Have you ever had someone ask, “How are you?” and basically walk away before you could answer? Or, have you asked someone this question and then they go into a long spiel about how they feel, and you regret asking because you are actually in a rush? This, friends, is the trap of being too polite. Don’t get me wrong; being polite is a lovely thing to be. But we often use polite as a vague term to cover up things like “I’m not actually interested” or “I’m just being nice but I really couldn’t care less”. It’s a not so hurray way to be. 

On the other hand, sometimes people use the guise of “polite conversation” to ask some really deep and probing (read: rude) questions. I don’t think they mean to be rude. On the contrary, they’ve been told that asking such deep questions as “How are you?” are simple and kind. Or, things like “Have you lost weight?” are complements. The problem, however, is that it’s totally acceptable in polite conversation to ask, but it’s not OK to really answer.

We treat questions like “How are you?” like a greeting. This is not a greeting. This is deeper than that. Sometimes I’m tempted to say something outlandish like: “How am I? If you really want to know: I’m feeling a million things right now. I’m both tired and excited. I’m feeling slightly cold. I am feeling the pressure of growing a business while learning as I go. I’m feeling really jazzed about an upcoming trip. And I think that spicy food I ate is acting up. Oh, and I have this ever present feeling that I’m just not enough… And how are you?” Of course, if I answered this way, I would be considered a bitch. Or at least that I took up too much time and went way too deep with my answer. “I just asked how you were, you don’t have to give me the whole story.”

The truth is, when people ask this, the question is asked without real thought or care. They don’t really want to know the answer. And what in the world is the point of asking a question if you don’t want to know the answer?

On top of the ever irritating “How are you?”, here is a list of my least favorite deep questions that are typically asked without real thought:

  1. Have you lost weight?
  2. When are you two getting married?
  3. Been on any good dates lately? How’s your love life?
  4. How’s acting (or insert career) going? Been in anything that I would know?
  5. Do you plan on having kids? Are you two trying?
  6. Are you pregnant?
  7. What’s different about you?
  8. Have you been working out?
  9. Are you going to eat all that? Or, Is that all you’re going to eat?
  10. How’s your family or significant other?
  11. You look tired, are you sick?
  12. Are you making good money?
  13. What’s your five-year plan?
  14. Are those real? Have you had any work done?

I remember getting really great advice when I was an actress. I was told not to go into an audition room and ask the table of casting directors and producers: “Hi, how are you?” What if they’re feeling really bad? Casting directors sit at the same table for hours at a time, listening to over eager actors sing the same song, barely getting a chance to go to the bathroom, check their Instagram feed, or eat. Now you’ve brought up the fact that they feel horrible, but because they want to be polite and move on, they cringe, smile awkwardly, and say “Good. What are you singing for us today?” and while you talk, they actually think, “Ugh, I feel horrible. Oh, God, this song again? Ugh.” On the contrary, if they feel great or have great news, it’s not exactly your business. You just met. What I realize now, too, is that going in and asking a panel of people “How are you?” is rude, because, who am I talking to? No one in particular, right? Rude.

kimmay-in-white-fringe-power of not being polite HK blog

I’ve been asked many of the questions above (and gathered some from friends). And sometimes, I was the asker. In one case, I asked a work colleague of mine years ago if she and her husband planned on having more kids. They already had a son, and I had met her husband. We were work friends, and got along well. I genuinely liked her, and felt a great deal of care for her. I was curious about their plans because I was curious about her and her beautiful family, and because I was curious about someday starting a family of my own. I wanted her input and to start a conversation. I thought this was light work chatter and could take place in between she and I creating catchphrases for an upcoming email blast while sitting in the open concept office space with our co-workers. I was asking, but I wasn’t really asking, and I certainly wasn’t prepared to really listen. She, however, surprised me, and really answered.

After a short hesitation, she said, “Actually, we’ve been trying for a second kid. And after a lot of trying I was finally pregnant. Then, I miscarried recently.” I was totally shocked. I had foolishly expected a simple, “Yeah, someday” or “When the timing is right”, or “No, we don’t think so.” Instead, this brave and beautiful human really answered me. And in the process, she not only taught me a lesson about asking, but also really showed herself to me. I realized quickly that we dove into a deep conversation while the busy work floor buzzed around us. I felt totally responsible for bringing up such a deep conversation in such a loud and exposed environment. I understood that we now had little space to have an actual conversation about this very real and emotional thing she was going through. So I hushed my voice and said something like “Oh I’m so sorry. That’s awful.” I wanted to shut us up then and move on. But I realized I had opened this up. I had asked. So I better listen. So I kept going and really let her tell me about it.

Something curious happened. During this, she admitted that it actually felt good to be able to tell someone that she had miscarried. It felt great to be able to talk about it. She felt this internal shame and loss, and it was taboo to talk about. She had been asked the same thoughtless question before. And because, as you remember, it’s OK to ask but not to answer, she gave them a run of the mill reply. This time, she decided to actually speak the truth.

That moment taught me so much. I will never forget it. It brought up so much for me. And though it was years ago, the lessons are still resonating and unfolding today. In fact, a few months ago I was working at my co-working space and was asked one of the above questions, and I decided I’d had enough.

kimmay-wearing-white-top-in-puerto-rico in power of not being polite HK blog

It should be noted that I had already been practicing really answering when people asked me questions. For example, when a male colleague asked “how are you today?”, I really answered. Sometimes, I would say, “Do you really want to know?” This was possibly an unfair way to answer, because if they said “nope”, then they looked like a jerk because I had caught them in asking a thoughtless question when their intention was to be polite. However, I usually went on with something slightly TMI and true, like “I feel a little low energy today. My period started and I have cramps.” Trust me, this has lead to me literally teaching and informing the men at my office about women’s bodies and how the uterus works. I’m not kidding.

So on this particular day, I was asked by one of my colleagues: “How are you?” and I really answered. “I feel a little sick to my stomach actually. It could be something I ate or maybe I’m nervous about something.” To which he replied, so quickly and without thought: “Are you pregnant?”

I paused.

“Why did you ask that?” I asked him. Giving him a chance to back pedal, maybe.

“Because you said you’re sick to your stomach. And that happens when a lady is pregnant.” Ok, he opted not to back pedal I guess.

I took a deep breath, and said: “You know. That’s not a great question to ask. Because if I were pregnant and I were really excited about it, that’d be one thing. But what if I had been trying and couldn’t get pregnant? What if I was pregnant and don’t want kids? What if I just miscarried? Would you want to hear the answer?”

His co-worker, who was sitting next to him, looked at me in disbelief and horror. His eyes huge. “Wow”, he chimed in, “you just took that to a really dark place.”

“No I didn’t”, I replied. “He did. He asked. Without thinking about what the answer might be.”

I went on to say, “For the record, I am not pregnant. We are not trying. I pray that someday we will be blessed with children. For now, I think I ate something that my stomach doesn’t like.” And I walked away.

I won’t lie. That was hard. I like these two guys. And I felt like I had been harsh. I felt like I was the rude one. I felt like I had hurt their feelings. I was also so upset that my hands were shaking. In retrospect, I’m glad I said it. There is, after all, power in not being polite. Because my friend from the earlier story was not the only woman I had met who felt the secret shame of a miscarriage. Or who had been asked about her weight while in recovery from an eating disorder. Or who had been pestered about her job while trying to stop defining herself by her job title. And who had silenced what she really wanted to say with a forced smile and a nod of the head.

So I took to Facebook and shared this post:

Unpopular opinion post. Warning.

Please stop asking women you don’t know very well if they are pregnant, or expecting kids, or “trying”. If you don’t know her well enough to handle any answer she may give you, don’t ask.

If you do know her well enough to be able to celebrate with her, mourn with her, or handle the complications of

“we’re trying and it’s so hard”, or

“we aren’t trying yet and we’re not sure we want to” or

“we do not want kids. EVER. And we accidentally got pregnant” or

“we’ve been trying and I had a miscarriage” or

“we are pregnant and we don’t know how to tell his family” or

any other other complicated, emotionally deep answer…

then don’t be surprised if the answer isn’t a simple “yes” or “no”.

Conceiving is not a simple yes or no. Ever. Even when it’s simple, it’s not simple. And then be ALL THERE for her, and don’t shy away from the huge question you just asked her and the weighty response she gives you. You may have thought you were making polite conversation, but you were not.

I’ve watched friends I know have to struggle with some of the things above, and not be able to talk about it. Because it’s polite and OK for a stranger to ask “are you having children?” after she was just told that this person got married, but it’s not polite conversation for the woman being asked to say “actually, we lost two and we’re taking a break from trying to conceive because it’s just too painful.” Or it’s OK to let your work friends know that you’ve lost your family pet, but not that you lost your unborn child. How is this OK? How can we fix this?

Not to mention: this is not your business! Do you know how babies are made? You are asking me about my sexual intercourse goings on. NONE of your business.

Before you read too much into this post, no I am not pregnant, nor have I been, and no we are not currently trying. I don’t mind putting it out there, because thankfully I have not had to deal with any of the above and I pray I never will. So this is for the women who feel like they have to smile politely and hide their emotions as they field questions about “the little pitter patter of baby feet” and “are you going to have more than just the one? You really should.” You have NO IDEA WHAT IS GOING ON in someone else’s womb, heart, and life. Please be courteous. Please think before asking. Please be compassionate.

End.

The responses were amazing. It opened up a whole dialogue. And it certainly influenced me writing this post for you.

Does this resonate with you? Good. Let’s get to some hurray. The truth is, sometimes not being polite is the most loving thing you can do. Here’s what we can do about it.

Kimmay wearing white fringe top puerto rico in power of not being polite HK blog

Be a person who really asks, really listens, and really answers.

The next time you catch yourself asking a seemingly simple, but actually deep question: really ask it. Really ask. Don’t just brush by. And when that person answers, really listen. Be all there. Show up. Our attention is a valuable and powerful resource. Giving it to someone is a wonderful way to say, “I care.”

And when someone asks you one of the above, really answer. This is especially easy if that person is really asking. Take that loving flow of their attention and be brave enough to go beyond “fine” with a full answer. That goes for sharing both the good and the bad. If you’re totally rocking it, tell them! If you’re not feeling so hot, admit it! 

If the person isn’t really asking, decide if you want to really answer. If you don’t want to answer, see below. If you want to help yourself and others erase the habit of mindlessly answering, or covering up your true feelings with a bland response, then really answer. Be brave and open up. Shine your light and share the full spectrum of your feelings. Doing so may just inspire the other person, or those around you, to do the same.

I like really asking those I care about. I like really listening. I love getting to know someone. I want more of that and less of “blah.”

What to do if you don’t really want to ask

Let’s face it, not all conversations need to really go there. If I don’t really want to know, I don’t really ask. Instead, I comment. My friend and assistant, Kat, is great at this! The biggest place where this happens is in the common kitchen in my co-working space. I’m usually grabbing some water or heating up my food, and don’t really want to pause for a long conversation. So instead of initiating an empty “Good. How are you?” exchange, I say something about them. For example, if I’m in a rush and want to be nice to the person in the kitchen, I’ll say: “Hey there {insert person’s name here}! Great to see you!” or “Love that hat on you!” or “Cute boots”. They say thanks, we move on, all is well.

What to do if you don’t really want to answer

You get to decide with whom you want to be open. So, there’s something awesome about opening up and really answering if someone asks, right? And at the same time, not everything is everyone’s business. I discussed choosing your true colors and deciding when to show your various shades in a past post, and the same sentiment is true here. So, what do you do if someone asks you a deep question and you don’t really want to answer? You have a few options:

  • Be bland. Smile politely and give a bland “OK” or similar answer. I’m not a huge fan of this.
  • Thanks, but no thanks. Sincerely thank them for asking, then let them know the topic is off the table. Ex: “Thank you so much for asking that. That’s something I don’t want to dive into right now.”
  • Enlighten. Educate the asker that what they’re asking is a bit too personal. Ex: “It’s not something I feel comfortable discussing right now. That’s a pretty deep question, do you agree?” Prompt a conversation instead of just, flat out, telling them they’re wrong or rude.

Be a person who elevates the conversation. Really ask. Really answer. Really listen. There is power in not being polite. I have seen it. When we really open up and connect with one another, magic happens. And that goes for others and ourselves. Connect with who you are talking to – whether it’s someone else or yourself. Hurray!

***

Your turn: What questions have you been asked mindlessly? What questions do you ask mindlessly? What is your typical response and how can you update it? What steps can you take toward really asking, listening, and answering? At your next family gathering, work event, or even in the mirror – how can you lovingly stop being polite? Share with me here!

xoxo kimmay

PS: The photos in this article were taken by Becky Yee on the streets of Old San Juan during the #HurrayVacay in Puerto Rico. Zero retouching on my body or face – this is really what my body looks like. And it’s lovable. Just like yours.