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Today in class, I asked you to take home your list of questions that you typed up for today (questions you shouldn’t ask in an Anglophone cultural context when talking to a stranger) and to add one more piece of information to the list: an explanation of why you shouldn’t ask each specific question.
In class, I specified that there are more reasons for not asking a question that simple rudeness. We discussed three possible explanations. Here’s an expanded list:
The question is rude — it makes the other person look bad, or is an apparent (and unwarranted or unsolicited) criticism of the other person. For example, “Are you pregnant?” or, “Don’t you have a job?” or “Why don’t you get a haircut?” Usually, this kind of question is really a veiled attack, and a smart, devastating counter-attack is warranted. In other words, if someone is rude to you like this, you have no absolute obligation to continue to be polite to them. (A relative obligation does continue to exist, however.)
The question is pushy: it crosses a boundary. It might be an appropriate question in a different context, but not in this context. The boundary can be etiquette (inappropriate sexual joking), or personal (asking too-personal questions of a stranger), or otherwise disturbing (like, “What is your address?”). Often an appropriate response would be to say, “None of your business,” or (more gently) “Why do you ask?” If someone asks such a question without the right to ask it, you are not obligated to provide the information; further, you have the right to inform the person (indirectly at first) that a boundary has been crossed.
The question is ignorant: it makes you look like you are ignorant, uncultured, or stupid. Examples include, “Are you gay?” or “Are you some kind of feminist?” or “If you’re half-Korean, what’s your other half?” The most common response, and the best one in most cases, is to laugh at the person, and make a joke at their expense. After all, stupidity, ignorance, and unculturedness is best discouraged by making stupidity unfashionable: if you make someone look stupid, they’ll hesitate before saying stupid things again. Alternately, if you think the person really just is ignorant (but willing to listen) you can explain that the question asked is socially unacceptable, and why. Most people won’t listen, but you can try…
The question is weird: it makes no sense in an Anglophone cultural context, or else it betrays an unusual, unhealthy, or otherwise weird hangup, obsession, or mental distortion in the mind of the person asking the question. The appropriate response to these questions depends on your gut instinct, and you should be careful. (Really weird questions suggest a really weird person.) However, it’s within your rights according to the conversational game rules in English to ask the person why, to make a joke, to explain why the question is weird, or to simply reject the question.Usually, though, the appropriate move is to end the conversation, either with your answer, or by simply extracting yourself from the conversation and leaving.
There are other answers possible too. Try think over these options, or find other explanations that make sense to you, for each of the questions on the list you made for me.
On Thursday morning, we’ll discuss this a little, and try an exercise in dealing with inappropriate questions.
Also, I will be adding a sign-up link for the Student-Led Discussions, as well as for Student Topics. I’ll post a new post when those have been created, probably on Wednesday afternoon or evening.
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"For the correct analogy for the mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting..."—Plutarch, "On Listening," Moralia
This is the website for Prof. Gord Sellar. It back up and running, though it is supplemented by the proprietary Blackboard course management system used the university where he works.