Generally, I’ll answer most questions I’m asked honestly and simply. I tell people when there is a question they ask that I won’t answer  but usually, my view is that people are expected to lay their lives and history before me and it doesn’t really make much difference to me if they know what area of London I live in (it’s not that close to where I work to bump into people but is near enough that often people are familiar with it). If I feel the response may detract from the person with whom I am directly working though, I might be vaguer than my instinct tells me to be.

So when I was asked last week

‘You’re not Jewish, are you?’ I was a little disarmed. There was a context to the question (although I wasn’t quite sure at the time). He was talking about an ex-employer who had, he felt, treated him less than fairly.

I don’t ever discuss my religion at work or with anyone just because it is less than relevant. When I have been asked directly if I am religious, I can dodge the issue far more easily. When asked what religion I am, I can gently wheel around it’s irrelevance to my work.

But to be asked within a negative frame by someone with whom I have been working fairly positively, if I do say so myself (!) was something I wasn’t ready for. I didn’t want to deny it but the tone and nature of the question indicated that a positive response was not the expected or wished for answer.

I mumbled a response about not being very religious in general (which is true, for the record!) but didn’t come out and answer positively (or negatively)  which I could very well have done.

Of course, then man in question launched into a tirade of how much he hated Jews. I know I could have seen it coming. There is really only one answer that he wanted to a question like that.

I nudged gently at some of his thought processes to suggest that perhaps he was being a little less than fair. But I think by that point I had compromised myself too much and shortly after we were drawing to a close.

I wondered how much you collude without challenging. If someone had directed a similar tirade against people of a different race, I would have (and have been) more directional in my opposition to their views. There is, I have found, a way to challenge some of these views without being necessarily confrontational and usually I use a manner of presenting positive role models and positive situationing to challenge some of the views of people that I need to maintain a working relationship with.

Perhaps it was because this question hit a bit closer to home that I wasn’t so exuberant in my refution. Certainly something I need to work through.

6 thoughts on “Questions

  1. Actually, we get a fair amount of this kind of thing at the CAB. As advisors, we are always expected to challenge clients on biases. But like you say, you don’t really want to get overly distracted from any rapport you may have reached.

    I think sometimes if people are looking for support in their views, just saying ‘I don’t agree’ is enough. But I’d have been really uncomfortable in the situation you were in if someone was asking about myself.

    I have the getout that I can always just say it’s bureau policy not to give out personal information (which is kind of true).

  2. I agree that it’s hard at times…when to confront and when to let it ride. I have definitely confronted on race issues before…I can remember distinctly confronting someone when he was going off on Asians, but religion is touchy. Shouldn’t be, but it feels as if it is. Especially over here.

  3. In Ireland, we say ‘hasn’t anyone ever told you, you shouldn’t ask an irish person about their religion’. This shuts people right up.

    In countries like Indonesia and Thailand, asking you your religion is like asking you your home town, it’s considered a normal, uncontroversial conversation topic. So if your client is from that part of the world, that kind of question isn’t as intrusive as it may sound. However, that’sunlikely, as folks from SE Asia rarely get exercised about Judaism as they have rarely encountered anyone Jewish in their lives.

  4. I think I was thrown off by the unexpected nature of not being used to being asked and the terms being so negative.
    And I should have used the Irish model, DeeDee!

    I agree with it being wholly culturally appropriate in some settings but the person in question was White British – for the record!

  5. definitely a tricky situation.

    your question “how much can we collude without challenging” deserves examination.

    the tricky part i believe is that unless the client specifies that they want to work on discriminatory mind sets (fat chance!), then challenging the validity of their viewpoints on those matters is a delicate thing to do.

    if you view your client not only as the man before you, but as society as a whole, then you allow yourself some leeway to correct negative thought patterns that could have harmful effects on others…

    a tough balance only exacerbated by the self-disclosure element!

    good for you for recognizing it

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