Dating while woke
March 15, 2018 11:34 AM   Subscribe

There's a common-ish first date/getting to know you question that I dislike because it makes assumptions about my background, and the truth is a sensitive topic. Surely I must be doing this to other people. Tell me your questions I should avoid or word more sensitively.

The question is "What do your parents do for a living?" I dislike it because I grew up in a poor household, and the answer to that question make it very clear that I come from a lower socioeconomic status. It's not that I'm ashamed, and I'm not averse to an occasional teachable moment, it's just that I don't always want to lay myself bare to someone I'm meeting for coffee for 30 minutes and may never meet again. The asker is always someone coming from a higher socioeconomic rung whose parents had careers rather than jobs.

What are your such questions? I know I can't avoid all things that are sensitive to all people, so please keep it to your one most problematic question so I can prioritize.
posted by unannihilated to Human Relations (43 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
I've never been asked that, and while I have the kind of personality that would be curious about such a thing from an "understanding a person's history" standpoint, I've never asked it and at any rate it's a pretty advanced question for a 30min intro date.

However, I do think there's something to unpack here, in that you still seem to feel ongoing shame about your upbringing and that talking about it is "laying yourself bare." How does the question make assumptions? What if you were matter of fact about it?
posted by rhizome at 11:43 AM on March 15 [18 favorites]


I usually avoid asking about peoples' hobbies, and instead phrase it as "What do you do with your time when you're not working?" This allows people to talk about activities like elder care that may be important to them and make significant demands on their time, but wouldn't be appropriate to describe as hobbies.
posted by workerant at 11:46 AM on March 15 [14 favorites]


I suspect this question doesn't bug many people besides myself, but here it is: "Where does your brother live?" or "What does he do?"

I think "Do you have any siblings? How old?" are totally normal getting-to-know you questions, and there's no harm in them. But in my case, my sibling is severely mentally and physically disabled. The truthful answer to the questions above are "My 25yo brother lives with our parents and will continue to do so until they are unable to care for him. He cannot speak, use the toilet, or feed himself."

I'm not ashamed of my brother, but it's a sensitive topic that I don't particularly enjoy talking about with new people. In general I don't think it's polite to ask a lot of questions about what someone's family does until you know them well.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 11:47 AM on March 15 [16 favorites]


The two I’m going to share (i know) are usually linked, with one being asked right after I’ve dismissed the other. I’m a white lady and I push back really hard on the “where are you from? No really where?” question that is more commonly directed at people of color. I do it because I want to be harder to figure out on facebook/etc, (I’ve had a stalker) and I do it because I grew up unhappily in all the places I lived as a child. My family of origin is also all over the place and ‘we’re not close’ is where I’d like the conversation around what they do, where they are, have they remarried, where are my siblings to just stop. I try to shift with “we’re not close, but I’d love to hear about your family if you want to talk about them.” With the worst offenders the movement of conversation from one uncomfortable topic to something so closely related is upsetting. I wish they’d let me take a turn at guiding the conversation.

My advice is that in addition to being aware that some of these questions are awkward, they’re only truly terrible in my (extremely privileged in this respect) experience when they’re asked without an awareness of the power dynamic, and when deflection and sidestepping are met as a challenge rather than a cue to move in another direction.
posted by bilabial at 11:48 AM on March 15 [4 favorites]


"Where are you from?"

I'm not a member of any diaspora group and my racial history is as European as possible and it still annoys me. I was born in one country, lived half my childhood in another country, the other half in yet another country, then moved to another location after graduation. What do people expect me to say?

I sympathize with those who have more complicated backgrounds where this question has tinges of racism and colonialism.
posted by saeculorum at 11:49 AM on March 15 [9 favorites]


"Where are you from?" can be problematic and suggest stereotyping, even though conversations about places you've lived can be interesting to talk about.

I usually ask something like "Did you grow up here in X City?" -- which leaves it open for them to talk about places they've spent time in or details about our current city and how it's changed.

(On preview, what billablial said also. If they don't want to talk about where they grew up, it's easy enough to say "Nah, I moved here in 2010 - I loved it right right away...yadda....")
posted by pantarei70 at 11:52 AM on March 15 [4 favorites]


“Where do you live?” -usually it’s in the context of chatting before a first date and trying to find a convient place for both parties but as a woman who was dating on the internet I really did not want to give out the neighborhood I lived in. A question like “where would be convient for you to meet?” would always be much better.
posted by raccoon409 at 11:52 AM on March 15 [3 favorites]


"And what did you do before that?"

Something that was unpleasant and didn't work out which is why I went looking for another job and that was over a decade ago and not particularly relevant now, thanks.

I also get asked 'What did your parents do?', and often enough there's a clear expectation that because I have a professional, white collar job, that's my background, too. Maybe that's what they're looking for? I have no hesitation in saying 'Immigrant parents, steelworker and a homemaker', because if they're asking that question, that's what they were, deal with it, and fuck you.
posted by Capt. Renault at 11:57 AM on March 15 [3 favorites]


I try to hold two things in tension. First, I try not to make too big a deal over the occassional one-off faux pas question, as it's impossible to police the words of the world. Also, I think we can hold people to the standard of not answering a question if they prefer not to do so. I would hope others extend a similar courtesy in case I mess up sometimes. It makes social interaction more pleasant.

However, there is one question that I have a low tolerance level for: when people ask why children don't share the physical traits of their parents. I give people tons of benefit of the doubt in general, but I really can't help but think that people ask this to potentially put others in a shaming spotlight for a moment. Perhaps it's because I give credit to people to already know that this is a really transparently stupid thing to ask -- especially in front of children -- that makes it so infuriating.
posted by SpacemanStix at 11:57 AM on March 15 [5 favorites]


"Where did you go to school?" will suss out whether or not you went to university and whether or not you attended a "good" school (good in the eyes of a person who would ask that question with that intent.)
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 12:06 PM on March 15 [3 favorites]


I moved almost every year as a kid and like above posters, hated "where are you from?"
posted by millipede at 12:07 PM on March 15 [3 favorites]


Been a while since I've dated but:

What's your first language / mother tongue?
Irksome because English is my first language despite being South Asian but the questioner is definitely not expecting that.
And don't get me started on:
How come your English is so good?
posted by peacheater at 12:22 PM on March 15 [3 favorites]


I can't think of one, but I feel like collectively the answer here is that the awkward topics are pretty hard to foresee. Dating has a lot of awkwardness potential. The key may be to think of a good, concise redirecting comment if there's a common topic that gets under your skin, for practical purposes of self-preservation. I don't remember ever asking "what do your parents do?" as a first date question but I also would not have thought to steer clear of it. If you really aren't interested in the person, a simple "I don't like to talk about that" should do the trick.
posted by Smearcase at 12:25 PM on March 15 [16 favorites]


As I've gotten older (and started hanging out with better people) I hear less of this, but I always hated "What do you do (for a living)?" At least in the DC area, it always kind of carried a bit of "I need to see if you're connected enough/make enough money for you to be worth my time" (because a lot of people here tend to equate "jobs" with "status" which is something I don't agree with at all).

I think it can be a perfectly innocuous question, though, but I think phrasing it more as "how did you end up in your job?" or "what do you enjoy about what you do?" or something is better -- anything that shifts the topic away from what the job actually is and more about who they are as a person.
posted by darksong at 12:28 PM on March 15 [10 favorites]


I can relate to the parents question and I think I just say something like "my dad was a roofer and my mom was a homemaker" and move on, but it's not what people are usually expecting because I have a higher ed degree. It was harder for me as a kid when I really didn't know what to say when my friend's parents would ask (because the answer was that we were receiving social assistance but back when it was called welfare).
posted by lafemma at 12:50 PM on March 15 [1 favorite]


I think families in general are a sensitive topic. People's families can cut them off due to things like being LGBTQ or deciding to be a writer instead of a doctor/lawyer (true story of a friend), or they might have gone "no contact" due to a family member's mental illness or abuse. There might be a recent death or serious illness in the family that they don't want to dwell upon.

In general, you could start broad and in the present moment, then follow their lead. "How did you end up in X city?" Could lead to a discussion of a career change or of the last place they lived or their childhood here. "Any special events lately or coming up? ... Oh a vacation with your mom. What'll you do?" You can let them make the disclosures and just follow those paths.
posted by salvia at 12:57 PM on March 15 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I think the key thing is gauging other peoples' responses. If they answer vaguely, don't pry; if they change the subject, just go with the flow. There's (usually) no need to take offense.

My version of this - it's not really a question - is that my dad died when I was a little kid. People always react with surprise and often say something like "I'm so sorry," but hey, that's my life and it's always been my life and what am I gonna do about it? But it always comes up somehow, and it pretty much has to if I'm getting to know someone. I'm not going to lie about it or sugarcoat it, but I don't make a big deal out of it either.

Occasionally, people will ask for more details, which I don't really like. Not so much because it's painful or because I take offense to it, but because...I don't really have much to say about it. Certainly not in that context. So I'd guess if you ever meet someone in a similar situation don't press for details if they don't offer them up.
posted by breakin' the law at 1:02 PM on March 15 [9 favorites]


In my dating profile I state that I run my own business. I have a problem when in the very first (or really in any, before we've met in person) message the guy asks "What kind of business do you run?" My business is unique, and there are photos of me on my website, as well as my phone number and my full name. I participate in certain events which pop up if my name is Googled, and the participants' addresses are listed there. Which happens to be my home address because I run my business from home. So yeah, I usually have to answer that I'd rather not talk about it yet because it makes me easily searchable. Which probably makes some men think that I'm paranoid. Oh well.
posted by LakeDream at 1:08 PM on March 15


Agreed with breakin' the law. My father also died when I was young and I don't like when dates ask follow up questions about it. ("How did he die?" "How did he get that disease?" "How old were you?" "Was that really hard?" "Were you close?" "Do you still miss him?" "Do you have memories of him?") For me, it's because it is a painful topic and, in the context of a first date, I end up having to do emotional labor around the date's feelings about imagining if it had happened to their parent.
posted by mcduff at 1:10 PM on March 15 [7 favorites]


Not so much insensitive as just silly: "How are you finding your online dating experience so far?"

Well, obviously, I'm still at it. The question is usually asked so they can vent about past dates (which is necessary), but vent about it to their current date (bad idea, date poison).
posted by Capt. Renault at 1:31 PM on March 15 [5 favorites]


I can learn a lot about someone based on how they ask questions and how they react to my answers. Those first 30 minutes with someone are actually golden because you have the ability to be really subjective and objective, at least much more than usual.

I am not afraid to set a boundary if someone asks something too personal. If the person respects the boundary, then we're set; if they pry or act dejected, then I know it won't be a good match from the start. Likewise, if someone reacts inappropriately or unkindly to one of my answers, I also know quickly that they're a bad match. While it sucks that the people asking you about your family were so superficial, your sensing their classism from the start let you know to not waste any more time with them.
posted by smorgasbord at 1:37 PM on March 15 [5 favorites]


And another thing! (Sorry.)

If your date has a disability and needs some kind of accommodation, just do it, and don't pry. If they need you to do something specific, they will let you know. It's just their normal state of affairs, and they don't need to explain their physiology to a stranger. We'll get to that story one day, just not on day one.
posted by Capt. Renault at 1:45 PM on March 15 [3 favorites]


It sounds like there's no question that couldn't end up offending or otherwise bothering someone in some way. How did you end up in this city? Well, maybe you were fleeing an abusive partner or trying to create distance between yourself and your terrible family. What do you do in your free time? Maybe you have a chronic illness and can't really manage anything besides work. My brother died young, but if someone asks me how many siblings I have, I don't get upset about it. Nobody should have to guess that such a simple question is painful. I say I have two living sisters and a brother who died.

I'm not saying there aren't any questions that are just offensive. You should never assume that someone isn't from the country you're in or doesn't speak English as a first language. But if you're going to meet with strangers, you really just have to assume that they might accidentally say something that would usually be perfectly reasonable, but is not in your specific case.

To me, the real problem is in follow-up. Don't pry about things that seem personal. If someone brushes off a question, respect that. But you can't really have a conversation with someone you don't know if you have to avoid anything that someone somewhere might find upsetting. Unless you just want to talk about the weather. Even then, there's probably someone who in the world who has painful weather-related memories.
posted by FencingGal at 1:53 PM on March 15 [74 favorites]


Yeah, this is really hard to gauge. I’m not in the dating market, but with new friends, “how did you get into (hobby)” comes up. The actual answer is “I was dealing with life-disrupting PTSD and I took up (hobby) because it helped me not claw my own face off .” I say it more nicely than that but it can be a downer.

I don’t mind being asked, though. I get that it seems like an innocuous question. I do mind when the person continues to poke at a topic after I try to change it. I don’t think you can always anticipate other people’s sore spots , but you can be sensitive to how your questions are received and go along with a topic change willingly.
posted by Stacey at 2:24 PM on March 15 [1 favorite]


If it comes up that your date doesn't drink, or doesn't want to meet in a bar, please don't ask why. They might be in recovery, have family members who deal with addiction, have a health condition or be on a medication that makes drinking a bad idea, or it might be for religious reasons, all of which are or can be pretty personal and not necessarily first-date material.
posted by ITheCosmos at 2:30 PM on March 15 [5 favorites]


Oh lord. I'm transgender so it's guaranteed that I will get asked something stupid. Anything that questions the gender I say I am is a deal-breaker, or anything that displays total ignorance (if you're going to message a trans person, google some stuff first).

"So you think you're a man in a woman's body?" "So does that mean you have a vagina?" "Did you/are you going to have The Surgery?" "How do you have sex if you're trans?" If genitalia is a deal-breaker for you, don't message me.
posted by AFABulous at 2:39 PM on March 15 [2 favorites]


I'm a late-40s woman without kids. I do not find that at all interesting (and thus don't really want to answer questions about it) and if someone else did, it might indicate that they were a bad fit for me.
posted by jessamyn at 2:40 PM on March 15 [15 favorites]


Pretty much anything to do with families, where I grew up, or whether I have kids. I had a very difficult childhood, moved every year (or more) and I don't have kids. None of these are topics for a getting-to-know you conversation. In fact I've never discussed most of them in much depth with my closest friends, so I sure as hell don't want to talk about them with someone I've just met.

I also find the status-oriented questions quite off-putting. Things like where you went to school, what your parents do for a living, etc. The kind of people who ask these questions never turn out to be the kind of people I want to hang out with.
posted by HotToddy at 2:50 PM on March 15 [1 favorite]


"What race are you?"
Also, nonBlack people using AAVE (including words like "woke") is a no for me

From a friend with a physical disability: "What happened to you?"
From a friend with a name in a language that's not English, "what does your name mean?"
posted by pseudostrabismus at 3:24 PM on March 15 [2 favorites]


Poster, I really think you should give both yourself and the person you're trying to get to know a break. The getting-to-know-you process is already awkward much of the time without having a laundry list of questions that might possibly could trigger someone...or not... because everyone's different. If we added up all the triggering questions mentioned in this thread, we'd have very little left to talk about.

This whole thread brings back bad memories for me. Years ago, I was trying to get to know a new guy and he apparently freaked out because of what I felt was an innocent question I asked. It was close to Thanksgiving and he mentioned he wouldn't be spending it with his family. I asked if they lived out of town and apparently that was the moment I totally lost him. He later told me over email that he found it invasive or something along those lines. I was utterly shocked as 1. I'd meant no harm by it, and 2. He brought up the topic in the first place, I was just asking a follow-up question.

Please go into first meetings with the idea that you and they are probably of good will, and then use clear communication to clear up any misunderstandings.
posted by nirblegee at 3:34 PM on March 15 [25 favorites]


Any question, however innocuous and innocent, that touches on someone’s insecurities will be received the wrong way. The subject - be it family, job, school, nationality, children - does not even matter. Some people find “What do you do for a living” off-putting because they’re ashamed of what they do, or “Do you have children” intrusive because they’re sensitive about not having children, etcetera. There are several examples in this thread illustrating just that.

The key is to be sensitive to the cues that your dates give you. Know when to shut up. Know when to change topics.
posted by Kwadeng at 3:37 PM on March 15 [7 favorites]


It sounds like there's no question that couldn't end up offending or otherwise bothering someone in some way... My brother died young, but if someone asks me how many siblings I have, I don't get upset about it. Nobody should have to guess that such a simple question is painful. I say I have two living sisters and a brother who died.

This is true, but it doesn't mean OP shouldn't try to avoid topics that seem likely to bother people. It's nice that you aren't uncomfortable with the sibling questions, but several people here (including myself...) have noted that it's uncomfortable to answer deeper/prying questions about siblings and family. And if OP wants to take that to heart so as to avoid making folks uncomfortable, more power to them.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 3:58 PM on March 15


I am physically conspicuously different from most other people ( under 5th percentile of height for US adult women). On a date, I am probably making my best effort to look taller with heels or proportions of my outfit but it is obvious anyway that I am an outlier. I do not like being asked exactly how tall I am since the answer is plainly "quite short" and the exact number is a boring topic of conversation which only others me, makes me self conscious, and makes me worry that either my date doesn't find me attractive because of my height or worse, has a fetish for short women that has problematic undertones. And yet tons of people ask me this question within hours of meeting me and I really wish they wouldn't. I usually give the answer and move on anyway.

I assume all the above applies to pretty much anything about the unstyled parts of a person's natural appearance.
posted by slow graffiti at 4:02 PM on March 15 [6 favorites]


I'm a late-40s woman without kids. I do not find that at all interesting (and thus don't really want to answer questions about it) and if someone else did, it might indicate that they were a bad fit for me.

I’ve had this before, on first dates no less: ‘So how come you’ve never had kids?’

I can’t understand why anyone thinks this is an okay question. I mean, either I didn’t want to, so why would I want to talk about it, or I did want to but couldn’t for whatever reason, so...why would I want to talk about it??

Just completely inappropriate.
posted by Salamander at 4:13 PM on March 15 [4 favorites]


I guess related to 'where are you from', but any kind of mocking of accents, word choice, or stuff like what hand I hold my fork with. I still sometimes get a weird little American/British hybrid accent thing going on, or use the British English word for something, and I have severely mixed feelings about getting called out over it. I'm actually okay with 'where are you from?' because I know I sound strange, but the conversation needs to end there. (And really, shouldn't be asked at all.)

Also, I fuckin' feel you on "What do your parents do for a living?". That's my mother's go-to question about everyone I was friends with -- both their parents and them, now that I'm an adult. She's extremely classist, and this is a huge deal for her, and it sets me right the hell off.
posted by kalimac at 4:19 PM on March 15 [2 favorites]


"What do your parents do for a living?"

I don't think your dislike of this question is arbitrary. The asker is almost certainly trying to figure out your socioeconomic status. I find that a really irritating thing to do on a first date. In addition, as people have suggested above, this or any direct question about your family could touch on a nerve or create a derail.

I feel as if "Don't put people on the spot" is a pretty good guideline.
posted by BibiRose at 4:32 PM on March 15 [1 favorite]


When I went out with men I had met online it bugged me if they asked something that was obvious on my profile, like my religion or political leaning. I put some effort into both of those topics (atheist, left) and would still get asked about it like they didn't read it on my profile. It was a turn off to talk to someone who didn't seem to read or remember some basic info about me that was available and should have been considered before getting in touch with me.
posted by waving at 4:32 PM on March 15 [4 favorites]


I come from a background in which asking a bunch of personal questions is actually an off-putting and borderline-rude way to hold a conversation with a person you don't know. But of course, if you don't ask questions, some people find that self-absorbed, instead of considerate of others' privacy.

Anyway. The answer is that I find any and all personal questions from people I barely know to be potentially rude, with some on-date exceptions for things that you need to figure out to determine if you need more dates. It's not an interrogation, it's a conversation!

I guess that non-personal questions can be okay. For example, you could ask whether someone prefers the Mets or the Yankees. If they then feel like telling you that they're from Queens and went to the game with their dad, great. If not, fine.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 4:49 PM on March 15 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I'm another person who absolutely hates "so, what do you do?" I've only ever done low-status stuff, and I'm only ever asked that question by high-status people. Regardless of their motivation, I don't feel like mentioning that I work a shitty minimum-wage job. Over the years I've learned to brush it off with a smile and "oh, nothing interesting," but still. I get why people ask, especially if they're telling me about the interesting stuff they do, but ugh, please don't highlight the class and status distinctions between us. I wish there were a way for me to just hear about someone's interesting job (and sometimes they're very interesting!) without having to go through that awkward and terrible formality.

So I make a point of never, ever asking that question of anybody. Besides, you never know when someone totally hates their job, no matter how great it sounds.

Ha, as an aside, the absolute worst thing I heard at a party was "so, what does your father do?" Because of course my mom was irrelevant in his eyes... I also know someone who was asked "how big is your parents' house?" but that's kind of an obvious one to avoid.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 6:00 PM on March 15 [2 favorites]


For me the question I hate getting is "where are you from" because I have been asked so, so many times in the past 24 years and it is invariably followed with follow-up questions like "what made you come to Australia" or "how do you like it so far" or "are your family here too". I know they don't mean anything, but what made me move halfway across the world is not an easily-answered question; I have been living here for more than half my life and really don't like the assumption I have been here five minutes because most Australians can't tell the difference between the accent of a USian who still lives there and mine (not even getting into the fact that there is no one single USian accent); and no, my family do not live here and I am not going to go into how I feel about that. It's not that these are necessarily painful things for me to talk about, but they are complicated to answer honestly and the shallow answers are simplistic and annoying, to match the questions.

I vastly prefer the question "Have you always lived in [this city]" because it is much more open - people can give as much or as little detail as they want.
posted by Athanassiel at 8:56 PM on March 15


"So, what's your background?" They always ask it like that and they're always asking about my race and it always, 100%, without fail, guarantees that I never want to be around them again. My reaction to this question has evolved over time from uncomfortable to sad to digusted to appalled to Fucking Livid and Fucking Livid is where I am likely to stay so, you know, just don't ask.


asking a bunch of personal questions is actually an off-putting and borderline-rude way to hold a conversation with a person you don't know

This is how I feel about it. I have a complex and messy life history and don't particularly want to spill it all over some stranger.

If you must ask questions, much better are broad, general questions asked with the understanding that being vague isn't an invitation to grill me.

Honestly, though, I despise being put on the spot with interrogative questioning about any topic. It feels very intrusive and artificial. I prefer questions to evolve naturally from the flow of conversation to those expected to provoke conversation.
posted by windykites at 8:59 PM on March 15 [1 favorite]


This maybe doesn't answer the question directly, but as multiracial person of absolutely indeterminate origin and who at times grew up in very poor conditions, missed meals and with both biological parents who spent more of their adult lives not working than working, I have zero problem with someone asking me where I'm from or what my ethnicity is or what my parents did. I actually think it's funny when people try to guess my ethnicity, because it's basically impossible to get right.

I would answer these questions generally ("My parents had some issues.") and gently redirect any followups, but I have zero shame about my upbringing or background, and if someone has a problem with that, it's their problem and not mine.

Here's the thing: Intentions matter. We get lost in and enraged by what's offensive and what's woke and what's racist and fill in the blank. People certainly have the right to feel how they want. But if the person has good intentions, and a question isn't wildly offensive, it isn't a big deal to me. It's easy enough to gently redirect someone if they ask something overly personal or a slightly improper. I have all sort of issues with some Trump-loving relatives. That being said, I find it harmful to my personal relationships to police every word or behavior of people with otherwise good intentions. If you're decent, honest and you have good intentions, you're mostly good as far as I'm concerned.

To answer the question, I've been on a first date where someone literally said "Buy me that," which I took to be some sort of test. I wasn't going to play that game.
posted by cnc at 1:29 PM on March 16 [12 favorites]


As someone who lives in my head (and on the internet) more than most, questions like "how do you spend your time" or "what do you do for fun" or even "what are you passionate about" are sometimes really stressful for me even though I think they're often intended as a better alternative to "what do you do [for work/money]" and the like. I always have what to talk about with my friends but I'll never be able to give you an answer like "I go rock climbing and I DJ and I collect antique doorknobs."

I feel like first dates or meetings really take off when people get to the point of being able to leave the "generic question - answer - generic question - answer" volley and just talk. And I will find that point with someone if we get along well, but the open-ended yet specific "how do you spend your time" doesn't help me get there and stresses me out instead.
posted by needs more cowbell at 9:17 PM on March 23 [1 favorite]


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