I hear two themes come up repeatedly under discussion in our social media-saturated world.
The first theme is the desire for what's real. For honesty. For a community that's open with each other about reality--the immense goodness and badness and weirdness of life, all of it.
The second theme is the importance of being extremely careful in what you say to anyone, for fear of causing offense. In particular, I've noticed a frequent conversation surrounding the offensiveness of asking personal questions of others.
It's my opinion that our commitment to the second theme--that of avoiding asking or answering personal questions--actually inhibits the possibility of the first theme--that of reality and honesty and tight-knit community becoming a possibility in our lives.
I will tell you straight out--I cannot relate to bloggers who posts lists of "Things not to ask..." or "Things not to say...". My personal belief on ethics, morality, and general politeness of speech is that I have control of exactly one person's mouth--mine. I can control how I feel about what other people say to me, but I can't tell them what to say to me, and I have no desire to do so.
I honestly believe that real relationships and real community can only come about when we stop trying to dictate what other people are allowed to ask us. What is "real" about a relationship where we are forced to follow strict guidelines lest we step on another's toes?
First, let's talk about some of the questions that there seems to be a growing campaign to ban:
Things not to ask single people:
"So, why aren't you married yet?"
Things not to ask dating people:
"So, when will you get married?"
Things not to ask people who get married as teenagers:
"Are you sure about this? Don't you want to wait a while and think about it?"
Things not to ask people who have a really short engagement:
"Is there a reason why you're getting married in such a hurry? *wink wink*"
Things not to ask people who have a really long engagement:
"Why the long delay? Cold feet?"
Things not to ask married people:
"So, when are you going to have a baby?"
Things not to ask people with a baby:
"So, when are you going to have another baby?"
Things not to ask a pregnant lady:
"When are you due?"
Things not to ask someone who looks sick:
"Are you feeling okay? You look awful."
Things not to ask someone named Angel:
"Is that your real name?"
Things not to ask Bachelor's of Arts majors:
"So, what are you going to do with that degree when you're out of school?"
Things not to ask people in interracial relationships:
"So, do you only like black/Mexican/white/Indian/Chinese people?"
Things not to ask people with food allergies:
"So, like how allergic are you? Will you die if you go in the same room as gluten?"
Things not to ask moms of many:
"Why did you want so many kids, anyways?"
Things not to ask someone who just bought something really expensive:
"So, can you really afford that new car/house/motorcycle?"
Any of these sound familiar? Good. Now we're on the same page. Here's what I want to argue in this post:
I'm not saying that all questions you're asked make sense. I'm not saying they should all be asked. I'm not saying there's no such thing as a stupid question, because there definitely is. What I am saying is that there is something admirable in allowing people to ask you questions. There is value in being okay with people questioning the things that are of most importance to you, because explaining why they are important is a valuable exercise.
It is because of my commitment to reality, to honesty, to community, that you will never hear me making a list of things I don't want to be asked. It is important to me that the people in my life feel free to ask me their questions. Not every question deserves or will receive a thorough and honest answer, but if people are too scared to even ask their questions because I've taken such a hard line on "you better not tick me off by questioning me about the things that are most important to me or else I'll write annoyed blog posts about you"...then I kind of think I've failed at community, at friendship, and at life, realistically.
Our commitment to striving for real relationships and real community should be stronger than our commitment to building up strong walls to prevent our hearts from being hurt by a careless or rude question. I strive to, whenever possible, answer all the questions I receive in a reasonable way. Some questions--sure, even the person who asks doesn't realize till too late that they're basically impossible to answer. Some answers to the same question change over time, and that's okay. But there's power in being willing to answer even the awkward and personal and silly questions that others ask.
When we first got married, I answered the question, "When are you going to have a baby?" with "As far as I know, not today." The answer has since changed to a less flippant, "Whenever God gives me one." In reality, every adult knows that there's no possible way to answer that question with an actual date, so yeah, it's a silly question, but I choose to see people who ask it as people who care about me and love me and love my future baby...rather than people whose goal in life is to annoy and offend me.
Because in spite of all the evil in this world...honestly, it is the goal of very few people in life to purposely annoy and offend you. You simply aren't important enough for that.
I got an email a couple weeks ago from my grandpa, asking every personal question under the sun--everything from questions about how much Angel's salary is to how much we're saving each month to when we're having a baby to what kind of visa we have to what our long-term life plans are. Grandpa has always been someone who has openly questioned every single life decision I've ever made--and I'm glad I have a person who cares enough to question everything in order to make sure that I have some sort of answer, some reason, behind why I do what I do.
It's probably the East meets West coming out in me when I say I see the asking of awkward questions as love, and as real community. Because I live in a community where there aren't really any off-limits questions--and I've come to love that about my community. Sure, not all questions come from a place of love, but what's the harm in acting as if they did, and responding to a sarcastic or antagonistic question with an open and honest answer?
Trust me, it's good for you to have an answer to the hard questions of life, and whether the people who ask you the question have good or evil motives, doesn't matter, You're not responsible for their motives. You're responsible for your own answer. Sure, in the wrong situation or with the wrong question you can always say, "You know, I can't answer that right now" or "I'm not comfortable with talking about that"--but in that case, you're letting it known that the responsibility is on you. Condemning other people for daring to ask the question in the first place really isn't going to achieve a world of truth and transparency the way we want it to.
I've been asked some really sensitive questions in my life. Hey, as a teenager, I was even asked how many baths my siblings and I took each week (by someone who was probably over-curious about the inner-workings of a large family). I was once asked, at lunch, by a young woman I barely knew, if I slept with my husband before I married him. That made for an unexpected lunch conversation. Someone else asked me if I regretted my marriage. As someone who grew up in a small country in Southeast Asia, I've been asked if Malaysia is the biggest state in Indonesia. Trust me, I've been asked questions that have made me raise one or both eyebrows. But I have found it far more valuable for me to strive to be the kind of person who is open and willing to answer the awkward questions asked by others than to put effort into slamming them for daring to be so rude.
Many times, when the awkwardest and most uncomfortable of questions gets asked, the person asking has something going on in their life that they're trying to figure out, and asking other people about their own experiences is one of their methods for figuring it out. Besides, when we have extenuating circumstances going on, and people ask us stuff about marriage or children or life plans--it gives us the opportunity to talk in a real way about singleness or health or the uncertainties of life...and that's the stuff that's going to bring us together. Not lists of questions that you should never dare to ask. Such lists are not the stuff community is made of.
So, single people, answer us as to why you aren't married, whether the answer is, "I have no idea, apparently all the guys I've ever met are blind." or "I'm just not interested" or something totally different.
Bachelor's of Arts majors, go ahead and tell us about both your crazy dream job you'd love to land after school, and the more realistic plan to actually pay off loans and live a normal life, grateful that you got to study a completely impractical subject that thrills you to your core. Go ahead and say you feel self-conscious about probably not working in the field you studied.
People with allergies, talk openly about how your allergies affect your life and the clever strategies you use to make sure that you, and not your allergies, remain the boss.
In the meantime, I'll be over here, talking about the beautiful land that I love and the impractical college major I chose and the awesome husband I married and the kids I dream of having and the lifestyle I seek to live--because you can ask me anything. I might not answer the way you want me to, but you are completely free to ask.
How do you respond when people ask you awkward questions, or questions that somehow touch a sensitive chord in your life?