Why we should ask and answer more repetitive, annoying, offensive questions

Guest post by MelRuth
By: Raymond BrysonCC BY 2.0

I am Pagan, and I have always hated the repetitive, annoying, or offensive questions that occur every time I come out of the broom closet.

Until now.

I live in the UK and work at a museum which has a decorative display of nativity items within the collection. For the run up to Christmas these will be on display in the gallery and I was given the job of creating the labels for this display. Unfortunately for everyone my knowledge of Christmas and the nativity is rather limited to what I have gained from TV, and when I got to be a fairy in the nursery nativity (I have now learned I was never a fairy, I was an angel which both bolstered and crushed my childish esteem).

I decided the best way to tackle this was to learn about the nativity, and what I was being asked to display. First I read the bible story, which resulted in questions. Since I had yet to come out of the broom closet in this job (because of the dreaded questions) I decided I would ask a Catholic friend and a Church of Scotland friend the questions I had gathered.

I genuinely was trying to find out about the nativity so that I could do a good job, and present the nativity scene in an appropriate way. But in doing so, I became an annoying, repetitive, and offensive question asker.

Since then I have truly understood the reasoning behind the questions I get asked about my belief system. I understand why people ask the questions: they want to know and understand something that is integral to the way I live my life, and maybe find out about something they did not previously know about. I understand why people still don’t get something when I answer the first round of question and get, yet more questions: they do not believe something, and a belief system is very much based on your ability to believe in something, but they still want to understand what I do and why I do it.

So now I have come out of the broom closet, and I calmly answered the questions that followed. Maybe understanding of things we are not familiar with comes from first being ignorant and asking offensive, intrusive, or annoying questions. And if we are all able to answer some of these questions calmly, then maybe the world will slowly become a much more open, accepting and understanding place.

Comments on Why we should ask and answer more repetitive, annoying, offensive questions

  1. Agreed wholeheartedly! Everybody starts their understanding somewhere, and if we shame people for asking the “dumb questions,” how can we then be surprised when they continue to say things that hurt/offend us or when they simply can’t understand us? They don’t know any better – and they never will unless we help them learn.

    One of the phrases that grates on me the most, which I often see thrown around (especially on the internet) is “It’s not my job to educate you.” But it is! It’s not always easy and it’s not always fun, and yes, it can lead to some difficult questions and awkward conversations. But I, for one, firmly believe it IS our job to educate. As you said so eloquently in your closing paragraph, having those kinds of conversations is the only way we can hope to bridge gaps and create a more tolerant and understanding world.

    Congrats on coming out of the broom closet, and here’s to an (admittedly idealistic) future where it will all be such common knowledge that nobody will have to “come out” of anything. <3

    • Thank you! I am still stinging from an episode that happened a couple of years ago wherein I asked a bunch of questions about a lifestyle I was struggling to understand and was soundly trounced for daring to ask.

      Maybe it’s because I’m a researcher by profession, but I have always been of the mind that questions lead to understanding in a very big way and so I have always welcomed questions put to me about anything and everything, especially by the youngsters! To a fault, some might say.

      [And answers given should be complete answers, not snark or defensiveness.]

      Recently, my niece was going through her confirmation classes and I was asked to write a letter to her that would be opened and read privately by her on her retreat. My poor niece! I think it was supposed to be a Hallmark card, but I took it as an opportunity to be real with her. As someone who has struggled to find any kind of faith, yet always envied it in others, I wrote a novel-length letter detailing all the ups, downs, and all-arounds that I’d been through trying to figure out if I even had a faith, let alone what it might be. When I asked her about it afterwards, worried that I’d made her uncomfortable with my honesty, she said that she shared my letter with everyone and that it had led to a massive group discussion about what faith actually is and if one is ever really faithful. I didn’t ask her what her and her friends’ conclusion(s) were. It was enough to know that I had sparked a discussion that opened them all up to bigger thoughts and considerations. It’s like that old PSA: “The more you know…”

      • I just want to add a quick post script: I suffer from four different auto immune diseases, some are invisible, but one in particular is quite disfiguring and another is obvious when I walk, so I know quite a bit about being asked personal and/or uncomfortable questions. Even when I’ve overheard people say hurtful or ignorant things about the way I look to someone else, I have always tried to look at those occasions as opportunities to help people understand something that is quite different, even foreign, to them. I do think it’s my responsibility to educate people… when they are willing to be educated, or course.

    • I agree wholeheartedly with the spirit of what you’re saying, but with one caveat: It’s fair expect open dialogue when we’re talking about a lifestyle or activity someone has actively chosen. But not when we’re talking about qualities none of us have any choice about: ethnicity, sexuality, gender identity, physical features, disabilities. Because then there will always be a double-standard for minorities, who can get so peppered with questions that many will feel that they “owe it” to us to explain their very existence. This is where the “It’s not my job to educate you” stance originated from.

      Of course it’s ideal if someone wants to educate others. I was born with dwarfism and I usually don’t mind talking about it at all. But knowing that it is my right to refuse to educate others when I don’t want educate others is empowering.

      • Regarding this:

        This is where the “It’s not my job to educate you” stance originated from.

        Over the years, several Offbeat Empire commenters have pushed back against seemingly well-intended questions in the comments, with what amounts to “It’s not my job to educate you.” Frequently, these commenters will cite this page: http://derailingfordummies.com/derail-using-education/

        It’s worth a read, for those who want to understand how asking questions can be seen by some as a derailment technique.

        • That’s awesome. A great read.

          I think the best encounter I ever had with questions about my dwarfism came from someone who prefaced it all with, “You *don’t* have to answer this if you don’t want to, so please feel free to say so…”

          Her saying that struck me as so *thoughtful* and respectful, I still remember it 15 years later.

    • It’s not everyone’s job to educate. Some people don’t feel equipped to answer prying questions about their personal lives. People have the right to discuss–or not–to their comfort level. And if someone has questions, they need to first ask if the person they’re approaching is WILLING and ABLE to do so, not to mention HOW (by email? Write them down and we will meet to discuss them when I’ve got more time?). Seeking out people in a community whose ACTUAL job might involve teaching others or representing the community to those outside it is the best place to start, because those people have chosen the path of answering the questions of others. In this case, a church leader might have been a better person to ask. In others, it might be as simple as seeking out a blogger who discusses social justice topics for the community you’re trying to learn more about. Friends and family can be good resources, but it’s easy to make them feel cornered, defensive, and imposed-upon. And in some cases, you’ll find them more likely to push back by, for example, using it as an opportunity to try to convert you. So if you go that route, be sure your purposes are clear, and that you get clear consent to even ask the questions. The only people whose job it is to educate others are the ones who are paid to do so.

  2. I like your perspective gained by being on the other side of an issue! As for if it is ALWAYS ok to ask questions, I go back and forth. If you are a member of minority group in your area, and a single person asks about your clothes/background/beliefs, etc., it doesn’t seem like a big deal. But because that person IS in the minority, and everyone in the majority is asking those questions, I am sure it would get old. There’s something extremely taxing about having to CONSTANTLY be explaining your differences. And I can’t imagine what it is like to have others constantly point out that you are different.
    Sometimes it can occur in the “Oh! This is my thing, and that’s yours, and that’s cool.”
    But other times it comes out as “You are different than I am. What’s WITH that anyway?”

    I think the type of relationship and the reason for asking the questions matters a lot. No, you probably don’t want to ask your coworkers about their personal-held beliefs just for the hell of it. But it might be different if you have a closer relationship. And when there’s a purpose for asking, like in the author’s case, I think it’s better to ask than to get something wrong!

  3. One of my favorite new traditions when I go back home for Christmas is the questions from my mom’s Jewish/ Agnostic neighbor. About what is Christian tradition and what is Victorian, what’s the difference between carols and hymns, what signifigance is the tree, why is it in December, etc.

  4. This was a major lesson I had to learn when I was getting married to my wife this past year (we’re both women) — I found myself doing a complete 180 on how I felt about questions like “who is going to wear the suit?” (we both wore dresses) or the slew of other “stupid” questions. At first I was really offended alot of the time, but eventually I learned to feel honored that people felt they could ask me their stupid questions. The truth is, most people aren’t asking to be offensive, they really don’t know the answers and their world view is expanding as you talk — it’s a subtle form of activism. You should be able to explain and be confident in your life, and while you don’t have to answer questions, you also don’t have to be offended that people just want to know more about who you are! Great topic. Thanks for the article.

  5. Also as you answer those questions or they answer those questions for you, the person answering gains a deeper understanding of their own faith system. My Husband and I have both gained an understanding of our own faith systems and each others as we have asked all of our “stupid” questions. He is Catholic Lite, and I am Pagan. He has an astounding knowledge of the church and the history of his church/faith system and I have learned a great deal. He has learned a great deal about what I do and how it fits with what he does.

  6. I think this is a great article. And I also think it’s a good way to strike a balance. In this case, the author did her own research first, but she still had questions. So then she asked people about it. It’s also good to remember that in many cases, people are curious not simply about the thing in general, but about how the thing effects the person they’re talking to. It’s a good rule of thumb for those doing the asking and those being asked. If you want a general history of *insert group*, that’s what the Google is for. If you want to know about what being a *insert group* means to that person, and how it drives their way of life, then that’s when you talk to that person. And, as the person, you try to answer those questions politely and help expand their knowledge of other walks of life.

  7. Judaism is very much founded on asking questions. The Talmud (our oral tradition, written down) is a book of questions and debates. When folks ask me questions about my religion, I encourage it, and tell them that it is a critical part of our religion. Sometimes it does feel burdensome (I JUST had the “you don’t have santa?” conversation with a coworker) but it is part of helping with cultural dialogue.

    • “But how do you feel about Jesus?”

      “Umm … we don’t really feel any way about Jesus. He’s not part of our story.”

      “But you know he was real.”

      “I mean, we, as people, know he was a historical figure. Like Ghandi. But as a religion we have no opinion on him.”

      It’s frustrating, but you just have to take a deep breath and remember that they just don’t know because they’ve never had a reason to know. Apparently my husband believed that Jews were wiped out during the holocaust until he got to highschool. He learned about them being slaughtered and he’d never met one so he drew a perfectly logical conclusion.

  8. Thank you for this brilliant article. I hate when people get “fed up” of answering people’s questions. How else are people meant to learn? I felt a bit this way after a recent published article on here about “stupid questions I get asked about being gluten free” or something, and this article is really a breath of fresh air after that.

  9. I thinks it’s in the tone, sometimes you can’t help a turn of phrase. I’ve had allot of ‘educator’ moments and have always (sometimes begrudgingly) answered openly and honestly. It’s when a certain tone creeps into the questioning, either cynical or judgmental, when I tell them they can always ask a question but aren’t entitled to an answer.

  10. As my ex-step-father told me in junior high: “If you’re not going to be normal or mainstream, be prepared to explain yourself.” I’m glad I was forewarned of what to expect. It made all the questions tolerable, but also made me think about what and who I was while answering those questions.

  11. Sometimes I *wish* people would ask questions (without an agenda, of course). It seems more common for people to silently make assumptions and judge things they don’t know about.

  12. I agree that asking questions is a good thing. However, I also think that people need to learn to ask questions *respectfully.* The difference between respectful and disrespectful questions has less to do with the query subject and far more to do with presentation and tone. To use your example of the nativity, a simple, “I’m unfamiliar with the nativity; could you explain it please?” is very different from a sneering, “So explain this nativity thing to me.” The first communicates genuine interest. The second communicates condescension. For me, this is the biggest difference between offensive questions and inoffensive questions. The key is whether the questioner is communicating a true desire to understand.

  13. Thanks for writing this–I really feel you on how understanding the motivation behind the questions puts them in a whole different light. When someone is asking out of a place of kindness, I have a much easier time answering personal questions.

    For me, when asking and answering personal questions I try to be aware of the power dynamics involved. I think that often times, the idea that is it not someone’s job to educate another is because the power is imbalanced in the relationship or situation. I don’t want to put someone in the position of having to explain something to me when they’ve been asked a million times and are emotionally exhausted, and I have the upper hand in some way (I’m their boss, I’ve cornered them at a party in front of people, they are the only person of color at the party, the only gay couple at the parenting group etc. etc.) Similarly, sometimes I just don’t have the emotional energy to walk someone through a lot of information, but I feel pressured to (in my case, it tends to be a gender thing– internalized crap about how nice girls are endlessly giving and don’t draw boundaries etc.). I think that being aware of the power/situation is ultimately a way of being kind and polite (though like all attempts to be kind and polite, I don’t always succeed!)

    That said, I also don’t want to live in my own head and bubble, and as you wrote, one of the ways to avoid that is to ask questions and answer questions. I’m glad that you were able to have a good conversation about religious beliefs with your co-worker! I’ve learned so much from talking with friends our about our different beliefs and traditions–and I’ve taught my friends all my best Quaker jokes, all two of them 🙂

  14. This is a great article, but I don’t think that every question needs to be explained/educating– some people are just rude/inappropriate. I get asked on a (literally) daily basis how tall I am, what my shoe size is, do I play basketball, etc. Are people curious? Undoubtedly; I’m a 6’4″ female. Is it any of their business and do I have any obligation to respond? HELL NO. I ignore them or tell them they’re being rude.

    It’s a bit different for a cultural or lifestyle situation, I think. I have a friend who is polyamorous and encouraged me to ask questions to become more informed. I like to think that education helps to snuff out intolerance, one question at a time.

  15. Yay dialogue!

    My family is lapsed Catholic; I went to a Jewish preschool. I came home with tinfoil menorahs and the teachers had me bring in a Christmas ornament and talk about our traditions. Obviously, being three, it wasn’t a profound, revelatory conversation about faith or anything (I left mad that my little buddies got eight rounds of presents, they left mad that I got visits from a magical dude with reindeer), but it set a lovely precedent early on for A. starting from a place of openness, B. listening as well as talking, and C. learning the difference between honest curiosity worded poorly and rudeness disguised as interest. I field a lot of questions about my mental illness (hard to disguise sometimes), and I always think about preschool and the kind way the teacher told me that no, not everybody props up a dead tree in their house for a month every year when I was all “but you don’t have Christmas trees?!”. We all come with our own assumptions. Some people are just asshats, but I prefer to answer kindly if I can tell the asker isn’t being deliberate.

  16. I started at a Catholic school in 7th grade and came from a non-religious background. We celebrated Easter as a the easter bunny is bringing spring and give you candy. like, we left the easter bunny carrots and water to eat because we were concerned for its health. When we got the spring and the folks at school started talking the resurrection I was totally flabbergasted. Props to my religion teacher who took it with a sense of humor and was willing to explain to me what they believed as well as the historical context for easter outside of the Christian faith.

    I’ve also been an asshole. For instance, my religion teacher in highschool that I did not like at all had her marriage of 15 years annulled by the Catholic church. She had two children as a result of the marriage and I asked her if by annulling the marriage she had made her children illegitimate. I mean, I DO still, over 10 years later, want to know the answer, but I probably could have not asked it like an asshole.

  17. I don’t exactly mind questions about Judaism. For me, the challenge is when I’m made to feel as though I’m speaking for the entire Jewish people. There are practical reasons why I feel uncomfortable acting as a representative for all Jews, such as the diversity of philosophy and practice between, and especially within, the different sects, the fact that I don’t fit neatly into a particular Jewish box, the fact that there often isn’t enough time for a full answer, etc.

    On a personal level, it bothers me to be seen as a representative because I feel like the asker isn’t seeing me as an individual. Sometimes in answering questions, I feel like I have to choose between giving the textbook “right” answer (eg. what are the laws of keeping kosher and what are the reasons”) vs giving my personal answer (eg. how I actually think and feel about kosher, what I actually practice, which is definitely not a textbook answer). If I had the choice, I’d rather answer the question as Deena the individual, not as Deena, the representative for all of Judaism.

  18. I really appreciate your insight on this. As someone long out of the broom closet, I cannot help but find the humor in that it has fallen upon me to play the Virgin Mary for a living Nativity at work this year… All acts of love and pleasure and all that. Hopefully nobody gets their knickers in a twist because of my personal religious beliefs being separate from this portrayal!

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