Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Unanswerable Questions

Frequently, people are attempting to make conversation and they ask me an innocent question that I find deeply awkward.

My second favorite is "Are you close to your family?"

Um... yes?  I mean, Dr. S and I rearranged our entire lives so we could live closer to them.  We see each other quite often and go on various shopping errands for each other and I've just spent a combined total of about 70 hours knitting my sister an elaborate hat-and-scarf set per her request.  And we like each other and maintain reasonably good boundaries.  And then there's my middle sister, to whom I almost never speak, who seems to be going through her post-college-discovering-the-world phase, but ten years after college and after two children and a divorce instead.  For example, she exhorted Prudence and me to read "Lean In", as if, for one, we'd never heard or read of being assertive, and for another, as if 'play the game harder and surely you'll win like me' were the most useful advice ever.*  (For the record, I prefer more constructive works like "Beyond Bias and Barriers", "Lifting a Ton of Feathers", "Women Don't Ask", and "The Price of Motherhood", which at least give concrete advice, such as "Ask for more money.") My spouse says "Yes, you are extraordinarily close to your family."

However, here in the Baptist-heavy South, my very favorite casual, awkward question is "Are you religious?"

This seems so simple, and yet it's so complicated. To a Jew, 'religious Jew' usually means Orthodox or black-hat (Hasidic), although there are plenty of committed, practicing, believing Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Jews in the world.  Perhaps what people mean to ask is, do you belong to or go to services at a religious institution?  Do you believe in or pray to a deity?  Do you participate in religious traditions?  How are you working that out with your children, in a place like this?  Are you the bacon-eating, Christmas-celebrating variety of Jew, or not?  I never know what to say other than "I guess."

* In case you don't want to read the whole article: "Lean In’s goal is to push women forward into their work so as to overcome what Sandberg represents as women’s universal internal resistance to career velocity.... Life is a race, Sandberg is telling us, and the way to win is through the perpetual acceleration of one’s own labor: moving forward, faster. The real antagonist identified by Lean In then is not institutionalized discrimination against women, but women’s reluctance to accept accelerating career demands... By arguing that women should express their feminism by remaining in the workplace at all costs, Sandberg encourages women to maintain a commitment to the workplace without encouraging the workplace to maintain a commitment to them."


  1. People ask all sort of surface questions that they don't want to hear real answers to. Also, it sounds like more shallow conversations are required in the South, where you must make pleasant chitchat with strangers frequently. Most people are waiting for an opportunity to talk about themselves, anyway.

    My favorite example recently has been at C1's classmate's birthday party where I was talking to said classmate's grandmother. I mentioned I have two boys and she immediately asked, "So are you going to try for a girl?" She's never read Miss Manners, I imagine. I was polite (obviously), but I did work in the story of a neighbor with 5 boys (the last two are twins).

    In response to the question, "Are you close to your family?" I'd probably say: Yes, we get along beautifully! In fact, we missed them so much we moved back to Virginia to be nearer. Are you close to your family?

    I can almost guarantee the question, "Are you religious?" Really means, "You're new here and I'd like to be welcoming, maybe you could join my church." Once you explain you're Jewish and keep kosher, they will hear, "Yes, super religious a Jewish person who won't be joining my church." Keeping kosher is super religious to Christians who can't imagine not eating pork for religious reasons.

    1. "Are you religious?" is always in response to me saying I'm Jewish. It's entirely possible they're STILL asking if I go to church! There is a lot of small talk here - I had a whole conversation with the pharmacist last night about living in West Virginia and was I related to [person with same name as my BIL but totally unrelated] in town. The funny thing is, people here ask these questions and they DO want to know the answers! The South is a very gossipy place, I guess.

  2. Darcy6:51 PM

    I say firmly yes, I am religious. I say this even though I am not Orthodox, not strictly halachic by egal standards either, and more and more of a freethinker as the years go by. I want to reclaim the label for the liberal religious person of any faith. I pray multiple times a day. I think about ethical issues all the time. I have very definite standards of what I will and won't do. I have studied the laws, including some I interpret freely or know I will never practice in conventional ways. And I'm at shul enough that people know who I am. By what standard is this not religious?

    I confess, I would have a much harder time with "Are you close to your family?"

    1. Like you, I also am not strictly speaking a halachic/orthodox-style Jew, and yet I do consider myself religious. My problem here is more that I'm not sure what their response will be if I say yes... edge away slowly? So it's more a question of image than reality. That said, perhaps I don't want to be friends with bigots and so I should just say yes.

  3. Anonymous4:23 PM

    1. How about, "About N miles" HA HA HA.
    2. Ugh. I'd really hate to get that question. It's so intrusive. You should find out what happens if you respond with "what do you mean?"
    3. A BIG F YOU to the lean in lady. Though I should confess I haven't read the book and am not going to, so I should really retract that. I guess I just hate that kind of book on principle.

    1. 113 miles as the crow flies! Or 143 miles on account of all the mountains.

      The joys of being an observant member of a religious minority in small-town Virginia....

      (I'm not going to read it either, pretty much for the reasons in that review.)


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