We’ve all been on the receiving end of nosy questions from perfect strangers. Right? Personally, my life is a mostly-open book – I mean, I write a blog about me and my family that is read by actual dozens of people, so obviously I’m not averse to sharing. But, even I have wondered what is going through other people’s heads when they inquire about some intimate detail.
In the age of the overshare, there are still some things you just shouldn’t ask other people – particularly, strangers. We’ll start things off with the basic stats: “How much do you weigh?” “How old are you?” “Have you ever had plastic surgery?” Fact-seeking inquiries all, yet questions about our physical properties are considered rude by most people over the age of 12.
Moving on, direct questioning about finances: “How much money do you make?” No need to elaborate. For most of us “not enough” suffices as a response.
So, those are bad. But what’s the absolute worst question you can ask someone? You know. If you’re a woman, you know. The worst. Wait for it. Drumroll. Ready?
Are you pregnant?
I hope I’ve never actually asked anyone this. I tend to err way on the side of caution on this one, even when I’ve just encountered a woman rubbing her giant watermelon belly, and lamenting her cankles, I probably won’t bring it up unless she does. Because, what if she has some insane glandular condition or similar? What if – gasp – she is pregnant but she’s one of those women who doesn’t know that she’s pregnant, until she goes to the hospital and the doctors inform her that it hasn’t been digestive trouble but in fact a small human that’s been bothering her all of these months? (You may laugh but I’ve known in my lifetime two women that this has happened to.)
I have an unfortunate amount of personal experience in fielding the are-you-pregnant query, which is why it’s my policy to keep my mouth shut when faced with a suspiciously rotund abdomen. If Possibly Pregnant is a friend of mine, she’ll eventually tell me in good time. She has her own reasons for keeping it quiet. And if she isn’t a friend of mine, then, obviously, it’s just none of my business, is it?
I’ve been asked this question a total of three times. The first time was definitely insulting, but not meant to be hurtful. Perhaps I’d been eating a lot of bread? The inquirer genuinely thought that I had that special glow. In fact, being pregnant was THE furthest thing from my mind or uterus.
The second time broke my heart. I found myself walking away from the person who asked me, with tears in my eyes. This, I thought. This is why you don’t ask.
The third instance – which was actually the second time – was a communication breakdown of the finest calibre.
Long ago, when I taught ESL for a living, I’d just started working at a private language school in downtown Toronto. The majority of the classes there were mixed-demographic, meaning that the students came from all over the world and ranged in age from teens to retirees. Because of that, teaching these classes was challenging, but a lot of fun. Throw some Brazilians, Koreans, a smattering of Europeans and a couple of Saudis in a classroom together and hi-jinks will inevitably ensue.
A couple of weeks after I’d started there, a school group of teenage girls arrived from Japan. For reasons unknown, the director decided not to disperse these students amongst the regular classes, but to segregate them in a group of their own for the few weeks of their stay. As the newest hire, I was volunteered to teach this group of giggling school-girls, who were around 16 years old. And they were quiet. Very, very quiet.
I was tasked with teaching them to speak English, but getting them to actually form words proved to be a formidable task. My most “fun” lesson plans crashed and burned, and without the usual different nationalities to balance things out, our Conversation classes resounded with the gentle chirping of crickets.
One day, I mentioned in passing that I was engaged. This information galvanized my class. They actually applauded. They wanted to know everything about my future husband and our wedding plans. This was the most I’d heard from them in weeks.
As we chatted, I noticed one of the girls saying something to the friend next to her in Japanese. Nodding in agreement, they whipped out their electronic dictionaries and consulted them. Those dictionaries were a useful piece of technology. However, much like Google Translate, they were also prone to errors. Subtleties or levels of appropriateness were lost. Earlier that year, one of my students was horrified by my reaction – uncontrollable laughter – when he’d used the word horny to describe his hands after a weekend spent doing yard-work. A more accurate translation might have been rough or callused, yes?
At any rate, the girls put their heads together and came up with something they wanted to ask me. Calling me over, one of them looked up at me, smiling and asked hesitantly, “You and your fiancé…um,” and here she paused, pointed at the dictionary and read out the words, “Shotgun wedding?”
It took me a moment to twig to what she was asking.
Then I realized that she thought I was pregnant. I flashed through several emotions in quick succession ranging from irritation to amusement – I mean, it’s hilarious, right, SHOTGUN WEDDING?? I could only turn to her and simply say, “No. I’m not.” She blushed beet to her hairline and gasped out an apology between giggles. I imagine that the phrase she chose in Japanese was rather more polite than the English translation, which conjures up images of a rifle-totin’ dad forcibly marching his future son-in-law to the altar.
Nothing more was said. I was used to students from other cultures thinking that I was fat, so I let it go. During the break, I relayed this story to my co-workers, who fell off their chairs laughing whilst examining my stomach for signs of a baby bump.
The girls eventually went home to Japan, hopefully to go on to even more scintillating English conversations like the ones we had together.
For a little while, shotgun wedding became code amongst the teachers for any communication snafu or epic lesson-fail.
If you’ve read to the end of this tale, here’s a simple infographic on the topic to take with you: