I was almost finished with my hash browns when my friend told me that she was flying to Somaliland and taking a Jeep five hours through the jungle to write an article about Frankincense farmers.
Instead of finishing my hash browns, I put down my fork, leaned forward and – like a concerned mother hen – clucked “Aren’t you scared!?”
My hackles go up every time some sweet, well-intentioned human asks me this, but I’ve never been able to articulate why; I’d sort of grit my teeth, explain myself and then forget about it. But now that I was on the other side of the table (literally), I had a bit of insight into why – exactly – this line of questioning is problematic.
Before I shiver “Aren’t you scared?!” at another soul, I vow to figure out what my question actually means and then talk to my brave, adventurous friend in a productive and meaningful way.
Why “Aren’t your scared?” is an unhelpful question
1. It’s patronizing
When we say “Aren’t you scared?” we’re acting like they haven’t thought through this decision – which is pretty condescending. Most decisions that elicit “Aren’t you scared?” are significant; we don’t ask people if they’re afraid of switching to T-Mobile or getting a CSA subscription.
We ask this when people leave jobs, start or end relationships, make big medical decisions. Generally speaking, people think long and hard about these types of decisions and they’re aware of the repercussions. They don’t need us to remind them.
2. It’s a downer, dude
My friend was super excited about her amazing assignment in Somaliland – as she should be! But instead of asking her about who she’d be interviewing, where the piece would be published, how it could affect trade organizations, I pointed our conversation toward all the things that could possibly go wrong.
3. It’s unproductive
Even if we think a decision is ridiculous or inadvisable, asking them if they’re scared isn’t particularly productive.
Let’s say you have a friend who is leaving his wife and twin toddlers for a year of backpacking through Syria and the Ukraine. You have another friend who’s decided to cut back on his spending so he can save for a house. These are two very different decisions, but I would guess that these two people are equally convinced that they’re doing what’s right for them.
4. It makes the conversation about you instead of your friend and what they’re doing
When we ask “Aren’t you scared?” we’re saying “You’re doing something I wouldn’t do Click To TweetWhen we ask “Aren’t you scared?” what we’re really saying is “You’re doing something I wouldn’t do. We’re now going to talk about all the ways I feel nervous about decisions and behavior that doesn’t affect me or the reasons I wouldn’t do what you’re doing.”
But what if we actually want to know if our friend is scared? What if we’re worried about them and we selfishly want assurance that they’ve thought this through?
Well, if we really must bring it up, the more charming, clever people in my life have successfully used these two tactics on me:
1) Flattery. Tell them they’re brave, that you are too chicken to do something like that, and then ask how they can be so fearless.
2) Try a more supportive question first, like, “Awesome! How do you even get ready for something like that?” Then you can ask them “Is there anything that you’re nervous about?”
We all want to be helpful, supportive friends, right? We want to cheer our friends’ adventures and crash in their guest rooms once they’ve relocated to Somaliland! A few little tweaks to our questions can help our friends feel supported while calming our own nerves.
Have you ever “Aren’t you scared?” someone? Or been asked that yourself? What do you do or say when your friends do ‘scary’ things?