We’re not friends. Don’t ask me personal questions.

So, here’s the thing. I have psoriasis. Not many people know this about me, because I’m embarrassed by it, so I keep it hidden. But my arms and legs are dotted with red patches. My torso often is, too. Yes, I have done quite a bit of reading about it, and yes, I am trying numerous things to get rid of it. But for now, it’s staying put.

So not many people know this, but plenty of people do wonder (and ask) why I wear sleeves in hot weather. Why I wear thick tights with a skirt in hot weather. Aren’t I hot? Why, thank you for your concern. Yes, I am a small child who needs to be asked constantly about how I feel.

My home town is Melbourne, Australia. Despite what a foreigner may guess by looking at a map, it gets pretty damn hot during summer. January this year, for example, had a week-long heatwave with about five days in a row over 40 deg. Celsius. If you like that kind of weather, good for you. You’d love a Melbourne summer. But I don’t. I never have. And especially the last few years, when I’ve been desperately trying to keep my skin covered.

If it’s such a hassle, why don’t you just dress how you like, regardless of what anyone else might think?

Good question, why don’t I? Well, firstly, I suppose that letting everyone see it would make it real, and then I could no longer pretend it’s not there, which I rather like to do.

But mostly, if everyone knew, then it would become a characteristic of me. There goes Lyla, she’s a writer and a musician, and she’s got psoriasis. She’s 5’7″, auburn hair, brown eyes, psoriasis. Like someone with chronic hayfever, or a severe food allergy, it becomes part of your being. Hand-bag, keys, water-bottle, psoriasis. But while it’s easy to feel sympathetic towards someone with a life-threatening allergy, I think in general it seems harder to sympathise with skin problems.

Who has ever heard someone make fun of a person with a nut allergy? I never have. But I have heard several people blessed with flawless skin make pointed or derogatory comments about people with skin problems. Acne is the most common target. Comedians have been victimising those poor souls with skin blemishes for years and years. (Come to think of it, who on earth was it who decided that the official symbols of awkwardness and nerdity would be acne, glasses, braces and curly hair? And what kind of cretins condone and continue that trend?)

“My God Lyla, where have you been to get so many mosquito bites?!” exclaimed a colleague of mine a few years ago after glimpsing an accidentally-exposed patch of forearm. In a voice loud enough to draw the attention of a couple of other staff nearby as we ate morning tea. She actually has a life-threatening nut allergy, so I would have expected much more subtlety from her. Some time before that, another colleague asked much the same question, at about the same volume. “Uh…they’re not mosquito bites,” was all the reply either got from me, before I turned away. I did not feel that either woman was close enough to me to deserve the correct answer. They were also prone to being gossipy, so I wasn’t entirely sure that I could trust them not to spread it around.

Hence the title of this rant. If you are a genuine friend of mine, you may ask personal questions. But I would define friend as someone who I share personal information with, including but not limited to: secrets, dating history, medical history, dreams and future goals, celebrity crushes, and sharing time outside of work (dinners, movies, etc). If we do not swap personal details on a regular basis, have any sort of intimacy in our conversations, or share any leisure time, then we are not friends. Colleagues, yes, and maybe ‘workmates’ as an affectionate tag for someone you get along with well at work, but not friends. So don’t ask me personal questions. Especially when it’s about something that clearly isn’t a positive thing, and looks kind of embarrassing!

I’ve lived in London for nearly five months. I spent three months answering incredulous questions of ‘Why?’ by telling people that I was probably the only person actually looking forward to a British summer (because British summers are stereotypically unsummery, with rain and mild temperatures). The best thing about a British summer, I thought, will be that the cooler temperatures will allow me to cover up. Except that so far, there’s been quite a lot of warm and hot weather that would be much better enjoyed without a cardigan.

Some days it does get too much. Not for work; I still cover up when I’ll be in someone else’s focused company. But when I’m just going to buy groceries, or out for a walk, there are occasions when I simply can’t be bothered covering up, and would rather wear just a t-shirt. Which, in itself, is a big achievement for me. Like leaving the house without makeup! *gasp*.

But making the bold decision to expose your flaws on a day out can also expose the incredible rudeness that some people possess. Today’s interactions, for example, which led me to compose this rant. I was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, looking like a tourist on a day out. I was not a contestant on a tell-me-what’s-wrong-with-me reality show.

In a little souvenir shop just off Trafalgar Square, I was looking at yarn bracelets at the back of the shop, out of anyone’s way, minding my own business. When I’d made a choice, I approached a staff-member near a till, smiled and handed them over. He asked if I’d like a bag, I said no thank you. Just to be clear, I’m a good customer. I’m polite and quick to hand over my money. But as our little exchange ended and he handed me my change, he gestured to my arm and asked, smilingly (as if he too were being polite), what was wrong with my arm. I’m sorry, at what point during our 20-second sales exchange did you earn the intimacy to ask me a personal question? Does it not occur to you that being curious about a question doesn’t automatically make it a polite one? If my arm had been in a plaster cast, at least one can safely guess that the condition is temporary, accidental. But as far as he knew, I could’ve been – as Lady Gaga says – ‘born this way’.

For example:

“Hi, yes, I’ll get these, please.”
“Would you like a bag?”
“No thanks, they’ll be fine as they are.”
“Here you are. Oh, what’s wrong with your arm?”
“Just a touch of psoriasis, no biggie. So, how’s your sex life? Keeping it up okay?”

See? Personal questions with complete stranger at point of sale = DAMN RUDE!

After that I sat down on the steps of Trafalgar Square to eat my lunch. Again, minding my own business, out of people’s way. A few minutes later, a man walked up and asked if I had a cigarette (I don’t smoke, so I don’t know what made him pick me to ask). I simply replied ‘No’ and broke eye contact. But he leaned down a bit, gestured to my folded arms and asked “What’s that on your hand?” When I replied “It’s none of your business . . . off you go,” he became quite insulted, so I had to add, haughtily, “I don’t want to talk to you about it.” Then he walked away, muttering argumentatively. What on earth gives him the right to interrupt my relaxation time with a impertinent question?

Okay, to keep this in perspective, I walked around 13km today, went into more than one shop, and only had two negative interactions. But the businesses we deal with and the internet are constantly pushing for more and more personal details all the time. Can’t we expect a little privacy in the ‘real’, face-to-face world?

To summarise, next time you interact with a stranger and feel curious about them, think of these:

1. Being curious about a question doesn’t automatically make it a polite one.
2. Have you earned the right to know the answer? Wanting to know something doesn’t in itself give you permission to ask.
3. Could your question be potentially embarrassing?
4. If the positions were reversed, how would you feel if a complete stranger asked you that? If your answer is yes, is that because you’re an over-sharer, or supremely confident? Maybe they’re not.
and 5. Uh, hello, manners!

Play nice, everyone! 🙂

~ LQ ~
London, 9pm

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2 thoughts on “We’re not friends. Don’t ask me personal questions.

  1. True indeed! There are a lot of insensitive people in the world. Actually, having this condition does make me reassess my own behaviour. It’s become clear throughout my life that people who have had some manner of struggle or suffering (whatever that means to them) tend to be the nicest and most sensitive, in general. Thank you for your reply! 🙂

  2. sagescenery says:

    Many people are just plain insensitive to a lot of things they don’t understand..you have taught a good lesson!! Well done!!

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