It happened on a date in an art museum. I don’t have a particular interest in art, though I’ve been to art museums before; that’s what I told my date when he asked – as we walked into the museum. When I returned the question regarding interest in art, he told me he didn’t really care for art museums. That made me question his choice in going there, but the time didn’t seem right to ask. So we walked into the first exhibit instead. He looked around, turned to me, and said, “Tell me everything you know about this art.” So I started talking. I spoke about the Calder mobile in the middle of the room, and about Calder’s engineering background, the scale of his work, and where some of it is currently located. He continued to look at me, so I continued talking. I started in on the Georgia O’Keefe in the corner, her time in the desert – and he stopped me cold.
“How do you know that?” he asked in amazement. I started to answer, but he interrupted by exclaiming, “You must really know a lot. You know a lot, don’t you?”
They always ask me that. And it’s the beginning of the end.
There are certain questions to which we have all developed stock answers. I – and I’m sure the same applies to you – have been asked “Where are you from”, “What is your job, exactly?”, and “Where are you siblings in life?” so many times that we’ve developed standard pithy responses. There’s the question I’m asked a lot, which you probably are not.
“How do you know that?”
My stock answer: “It is [dramatic pause] my birthright.”
That tends to be something of a conversation stopper. As it is intended to be. Because the inquirer does not care where I learned something – whether I read it in National Geographic, heard it from my fifth grade math teacher, or picked it up on the mean streets. No, that question isn’t a query but a statement of disbelief. It is a clear implication that I know something beyond what is reasonable, expected, or accepted.
When someone is genuinely interested in the source of something I know, they engage in a conversation. They do not phrase it as an implication that I’ve over stepped – such as when the question is “How do you know that?”. Nor as a suggestion that I’ve investigated something beyond what is socially accepted, which is when the intonation is “How do you know that?”
Usually, I can smile, tell them it’s my birthright, and shrug off whatever implication existed. If we are friends, they realize that knowing the unexpected is part of who I am. If we never talk again, no one is the worse for the experience. Unless it’s someone I date. Because asking me how I know something is a suggestion that I shouldn’t know it. And although I’ve heard it from women, I have never heard a woman ask a man. But it’s something I hear from men all the time.