’ve ever been in that wasn’t physical?” That one always gets a lot of emotion. Like when we film videos of people playing, that’s always the tear-jerker. It’s crazy to me how we can all have a switch that goes off in us when we hear a certain question. Where the same emotion overcomes us. Isn’t that nuts?

MW: Definitely.

[Koreen relocates. A breath from the conversation occurs as we both seemingly forgot that we were talking with an objective purpose. We both reshift our focus.]

MW: What’s the craziest story you’ve heard from people who have played the game?

KO: One of my favorite things to do is to read our DM’s. There’s a lot of people coming out to their families, a lot of people coming to good terms with their exes. First kiss, first I Love You, are two other big ones. We just got our first marriage proposal through the game, which is a big milestone.

MW: How does that work? Do they propose through the final note?

KO: Yeah exactly, one of them wrote it on the final note, which is super cute. I took screenshots of everything.

MW: Do you ever feel like you’re the world’s therapist? Do you feel that sort of pressure through the platform you’ve created?

KO: You know, I don’t really feel that because I don’t feel the pressure of having to have all the answers. And that’s what I love about what I do. I just have to ask questions. The need for an answer doesn’t exist. Voting is a good example of this. It’s a topic that has been coming up, and I am admittedly not a politically informed person. I haven’t been following politics until very, very recently. And it’s obviously become something that we can’t simply ignore anymore. But despite that, I don’t feel like an expert on it. We created a voting expansion pack so that I could get myself more into the conversation, and others like me. You don’t have to have all the right answers when you’re asking the right questions. At the end of the day, We’re Not Really Strangers is my public diary. I’m writing based on my personal feelings and experiences. It’s all I can speak about and of.

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MW: Do you find yourself having a hard time following your own advice? 

KO: Definitely. I mean who doesn’t. Most of the time, the advice we’re giving through We’re Not Really Strangers is for myself in the present-time. It’s probably something I’m in the midst of, you know? The quote: If a conversation is hard, it’s probably the one worth having. That’s directed at me. I’m really scared of hard conversations, of confrontation. And that’s part of my personality type. I’m an ENFP. I’m the type of person who likes to keep the peace. But that’s what I mean when I say that We’re Not Really Strangers is a public diary. I don’t have it all figured out. I’m working through these things just like everyone else.

MW: I know you’re not in the business of giving advice, but can you tell me how you would handle a situation I encountered this morning?

KO: This sounds fun. Let’s do it.

MW: So I just bought some new clothes from this vintage warehouse. I got some new pieces that were pretty unique that I had been looking for for a while. And I washed them last night and they bled into each other. And I am just embarrassingly upset. Probably more upset than I should be, but now I’m beating myself up over this little incident. And I know I can bleach some of the pieces and re-dye them, but I feel like a fool. Has anything stupid like that happened to you and you just feel terrible about it?

KO: Oh, yeah. All the time.

MW: What do I tell myself?

KO: I would say, first, that you can let yourself feel upset. That’s totally fine, and stuff like that is really frustrating. So do what you need to do, cry it out, whatever you need. But after that, find the lesson and let it go. You’re going to buy a lot more great pieces of clothing in the future; how are you going to treat those clothes better moving forward?

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MW: Speaking of moving forward, what’s the future of We’re Not Really Strangers looking like? Does the brand have any dream collaborations?

KO: I feel really lucky that we’ve had the opportunity to work with the likes of Bumble, Red Table Talk, and Shopify. One of the most exciting things we’ve discovered about We’re Not Really Strangers is how exciting it can be to have someone come in and contribute their voice and personal experiences. It’s like a guest author in the public diary. As far as dream collaborations go, it has to be Oprah for me.

MW: Can you elaborate on that?

KO: Oprah has just been a massive influence on me. Her and Brené Brown are huge inspirations for me as far as philosophy and the subject matters they speak on. So to do an expansion pack with either of them would be otherworldly. To get to pick their brains on vulnerability and see what kind of questions they would add to an expansion pack would be a dream come true.

[As I predicted before we got started, Koreen had prepared some questions for me. Read below where me and Koreen swap roles and she lives up to her title as a professional questioner.]

KO: I’m just really curious to know what you’re passionate about.

MW: Starting off strong. I think at the root of what I’m passionate about is getting to connect with people who interest me. A lot of times, that looks like having conversations with them, but it also can include making things as well: clothing, objects, playlists. That sort of thing. And that passion is pretty much what is fueling what we’re doing on the brand-side of things for MOUTHWASH. We’re always trying to meet new people, hear what they’re doing, and grow alongside them. 

KO: Are there other ways you’re exploring those conversations personally?

MW: It’s a good question. The journals that we do are probably the most ideal way of realizing those passions. But I’m also really interested in Diary Filmmaking, like I mentioned earlier. And I see a lot of overlap between it and We’re Not Really Strangers. It’s pretty abstract, but it’s an amazingly personal way of learning about the filmmaker and growing closer to them. So personally, it’s always something I’m considering and trying to bring into my practice. It’s also just really rewarding for me.

KO: What’s your favorite part about working at MOUTHWASH?

MW: It’s funny that we just were talking about filmmaking, because before I joined MOUTHWASH, I had this immense pressure I put on myself that I had to be working in the film industry to fully realize what I wanted to do. Letting go of that pressure, and leaving film to personal projects instead of a means of revenue, was probably one of the healthiest things I’ve ever done for myself. It allows me to be excited when I make that stuff. But, hands down my favorite part about the work I do is who I work with. Showing up to work every day with people you love is infinitely more rewarding than the work itself.

KO: What a great answer. That’s a win in itself. Okay, last question.

MW: Let’s do it.

KO: What movie do you wish you’d never seen so you could watch it again for the first time.

MW: You’re just so good at asking questions. That’s really tough, because there’s so many different directions I could go in. Probably Paris, Texas or Chungking Express. The influence those movies have had on me is indescribable. There’s another one, called As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty. That’s by Jonas Mekas. And that’s probably my real answer. If I could ever make a film, I’d want it to look like that. 

KO: I love it. Thank you so much for answering all those questions.

MW: You’re the first guest who’s been right up to the table with me and asking questions. It feels good. We’ll have to do this again.

Koreen Odiney and the Art of Asking the Right Questions

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