In this era of “reality” television and social media sharing (and over sharing), the line between public and private is often unclear and unfixed. What one person considers a casual topic, another might find personal or sensitive. I’ve noticed that birth announcements are changing. All I really want to know is the new name and if mother and child are healthy. I also expect to learn the weight and size of the baby—though I’m not particularly interested in those statistics. However, sometimes birth announcements get even more detailed, and I’m told things such as whether it was a vaginal or C-section delivery. That is information I’m surprised to see “the masses” become privy to (and it’s a gory detail I don’t want to know), but it’s something some of my female friends are excited about and shout from their Facebook rooftops. Who am I to say it’s too much information just because it makes me uncomfortable? Clearly, people have different definitions of what qualifies as personal versus general information.
Given the spectrum of how much people are willing to share, it’s difficult to know where to draw the line with our questions. We have so much access online, even superficial relationships produce a vast depth of information. It can be hard to discern how close we really are—and what we should (or should not) ask in person.
Some questions sound like judgments or assumptions. Married women are routinely asked when they plan to have children. Some women, like me, aren’t trying or hoping to be parents. Asking us “when” is like asking a vegetarian if he wants beef or chicken. You’re presenting only two options (now or later), and leaving very little room to accommodate the response, “I’m childless by choice.”
Some inquiries, though innocently asked, are experienced like attacks. Sometimes small talk can press against a big wound. I have a number of friends who have struggled with infertility. Asking a woman when she’s going to have children presumes it’s fully (or at all) within her control. It happens in other areas of life. Single men and women are asked when they’re going to settle down and get married. Sometimes parents are asked this question on behalf of their children. They’re asked “when” as if it’s just a matter of visiting the spouse aisle at the supermarket or ordering a significant other online.
It’s good to think before you ask, but don’t worry about it too much. At some point, everyone gets it wrong. We will all unwittingly overstep. Even the most innocently intended questions have the potential to hurt or offend. However, if we’re always too afraid to ask, we’ll loose opportunities for confiding in, supporting, comforting, and learning from each other. Perhaps the best we can do is to be thoughtful, forgiving, and gracious.
Don’t be offended when someone declines to answer your question. Trust that he or she has a reason. If you feel pressured to share information you’d prefer to keep private, remember that you have the right to defend your boundaries.
Ask, but don’t assume your innocent or simple question will have a clean or easy answer. It might make a mess. Things might get emotional. Your inquiry might stir up sadness or fear or anger. So ask your questions with a modicum of caution, and if the answers do get messy, stick around and help clean up. Don’t ask if you’re not ready to listen. Don’t hit and run.