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.
- 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?