While I was at the dog park one morning, a man brought two dogs in and sat on a bench. Eventually, the dogs wandered my way (I’d played with them several times when another woman had brought them to the park) and the man moved over to share the bench with me. We chatted a bit about the dogs, and he asked a question about my dog. I forget the question–it was likely something about her breed, since her true mutt heritage confounds strangers. [For a look at how a typical walk goes for us, click here.] I answered him and referenced “my boyfriend” in the process. Something about my boyfriend’s guess about the dog’s breed vs. my guess, perhaps.
Without looking in my direction (he was busy petting his dog), the man asked curtly, “You gonna marry him?”
I did not know this man. I didn’t get the feeling he was interested in knowing me; he wasn’t asking for himself. I was flummoxed. Who asks that? He doesn’t know my age, who my boyfriend is, how long we’ve known each other–nothing. He only knew that I had a boyfriend. My conclusion was that he thought I was “shacking up” and disapproved. I don’t recall my response, but I know I changed the topic back to dogs rather quickly.
That incident set me thinking about inappropriate questions that strangers ask. I have come to wonder if I don’t ask enough questions of people, friends or new acquaintances. But after too many instances of being asked questions that I deem too personal, I err on the side of extreme caution. I’ve also been on the opposite side, asking questions that I later regretted. Someone at the dog park, whom I see regularly, was absent for a few days. Normally, folks would ask where she’d been just to make conversation (or–let’s face it–to be nosy). People like to talk about themselves, I try to remember. So I was about to ask if she’d been out-of-town or just took a dog park break. Then I remembered when I took a break from the dog park for a week. Tensions between some dog owners had gotten weird, so I took a break to avoid them. When I returned, several people asked where I’d been. I glossed over it, saying our schedules had been hectic and then asking the questioner about themselves in order to move the conversation. It wasn’t something I cared to discuss, for fear of becoming one of the gossip-y folks at the park.
So I reconsidered and made idle chitchat instead of asking the question. Then I noticed a large, deep bruise on the woman’s arm. Had she been in an accident? Should I ask out of concern, or should I keep my mouth shut to be polite? Should I let her tell me if she felt compelled? With casual acquaintances, it’s a tough call. Did that woman go home and say to herself, “I can’t believe no one asked about me!” Maybe there was something going on, and if I’d mentioned her bruise she’d have a reason to talk about it and ask for help. So much to consider after a simple encounter with a stranger! It’s easy when I can ask one simple question and let the stranger chat away about themselves. But with less open personalities, it’s a challenge to ask the right questions that show that I’m interested in learning about them but am not digging too deep.
That train of thought led back to something I’ve thought about a lot lately. There are two questions that I think are never appropriate to ask a woman. No, it’s not about her age or weight. I will gladly tell you my age (39), and I don’t think people really ask women about their weight. The two questions are 1. Why are you single? or 2. Why don’t you have kids?
Both questions leave me floored. If you feel a need to ask either question, you don’t know the woman well enough to know the answer. And really, what answer are you looking for?
“Why are you single?” I hated this question as a single woman. I was asked it more times than I can count. What would be acceptable answers? “Because of the restraining order. But he’ll come around!” “Because I am unlovable.” “Because I love sleeping around!”
It got to the point where I’d ask people what they thought I should tell them. “I don’t know. You tell me!” I would sometimes respond. The questioner would inevitably say something like, “I don’t know. You’re great!” Thanks for bringing up a sore subject only to make me feel bad without offering a solution. (Although offering constructive criticism or advice would have probably made things worse.)
Now that I’m in a committed relationship, the dreaded question has become, “Why don’t you have children?” Again, I have no idea what answer would leave the person feeling satisfied. If I say I don’t want children, they’ll counter with reasons I should. Do they really want a real answer? “I desperately want children but can’t have them” or “After the third miscarriage we gave up” or “By law I am not allowed to bear children or they will be seized by the state at birth”? I don’t think folks consider the possible responses to such a question. Or perhaps they think I’m hiding something and will respond with, “Oh, check back with me in about 8 months [wink]?”
With the latter question, I have reasons, but they aren’t something I’d share with just anyone. That’s between me and my partner. There might be a perfectly reasonable explanation or it might be a horribly sad story, which is why you shouldn’t ask. Either way, it’s not something I discuss at the park with strangers or even here on a blog. I never ask such questions of people, even friends. If they want to talk about it, I hope that I’m a good enough friend that they understand that they can bring it up if they feel the need.
What questions do you hate being asked by acquaintances or strangers? And how much do you ask new acquaintances about themselves?