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Ask Questions - We Don't Bite

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My religion is mapped on my dress. The first thing people notice about me, I think, is not the color of my skin, but the scarf on my head. A lot of people will stare curiously, and I can see the questions on their face. For the first two weeks of my critical methods class last semester all my classmates thought I had an accent because I didn't talk (it takes me a while to get going). Most people feel awkward asking me questions - where I'm from, why I wear a scarf, do I actually pray five times a day? And when they do, they always preface it with, please don't be offended...

When you're writing about something you don't know, a culture you're not a part of, a life experience you have no way of experiencing, you have to ask questions. You have to approach people who do have those life experiences, who do live in those cultures, who know those things you don't. Books are great resources, the internet is a great resource - but these sources also stratify and normalize and homogenize. Some experiences are universal, but many of them differ, all of them have facets, all of them are impacted by individual experience.

I am never, ever offended when someone approaches me with questions respectfully. I understand the fear that your desire for knowledge may be unwelcome - so I've jotted down a few guidelines to remember when asking those questions:

  1. Be respectful. This is an obvious one, but still worth mentioning. Don't dismiss the things you're talking about, don't say what's that thing on your head, don't belittle what you want to know about. Don't condescend to the person you're asking questions. 
  2. Come as armed with knowledge as possible. Be prepared, show that you did research, that you genuinely care, that you want to learn more. Don't expect this person to be a fountain of free knowledge for you. Recognize that you have to pull your own weight - you are benefiting.
  3. Some people don't want to answer questions. Be okay with that! Some people don't want to share their experiences with you. Some people don't want to be helpful, they don't want to answer your questions, they don't want to enlighten you. For some people, doing that is painful, recounting things is hurtful, having to educate someone else time consuming and bothersome. Recognize that you are not entitled to the knowledge they have, and they are not obligated to give it to you.
These are three very small things, but I think they often go a very long way in lessening the chance you're going to offend someone. I can't speak for everyone, but I'd much prefer a person be educated about my experiences then to continue on with incorrect assumptions. So ask questions. I don't bite!
Somaiya Daud

Somaiya Daud received her BA and MA from a university in DC in English. She is currently working on her PhD. When not writing or studying, she spends too much time on the internet yelling about comics and robots. Her first novel, Mirage, is coming 2017 from Flatiron Books.

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2 comments:

  1. Excellent advice, which will lead to better writing by all who read, myself included. I like the way you opened with the scarf, which is exactly what people are likely to ask about first--perfectly put! All too often people just like to rush into something without understanding it, leading to other cultures, time periods, etc. for some reason acting like they have modern American views on the world, or worse, views based on two-dimensional television portrayals of those differing cultures/times based on modern American entertainment.

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  2. This is wonderful advice for writing and real life. As a member of another oft-misunderstood religion, I wholeheartedly agree with everything you said. I do appreciate it when people ask questions because I'd rather they get the facts straight than operate under false information, but more than that, it shows me that they truly care and are trying to be respectful and open-minded. Hear hear!

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Item Reviewed: Ask Questions - We Don't Bite Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Sumayyah