Nothing in the Oven

How to handle the question "Are you pregnant?" when you're not

Dear Social Grace,

In the past two months, I've been approached by perfect strangers and subjected to that most obtrusive of questions: "Are you pregnant?" Although I've been cursed with a slight potbelly (courtesy of my father's genes), I am by no means overweight or even overtly rotund. I cannot understand why strangers feel the need to inquire about my reproductive health. I would never dream of asking any woman I did not know intimately whether or not she were expecting -- I consider it invasive, if not downright rude. Along the same lines, I have several friends who are experiencing fertility problems, and they're also subjected to that inconsiderate question: "So, when are you two going to have children?"

Please, could you provide me with some gracious yet firm responses to these clumsy questions? In every case, it has been a lose-lose situation, as my original embarrassment at being asked is further compounded by the questioner's chagrin. How can I reply to questions about my due date, short of "It's none of your business" or "Oh, in about five years -- why do you ask?"

Sincerely,
No, I AmNot Pregnant

Dear Unexpectant Madam,

Making uninvited comments about another person's physical appearance is a dangerous enterprise. But people who do so have earned their chagrin, and it'll probably do them some good (after asking about a nonexistent pregnancy, most folks won't make the same mistake again). Don't be too hard on yourself for doling it out.

When you're on the receiving end of such a question, tailor your response to the egregiousness of the error. An inappropriate but well-intentioned remark warrants gentle correction. The queries you've gotten might fall into that category, and I don't think you could do better than "Oh, I'm not pregnant." However, I like your second suggestion just as much -- a bit of stinging humor might sharpen the lesson. If you use that tactic, pause and let the questioner squirm for a minute, then change the subject with a smile.

That said, etiquette does not require you to put up smilingly with insults. If you suspect malicious intent, apply a firmer approach, such as one outlined below.

We've had other letters about strangers' prying questions recently -- everything from the nosy "Is that your real hair color?" to the appalling "So, how did you con- tract hepatitis?" "When are you going to have children?" falls somewhere between those two in horribleness. It's a question that only hopeful grandparents can ask of their children -- and even they should think twice.

Refusing to answer a buttinsky is not wrong. I favor one of three responses. There's the evasion (smilingly responding to a more appropriate question than the one asked, as if you hadn't understood). For example, in response to a hair-color question: "My favorite color? Well, I've always been partial to blue. You?" Then there's the firm refusal: "I'm sorry, but I'd rather not discuss that." It's not impolite to say so, and it's much more moderate than a final option, to be used only for the worst of the worst: shocked silence and a hasty retreat.

Dear Social Grace,

If you're a man on a date with a woman and you go to the movies, when you're entering a row of seats at a theater, who is supposed to go first, you or the woman? I was raised in an old-fashioned "Ladies, first" kind of environment, but I'm not clear on this.

Sincerely,
Polite Sir

Dear Polite Sir,

There are a few exceptions to the ladies-first rule (revolving doors are one), so if you want to create an old-fashioned "Ladies, first" environment, you will seldom go wrong applying that rule when in doubt. Traditionally, at the theater, a man follows a woman into a row (and a man takes the aisle seat if he and his female companion are sitting at the end of a row). Nowadays, it is just as correct -- and just as chivalrous -- for a moviegoer of either sex to ask a companion which seat he or she prefers before sitting down.

Dear Social Grace,

Although I am that dreaded creature, a smoker, I do endeavor not to offend with my cigarette smoke. I comply fully and willingly with all applicable smoking laws. In California, that means that I am unable to smoke in restaurants. Often, I am the only smoker at a table, and I wonder if it's rude for me to excuse myself and go for a smoke.

Via the Internet

Dear Dreaded Madam or Sir,

Please try not to take California's anti-smoking ordinances personally. It isn't rude to excuse oneself from a dinner table for any reason, but it is customary to wait for dinner to be cleared before lighting up. That way, no one feels obligated to wait for your return before eating. It's not even necessary to explain your reasons for leaving the table, especially if you're afraid of shocking tablemates with your wanton disregard for your health. Let them think you've simply gone off to raid the restaurant's cash register.

 
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