“When are you getting married?”
“When will you finally get promoted?”
“Have you sold your business finally?”
“When are you having kids?”
“When are you having your second one?”
I have written about intrusive questions as a sub-topic in other Monday Postcards and I thought it may be worth diving a bit deeper. I absolutely hate them. Who does not? I am not a nosy person and I would like to keep certain things about my own life private. If I want to tell you, I will. And, likewise, I will not dig into your private life and make you feel uncomfortable.
Sadly, this attitude is not the norm. How often do we walk out of a conversation thinking that a certain question or comment was utterly inappropriate. It took me a very long time not to get upset (or stay upset for hours after). And even though I still find it hard to just ignore it and move on, this is the only thing we can do. Why? Because we will not change other people. We can only change how we react to their actions.
In my mid-twenties, I was invited on a boat day trip and on that particular trip, I was the only single person. Most of the couples on the boat were either married already, or engaged. At first, I did not mind, but soon the talk only revolved around proposals, rings, wedding locations. I just found it boring and spaced out. “When are you getting married,” I heard someone say. I thought the group was still talking among themselves, why would they ask me, the obvious single girl? “Hey, you! When are you getting married,” I heard again and somebody poked me from the side. “Well, you tell me,” I said and started laughing, the whole situation was surreal to me. The group looked at me as if I was from another planet. They were waiting for more. “I’m single,” I tried to explain the obvious. And after a brief moment of silence, the conversation swiftly moved back to their wedding talk. What nobody knew (except one friend) was that I was just out of yet another failed relationship with a notorious cheater who got married to the woman he had been seeing for the whole time we had been together. It was a “simple” question for the person who asked me. They quickly moved on when I gave them my answer. I just wanted to get off that boat.
What that person did not realise was that this “normal” or “obvious” question for them, was really hurtful for someone else. I could not really be mad at the person, probably they just wanted to include me in their conversation. But how on earth did they think this silly question made sense? I was obviously single, how would I know? I wanted to say: “I’m single, tell me the date, maybe you know more than me.”
Similarly, but in a different context, these intrusive questions also come up related to work. “When will you do -insert an obvious piece of advice they heard in a start-up show-?”, “Why are you not just doing – another useless piece of advice?” “How much revenue do you make?”. Sometimes, I really wonder if some people think they can just ask anything on their mind. In most countries, if you run a Limited, you are not required to disclose anything publicly, whether it is your turnover or your strategic decision. In the beginning, I was quite insecure when these questions came up. I discuss my business with certain people – mentors, experts, people I trust. But definitely not a random dinner party or a coffee with strangers. Do I ask them about their monthly salary or what they have made as their last bonus over canapés?!
It really bugged me for some time and I also spent a lot of time thinking about why it is so important for some people to get answers to these questions. I realized that everything is linked to what I call the “box system”. We love to put people in boxes. One of the most common box systems I have come across is: find a job (which gives you a title which everyone understands (or pretends to understand), such as “finance executive” – get married – buy/build a house – have the first child – have the second child – done. Small talk is hard for many people. We talk about the weather, our day, work. But soon these topics are depleted and then what? Without sounding mean, but most people are very “uncreative” when it comes to conversations. Most of the time, they want to hear themselves talk. If you fit into the box system I just mentioned, the questions are easy. But what if you fall out of these boxes?
Let me explain this with the two examples above.
Most people pick conversation topics which are close to them. If they just got married, they probably spent a lot of time organizing said wedding. Hence, weddings are an easy topic to talk about. And given that it is still the norm that people get married, the chances that you do not fit into the box “married” at a certain age seem low. But this is actually the thing: more people do not fit into that box than we would think. How many couples do you know who have gotten divorced already? How many women do you know who decided to stay single instead of just dating a guy for the sake of it? How many people do you know who were really hurt recently? Think about it, is it really the best question to ask? Probably not.
Similarly, I absolutely hate the question about having children. First of all, just because somebody is in a relationship or married, it does not mean that the only “big problem” they have is to get pregnant. (I also wrote about this in Monday Postcard #180.) Maybe, your conversation partner just does not want to have children. (Controversial!) Or, maybe, they cannot get pregnant even though they would love to have a child. Every time, they are put into the box “married, will have children soon”, it will feel like being stabbed. Many people are dealing with difficult circumstances without showing it to everyone. I do not think being too lazy to think about another topic justifies making somebody else feel even worse. It requires a bit of thinking and not just referring to a “box” when having conversations.
I came up with the “box system” not because of the questions intruding my private life but regarding my work. After I quit my corporate job, I realized that it was quite difficult for many people to understand what I actually do. I fell out of the box “found a job, corporate finance exec” and suddenly I was in undefined territory. Even though it was not “undefined” for me, it was for many people around me. I realized that very often questions about my start-up were asked, because people did not really understand what I did. Sometimes they came up because people found it legitimately exciting. Maybe they also always wanted to found their own business? And with that excitement, they overstep and ask too many questions. And very often, people just do not get it why some people live a happy life without fitting into predefined boxes.
Whatever the motivation behind certain questions is, I would like to use this Postcard as a brief reminder: a “simple” question may be an easy conversation starter or solution to keep the flow of an ongoing conversation. But please think twice what this question could cause in your conversation partner. Is there really nothing else to talk about than investigating why somebody makes a certain choice in their life? Maybe it will come up naturally in the conversation, maybe there is a different way to ask and get your answer. Or, maybe there is no answer for you, because it is none of your business. And this is OK also.
This was quite an extensive Postcard. (I wrote this in a café and just looked up from my laptop to realise that my coffee is cold by now.) But given that I did not have time to write any Postcards for the past two weeks, I think I owed you a longer one today and with this topic, it just came naturally. I really look forward to your views, especially on this topic. Have a great week ahead!