Sunday, September 03, 2006

#47 Curiosity and Respect

I picked up the book, Respect, because it was written by a woman who was one of the revered “big girls” from my childhood. In it was an unexpected gift: Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot’s suggestion that a critical element of respect is curiosity. Just the day after I put the book down, a colleague at work shared with me his experience of receiving admiring surprise at his ability to stand in for the boss at a radio interview. To this highly accomplished African American man, such surprised acclaim came across as subtle disrespect, part of the racism he deals with every day. When I mentioned Sarah’s idea of curiosity as an element of respect, we realized that a response of wondering how he had become so good at that kind of thing would have been better received.

So what keeps us from this respectful curiosity? Our capacity to wonder is enormously disrespected when we are children, first by parents and others who tire of our questions and tend to pronounce from above rather than explore together, then by an educational system which prescribes what we should ask questions about and what the right answers are. Many of us are left deeply damaged in our ability to wonder about the things we don’t know.

Some of us don’t inquire because we doubt our capacity to understand. It’s like asking a question in a barely-mastered foreign language–you often get an answer that’s way beyond your ability to comprehend. Or we don’t want to admit what we don’t know, since not revealing our curiosity can save us from humiliation. We may choose to not be curious about things that are painful. By not asking, we hope to shield ourselves from knowing, or shield others from feeling their pain. So not being curious becomes a protection, from showing ourselves too fully, or addressing things that are hard to face.

Wondering implies a desire for connection. It can be hard to be curious about things or people we feel no connection to. We don’t have enough information (or have too much misinformation) to know what we might be genuinely curious about. Unchallenged, the smallness of our world can stifle curiosity.

There are also ways of being curious that are not respectful. Sometimes our questioning is like scratching an itch. We want to know because we’ll feel better; we’re not thinking about the other person at all. Or our motivation is an avid interest in ferreting out information that can be used to pursue a goal, or to judge or categorize. If I want to know your opinion so I can choose whether to be friends or enemies, if I ask your credentials so I can decide whether you are worthy, then I’m not really interested in you, not curious about you as a person. The genuinely curious question would be the one that helps me understand how you tick.

There is a more subtle kind of limited curiosity. It may be fine, for example, for a white person to wonder how black people do their hair. But if I ask a specific person just because they’re handy, they become a means to an end. I’m not being fully present with them at that moment. I need to be genuinely curious about that particular person in that moment in order to convey respect.

Being curious is a wonderful way to get to know people. I love to listen to people talk about their work. If I ask enough questions I always hit pay dirt. I often get a glimpse into a world I never would have known, and I always discover a passion or a skill or a commonality that draws me closer to that person.

When you’re being curious you can’t be judgmental, because there are no right answers. The other person is the expert, the resourceful one. Genuine curiosity is open-ended, relational, rooted in the present moment. Sarah from my childhood was right. Generous, open-hearted deep curiosity inevitable conveys respect.

Pamela Haines


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