The XX Factor

Strangers Ask the Darndest Questions

When are you going to have kids? So you’re still single then? How’s the job hunt? Sometimes strangers ask the darndest questions. What small-talk topics are too annoying to bear?

Dana Stevens : I don’t like when people ask you financial details about the place you live- Do you rent or own? How much do you pay in mortgage/rent? -which, rude as it sounds, happens surprisingly often, at least in New York. This kind of grilling is OK in some circumstances, like if a good friend is embarking on an apartment search and gathering information, but as party chat it too quickly devolves into competitiveness and schadenfreude.

Nina Rastogi : The one that always gets me is when new acquaintances, upon discovering that I’m biracial, casually ask me if I “feel more Indian or more Chinese.” I’m happy to talk about that, but for Chrissake, do you think you’re going to get a 30-second answer?

Jessica Lambertson : I think every college student and recent graduate dreads the question, “What are you doing after graduation?” Every time an acquaintance or family friend starts asking about job prospects for May, I get completely stressed out. In an attempt to not sound like a total bum, I usually make up some nonsense that will get me out of the conversation ASAP. For young people, thinking about the future can be exciting, but more often than not it’s just scary.

Amanda Marcotte : I used to hate having to tell people what I did for a living, but since I’ve moved to Brooklyn, it’s become much easier. Now people don’t stare at you in disbelief when you tell them that you’re a writer, nor do they pepper you with a million questions about how that’s even possible.

Jessica Grose : Well-meaning acquaintances often ask me what my next professional move is going to be, i.e., Got your next idea for a book? Any big articles in the works? I know that those questions are usually asked out of earnest curiosity, but except when they come from my closest friends, these types of inquiries always make me anxious. What if I don’t have anything coming up? What if I have a big idea, but you think it’s stupid?

June Thomas : When I told people I was moving from Seattle to New York, a surprising number asked, “Is Rosemary going with you?” I know there are heterosexual couples who live in different cities, at least for a while, but that wasn’t what they had in mind. They obviously didn’t see us as a couple, despite our having lived together for nearly a decade at that point.

The other one is, “Are you a vegetarian?” It’s not offensive, but why on earth do people confuse lesbians and Hindus?

Jessica Grose : I know it annoys some, but actually doesn’t bother me when people ask me if my fiance and I want kids, or about when we plan on having them. Because I am confident in my responses and don’t care what people think about our decisions, giving out that sort of information doesn’t irk me.

Kerry Howley : But you don’t have to be insecure about your plans to be made uncomfortable by questions about future children. If you do not want kids, the conversation immediately turns to why, exactly, you do not want them. Are you selfish? Insane? Out of touch with your essential womanhood? You become compelled to justify your choice, and what starts as small talk stops seeming comfortably trivial.

Rachael Larimore : Speaking of pregnancy, breeders can get their share of untoward questions. My all time favorite: I was at a visitation for a family friend who had passed away. One of the workers-at a funeral home, where you would think that tact was a job requirement-comes up to me and asks, “Oh, when are you due?” In four months, I tell her. “My goodness! Is there more than one in there?” (Not twins, mind you, “more than one.” As in, “Are you carrying a litter?”) No, I tell her. Just one. “But, but … you’re so big!”

KJ Dell’Antonia : I hate, “So your kids will all be in school soon-what will you do with all your time?” Um-keep juggling work and parenting, just like I have been for the past seven years. Only with less babysitting, and probably more carpooling.

Dana Stevens : Another super-loaded one for pregnant people: “Are you having a natural childbirth?” Never has that question been asked without an agenda of some kind.

Hanna Rosin : I am at the place in life where I wish people would ask me such questions. They look at me and my entourage-husband, three kids-and they think, nothing exciting happening there anymore .

Claire Gordon : Not so much small talk, as they are just questions that suck: “Are you really tired?” No. My face is just crappy today. “Didn’t you just eat?” Yes. I just want more food.

Ellen Tarlin : Questions in the past that have bothered me:

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

“Do you have a boyfriend?”

“What are you going to major in?”

“How do you expect to find a husband if you go to NYU?”

“You have such a nice face; what are we going to do about your body?”

“What are you going to do when you graduate?”

“Why don’t you just write a best-seller?”

“When are you going to get married? You are living like married people, so you should get married. I’m telling you this not as a Christian but because it’s true.”

“When are you going to have children?”

“My friends who are in their 40s have been trying for years to have children. They are having such a hard time. They shouldn’t have waited so long.”

(Then people stopped asking me that-which meant I was either getting too old or they thought maybe something was wrong.)

“What’s going on at work? What’s the big news story today?” (Are you really that stupid that you need me to tell you?)

“How’s your job? Do you feel safe there?” (Of course not, dummy. It’s journalism.)

“What is your husband working on?” (Which I actually don’t mind that much-because it takes the focus off of me. Though often I don’t know what he’s working on or can’t talk about it, or I don’t know enough about it to make it sound interesting.)

After my husband won an Emmy Award, someone asked me, Where’s YOUR Emmy?

Someday I will ask someone: “When are you going to die? Do you really think you want to wait that long? Wouldn’t it be better to just get it over with?”

When I was a child, other kids always used to ask me: “Why are you so pale?”

And then there was the time my mother said, “What happened to your stomach? It used to be so flat!”

And ye olde: “Are you pregnant?”

June Thomas : What I have learned from these responses: It is better to be an egomaniac and just talk about yourself than to ask other people questions at cocktail parties.

Ellen Tarlin : Or to find a common enemy to make fun of.