Why do you ask?

25 Jan

Philip Galanes, New York Times advice columnist, was on NPR’s Fresh Air way back 🙂 in 2011 (http://www.npr.org/2011/12/05/142718547/times-advice-guru-answers-your-social-qs) and caught my attention when he addressed the topic of how to respond to questions, like: “How did [your father kill himself]? or “You’re 45 and you haven’t had children yet, why?”

Galanes, whose father committed suicide (and who, as a 45-year-old gay man in a committed relationship, doesn’t have children), is a veteran of this sort of question, which he suggests gets posed because the person asking is “just thoughtless.”

I thought that was a pretty unapologetic and apt way to put it. Upon hearing the news that Galanes’ father killed himself, you might experience a quiet internal panic, from which your usually reliable banter has fled. You might feel empty of words or any other way to connect.

But that’s after hearing the news. 

I think people ask all sorts of intrusive questions because they are full of thought, rather than devoid of it: we ask “why” and “why not” questions (Why aren’t you married? Why don’t you buy a house while interest rates are down?) in particular because we are full of thoughts about the ways things should be.

We’re full of bias: stories about what’s “normal” that give us license to question anything different. But as someone who has been on both sides of the “why” and knows that sometimes it’s even easier to be thoughtless when I choose the norm, I like to try to mix it up and ask myself and others why we do the things we (of course) do:

  • Why did I get married?
  • Why do you want children?
  • How might my parents die? Because, eventually they will, even if I don’t like to think about it.

So if you have the time, listen to Galanes’ “Fresh Air” interview or peruse his column “Social Q’s” in the Times (http://topics.nytimes.com/topics/features/style/fashionandstyle/columns/social_qs/index.html).

And ask yourself or someone else an unexpected question about something totally “normal” today.

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