Last week I ran into one of my TV buddies in a greenroom. I hadn't seen him in nearly a year, since we last appeared on a television program together. We did the sort of catching up that we do with those we haven't seen in a while. "How are you? How's work? How's life?" Then he asked me a question out of the blue. "So Keli are you married yet?" To which I replied, "That depends. Are you proposing?"
Now let me say for the record, that I know that he wasn't. He was simply asking out of curiosity, and probably a bit of fatherly concern, as in "Have you finally settled down yet?" Let me also add that he is by far one of my favorite TV buddies. He is not only an entertaining guest, but he's also gracious -- giving his fellow guests every opportunity to shine instead of trying to hog the entire segment, like some guests try to do. But when I was asked the same question, days later, by someone I don't know that well (it was literally the second question after "How have you been?") I commiserated with friends about all of the funny questions we are regularly asked, and that over the years we have asked others, that are really none of our business. By "our" I mean no one's business but close family and close friends.
Yet in a society in which every birth announcement is expected to go up on Facebook, with accompanying photo, before a new mother even exits the hospital, and celebrities air their dirty laundry during a breakup via Twitter, boundaries seem to have become a foreign concept. It seems that the more we share through social media, the more people expect to know about every aspect of our lives. (And as I noted on The Dylan Ratigan Show, if your first reaction to all of this is, "I don't know what you're talking about, Keli. People don't seem all that nosy as far as I can tell," I hate to break it to you but that's probably because you're one of the nosy people I'm referring to.) So below, a list of questions we have all probably asked someone we are not related to, not close friends with, not interested in pursuing an intimate relationship with, or interested in setting up in an intimate relationship with someone we know, that are absolutely none of our business.
That doesn't mean we have to stop asking them necessarily. But we should at least do the polite thing and ask them behind the person's back.
1) What are you?
Over the years I have had a number of friends of mixed race, and mixed cultural and religious upbringing (and a few who just look like they are) and something that rankles them is when strangers or new acquaintances ask the question "What are you?" or some variation of it. Asking someone you don't know very well about his or her parentage is not only nosy, but rude particularly when the underlying motivation bears some sort of racial or cultural component. Because at the end of the day, does it really matter if the person's mother is Japanese and her father is black or if his father is part white and part Korean and his mother is part Russian-Jewish and Puerto Rican? If the person chooses to volunteer such information that's one thing, but if you feel inclined to ask such a question you may want to ask yourself why, before you do. And for the record, I have been asked this question myself, which I find funny on multiple levels. Mainly because I think it's pretty obvious to any seeing person that I am black but I have been pressed on the ethnic diversity of my background multiple times. To which my new official reply is, "Yes it's diverse. Now why do you ask?"
2) What's up with your health?
If you run into someone you haven't seen in a while and he looks great, tell him that. You don't need to say, "Wow. You've lost so much weight. How on earth did you do it?" (Unless of course you are trying to lose a similar amount of weight and are genuinely looking for advice, in which case mention that.) For any of the rest of us asking such a question is intrusive. If someone had LAP-BAND surgery and wants you to know, he will volunteer such information. He or she could also be ill, or may be going through a breakup and under a lot of stress. Either way it's really none of your business unless he or she chooses to make it your business. This extends to inquiries about the health status of relatives of co-workers or acquaintances you don't know that well too. Unless someone has specifically said, "Please keep my mom in your thoughts and prayers. She's battling cancer," you don't need to say, "I heard your mom is sick. What's wrong?" Offering a "keeping your family in my thoughts" will suffice. If he wants you to know more, he'll volunteer the information.
3) Are you married? (Bonus points for adding "yet.")
There are so many variations of this question: "When are you settling down?" "Are you two going to live together forever?" "Think you'll get married someday?" All of them fall under the same umbrella: none of your business. And no, it doesn't make you cool and progressive to ask your LGBT friends who have been together for years if they'll get married "now that there's the opportunity to," still nosy and rude. If you receive a wedding invitation -- or Facebook status update -- that's your cue to bring it up.
4) Are you planning to have children? (Or more children?)*
I find it hysterical that in a culture in which it's considered rude to ask someone's credit score, it is considered appropriate to ask people what they plan on doing with their womb and sperm in the near future. I mean, really. And by the way, telling someone you don't know very well (or even that you do) that he or she will "change your mind" if they give you an answer to this question that you don't agree with: tacky and inappropriate. (*Unless of course you are supporting this person and said children in which case such a question is literally your business.)
5) How much do you/did you make doing...?
There was a time when money and sex were considered taboo cocktail party conversation. Now I don't know if we can blame reality TV with all of its Real Housewives showiness, or Survivor-like shows where the whole world knows just how much money the winner will walk away with or Facebook where every person now posts pics of his or her new purchases -- from custom cars to brand new bling; but at some point we turned a corner, and while people may not ask flat out, "So how much income do you put on your taxes each year?" they have begun to ask every variation of that question possible. How many times have you heard, "Oh, that sounds like an interesting job. How much can someone make doing something like that?" (Translation: "Approximately how much do you or your spouse, make?") Or "Tough market. How much were you able to sell your house for, if you don't mind me asking?" For the record, yes we do mind you asking, unless you are planning to enter the exact same profession sometime soon or to sell or buy a home in the exact same neighborhood sometime soon. Someone else's finances are absolutely none of your business unless:
a) They are asking you for money or you suspect they are likely to ask you for money soon.
b) They are running for office.
c) Their name is Suze Orman or any other person attempting to give financial advice.
Click here to see a few bonus questions. But I'm sure I still missed few, so feel free to weigh in with your own in the comments section.
Keli Goff is the author of The GQ Candidate and the Contributing Editor of Loop21.com where this post originally appeared.