A few years ago, I was standing with a friend at a wedding when an aunty approached us.
Beti! she addressed my friend, you’ve gained so much weight! What happened?
My friend and I froze before I did the first thing that came to my mind: I pretended like I hadn’t heard the question to save my friend the embarrassment of having to address it with an audience. I picked up my phone (even though it hadn’t rung) and yelled HELLO? as I walked off, deeply engaged in a one-way conversation with the dial tone. But I wasn’t fast enough and heard the rest of the exchange.
I had a baby, my friend answered.
Yes, beti, 2 years ago.
Keep in mind this woman had her last child 25 years ago – what was her excuse? She looked like she’d never seen the inside of a gym. The only running she’d probably ever done was to the buffet line earlier that evening.
This got me thinking about inappropriate questions – why some people think it’s appropriate to ask them and how best to respond. There may be some cultural and age issues at play, but the worst offenders are not always old aunties. These inappropriate questions run the gamut, from personal (how much do you weigh?) to professional (how much do you make?), and neither the old (are you going through menopause?) nor the young (what’s your SAT score?) are spared.
I think we can all agree that there are certain questions that should never be asked (the ones posed above definitely make the list). But there are two questions asked with regular frequency – almost exclusively to women – that should join Olestra, MSG, and transfat on the list of things that should never pass one’s lips:
When are you getting married? (Other iterations include, Why aren’t you married? and What are you waiting for?)
What single person hasn’t heard this question a zillion times? I honestly never knew how to answer it. Usually my response would depend on my mood: InshAllah soon or hell if I know.
What always struck me about this question – particularly the why aren’t you married? variety – is that I could never understand what the person was getting at. Was I really expected to give my hypothesis as to why I was still single?
I chose graduate school over marriage.
I’m too headstrong and opinionated for my own good.
I’m suuuuuuper picky.
In the end, I usually just bit my tongue, smiled politely, and put the burden back on the questioner: when you find me a nice man.
While marriage will save you from having to hear this question ever again, it’ll open you up to a whole other world of inappropriate questions:
Are you pregnant? (Other iterations include, When are you having a baby? and Any good news?)
This question is almost always posed to married women – I first got it the day I returned from my honeymoon (no joke!). In addition to being incredibly nosy — essentially prying into a couple’s sex life and reproductive decisions – it’s insensitive.
What response can someone give if they can’t have children or they have been trying unsuccessfully to conceive? A friend who has been struggling with infertility for years told me that this question always sends her into a downward spiral of depression and self-doubt.
Let’s not forget that this question is also inappropriate by the mere fact that it’s often asked to women who are NOT pregnant and simply carrying a few extra pounds around their midsection. I myself was guilty of this once in high school, asking a classmate if his mom was pregnant.
No, he replied, she’s just fat.
I tried to cover up my blunder, oh, sorry, I asked because she was holding her stomach and lower back.
I only managed to dig the hole deeper.
Yeah, he said, she’s fat and has a bad back.
Presumably the worst offenders will not agree with the rest of us that these questions should be off-limits. So, I propose that the next time someone asks you a question that they have no business asking, turn the question back on them: why do you ask?
Perhaps forcing them to come up with a hypothesis about their own inquisitiveness will make them realize the error of their ways:
I am nosy.
I am rude.
I am inappropriate.
Nura Maznavi is an attorney, writer, and co-editor of Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women. She is currently editing the companion book to Love InshAllah – Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex & Intimacy.