3 Harmless Questions You Might Ask That Are Actually Harmful

I’ve asked them too.

Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash

When I used to go to Al-Anon meetings, I marveled at how I didn’t know what almost anyone I met did for a living. Nobody asked. It was the type of environment where profession wasn’t centered. You’d only find out by happenstance because someone mentioned it in passing.

It always amazed me that no one asked “What do you do?” since this is usually one of the first questions people ask each other when they meet. While this isn’t one of the questions I’ll go into detail in this article, it does have classist connotations. Asking this question can risk making others feel insecure if they don’t work in a space deemed to be “professional,” and it can alienate those who are unemployed or stay-at-home parents.

People ask some questions as a social norm, but social norms are to be questioned. Here are a three questions people often ask that are problematic.

1. What do you want to be when you grow up?

This question is asked quite often by adults to children. And while it seems like a fun question to ask, it can put a lot of pressure on a kid, especially as they grow older. We live in a world where interests, hobbies, and ideas get professionalized and commodified. And oftentimes, this makes the things we enjoy no so fun anymore.

This question seems innocuous and well-intentioned, with the expectation of answers like “astronaut”, “artist”, “racecar driver”, etc, but there is more to this story. Asking this question assumes the following, especially since it is asked so frequently:

  • You should want to be one thing.
  • Your future profession will be very important.
  • You are less interested in their qualities or interests.

What if we asked “How do you want to be when you grow up?” instead? What can a child dream up about themselves? We all joke so much about “the grind” and “the hustle”, yet we subconsciously engrain this finite future in children.

As a person who writes, teaches, coaches, and podcasts, and has worked as a consultant, recruiter, voiceover artist, speech-language pathologist, and librarian, I’ve always criticized myself internally for not being able to “figure it out”. But who said I had to be one thing? I’ve learned so much from all of these adventures. Yet, I went into them hoping they were “the one” when they are all ultimately capitalistic renderings of this harmless question.

These careers taught me who I wanted to be and who I didn’t want to be. They taught me how I wanted to be and how I didn’t want to be. I learned about how important it is to explore my values instead of chasing after societal pressures.

Other options are “What do you like doing?” “What are you excited about?” “What’s your favorite game?” “What’s boring to you?” Explore the simplicities of life with them — especially since we often forget about these as adults.

2. What are you having? OR Will you find out about the gender?

Gender is fluid. Period. Asking a pregnant human (notice I didn’t say woman) “What are you having?” is a pretty silly question. Pregnant people have babies. It’s probably rude to ask “What body parts will your baby have?” but that is essentially what you’re asking. This question assumes a gender binary. If you’re interested in fighting white heteronormative patriarchy, reconsider what you’re asking when this question starts to form in your head.

A child’s gender is their decision. This can change over time, or it can stay the same. Asking this question assumes gender permanence. In the same vein, gender reveal parties are harmful because they reinforce the gender binary (can we please move past blue vs pink?), and they’ve caused actual deaths.

Perhaps you might ask “Will you find out about the sex?” While this is more accurate in terms of what you want to know, I think it’s important to reflect about why a baby’s sexual organs are important. This article talks about four ways reclaim a gender reveal party:

  • Change the name to a sex reveal/anatomy reveal party.
  • Avoid gender normative themes.
  • Throw a name reveal party.
  • Have a zodiac reveal party.

If these ideas just don’t “feel the same” — then I think it’s time to dig deep about why gender is important to you when gender is (1) fluid and (2) not your choice.

3. Where are you from?

Oh this dreaded question. This meme from Subtle Asian Traits accurately depicts how Black, Indigenous, and/or people of color feel when they are asked this question:

Caption: So where are you from? accompanies a picture of a cartoon character sweating while trying to choose between two buttons labelled Where I live and My ethnicity
Caption: So where are you from? accompanies a picture of a cartoon character sweating while trying to choose between two buttons labelled Where I live and My ethnicity
From Subtle Asian Traits

Sometimes people just want to know where you grew up, but oftentimes, there is an implicit bias with this question, especially from white people. If you’ve asked this question, ask yourself: What are you trying to find out and why? Why does someone’s ethnicity matter to you? What do you want to figure out about them? What stereotypes might you assign to them once you “figured it out”?

Our brains love to categorize “the other”, yet we don’t categorize the variety of European countries that white people come from. This question also implies a lack of belonging, as if white people belonged on lands they actually colonized, murdered and displaced Indigenous people, and settled on. Essentially this means that we’ve been socialized to other and our brains respond accordingly.

Increasing your awareness of this socialization and colonized conditioning can teach your brain the harms and falseness of this categorization. Everyone has a story about how they came to live on the land they live. This can be very personal and traumatic, especially for those who were enslaved, had to escape political turmoil, or immigrated to countries that promised “freedom” but offered cages and/or discrimination instead.

Trauma lives in the body. When you ask this question, you might be bringing up generations of trauma including abuse, discrimination, poverty, and struggle that you do not see on the surface. Consider this when you ask this question…or maybe (definitely) just don’t ask it.

These are three of probably many questions we ask in social situations. As I mentioned in “3 Reasons Why You Should Be Way of Listicles”, this is not exhaustive. Think of other scripted questions you ask others, and ask yourself if they are reinforcing any harmful norms.

Through questioning, reflection, and humility, it is possible to decenter problematic social norms and shift conversations to be more expansive instead of limiting.

Nisha Mody is a writer who also is also a Coach, Podcaster, and Librarian. She has written for The Rumpus, The Times of India, and Ravishly. Find her on Twitter and Instagram. But most importantly, adore her beautiful sister cats. Read more of her work on her healing and justice newsletter and community, The Healing Hype.

Writer. Feminist Healing Coach. Librarian. Cat Mom. I write about healing & justice. Read more at thehealinghype.com and hear me on my podcast, MigrAsians.

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