The fine art of not asking intrusive questions

My mother always says, listen, don’t ask. She wasn’t training me to be submissive. When she says, don’t ask, it is in the context of asking or trying to gather personal information from someone. Information that is really not our business. Especially if it could be of a sensitive nature.

As human beings we are curious and inquisitive and it is something that is certainly not something to be ashamed about or to be curbed as a trait. And most of us are curious about a lot of things – not just about the world around us and in the science of how things work, but also about people, their circumstances, the amount of money a couple makes, the rent they pay, or why a marriage worked out or why it didn’t. However what we think is different than what we say out aloud or ask. We cannot help but wonder about things, but we don’t necessarily have to put those thoughts out aloud.

Say if you have a friend who has just confided in you that she is initiating a separation from her husband. If she hasn’t told you or felt the need to explain why, or what happened, maybe it would be a good idea to just listen to her, rather than ask? You might have an assumption if the news hasn’t come as a shock to you, but even if it is your friend, ideally, wait for a cue about whether or not she want to go into the details of the situation instead of asking for or indulging in our need to know why it happened.

I don’t want this to be a rant post. And obviously much has been written about before on this topic and will be written about in the years to come. All of us in some ways face questions that we don’t want to answer and questions that in an ideal world shouldn’t have been asked of us as well.

I also want to make it clear that just because a person asks you that unsolicited, deeply personal question, he or she isn’t a bad person. Maybe they lack tact or let their curiosity get the better of them.

There are three examples here – all of these have happened to me. All the three instances, had put me in an awkward space and in those moments, I had answered defensively or said the first thing that came to my mind. I could have instead said, I am not comfortable with these questions, but I didn’t. I was very taken aback and unsure of how I should answer.

Here’s a little background for the first two instances. I am 40 and my husband is 39. We have been married for seven years now and have no children.

The background for the third instance is that after my mother and I lost my father suddenly, I was taking care of both – my mother and our finances. My mother is legally blind and so I was doing a lot of paperwork on her behalf as well.

In the middle of a wedding – will you be able to be a mother at this age?

My husband and I were attending a family wedding in the UK. I was chatting with my nephew and he offered if I wanted to hold his younger son. Apprehensive as the toddler has barely known me, and I was but a stranger to him, I opened out my arms. To my surprise, the little boy came readily, and didn’t cry. I was at our table and then after a few minutes, growing confident that the little guy liked me and that he wasn’t fretful, I asked his father if I could wander about with my great nephew in the wedding canopy.

Absolutely he said, I am so glad he likes you. Don’t worry if he cries, we are nearby, so just spend time with him as you would like to.

So I wandered about from one table to another – a lot of our extended family was seated at different tables and as the little guy was cheerful as I took him to aunts and uncles and such to say hello. He enjoyed the little walk and clung on to me, trusting and calm.

At one of the tables, I met a cousin. As soon as I said hello, she said, out of the blue, maybe because I was holding a toddler –

Are you thinking of being a mother?

I didn’t know what to say, so I must have fallen silent for a second.

You know you are already late. You are 40, aren’t you? Would you be able to handle motherhood at this age, she continued.

I don’t know if she registered the shock on my face or my reluctance to talk on this subject, but she continued nonetheless.

Your mother had you at 40, so you are already aware of the challenges, the pros and cos. So what I am basically saying is that if you want a child, hurry up. You shouldn’t waste time.

I mustn’t have given her a satisfactory answer, for she wouldn’t give up.

What do you think, she said. What are you guys doing at the moment to have a child?

We aren’t trying, so I don’t know, I said.

Another relative saw the discomfort on my face, and I saw her nudging my cousin. For it is then that she stopped to take a pause and I went away from the table or rather made as quick a move as I could.

It left a bad taste in my mouth. I was having a happy time. The canopy was full of people. I did not want to initiate a private conversation in the middle of that wedding reception, in the middle of so many people and I didn’t understand why did she have to choose that particular moment to ask me why I didn’t have children. Most of all, I didn’t know why she needed to ask at all. She and I haven’t been close. We hardly exchange a phone call in a year. There’s another cousin who I speak to regularly. We have discussed parenthood. But that has been in private, never like this.

After a dinner, in the front of seven other people – next time, come back with a child in your arms

My mother and I had been invited for dinner at a family friend’s place.

After the dinner, the old matriarch of the family called me aside to where she was seated. It was a small living room and we were surrounded by her sons, and their wives and one of her grandchild, and daughter in law.

Why do you not have a child, she asked.

Again, silence from my end.

Do you have a problem? Is something wrong?

Even if there was a problem, I thought to myself, I wouldn’t want to talk about it like this. I was calm at that point of time because I knew that the matriarch wasn’t an unkind person.

You know, if you don’t have a child, your father’s side of the line would be finished. You are an only child.

At this point, I have to admit that I got flustered and defensive. So I said, that we don’t want children.

How can that be? How can someone not want children? Promise me that you will come back to India with a child. On your next visit here, you must have a child in your arms.

The room around us was silent. Everyone was listening to our conversation but not saying anything. When we were home, I was a little cross. I am not going to their place again, mummy, I blurted out.

I understand, she said, I am sorry.

It wasn’t my mother’s fault; she wasn’t expecting a conversation like this. Like me, she was caught off guard too. I really do have a lot of respect for the matriarch, she is like a grandmother to me. But I wish we didn’t have to have such conversations in such a manner.

How much money has your father left you?

I was visiting a friend and we went to her in-laws place. I knew her mother-in-law and so we chatted amiably. Suddenly out of the blue, she said, how much money did your father leave you.

Again, as you can predict by now, my first response was silence that comes from a sense of shock.

Undeterred, she pursued – was it a crore? If it is a crore, it is a good sum.

Aunty, I said, it is not a crore.

Oh, how much is it then? Wasn’t he a doctor?

By then, my friend took over and made sure that the conversation was veered to a different line and I wasn’t barraged with more questions about how much my father had left me and my mother. (This friend, who I have known for just a little under two decades, has never asked me why I don’t have children or what my father left me. Just for the record.)

In all of these instances, I don’t think any of the people involved are bad people. That would be grossly out of context. Their questions, seemed to me, out of place and ones that could have been avoided. Of course, we can’t change people. We can only perhaps control our responses and be mindful. That is, if questions like these put me in an uncomfortable space, I may be more aware of what I ask people, and how and where I ask them things.

Maybe my mother had this trait of not asking intrusive questions innately in her. Maybe, her own experiences – she conceived after 10 years of her marriage, at the age of 40, and she may have faced a barrage of questions in that period that made her more sensitive and sensible to other people’s needs and situations.

Whatever the reasons may be, it is indeed an art. An art and a sensibility that needs to be cultivated.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.