By Annie Tucker Morgan
When we’re just getting to know someone—a friend, a business associate, a romantic partner—being inquisitive about the other person’s background and interests is a healthy and inevitable part of the process. But that doesn’t mean it’s appropriate to fire off just any question that pops into your mind, no matter how burning your desire to know the answer is. In the case of these seven topics, your curiosity will get you nowhere fast.
1. How much money do you make?
The only times it’s acceptable to ask this question are when you’re an employer interviewing a prospective employee and need that person’s salary history, and when you have a domestic partner with whom you’ve merged your finances. Otherwise, it’s strictly off-limits. Even if you share every other detail of your life with your friends and family members—and even if you choose to be open about how much you make—that doesn’t mean anyone is required to disclose his or her earnings to you. Nor are you entitled, just because a friend may have revealed her salary in past positions, to know that information about subsequent jobs she takes. When it comes to money, mum’s the word.
2. Are you pregnant?
Many females lowball how much they weigh, even on their driver’s license, so you shouldn’t even have to ask why it’s not a good idea to ask a woman any pointed weight-related questions. But just to make things crystal clear:
1. A woman who is not pregnant but is simply overweight may already be struggling with low self-esteem or poor health, so to mistakenly ascribe her heaviness to pregnancy is to add insult to injury.
2. Worse, if a woman has visible abdominal bloating, it could be symptomatic of ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (a complication from certain fertility drugs) or the result of undergoing in vitro fertilization—meaning not only is that woman not pregnant, but she also can’t conceive a child without medical intervention, in which case inquiring whether she’s pregnant will only draw attention to her already difficult emotional and physical circumstances.
3. If a woman looks pregnant, she might actually be. But that doesn’t mean she’s ready to tell people yet, let alone a complete stranger.
3. Why aren’t you married?
Statistically, there’s a good chance that if the person you’re asking is in his or her thirties or forties and beyond, he or she already has been married and is now divorced. If that’s the case, the person may have ended the marriage very recently and may still be reeling emotionally, so this question is both invasive and potentially traumatic. In the case of homosexual couples, many states won’t even allow them to marry legally, and while the couples might not have made that decision for themselves, it could still be a sore subject. Finally, even if someone isn’t currently and has never been married, who’s to say he or she even believes in the institution in the first place? If the respondent feels strongly that marriage is little more than a legal agreement, all you’ll get in response to your query is a long diatribe on what a meaningless arrangement it is—and you’ll deserve it for nosing around in the first place.
4. Why don’t you want/have kids?
The decision to have or not have children is one of the most personal in life, and as such, asking someone about his or her opting not to procreate is not advisable, as it could be perceived as disrespectful or judgmental. It may be the “American way” to have 1.5 kids, but people choose not to follow that path for a wide range of reasons: maybe they aren’t biologically capable of reproducing or able to adopt; maybe they had a child who died in infancy, and starting over is too painful; maybe they just want to enjoy their adulthood without shouldering the responsibility of caring for another life. As with the question “Are you pregnant?” the answer to this one is, quite simply, none of your business.
5. Do you believe in God?
Religion manifests itself in myriad forms, from going to church every Sunday to making a pilgrimage to Mecca to practicing yoga regularly to worshipping at the altar of red wine each weekend. No matter what someone’s religious—or atheistic or agnostic—inclinations are, his or her decision to share those views with you should be left to individual discretion and good timing. If you ask a friend, “Do you believe in God?” she might say no but could still be an intensely spiritual person—one who doesn’t feel comfortable discussing her rich inner life with you because your mention of a specific deity might imply your inability to appreciate the realm of faith beyond organized religion.
6. How much does your house/rent/car/purse/child’s tuition cost?
This type of query generally accomplishes little more than setting up a dichotomy between the “haves” and the “have nots,” and breeding resentment and competition within otherwise loving relationships. The way people choose to spend their money—whether they’ve earned it through hard work or are blowing a massive inheritance or trust fund—is up to them. And why do you care, anyway? If an acquaintance tells you she paid $900 for her Louis Vuitton tote, what does that mean to you: that she’s squandering her wealth, or that you have to have one of your own to keep up with the Joneses? Either way, that question is a loaded one. And even if your motives are genuinely practical—for example, you’re considering enrolling your child in the school your friend’s kid attends and want to know if you can afford it—it’s not right to put someone on the spot about how much tuition she pays, especially when you can learn such information by simply visiting the school’s website.
7. How many people have you slept with?
Even if the person you’re asking is someone with whom you’re considering having a sexual relationship, this question is more offensive than pragmatic. (In this case, the truly important inquiry to pose up front is not how many people your prospective partner has been intimate with, but rather whether [and when] he or she has been screened for all manner of sexually transmitted diseases.) The number of partners someone has had in the past could be embarrassing, whether because it’s “too many” or “too few,” in society’s opinion, or because the person has lost count and doesn’t want to admit it. In addition, the emotional significance people assign to the act of sex varies widely, so while sleeping with a hundred people could seem perfectly normal to one person, having sex with five could feel deviant to another—and in either case, asking someone for that figure could be divisive because doing so calls forth a discussion of personal values that don’t necessarily reflect your own sexual mores. Worst of all, consider the ramifications of asking a rape victim how many people she’s had intercourse with—how would it make her feel to have to wonder whether to include her rapist in her head count, just to satisfy your curiosity?
Cultivating personal relationships is a lifelong undertaking, and the closer you become to someone, the greater the likelihood that you’ll be privy to the intimate details of his or her life. These seven subjects may not be verboten forever—in fact, they often arise organically over the course of years spent with loved ones—but if you’re not sure whether they’re appropriate to broach, chances are, they aren’t yet. When it comes to curiosity, discretion is certainly the better part of valor.