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 remember that a question you ask thinking it’s light (that is, “just small talk”) might have a heavy answer — one that constitutes 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 three common 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.
1. “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, and not every person wants to be a parent, so the “when” is a bit presumptuous.
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However, the question also makes me sad, angry, and defensive 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 my friends first struggled with. Some women are childless against their will. They have mourned miscarriages or struggled with infertility. For them, it’s a sensitive wound and an abyss of agony.
So before you ask someone when they’re 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 or family members that this is at all my business?
Am I just grasping for a conversation starter?
If the answer to this question is sad and elicits tears, am I prepared to comfort them?
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 their sadness? Can I not take it personally if they walk away?
If you can’t answer yes to all those questions, ask something else. Here’s a suggestion: Read any good books lately?
2. “How are you?”
We ask this question all the time. We all ask this all the time. And most of the time, all we really mean to say is hello.
Don’t ask someone how they are 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, and so on. 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 having 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 they’re doing, but not really in the mood for a heavy answer? Here’s an alternative question: Do you have any plans for the weekend?
3. “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 into this category. Don’t ask someone when they’re 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.
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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 ability 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 we weren’t prepared for.
Just the other day I was at the doctor’s office and the nurse casually asked if both 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 I’d already answered at that particular doctor’s office.
Plus, the nurse’s response and follow-up questions felt so cold and uncaring. It felt like a sucker punch to the point where I found myself fighting back 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 had expected to get before.)
All of that is just to say that our “innocent” questions can actually unearth answers that are heavy and hard. And it’s going to happen to all of us. We’ll be the unintentionally hurtful questioner one day and the wounded person being questioned another day. Each is a learning moment.
When you stumble upon a question you shouldn’t have asked or should have asked with more compassion, give the direction of the conversation back to the other person. You can ask if they would like to talk about it, but don’t force it. Don’t make it about you or your unsolicited solutions.
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 proceed with more caution going forward.
But it is not your job to reveal your hurt if you’re not up to the task. You don’t have to answer a question just because it’s been asked.
[Feature Image: Photo of two people sitting facing each other on navy chairs and having a discussion in front of a teal and wood wall. On the left is a Black man wearing a navy and cream sweater, dark blue trousers, and light brown leather shoes. He is in mid-speech and is gesturing with his right hand, his pointer finger and thumb in the air. On the right is a white woman with long dark hair, a sleeveless teal dress, and cream-colored platform heels. She is listening and grasps her knee with one hand. Between the two is a small table with books, a plant, and two glasses of water. Source: Jopwell for Pexels]