Don’t Ask

I’m not afraid of asking people about themselves. As an investment manager for many years, it was necessary to ask personal questions, to find out how people saw themselves and their families, their lives under different financial conditions. Often clients would apologize for talking about their worries for their grown children or for their health. They didn’t see those concerns as part of their financial picture, but I did.

At social gatherings Jim and I often find ourselves in conversation with those we don’t know, learning much about the others. People like to talk about themselves.

Except when they don’t.

Over time I’ve found that there are a few things you just shouldn’t ask someone. Things like
When is your baby due?
Aaaaah, fraught with peril. This is a question you should never ask a woman unless she has independently confirmed she is pregnant. A dear one of mine was asked this recently. She is not pregnant. She has put on weight because of an illness. The question left her feeling humiliated and humbled one more time by an illness that has robbed her of so much, including her physical self image.

One of the best, gentlest lessons in tact I ever had was when I was a couple of weeks from delivering my baby. A woman I hadn’t seen for a while saw me and smiled broadly. “What’s new?” she asked. I understood immediately that she didn’t want to assume that my distorted figure meant impending childbirth. Being a little overweight herself, she may have heard that question herself.

When are you going to start a family?
Another child-bearing question that is none of my business, nor yours, either. Sometimes this is asked by eager family members or friends, who want a woman to “join the club.” Sometimes it’s asked by complete strangers, as my niece related to me yesterday. People who want children but are struggling with fertility problems do not want to hear this. People who don’t want children do not want to hear this. People who might someday want children do not want to hear this. Leave it alone. I’m sure you’ll be the first to know when that precious bundle is expected.

What happened to (your marriage, your job, your plan to…)?
Depending on your relationship with the person asking, this might be a reasonable question. But when the neighbor down the street, with whom you have a nodding acquaintance, asks what caused your marriage to break up, the neighbor has stepped out of bounds. Don’t be the neighbor. It’s better to ask open-ended questions about the future rather than specific, painful questions about the past.

What church do you belong to?
Since at least the early 1800s, social discussion of religion and politics was considered rude. And for as long as religion has existed, religious differences have sometimes led to great tragedy. Leave religious discussions for very close family members, friends, or people within your faith community.

How could you let your (adult) child do that?
Um, “adult.” I don’t LET my adult child do anything. As an adult, that adult gets to make their own decisions.

How can you afford that?

Will you make me a quilt?
Probably not, but I am least likely to make quilts for people who ask for them.



19 thoughts on “Don’t Ask

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I am still “growing into” my tact, so I’m sure I’ve asked a lot of rude or painful questions of people in the past. Reminders are helpful to me, too.

  1. Almost Iowa

    “What church do you belong to?”

    When I was a kid in Saint Paul, my best friend was a black kid named Reginald. We were inseparable. I spent half my days at his house and he spent half his days at mine. Even though it was the 50’s, race was never an issue.

    Then my parents learned he was a Baptist.

    People today have absolutely no idea how divisive and tribal religion used to be.

      1. Almost Iowa

        Humans are tribal by nature. We will always find something to identify with that separates us from others. Around here, people have gotten into fights over brand loyalty to trucks and tractors. The questions is not why we do this – but whether we can recognize when we do this ourselves.

      1. Almost Iowa

        While there are differences today and there certainly is some nasty stuff going on around the world, the level of religious prejudice has dramatically declined over the last fifty years in the west.

      2. Jim Wheeler

        Well, I was thinking more of the Middle East than the West, so I think you’re right about that. Goes along with the trend away from religion in general, I think.

  2. Jim Wheeler

    Good advice indeed, Melanie. Your post reminds me of the time when many homes had an etiquette book around. The U.S. Navy even provides new officers with such, entitled “Service Etiquette.” I found it invaluable. Such wisdom molds “common sense” into something it otherwise would not be.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Thanks, Jim. I don’t think etiquette is taught today. Beyond please and thank you (and not enough of that,) kids don’t learn basics about making other people around them comfortable. And based on the questions above, too many adults never learned, either.


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