There are many things which we do without ever questioning. Things that are just part of our culture. Most of the time this is fine.
But occasionally we say things - normal, socially acceptable things - and ask questions which cause discomfort or distress to people. And those who are hurt by these things, thanks to cultural norms, are not really allowed to express that. If they do convey that they don't like such questions, or that they find this a painful subject, they are often seen to be breaking social norms, over-reacting, or just being plain unreasonable. They, for feeling hurt by a question or comment, are now at fault for making the person who asked it uncomfortable.
This article is not intended to make you feel guilty about things you have said . After all, what I am talking about are societal norms which many people wouldn't ever think to question. The purpose of this article is to demonstrate how some innocent seeming remarks or questions might actually feel hurtful, and to suggest that before asking such questions or making such remarks, it would be good to ask ourselves, "Is this actually helpful and appropriate? Would it be better to talk about something else instead?"
One genre of innocent yet offensive comments are those made to childless women about how something they've done means they would be good mums. One very specific example of this was when, on one occasion, I brought a plate of iced gingerbread to something. It had wonderfully, artistically, piped icing, which as I have an honour's degree in fine art, should not really surprise anyone who knew me. The comment I received on it? "You'll make a wonderful mother someday." Because my ability to make biscuits look pretty clearly has far more to do with my parenting capabilities than with my four years of Fine Arts training. Which begs the question, do my woodworking skills mean I will also be a good father one day?
What's wrong with these comments? These comments, though intended purely as a compliment, carry an underlying assumption that all female persons want to have children, and that it is therefore appropriate to relate any demonstrated skill - however irrelevant it may be - to their capacity for motherhood.
This is a problem for a few reasons. If the woman you have made this comment to has made a decision to not have children, these kind of statements undermine that decision, implying that it is wrong. If she is somewhat indifferent about the subject then she is probably not keen on her value being assessed in terms of whether or not she would make a good mother. The third option is that the woman in question might really want kids but for whatever reason it's just not happening. If she's a young woman who has plenty of time to find a significant other and have a family (and that is what she wants to do) then she may appreciate the comment. If she is not, then being told that she would be really good at this thing she desperately wants but is running out of time for (or can never have) is likely to be rather painful.
One of the awkward questions which really baffles me is one which gets asked of recently married couples. I have never heard anyone say they appreciated being asked this question, but have heard a fair number say they just feel really awkward about it or hate being asked. The question essentially boils down to, "So, are you making a baby yet?" being asked in general small talk.
So what is the problem with this question? You don't know many of the details of their life. It may be that they are currently trying for a baby and are happy for you to know it. But, it could also be that they just miscarried, or are trying IVF, or found out they were infertile, in which case the question raises a painful subject. It could be that they have decided to wait, or chosen not to have children at all, and now they have to explain that to every person who asks this question. Or they may have intended to wait until they were in a more stable living situation but have become pregnant un-intentionally.
Apart from potentially raising a painful subject, and what truly baffles me about this question is the issue of what this is actually asking. Most of us know how babies are made. The question of "Are you making a baby?" is effectively a socially acceptable way of asking "So, are you having sex regularly? Using protection? Is all the plumbing working?" When did those become appropriate questions to be asking over morning tea after a church service?
Another of these socially appropriate but potentially harmful subjects is talking about romantic relationships with single people. Specifically, questions like "Have you found anyone yet?" and comments along the lines of "Don't worry, it'll happen eventually" or comments about leaving it too late. If you are talking to someone who is single there are three basic options concerning how they feel about it: They may desperately want a relationship and be devastated by the fact that nothing they've tried is working; they may be indifferent to the subject but likely feel pressured by family and friends; or they may be single by choice, and not want a partner.
In any of these cases drawing attention to someone's singleness doesn't really seem like a good idea. At best the person feels awkward about their current situation. At worst they feel like you are judging their choices, or you have drawn attention to their failure to achieve something they desperately want.
So what do we do with what's been said here? Do we have to not ask those questions at all?
As with most things, the context is incredibly important.
From my point of view the best approach here is to avoid using these sorts of questions and comments in general small talk. Find something else to say when you are talking to acquaintances or people you don't interact with a lot. Save these extremely personal subjects for people you are close to, where you have some chance of knowing whether the subject would be painful, and where there can be a deeper conversation if you have accidentally hit on a painful subject.
A conversation involves two or more people, and each of those people is equally entitled to feel comfortable and safe.