I Have Questions

photo from Google images

photo from Google images

It occurs to me that when you avoid a “taboo” topic of conversation and I dive face first into one, that maybe, we are trying to convey the same message–compassion.

This is a new revelation to me as I’ve been historically puzzled by those who don’t ask questions. I’ve always found it particularly odd when family members and supposedly close friends dance daintily around elephants plopped smack in the middle of the room.

Examples:

  • You meet a friend for coffee. You know she’s been struggling with something personal because she’s either previously told you or you heard about it from a mutual friend. You avoid the topic. But I say, “So I heard you’re having a rough go. Wanna talk about it?”
  • Your teenage son’s buddy comes over. You remember something about his having a girlfriend. You offer the kids pizza rolls and return to loading the dishwasher. But I say, “Still have that girlfriend? How are things going? Is she smart? Is she funny? Do her parents like you? Do your parents like her?”
  • A relative or college friend is getting married. You know her fiancé has a child from a previous relationship. You attend all the pre-wedding festivities and behave as if you’ve known the child its whole life. (Which is good btw. Always be kind to children.) But I ask the bride-to-be, “Was your fiancé married before? Does the child have a relationship with the mother? Do you? I honor your commitment to becoming a step-parent. But it must be challenging in some ways. Tell me about that.”

So, to be clear, I don’t necessarily pour out all of my questions in the sequential style of an interrogator. I understand the dance of discussion. And I’m talking about people we have relationships with. (Or maybe not. I do tend to ask strangers questions too.) But the fact is, I do ask questions. Questions other people seem too afraid or too indifferent to ask. I suppose I’m just curious about people. I don’t want to guess or assume or conjure up my own ideas about how things are going with you. I’d rather hear it from you. And how better to know what’s really going on than to ask questions?

Before you begin to think I have no boundaries, let me share a few examples of topics I’ll most likely ask you about that others might not:

  • Your relationships
  • Your work/education/career status, goals, hopes and dreams
  • Your faith/spiritual life
  • Your physical and mental health
  • Your kids (But mostly if your kids are over 5 years old and are capable of doing more interesting things than making poop in the potty. Cause, eventually we can all do that. So although you’re excited, it’s not that impressive.)

And some topics I probably won’t ask you about because I do have boundaries or they don’t really help me know you in any meaningful way or I don’t really care all that much:

  • Your finances
  • Your sex life (Gross.)
  • Your fitness routine (Gah! Shut up already. You’re fit or really want to be. Good for you.)
  • Your politics (I can already tell from talking to you.)

I ask questions because I’m interested in you. I care about you. I want to know you better. And I’ve always believed that others avoided asking questions because they’re either too bashful or too self-involved or think they already know all the answers or don’t really care all that much. But I may be wrong about the non-questioners in some instances. We just may be trying to convey the same message of sensitivity and care; you by keeping silent on some matters, me by speaking up.

I think this is most relevant when it comes to people’s personal lives. Even though the media makes huge efforts to convince us that all personal things are fit for public consumption, many still believe personal relationships and problems are off limits. Which is funny since most people have no problem dishing about the serial mating habits of some insecure and drug-addled movie star but won’t dare ask a friend if they’re lonely.

My revelation has been that some believe asking such questions is intrusive and judgmental. People say nothing not because they don’t care, but because they don’t wish to offend or open old wounds. And sometimes the silent types, the non-questioners believe I’m being needlessly nosey or rude.

But I believe we’ve misjudged each other. You’re trying to show compassion by keeping silent. I’m trying to show compassion by being inquisitive. Is one way better than the other? Should you speak up? Should I shut up?

Discuss…

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8 thoughts on “I Have Questions

  1. Donna Trump says:

    To answer your question, Angela, I don’t think you should shut up. In fact, I think you should expand your sensitively-cloaked, truly conversation-worthy curiosity to three areas you steer clear of, in order of rising controversy:
    1. Politics. I don’t think we can have a full grasp of another person’s politics without discussing politics, per se. Without discussion, we’re more likely to have a stereotypical view–“Oh, she’s a liberal,” or “Oh, she’s pretty conservative.” But I’m neither, or both (I’m not sure) and I think there’s probably a lot of people out there like me. But I don’t know that because we don’t seem to be able to discuss politics civilly anymore. Maybe we should start.
    2. Finances. Not like, “How much do you make, anyway?” but what about, “How are you planning for your retirement?” or “Do you think it’s a good idea for me or my kid to go into debt for his/her college education?” or “What kind of donations do you make, and to whom?” My daughter has a PhD in Economics, and she says talk about finances is the last frontier, that she and college pals had far more discussions about sex than they did about money.
    3. Sex. Maybe not with peers–I have little curiosity about consensual sexual behavior among adults. But what about your son’s friend who has a girlfriend? Kids aren’t necessarily getting age-mate (duh) or even societal pressure NOT to have sex too soon; where’s that supposed to come from? I’m fully aware it will embarrass everyone, and maybe that’s too great a risk to take–most of all, I think we want to keep the conversation open. And certainly it depends on your assessment of how far along any relationship has gotten. But does your asking, maybe as the “moment” over pizza rolls with your boy and his pals winds down, something like, “Anybody have any thoughts about sex at your age?”–does this open doors, rather than close them?
    Thanks for yet another thought-provoking post, Angela. I’ll be interested to read other comments.

    • ALL excellent points Donna! I plan to take this advice except maybe the part about politics. Seriously, it isn’t civil or seem even open to intelligent conversation. Politics is the new “religion” and folks tend to follow their particular brand of it with the vehemence of zealots. I’m not sure I’m ready to go there. But maybe I should…
      Thanks for reading and taking time to articulate such great comments. Much appreciated!

  2. This was excellent food for thought. I’m like you– I ask a lot of questions and I sometimes get these stares that seem to say to me, “What is this? An interview?” And I want to take that person gently by the hand and say, “No, love. This is a conversation. Now you ask me questions. Then I’ll ask you more. And we’ll get to know each other.”

    This was profound: “You’re trying to show compassion by keeping silent. I’m trying to show compassion by being inquisitive.”

    I am sometimes taken aback by what seems like others’ total lack of interest. You’re saying, maybe they’re just being sensitive? I suppose so! Feels kind of Minnesotan. 😉

    • It probably IS kinda Minnesotan. Maybe that’s why it seems so strange to me. But my eyes were opened when a Minnesotan said the reason they didn’t “care” about another person’s history is because anything unseemly from the past shouldn’t matter now. Ok. I get that. But asking questions should not equate to passing judgement. At least to my mind. Hopefully I make that clear when asking so many questions.
      Thanks for reading and commenting. 🙂

  3. Found this through Nina (Thank you Nina!) and I love this.

    I’m honestly at a complete loss of how you can have a relationship withOUT asking questions… Who are you? What makes you tick? Why do/don’t you like that? How can we tell if we’re compatible friends if we don’t have conversations about things other than the weather?

    It’s an interesting point about people trying to be sensitive by being quiet – I interpret it as disinterest. (I live in Montana, not Minnesota.) There’s nothing I dislike more than trying to engage someone in conversation and getting a blank stare or short mono-syllabic answers in return. I may also take it slightly personally as I tend more introvertish, and it takes some effort for me to put on the extrovert persona.

    I also don’t tend to have lots of friendships that are casual – it’s an all or nothing for me. You’re either in my life and I want to know about you and I do the work on my side to keep our friendship going – or else we wave casually at each other in the preschool halls and chat quickly at the grocery store about new life changes. But if it’s the later, I don’t really consider that a true friendship, it’s more of an acquaintance. And Facebook is a weird no-man’s land of knowing random facts without really knowing the person. Ufta.

    • I agree Dakota. It’s weird to me too, the silence thing. But for the first time, I think I understand why some people don’t “go there” and that they might be misinterpreting my inquiries as imparting some kind of judgement.
      And Facebook! Yes, “a weird no-man’s land of knowing random facts without really knowing the person” is spot on, and a bit scary if I consider what random facts others are digesting about me. Ufta is right.

  4. I remember a conversation about a mutual friend who had recently passed away. The friend in front of me, the one still alive, told me our mutual friend had invited her to lunch and said, “Well, I’m out of treatment options.” And the one telling me this story said she didn’t ask any more because she didn’t want to be intrusive. The whole thing made me sad.

    • Oh Heidi~ that is sad. It’s been my experience that most people want to talk about what’s going on in their lives. Sometimes it’s our job to ask some questions and then shut up and truly listen.
      Thank you for reading and commenting. ~Angela

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