Out of the ques­tion

Why do we only probe women for the in­ti­mate de­tails of their per­sonal lives, asks au­thor Lindsey Kelk


Lindsey Kelk pon­ders gen­der bias in the mine­field of con­ver­sa­tion


OF PER­SONAL QUES­TIONS. Are you see­ing any­one? Are you get­ting en­gaged? When’s the wed­ding? When are you hav­ing kids? Will you carry on work­ing? Have you lost weight? Are you on a diet? And ev­ery sin­gle ques­tion comes with the weight of judge­ment on the other end. But why do we think it’s okay to ask an­other woman intrusive per­sonal ques­tions when we don’t even know how she takes her tea?

When I was younger, my mum would in­sist that one day I’d wake up with a burn­ing de­sire to knock out a mini-me. I waited and waited and waited, fully ex­pect­ing her to be right. Now, at al­most 37, I’ve given up wait­ing. I love kids, but I don’t see them in my fu­ture. There’s no long story, no com­pli­cated rea­son­ing, and yet I am con­stantly asked by life­long friends and to­tal strangers when I’m go­ing to get preg­nant. Strangely enough, no one asks my boyfriend the same thing. They’re far too busy en­quir­ing about his ca­reer, his hob­bies and whether or not he liked Twin Peaks. You know, the usual stuff you might ask a hu­man who doesn’t have ovaries.

From a very young age, women’s emo­tional and phys­i­cal pri­vacy is taken away. The first time I re­call be­ing asked an un­wel­come ques­tion, I was a 21-year-old stu­dent get­ting my first smear test. On Valen­tine’s Day. I was in the doc­tor’s of­fice, eyes closed, legs akimbo, while the nurse asked me a mil­lion un­com­fort­able ques­tions about my love life. Did I have a boyfriend? Had I sent any Valen­tine’s cards? All I wanted to do was ask her to shut up and get on with it but a) that’s tricky when there’s a specu­lum in your cervix and b) I didn’t want to be rude.

And therein lies the rub. Even if the ques­tion be­ing asked is in­cred­i­bly per­sonal, women feel they have to al­ways be like­able and amenable. So, in or­der to spare some­one else’s feel­ings, we sac­ri­fice our own. Per­son­ally, I’ve al­ways been an over­sharer, so set­ting safe bound­aries for my­self and ex­pect­ing oth­ers to re­spect them is a mine­field, but I have to and we have to. No one is en­ti­tled to in­for­ma­tion we do not wish to give, even if it makes us un­com­fort­able to tell them so.

Over the years, I’ve been asked more awk­ward ques­tions than I can re­mem­ber. Ev­ery Christ­mas, my aunt would go the full Bridget Jones: put up the tree, bake the mince pies, de­mand de­tailed in­for­ma­tion about my love life or lack thereof. By the time I reached 30, my an­nual grilling drew a crowd: an­other aunt, the odd smug­mar­ried cousin. It was as ex­haust­ing as it was pre­dictable. And then there was my mother’s fu­neral, when a (former) fam­ily friend cornered me at the wake, pat­ted my shoul­der and then said, “It’s a shame you don’t have kids, they make this kind of thing eas­ier. Can you not have any, or is it that you just can’t find a man?” I’d like to think the ex­pres­sion on my face was enough of a re­sponse for the mon­ster in ques­tion but, thank­fully, my equally sin­gle and child­less older brother, who had been asked no such ques­tion, re­moved me from the sit­u­a­tion.

Of course, nat­u­ral cu­rios­ity is some­thing we’re all af­flicted with. The time I mer­rily sat grilling a friend who I knew was try­ing for a baby, only for her to burst into tears and tell me she’d mis­car­ried, still eats up my soul ev­ery time I think about it. My heart was in the right place and I couldn’t pos­si­bly have known, but you know what I could have done? Not kept on ask­ing her when she was go­ing to be­come preg­nant.

We can’t help our­selves, we’re Bri­tish; it’s buried some­where deep in our DNA, along with com­plain­ing about the weather and know­ing the recipe for Corona­tion chicken. Still, I’m try­ing very hard not to ask peo­ple ques­tions I wouldn’t want to be asked my­self, not to prod for in­for­ma­tion be­fore they of­fer it up freely. And in the fu­ture, when some­one asks me a too-per­sonal ques­tion, I will po­litely but firmly ex­plain I’m not com­fort­able dis­cussing the sub­ject and qui­etly die in­side. It’s the only way we can change things for every­one else.

I Heart For­ever by Lindsey Kelk (Harper­collins,

£7.99) is out now

“No one asks my boyfriend if he wants KIDS. They’re too busy ask­ing about his ca­reer”

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