Apparently, it’s the ultimate indignity.
A woman wrote to Carolyn Hax at the Washington Post with this problem:
I was at a wedding recently where family members kept coming up to me and asking me why I wasn’t married and if I had a boyfriend. I’m a 34-year-old single woman and these relatives hadn’t seen me in a few years. I was really uncomfortable with the incessant questioning.
What is a good response when people ask intrusive questions regarding your relationship status? I am really still angry at how rude and insensitive the relatives were and I don’t really plan to go to another family wedding because of this. Am I being too sensitive/overreacting? I see no excuse — I have never gone up to a married couple and asked them why they didn’t have children or something similar, so I don’t see how this behavior is excusable and why I should have to put up with it.
Here, a number of this woman’s relations, people she never sees outside of weddings, ask her why she is attending the event unaccompanied.
The woman in question believes that the questions are intrusive. She is so angry and offended that she plans to boycott all future family weddings.
After suggesting that she might be overreacting, she asks how best to deal with these questions, or better, whether she has to put up with this insulting questioning.
As might be expected, no one has the nerve to tell her that she might be overreacting. Her relatives are not intending to pry. They are expressing concern about her singlehood and would prefer to hear some good news about her. To their minds that means hearing that she has a boyfriend, or a reasonable facsimile.
Within a certain culture a woman’s being single is a sign of independence and autonomy, something to be celebrated. Within most cultures it elicits expressions of concern.
The letter writer believes that these relatives are intruding into her private life, but, alas, marital status is not a private matter. If they were asking about her latest hookups, the question would be intrusive, but, as is, they are well-intentioned. At the least, they see themselves as well-meaning.
One hates to mention it, but these relatives—I suspect that they are female relatives—are asking these questions at a wedding. At a wedding one’s thoughts often fly ahead to the next wedding. It is not abnormal or insulting.
Before the point gets lost, I venture that not a one of the intrusive relatives is a male. If the questioners are invariably female relatives, it tells us that women are intrinsically more worried about a 34 year old woman who is alone.
Otherwise, it says that men are intrinsically more polite… but you don’t want to go there.
The women who ask the question might be telling their single relative that she is so wonderful that they do not understand why she is not married. They might, for all we know, be giving her a vote of confidence.
It’s not as though everyone is telling her that she needs to lose weight or to get a better haircut.
In any event, Carolyn Hax—and anyone who has an ounce of empathy-- does not believe that she should put up with such questions. Hax adds that the woman should also not avoid future weddings.
One must note in passing that if the letter writer is spending that much time attending weddings, she must belong to a large and very fertile family.
It isn’t excusable and you shouldn’t put up with it, but I hope you won’t keep yourself from occasions you might otherwise enjoy because of it. These people exist whether you stay home or not; think carefully before you hand them any controls over your life.
Believing as she does that the woman would feel better if she were armed with a witty retort, Hax offers a few:
The truth gives you a range of options when you’re faced with intrusive questions. Take advantage of that from now on whenever people start prying: “You’re the 14th person to ask me that today,” for example, is an important non-answer that gives people a glimpse of the cumulative effect of what they assume is a cute or innocent query. An incredulous, “People still ask that?” gets to the truth of how dated this whole line of questioning is. “I was quizzed so mercilessly on my romantic life at the last wedding that I almost didn’t come to this one” is another truth in need of airing. Then there’s always the Miss Manners staple, “Why do you ask?”
These are all clever quips, but they risk insulting someone who did not intend to be rude, or better, who was offering what passes for polite conversation in her own world.
Keep in mind, these are family members, and family members do have a vested interest in the well-being, to say nothing of the marital status of other family members.
We do better to ask why the letter writer finds herself tongue-tied when faced with these inquiries. She knows, as others do not seem to, that her relations wish the best for her and that, if she offers a clever quip as a comeback, she might offend them.
Clever quips should offer someone who has inadvertently offended a way to see that she is being offensive. If the quip makes the letter writer look offensive, her relatives might come away believing that they now understand why she is single: she has a sharp tongue and is excessively thin-skinned.
Hax’s quips-- even Miss Manners’—risk making the letter writer look churlish.
So, the letter writer finds the questions embarrassing but does not want to offend her relatives.
She needs a comeback that does not make her look bad and that does not make her concerned relatives feel offended for something that they will never believe is offensive.
Here are some slightly more subtle and ironic candidates:
“It’s always a joy to see you.”
“Thank you for your concern.”
“When there’s news, you’ll be the first to know… but it won’t be in the near future.”
“Don’t worry, when I get married, you will definitely be invited… but it won’t be in the near future.”