By semi-formal, I mean not formal-formal (a job interview/workplace scenario) but not informal (a purely social gathering of those you consider to be in one way or another your peers, and even then this requires discretion). This is my way of describing any situation where there is a noticeable power differential between the asker and the askee, but it will not cause problems like those that appear in professional cases (i.e. someone not getting hired based on the content of their answer). How teachers talk to students is the reason I’m thinking to discuss this tonight, but this could also apply to older relations speaking to younger ones, to a parent speaking to their child’s friend and/or something else, to many other things I just can’t think of right now.
I went looking for illegal questions for prospective employers to ask interviewees; this list is from the about.com section on job searching.
And it’s funny, because at least on collegiate getting-to-know-you sheets and in the related discussions, many of those things come up. Religion, in my experience, has been thankfully left alone, and I highly doubt most of the people I’ve heard/seen ask these sorts of questions would even think to question someone’s sex-related (or sexual, but let’s get to that in a second) identity.
Race is not often discussed, either, but birthplace and therefore national origin is one of the first things that usually gets brought up in these discussions. “Say your name, what your major is, and where you’re from” is the standard introductory paragraph. I understand name, so we know what to call each other, and major, so we know who’s studying what and why they’re taking the class, perhaps, but I’ve never really known why location of origin is a requirement? I know that for some people, hometown and home state and home country are big parts of their identity, and that’s totally cool: pride in where you’re from, if you have it, is rad. But for some people, myself included, I have never personally defined myself by location, and I’m not really sure what it matters. If you want to bring it up, cool, but it seems odd to force it. (I’ve had professors who will ask students from vastly different geographic locations how things of whatever nature are done in their region, and ask this repeatedly: I’m sure they mean nothing by it, but it always makes me cringe.)
Age and disability are things that aren’t usually specifically discussed, but they show up on the papers a lot. Age, well, okay, I get at least that professors are trying to get a cross-section of what grades their students are in and whatnot (though it’s often a more loaded question, as at some universities and things students are not necessarily on the traditional four-year plan). Disability, well, okay, making sure that students are appropriately accommodated. Reasonable, though a discussion where everyone could hear would be awful.
The one I’m bothered by, though, is marital/family status. I personally attend a university where a lot of the students are married, so I can understand why a professor would idly think to sort out the demographics. Life experiences, perhaps, affecting students’ perceptions of things. But see, it’s just… not anyone’s business. I mentioned this on my tumblr earlier this week, because one of my professors made everyone state their marital status in introductions and it made me very uncomfortable. (And it had to be specifically marital status: it was Spanish class, and apparently in Spanish, you’re single unless you have a ring. This was my teacher’s statement.) I asked multiple people was it odd that I felt uncomfortable afterward, people from multiple demographics, just to get an idea of whether or not I was overreacting because I am loathe to discuss my personal life at school to any degree (the closest I have gotten to a personal declaration at school is “yes, I am a feminist” — I don’t usually even bring up specific books that I read recreationally unless I’m talking to someone as a friend-type person).
Person one: “Not odd that you would feel that way.” (that way, as in uncomfortable)
Person two: “That is NOT odd in the slightest.”
Person three: “You should have just said ‘I’m actually in a polyamorous relationship with five men and ten women, and we all live in an apartment complex together.’”
As this was a first-year Spanish class, I definitely would not have had the time to figure out how to say that; I also, though I hate to admit it, am not actually sassy enough to troll my professor like that. (Other responses I thought of were “no, I’m single and happy with it,” something snarky about sociological reasons I don’t believe in marriage [which I didn't have sorted out specifically, because it's not that I don't believe in it 100% of the time, I just don't really dig a lot of the ceremonial/sociological things surrounding it too much] and “yes, I am married to my axe” a la Asha Greyjoy.) But anyway, this brings up why this question bothered me so much: I cannot abide by trying to compartmentalize people. Single/married, and of course this only applies to traditional definitions of married: boys would be married to girls or nothing at all, girls would be married to boys or nothing at all.
Oh, and what’s even more awkward is that after almost every “I’m single” came a wink-wink “boys/girls (usually boys since the class is mostly girls), this boy/girl is siiiingle~” Well, no wonder I don’t want to share, I don’t want my life choices/circumstances judged by an adult who I’m sure is a lovely person and meant nothing by this at all, but who I don’t know very well. I don’t want my life choices/circumstances judged by anyone, really. Especially not in a nudge-nudge “hey, boys, clearly one of you can snap this girl up because she will want to be snapped up/because people need to be snapped up overall” way. If someone wants to bring up that they are married or single or have a family or don’t in the context of a discussion, cool! That’s great for them, it might be a part of their identity. But it doesn’t have to be. A person is not just the sum of their circumstances, they are their circumstances and their thoughts and the lessons they have learned in life and whatever the hell else they want to be.
I guess the point of this whole giant quasi-essay is that if you shouldn’t ask the question of someone on a job interview, you shouldn’t ask it of someone, period, unless you know each other well and are in social situations, maybe. It just seems like straightforward logic.
–your fangirl heroine.