If we posit that all of us are interconnected by common frailties and strengths, if there is indeed a universal base and a universal blanket, then is there anything like minding your own business? Maybe getting up, close, and personal with a rank stranger is simply a different way of looking into the mirror. When I try to figure out your life, am I not trying to understand mine?
Do we really expect people to stay out of our lives? Or perhaps we, in fact, expect that people will beseech entry and then always be mindful of the privilege when it is granted.
What is it that rankles when someone asks an invasive question? What makes a question invasive? Is it contextual? (For example, if I weigh a 100 kilos, questions about my weight will be invasive. If I weigh 50 kgs, it is not. If I’m 28 and a partner in a law-firm, questions about age is okay. If I’m 45 and a struggling writer, then it’s not.)
Does our disapproval stem from the notion that the ‘questioner’ is not required to concern herself with such details? Is it the feeling of scrutiny (the perceived motivation for such questions) that we find unfair? Or is it, even at some strange, perverted level, a distorted form of flattery? (“Gee…you find my unhappy childhood interesting?…am so touched!”)
I remember watching an award ceremony of some sort – one that was graced by the Clintons and had the cast of ‘Third Rock from the Sun’ headlining the event. The cast, who represent aliens, were ad-libbing about the quirks of our planet and its residents. Their chief exasperatedly declares, “Why do they call it the human ‘race’? Is it a game of some sort?”
There was laughter then, but it is a deep question. Is this really a game of some sort? Is it why we are so interested in each other? Because though the differences may be in abilities and prowess, the finishing line is the same? Even though we may differ in the cards we are dealt with, the unequivocal triumph is in 3 aces?
I think people usually struggle with issues of boundary. One primary discomfort may be in reconciling two extremely opposing concepts – something common with something divisive. You can’t have a boundary for highly individualistic entities. You can only have a boundary for something that will need to be shared. Your boundary is your fence; your commonality is your garden strip that you share with your neighbors.
Similarly, our boundary is our individual notion of appropriateness of questions. Our commonality is the reason we ask them – to make sense of it all; we don’t always manage, of course.
Getting back to why we think some questions are personal. Our lives are like our houses. Our lives are also like the ground the houses are built on. Our lives, therefore, are our own as well as something we share with others. There is intrinsic duality in our existence. We don’t live by ourselves, but we can live for ourselves.
If someone asks us a non-personal question, the person is probably just saying hello across the fence. If someone asks a personal question, on the other hand, the person is knocking at our door and asking to come in. Now, this may irritate us because what business does this person have to be at our doorstep? But then again, you don’t know why the person is there. Just as you don’t know why the person has asked the question. And of course, what if you need to land up at his doorstep tomorrow?
I’ll assume now that you gingerly respond to that question. Most times, the response may be the equivalent of ‘No-one’s home’. But sometimes, you open the door and let the person enter. After this, the person generally looks about, sees a few things, and obviously wants to know more. At this point, you probably don’t know how to handle the situation. After all, you have let him in but you hadn’t bargained for this. This is the part, I think, that we find irksome. This unwarranted comfort of snooping around – in house or life. It bothers us when people probably lose the diffidence and courtesy to maintain a distance simply because we permitted them to enter our space.
Probably, they were right when they said this: ‘It’s the duty of the host to make the guest feel at home, it’s the duty of the guest to remember he is not.’