After today, think twice before asking someone a personal question that leaves them embarrassed
I sometimes bump into this woman on my way back from work. Whenever she sees me, she asks me one, and only one question. “You look tired, are you unwell?” For a long time I kept telling myself ‘aww, how sweet. She is so concerned for me.’ And even though I didn’t really feel tired or unwell, I would politely reply, ‘yeah, it’s been an awfully tiring day at work’.
But, to be honest, I don’t quite enjoy being told everyday that I don’t seem okay, and it is now bugging the hell out of me. Yesterday, she said, ‘You are getting dark circles under your eyes. Have you been partying too much or are you sick?’ I could have gone and fretted in front of the mirror for an hour, but this time I took my face closer to hers and asked, ‘are they as dark as yours or even worse?’ The last I know, she had booked a doctor’s appointment for a check-up.
See, I know you are still wondering what’s the big deal in what she said, and, in all probability, think my reply was rude. Well, yes it was, but so was her question. We, in India, are taught a skewed and rather limited definition of the term ‘rude’, while we are growing up. We are told that if a person raises his voice or speaks in a harsh, unpleasant way, it is rude.
So we tend to focus only on the packaging of the words and how they are being delivered, more than what is being said! We don’t realise that it is totally unacceptable even when the ‘packaging’ is super sweet but the content smacks of nothing but ill-manners.
A colleague of mine was visiting his hometown recently when a woman relative asked him what he does for a living.
‘I work in a newspaper,’ he replied. “Achha? Kitna daal lete ho?” she asked. Wondering whether she mistook him for the newspaper vendor (in his place, I would’ve wondered if she was fond of making obscene remarks!), he stood quiet. And then she elaborated. ‘Har mahiney kitna daal lete ho bank mein?’ (how much goes in your bank every month?). Ahh, so she was asking him about his salary. No big deal, you may again say. Damn rude, I think.
Sadly, we see nothing wrong in crossing the boundary and asking fairly personal questions of people, sometimes even strangers. Well, I think it’s unfair to put up with them in the name of politeness. Here are some of the rude questions we Indians specialise in asking, as if it’s the compulsory thesis for a Phd in ill-manners. Since I don’t wish to be seen as advocating rudeness a la ‘an eye for an eye’, I suggest two possible ways of coping up with the question — the polite answer (TPA), and the I-am-taking-you-on answer (TYOA). Choose yours, at your own risk.
1. What’s your salary?
TPA: (sheepish smile) “God’s been kind. Bas kaam chal jaata hai. It’s just the start of the career, but it will get better in a few years .… etc etc.” (ugh)
TYOA: I’m happy you asked. Do you want a loan? I charge really high interest but can afford to lend big amounts at a short notice. I didn’t know you were having trouble with finances. How much do you need? (disclaimer: don’t try with the tribe of chachis, maamis, mausis etc or your parents would kick you out.)
2. When are you having kids? (or in desi style: ‘good news’ kab de rahe ho?)
TPA: Smile. ‘When the right time comes. These things are in God’s hands.’ (go, cry in a corner)
TYOA: (Looking them in the eye): We are waiting to see how your kids turn out before we decide. And feeling very anxious at the way it’s going so far.
3. To the parents/siblings of a girl who got married recently - ‘She’s happy, no? (khush toh hai nah?)
TPA: Yeah, she calls me every evening and for two-and-a-half hours, tells me how happy she is.
TYOA: No, yaar. She tried to poison her mother-in-law yesterday but the neighbour’s stupid cat drank the milk. I’ve asked her to wait before the next attempt.
4. Have you noticed that you’re getting fat? How much do you weigh?
TPA: (look down embarrassingly): Yeah, don’t ask. I’ll start working out from this New Year.
TYOA: Shit, really? It totally skipped me because the mirror at home is broken. 450 kgs isn’t much. And the paunch is the latest style trend in the west. You should try it, though it’s not easy.
5. Why exactly did you break-up?
TPA: We’re just not compatible. It was not meant to be.
TYOA: (very seriously): She wanted to try her luck in Hollywood. And I was always in favour of our own cinema. You’ve got to be patriotic. No? By the way, the idiot-store called. They are running out of you. You better rush.
6. To a heavily pregnant woman: ‘Oh God, you look huge. Are you having twins?’
TPA: (sheepish): No, just one, a little healthy, I guess.
TYOA: No. Are you?
Okay, fine. My answers above are rude and perhaps you should not try them at all. But I hope you do get the point. Do not venture so much into people’s personal lives that you leave them awkward and embarrassed, when it is you who is at fault. If they feel like sharing personal stuff with you, they would do so on their own. Let’s try and not be experts in ill-manners. This is one Phd we should not mind dropping out of, mid-way. What say?
Sonal Kalra is considering cosmetic surgery for non-existent under-eye circles. Maybe that woman indeed has the power to see things that others can’t. Will ask her about her family background in detail tomorrow. Mail your calmness tricks at facebook.com/sonalkalra13. Follow on Twitter at @sonalkalra.