Today’s blog post will be a gentle reminder in etiquette for us all. Myself included. My name may be on the byline here, but I’m guessing I speak for many of you reading who have experienced the awkwardness, embarrassment, anger or hurt that comes from being asked things that are none of anyone else’s business.
The inspiration for this post was sparked by a friend’s bewilderment over the many people in her life who inquire about her age (and hair color…. “Is it natural?”), and the list goes on… and cemented by my being asked one time too many (just this week, in fact) if I’m pregnant – when I’m not and haven’t been for almost 16 months, but thank you very much for asking.
It got me thinking about all the things that are taboo to talk about – or should be – but people relentlessly talk about them and ask about them anyway. There are the old standbys of religion, sex and politics, of course – but in today’s world, or my life at least – those topics tend to be some of the rarer offenders.
Everyone has a different barometer when it comes to what makes for appropriate conversation topics with the people in our lives, and we all have things that we prefer to not talk about with anyone, except maybe our therapist, spouse, or the closest of family or friends.
I’ll share some of mine and maybe you can add yours to this list. My hope is that the more people are aware of how they might be making someone feel when they ask about x, y or z, the more they will slow down and think before asking.
One of my personal “hot buttons” is MONEY. I really don’t think I’m alone in my feelings on this matter, but it seems to surface a lot, so here goes: I will take the lead and let you know if I want to talk about the value of my house, my family’s income, or how much I paid for personal items. But in many circumstances, I don’t. If I don’t bring it up, it’s because I find those things unproductive or unnecessary to talk about – or just simply, private. If you want to genuinely compliment my outfit or my hair or my home – like most human beings, I welcome that! But please make sure there’s a person (me!), not a price tag, attached to your compliment or lack thereof.
Another hot button issue for me (because I am a woman, on planet Earth) is PREGNANCY: Wow. Where do I begin? It would be exponentially quicker to compile a list of things that are acceptable to ask someone you suspect of being pregnant, than of those that are a social no-no. But since clearly many, many people are painfully unaware of this etiquette, for starters:
Don’t ask a woman if she’s pregnant. Ever. Trust me, she’ll tell you if she wants you to know.
Don’t ask her if she’s “keeping it.” I can’t believe I even have to address this….but yes, I have been asked this. While at a wedding. After joyfully sharing with people that Aaron and I were several months along. That wasn’t an awkward moment at all.
Don’t ask a pregnant woman if she’s sure she should be doing that/eating that/drinking that. She probably knows a lot more than you do about prenatal health.
Don’t ask if she wants advice of any kind. Again, if she does, she’ll ask.
BODY: I think this is the one where well-meaning people are most likely to get tripped up. Even asking someone a seemingly complimentary question like “Did you lose weight?” can bring up all kinds of body image triggers for that person, like “Did I need to lose weight?” or “How closely have you been monitoring me?” or “I’ve actually gained weight – what did you think I looked like before??” Tread lightly, friends…we’re all fighting our own battle here.
Earlier this week, while out walking with Anderson, I ran into an old friend I hadn’t seen for some time. We exchanged giddy hugs and happy updates, and she introduced me to her boyfriend. She seemed exceedingly happy in love and in life. She bent down to Anderson’s level and made him smile, and then she looked down at my not-quite-iron board stomach and breezily asked without missing a beat (and in front of this boyfriend I’d known for five seconds), “Are you pregnant?”
Standing there gripping the stroller, feeling frozen and numb, I instantly sucked in and plastered a fake smile on my face, groping for words that wouldn’t come and thinking to myself, “I can’t believe this is happening again.” (This has happened to me at least four times, many months removed from an actual pregnancy). Then, without even planning to, I lied.
“Haha,” I fake laughed. “No, we just had a big breakfast” I said, while visualizing the half bowl of raisin bran I had consciously limited myself to that morning, after running twice last weekend and intentionally trying to chip away at those “extra pounds.”
That lie was my armor, my safety net, my remote control for changing the subject. The lie kept me from admitting the simple yet complicated truth: there are some women who are neither pregnant, nor unhealthy, nor a doppelganger for a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model. I, among millions of others, am one of those women.
I’ve tried so hard to be an advocate for a healthy body image – my own and others – but standing there on that street corner reliving the humiliation of having to answer that question again – that question that essentially accuses that, if you’re not pregnant, there’s no justifiable reason for your body to look like that – I just felt like crying.
If this person I ran into today ever reads this, I would simply want her to know the same thing I would want anyone to know, who has asked me or anyone else questions that were personal to the point of causing pain, at worst, or discomfort, at the least:
“Dear friend – you are a beautiful and wonderful person and I’m sure you care for me and mean no harm. But please, please think of the impact your words may have on others before speaking them.”
One more note about sizing up someone else’s body, even without saying a word: we notice. I notice when I haven’t seen someone in a while and they look me up and down lingering a little too long on my midsection. I notice when someone is fixated on my stomach that happens to be a magnet for any possible pesky pounds I’ve yet to lose, or maybe never will. If I made it enough of a priority, I’m sure I could navigate this new body a little more effectively and customize workouts to get it back to more closely resembling its prior shape. But I shouldn’t have to explain myself to anyone in the meantime, and I shouldn’t have to constantly wonder if people are judging me because I didn’t “bounce back” like the Bodies after Baby! on the cover of People magazine.
So why do people ask such intimate, personal questions? I’m not a psychologist, but I have thought a lot about this, and I do have my own little theory. I believe that people ask overly personal questions for two primary reasons: to connect and to compete.
Best case scenario, these people simply like you and are looking to find more personal common ground on which to connect. They feel closer and more bonded to you upon learning you’re both fill-in-the-blank (rich, poor, 39, blonde via bleach, struggling with your sex life, looking to lose weight….). I totally get that these people, sincerely seeking to connect, have good intentions. I get that, and I’m not saying they’re the bad guys for asking these unknowingly loaded questions. But the questions often are loaded, and we could all benefit by being a little more thoughtful about how deep we dig (and with who, and how soon into the relationship) and how these personal questions might make someone feel.
Worst case scenario, people are delving into your private life to see how your sex life/weight loss/income stacks up to theirs, in a quest to compete, not connect. This is the most toxic version of this question asking, of course. And I think most of us have probably been guilty of it from time to time.
In closing, I’ll state the obvious – I realize we all have people in our lives we have chosen to talk to about money and sex, babies and body image, wars and weight loss. So how do you know if person A will be down with talking about topic B? If you really want to talk about religion, paychecks or politics, put your personal data out there first. If that person wants to reciprocate with private info of their own, they will. If not, well…now you know. At the end of the day, if you’re not really really sure the person in your midst is cool opening up and answering that burning question on your mind, it might be better to leave those hot topics for the ladies of The View.