A few days ago, I came across various articles warning readers about what not to say to different groups of people- what not to ask women, what not to say to new parents, what not to ask an older male divorcee, what never, ever to ask (fill in the blank). I decided to investigate these articles further so that I might be able to understand the messages. After reading them, it seemed that the message to readers was pretty clear. The authors hoped that their words would preclude people from offending each other, sounding stupid, or both.
Overall, I appreciated this sentiment. I don’t like to see people get their feelings hurt either. But the more I thought about the authors’ collective message, the more I couldn’t help but get the feeling that there might be an even deeper message, a message that communicated danger in being curious.
As a therapist, I see a lot of people who want to learn how to manage conflict in a more productive way so that they can have the relationships, careers, and lives they want. A lot of learning how to manage conflict is a) learning how to manage one’s emotions, b) learning about the language one uses to communicate (and what it says about them), and c) curiosity about another’s experience. We are in conflict in every way, every day. Conflict is simply variation. We all manage (and mismanage) conflict every day, sometimes without realizing it.
When I hear people urging others out there to clam up and not ask specific questions, I hear them asking for people not to communicate their curiosity. It sounds as though they are suggesting that the antidote to conflict is a closed mouth. Of course, that isn’t the intention; I know that. But a lot of relationship wounds happen unintentionally.
Which brings me to… intention. When you are managing conflict, it’s important to pay attention to intention, both your own and another person’s. If another person’s intention is unclear to you, it’s a great idea to ask them. If it seems like they’re trying to make you feel uncomfortable, provoke you, etc., the conversation will probably feel like more of an attack and their questions might feel more threatening or offensive. Most people don’t want to oblige people’s questions when they feel threatened. But what if someone is genuinely curious about your experience? Then how do you feel about questions?
What if the thirty-something single working mom wants you to ask the questions that you have about her life so that she can broaden your understanding, feel a little less isolated, and deepen her connection to you? Obviously, the first step is to ask if you can ask. Second, be respectful and non-critical if she doesn’t want to answer certain questions. I imagine that part of what went into creating these lists of what not to ask who is the notion that there are times when it’s tough to be and feel vulnerable, that we need to respect this in one another.
Take some time right now to think about questions that might be on your “questions never to ask me” list. How did they get on that list? What does it mean to you when someone asks you these questions? Does age, gender, sexuality, privilege, economic status factor in? If so, how? What feeling is evoked when someone asks you or when you think about someone asking you these particular questions? What would you like to avoid by avoiding said questions?
I’m reasonable. I get that it might feel surprising (and maybe a little jarring) to be asked certain questions by strangers or those with whom you are not close, no matter how pure the intention. I’m not advocating for intrusiveness. But it seems like there is a lot of “never ask this!” advice for friends and family and I think it’s such a disservice to intimacy and connection! Most humans want to understand and be understood by one another.
Love and Be Loved,