You’re at a cocktail party. Or a luncheon seminar for parents. Or even a mothers’ Bible study. You see an unfamiliar face and go over to introduce yourself and make her feel welcome.
You are by all accounts a very nice person, very friendly and open. But there is an awfully good chance you will really screw this up. Because you will see her and make some assumptions. Those assumptions will lead you to break the number-one rule of courtroom attorneys everywhere.
Never ask a specific question you don’t already know the answer to.
But you will, being nice and seeing a stranger at a function for moms, say “How many children do you have?” or “How old are your children?” These are personal questions. Ones that should be as off-limits in first-time conversations as “what is your favourite sexual position?” and “have you ever flirted with naked role play?”
Because a person in a new situation does not want to have to think about the children that died or were never born. Less dramatically but still very real are the times she shouldn’t have to think about answering interfering questions about the status of her blended family, who has custody on what days.
Even when you think you know, you don’t. So try sticking to vague, open questions like “So, what brought you here today?” or using a non-questioning conversation starter like “tell me about your favourite things to talk about, I’m interested in knowing you better.”
If that feels awkward, go with the upfront approach. “I’ve been a mom for 12 years and meeting people at these things always makes me nervous.” Let them take the next step–you’d be surprised at how much leading with your own openness and vulnerability makes the other person more comfortable.
I know women who have felt their souls crushed because they weren’t led to marry. I know many more who were unable to have children or who lost pregnancies to miscarriage and stillbirth. I also know a few women who’ve been divorced, who have lost custody of their kids due to drug and alcohol problems. And then there are the people who were just laid off from work or had to go out on disability.
All those questions about how long you’ve been married, how many kids you have, how old they are, where you work… You never ever ever know when you are going to trip right across a stranger’s most painful corner of life.