30 August, 2018

Those questions again

A No Kidding friend recently was telling me about her weekend away at an elderly friend’s 80th birthday party, when she was frequently asked (by many of those attending, who no doubt were also older), “do you have a family?”

Whilst I had a mother who would always use this phrase to ask whether someone had children, she said she’d never heard that before, but she still managed to give the perfect response, responding, “Yes, I have a family, a very close family, but if you mean, ‘do I have children,’ then the answer is no.”

This made me think about Mel’s recent post about asking questions, when she thought immediately about our No Kidding community’s reaction* to being asked if we have children. In writing a response to her, I realised I had a lot to say on this topic!

I'll start by saying that asking questions is important. For a start, it shows that we're not selfishly focused on ourselves, and it shows respect to the other people we are with. It's how we build relationships, and how we got to know our significant others and our best friends, after all. Isn't it?

It’s also a really useful tool for those of us who might be a little shy when meeting new people. I learned the value of asking questions when I was a diplomat attending a lot of business social functions, and found that asking questions ensured that conversation flowed when I was meeting complete strangers. It’s easy to slip out of the habit though, so a reminder to ask questions is always useful.

However, I think the questions we ask tell people a lot about us too. In fact, I think there are essentially two types of questions, split between selfish and unselfish motives:
  • The question focused on what we want to talk about.
  • The question that is genuinely intended to learn more about the person we are talking to.
The first, more selfish question is about things we are interested in, things we like talking about. For example, do you have kids? Do you travel?  What do you do for work? One of the commenters on Mel’s post noted that now she has children she understands that people like to talk about their children, and she forgives that question. Yet she doesn’t like being asked what she does for a living. To me, that’s a bit hypocritical. If you forgive the one question, just because it now suits your circumstances, you have to accept the second.

The purpose of this question is to find things we share with the other person. Yes, that is completely understandable. Finding commonalities is a way to feel comfortable, and focusing on them can build connections. But asking questions only to find commonalities is perhaps short-sighted, restricting ourselves to what we know, and what we are comfortable with. It is lazy. It is looking for one answer, the one that you can relate to. And so it can also be isolating to the person on the other end of the question.

That’s the issue that people going through infertility have, and even more, those of us who have no children. When you get the same question over and over and over again, it is understandable that we feel annoyed at being asked this question. The person asking it is almost invariably hoping for one response. (Though Infertile Phoenix recently noted the exception that proves the rule here.) So we know that our response is never going to get approval. We are continually asked the same question by people who we know will be disappointed by our answer.

The second question is much more generous, and can take us places we never expected to go. We don’t need to find things that we have in common with someone to have an interesting conversation. Finding that they have different interests or backgrounds or do something completely outside our own experience can open new worlds to us, teach us new things, encourage us to think about life in a different way, and learn to be more open and understanding of people who are different from us. We don’t have to be the same to share a wonder of the world, to enjoy others’ company, or to respect others’ differences.

Finally, I think that how people respond to the answer to our answers to their questions is just as important too. Do they or we respond openly, with interest or kindness, when the answer isn’t as expected? Do we read the body language and accept that this is not something the person might want to talk about, or do we probe on regardless, offering uninvited advice and suggestions, or further even more invasive questions? If someone reacts to me with an open mind and genuine wish to engage me in a dialogue as equals, then personally I have found any inadvertently probing questions are much more easily tolerated.

That is another reason that the No Kidding amongst us resent the “do you have children?” question. As I mentioned above, we know that our answer will disappoint most people who ask it, as they clearly want to be able to talk about having children. Worse than that though, we often find ourselves being judged when we respond “no.” Sometimes there can be a hostile reaction. Sometimes we are ignored, dismissed as not worthy of further conversation. This has certainly happened to me more than once, and I imagine to all my No Kidding readers.

So I think that anyone asking questions needs to think before they ask, whatever they ask, and temper the questions by tone of voice and language used. I ask people now "what keeps you busy?" rather than the assumptions, "what do you do for a living?" or "do you have children?" In their response, people who have children will pretty soon tell you, and those who are working and very busy will tell you that too, but those who are travelling or volunteering or writing or making art or caring for elderly relatives or working with Jane Goodall in Africa or  also get a chance to respond without having to challenge stereotypes or feel that they're being judged.  In return, I get the gift of new insight into worlds I could never enter.

* See comments below. I've misrepresented Mel's post, as she didn't single out our group. I did!


  1. Great post. Though my post was not about the No Kidding community. The posts I was reading were at people early in their journey -- just simply annoyed that they had to confront their infertility each time it's asked. Though it applies to the No Kidding community, too, and I think all of us have questions that we don't like to ask because they bring up topics that we don't want to discuss or because they're dead-end questions.

    Your point about intention is great. I don't think questions fit into one category or the other but any question can be asked with expansive intentions vs. insular or reflective intentions. The same person can ask the same question to two different people for two completely different reasons; one that seeks connection and one that's just nosiness.

    1. Apologies. It was my assumption.

      And yes, to the "seeking connection" or "just nosiness." I've found myself opening up to virtual strangers, and closing others down, based on the way they asked and responded to exactly the same questions and answers.

  2. What keeps you busy? - What a great question! I occasionally ponder the issue of how to ask questions of people without making rude assumptions, in order to get to know them better. But since I have a terrible difficulty with small talk anyway, I am usually unable to come up with a strategy. Fortunately for me...it's mostly people I work with and the office grapevine will inform me of the things I want to know without my having to ask.

  3. This is a really great post with excellent advice. I am THE WORST at making small talk, so it's always a painful process for me to think of things to ask new people. Having gone through infertility and the longing for children until my late 30s, I know how uncomfortable the "do you have kids?" question is, so I avoid that one at all costs. I love your approach of asking "what keeps you busy?" I think I'll try that!

  4. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE your question! It provides a space for so many different answers and is inclusive for all people! This is great!

    And yes, I too have had conversations come to a full stop when I report that I have no children. Its as if I have nothing to offer these types.

  5. I love "What keeps you busy!" I'm going to use that from now on. What a terrifically inclusive question that doesn't make anyone feel left out. My best friend is a stay at home mom of three, and for her, kids are her everything, especially when they were younger. However, now she's feeling like she wants to be seen as MORE than what she does for her children, and it's shifting dynamics a bit. I feel like "what keeps you busy" allows for people whose lives are changing diapers to feel like they can say stuff about their kids, and for people who don't have kids to share their interests and activities without feeling that they are less than, and for people who have kids but want to be known for their other interests as well an opportunity to highlight what they want to talk about. Love it.

  6. This is a fabulous analysis & explanation of why the questions about kids are so uncomfortable for us. And I love "What keeps you busy?" Filing it away in my head for the next cocktail party I attend...!