When I met my fiance’s African-American stepfather, things did not start well. Stumbling for some way to start a conversation with a man whose life was unlike mine in almost every respect, I asked “So, what do you do for a living?”.

He looked down at his shoes and said quietly “Well, I’m unemployed”.

At the time I cringed inwardly and recognized that I had committed a terrible social gaffe which seemed to scream “Hey prospective in-law, since I am probably going to be a member of your family real soon, I thought I would let you know up front that I am a completely insensitive jackass”. But I felt even worse years later when I came to appreciate the racial dimension of how I had humiliated my stepfather-in-law to be.

For that painful but necessary bit of knowledge I owe a white friend who throughout her childhood attended Chicago schools in a majority Black district. She passed along a marvelous book that helped her make sense of her own inter-racial experiences. It was Kochman’s Black and White Styles in Conflict, and it had a lasting effect on me. One of the many things I learned from this anthropological treasure trove of a book is how race affects the personal questions we feel entitled to ask and the answers we receive in response.

My question to my stepfather was at the level of content a simple conversation starter (albeit a completely failed one). But at the level of process, it was an expression of power. Kochman’s book sensitized me to middle class whites’ tendency to ask personal questions without first considering whether they have a right to know the personal details of someone else’s life. When we ask someone what they do for a living for example, we are also asking for at least partial information on their income, their status in the class hierarchy and their perceived importance in the world. Unbidden, that question can be quite an invasion. The presumption that one is entitled to such information is rarely made explicit, but that doesn’t prevent it from forcing other people to make a painful choice: Disclose something they want to keep secret or flatly refuse to answer (which oddly enough usually makes them, rather than the questioner, look rude).

Kochman’s book taught me a new word, which describes an indirect conversational technique he studied in urban Black communities: “signifying”. He gives the example (as I recall it, 25 years on) of a marriage-minded black woman who is dating a man who pays for everything on their very nice dates. She wonders if he has a good job. But instead of grilling him with “So what do you do for a living?”, she signifies “Whatever oil well you own, I hope it keeps pumping!”.

Her signifying in this way is a sensitive, respectful method to raise the issue she wants to know about because unlike my entitled direct question it keeps the control under the person whose personal information is of interest. Her comment could be reasonably responded to by her date as a funny joke, a bit of flirtation, or a wish for good luck. But of course it also shows that if the man freely chooses to reveal something like “Things look good for me financially: I’m a certified public accountant at a big, stable firm”, he can do so and know she will be interested.

Since reading Kochman’s book, I have never again directly asked anyone what they do for a living. Instead my line is “So how do you spend your time?”. Some people (particularly middle class white people) choose to answer that question in the bog standard way by describing their job. But other people choose to tell me about the compelling novel they are reading, what they enjoy about being a parent, the medical treatment they are getting for their bad back, whatever. Any of those answers flow just as smoothly from the signification in a way they wouldn’t from a direct question about their vocation.

From the perspective of ameliorating all the racial pain in the world, this change in my behavior is a grain of sand in the Sahara. But I pass this experience along nonetheless, for two reasons. First, very generally, if any of us human beings can easily engage in small kindnesses, we should. Second, specific to race, if those of us who have more power can learn to refrain from using it to harm people in any way – major or minor — we should do that too.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor at Stanford University. @KeithNHumphreys