Can I Ask You a Question?

When I sat down for coffee with Bob Bunch, Owner of Bunch on Biz, the first thing he inquired was, “Can I ask you a question?”

I said sure, and noted how cool it was that he asked. He was surprised by my comment and after a slight hesitation, looked at me and probed, “Why’s that?”

I explained that in my work around racial reconciliation, I’ve discovered I can’t just assume I can ask questions. It’s not always considered kind. Bob explained that when he queries people, he’s trying to take an interest. I told him that’s what I thought too, until an Iranian friend of mine, now an American citizen, told me she gets asked where she’s from just about every day. It makes her feel like she doesn’t belong. She’s not sure if they’re trying to satisfy their own curiosity or if they really care to get to know her.

But What Can I Say?

Bob: How can I show I care, especially as a guy who looks and sounds like he belongs here?

Me: Just like you did, requesting permission to ask is a great start. It suggests you care how the person feels. You can also qualify your question. For example, my husband, Cyril, grew up in Europe. He worked to develop an American accent when he came here for university. Naturally, he’s interested in connecting with people like himself who grew up abroad. So he says, “I grew up in The Netherlands. May I ask where you’re originally from?”

Bob: That’s cool, but I grew up in St. Louis and want to connect with people. What can I say?

Me: Perhaps, “I’m born and raised in St. Louis, I don’t know much about other parts of the parts of the world. May I ask what’s it like where you’re originally from?”

Four Steps

To help people like Bob look for a way to communicate care over curiosity, there are four steps I use…

  1. Ask permission to ask
  2. Share something from my own experience
  3. Ask a relevant question, and
  4. Give the person time to think about his or her answer

Care Over Curiosity

Assuming I can ask a question without considering the impact of my words is a characteristic of majority culture. That doesn’t mean we all do it; it’s just a trap we can fall into. I did. Years ago, when I was getting to know my husband’s family and curious about his French heritage, my mother-in-law said, “You Americans ask a lot of questions.” I remember saying, “But I’m just curious.” She pointed out that if someone doesn’t understand that, questions can feel intrusive. By starting conversation with permission ask a question, Bob opened up the space for me to answer without feeling like he didn’t care about me or what I had to say. What I’ve learned from friends and colleagues of a different color or nationality is that, even if my intention is good, for folks of minority culture, questions without care can be alienating and even hurt our potential for building relationships. With that explanation, Bob appeared thoughtful and satisfied, and went on to another question, after asking permission, of course. Thanks to Bob for his willingness to learn and grow! -AN