This is just a gentle reminder that no query is universally benign. Some questions shouldn’t be asked of a particular person, others shouldn’t be posed at a certain time. Under more circumstances than you might think, innocently intended inquiries can feel like interrogations—even when proffered without malice. In other words, there are no innocent questions.
I hope we can all extend grace to one another in both directions, but please be reminded that a question you ask thinking it’s light (i.e., just small-talk) might have a heavy answer—one that represents a great burden. You may be trying to avoid an awkward silence or stave off boredom when all of a sudden you realize you’ve asked a question you shouldn’t have.
Let’s explore a few of the questions we all throw out casually—often out of innocent (if sometimes misplaced) curiosity. It’s not that the questions themselves are wrong, although they are sometimes inappropriate depending on your relationship (or lack thereof) with the person you’re asking. It’s just that we often ask them carelessly. It’s the conversational equivalent of window-shopping. We have no intention of actually spending money—or, in this case, investing emotionally.
“When are you and your spouse going to have a baby?” Now that I’m closer to forty than thirty, I don’t hear this question as often, but it hasn’t stopped bothering me. As someone who’s childless by choice, I find the inquiry intrusively annoying. Not every woman wants to be a mother, so the “when” is a bit presumptuous—just like the “when” in “when you and your husband have kids.” However, the question also makes me sad, angry, and defensive—not for myself, but for my friends.
A lot of women I care deeply about are new or expectant mothers. However, many of the happy pregnancy and birth announcements I’ve received have also come with revelations of miscarriages and infertility issues that my friends first struggled with. Some women are childless against their will. They have mourned miscarriages or struggled with infertility. For them, it is a sensitive wound and an abyss of agony.
So before you ask a woman when she’s going to have a baby (and please don’t ever add the word “finally”), ask yourself a few questions: Are we close enough as friends/family members that this is at all my business, or am I just grasping for a conversation starter? If the answer to this question is sad and elicits tears, am I prepared to comfort her? And can I offer comfort without a submission of unsolicited solutions or promises that everything is going to be okay? Am I prepared to simply be a companion in her sadness? Can I not take it personally if she walks away? If you can’t answer yes to all those questions, ask something else. Here’s a suggestion: Read any good books lately?
“How are you?” We ask this question all the time. We all ask this all of the time. And most of the time all we really mean to say is hello.
Don’t ask someone how he or she is when what you really mean to do is offer a cursory greeting. And don’t ask that question while looking deeply into a loved one’s eyes unless you mean it. If you ask this question without really wanting to hear the answer, you’re likely to get a brushoff reply that’s possibly also a lie.
Some people are depressed. Some people are struggling through a bad relationship, life-sucking job, scary illness, et cetera. It would be nice if we could reserve asking each other how we’re doing for when we’re genuinely interested in the answer—even if it’s hard to hear.
It’s a difficult habit to break. We all do it without even thinking. And that’s where the grace comes in. However, just be advised that when you ask this cliché of a question, you might get a very non-standard answer. And before you feel sorry for yourself, remind yourself that you asked. So now do the right thing and listen with compassion and interest.
Tempted to ask someone how he or she is doing, but not really in the mood for a heavy answer? Here’s an alternative question: Do you have any plans for the weekend?
“Are you seeing anyone?” If you have to ask, that in and of itself should be a red flag steering you away from this question. Chances are you’d naturally find this information out if you were a close enough friend or family member.
There are a lot of other questions that fall in this category. Don’t ask someone when he or she is going to start dating or get married as if relationship progress can be purchased at the mall or a grocery store.
First of all, there is no timeline and there are no quotas on these sorts of things. Some will date early and frequently. Some (like me) will be college graduates before their first date. Some will remain (whether intentionally or circumstantially) single indefinitely.
Falling in love is not like finally cleaning your apartment or going to the gym. So stop asking for relationship updates that imply being single is a symptom of procrastination. Much of life is enigmatic and beyond our abilities to plan or control. People who are dating, engaged, or married aren’t smarter, more talented, prettier, or anything they can take credit for other than being open to love.
So if you’re tempted to pry into someone’s personal love life, I implore you to stop. If there’s ever anything to tell, it will be obvious. Here’s an alternative question: What’s the last thing you did or bought purely to treat yourself?
Again, let me ask that we offer each other a great deal of grace. We will all ask questions that unintentionally hurt another person or put us in a position for which we weren’t prepared. Just the other day I was at the doctor’s office and the nurse casually asked if both of my parents were alive. In her asking I could tell she expected a yes. And when I said no, she didn’t change to a compassionate tone.
Here I was being asked a question that the asker had every right to ask—family medical history is important information for your primary caregiver to have. But it caught me and my emotions off guard—going through these questions that I’d already answered at that particular doctor’s office. Plus, her response (and follow up questions) felt so cold and uncaring. It felt like a sucker punch and found me fighting back the tears. (And here I must say that when the doctor saw the nurse’s notes and probed, he offered the soft, sympathetic tone I needed and expected to get before.)
All of that is just to say that our “innocent” questions—our attempts at small talk—can actually unearth answers that are heavy and hard. It’s going to happen to all of us. We’ll be the unintentionally hurtful questioner one day and the wounded person being questioned on another. Each is a learning moment.
When you stumble upon a question you shouldn’t have asked or should have asked with more compassion prepared, give the course of the conversation back to the other person in the wake of the unearthed hurt. You can ask if he or she would like to talk about it, but don’t force. Don’t make it about you or your unsolicited solutions. Get prepared to just sit in sad silence as a companion to his or her grief. And don’t be offended if he or she opts to leave.
If you remember nothing else, remember to think before you ask. And pose your questions with love, genuine interest, and copious amounts of compassion.
If you’ve been hurt by a question, it’s okay to say so. Perhaps you’ll help the asker to proceed with more caution going forward. But it is not your job to reveal your hurt if you’re not up to the task. Just as you don’t have to answer a question just because it’s been asked.