Mind your beeswax

Questions can sting

February 13, 2023

Are you still a virgin? Since when are your parents divorced? How did you do on your SAT? I mean, I thought you were gay? I heard you were in therapy. What’s going on? You’ve been dating for awhile, haven’t you done it by now? This slew of questions can be heard bouncing off of lockers and filling the hallways. An October 2022 Bark Survey found that 43 percent of Redwood students report that they were asked invasive personal questions somewhat or extremely often. Common topics in the arsenal of berrasive questions can include sex lives, sexuality, relationships, mental health and family life. This sustained social behavior has created a toxic environment at Redwood where students often feel uncomfortable and overly aware of their every move.

Illustrations by Call McBride

This disconnect between intent and impact can create a multitude of issues. Many of the invasive questions are a result of social stigma: both conscious and subconscious. Thus, there is often a negative implication when asking these invasive questions. A lack of sensitivity can turn an otherwise innocent question into an insult. The way a question is phrased, where the question is asked, when it is asked and who is asking are all examples of ways that context can undermine the innocence of questions. A Harvard Business Review case study in 2020 that monitored the outcomes of invasive questions by rating them on levels of offensiveness found that “[w]hile the question may not be born out of malicious intent, it can have a serious consequence or impact on the people it is directed towards.”

Students must be more aware of what they are saying, and if not for themselves then at least for others. Taking a moment in the hallway to think through the context of a conversation or your relationship to another person are both steps all students should take before asking private questions. For example, prodding someone about their family life can seem to some like an innocent or genuine question, but to others it can be an uncomfortable invasion of their personal boundaries. This isn’t to discourage individuals from having open, honest and difficult conversations; but those conversations should be had with trusted people whose boundaries you are aware of so that no one is put in an uncomfortable situation. Everyone’s boundaries are different which is why it is important to understand each other before asking about personal topics. 

Although curiosity is an important life skill, students need to become aware of the line between harmless chatter and crossing someone’s emotional boundaries. According to the California Department of Social Services, emotional barriers are defined as “limits on sharing of personal information and feelings.” When emotional limits are pushed, oftentimes one can walk away from the interaction emotionally drained, disrespected and shamed.

Many might think that pushing these boundaries is okay as some consider it to be a normal part of high school; however, asking such questions can be incredibly invasive and make people feel rattled. That being said, it’s totally okay to acknowledge when you are uncomfortable with a question. Saying, “I don’t want to answer that” or “I don’t feel comfortable talking about this” are ways to advocate for yourself and your boundaries. One should never feel pressured to answer a probing question and you always have the right to stand up for yourself. 

 The Harvard Business Review in 2020 categorized when participants would feel uncomfortable with a question and its effect on the participants’ mental health. “Across our studies, we found that the questioners predicted that asking sensitive questions would make their partners feel extremely uncomfortable and would significantly damage their relationships (whether it was a new relationship with a stranger, or an existing relationship with a friend).” This effect is often what leads to heightened levels of receptivity. While a certain degree of teenage awkwardness is normal, this unhealthy environment exacerbates what was once-average levels of self-awareness. School should be a safe environment, not only physically but emotionally. These conversations hinder any trust or openness Redwood should have.

Ignoring assumptions and avoiding pestering others with questions is a simple, considerate way to ensure that everyone feels comfortable and safe at school. If you are still unsure of whether to ask personal questions or when to ask them, think through the situation. If in doubt, simply don’t ask the question and move on.


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