Tuesday, Nov. 3. Election Day. I wake up, reach for my phone and open Instagram.
I only have one notification. It’s a message from someone I don’t talk to very often, but I know one thing for sure: we have extremely different political opinions. On this particular day, I can only assume it won’t be very positive. My stomach sinks, but I open it anyway. On the screen is a phrase I’m too used to seeing in a political climate like this one.
“I’m just curious, how do you explain this?”
Attached to these cryptic words is a video of the candidate I voted for acting in an unsavory way.
How am I supposed to respond to that? What does that even mean? Are they really “just curious?” I could be wrong, but it feels like understanding my point of view is not the end goal here.
If you’ve engaged in political discourse over the past year — or ever, really — you’ve probably had someone who stands in opposition to your opinions use that phrase: “I’m just curious.” Maybe you’ve been the one to use it — I’m certainly not innocent.
Sure, a lot of people have a genuine curiosity for what others believe and why they believe it. A lot of people want to engage in good faith. But even if they have the best intentions, that phrase has been tainted by those who use it as a weapon.
There’s only one solution: we have to eradicate the phrase from our vocabulary.
To understand why it should be eradicated, we need to first understand how it’s being misused. Here are a few examples of what someone might mean when they say they’re “just curious:”
“I’m trying to figure you out, and understanding your stance on this one topic will reveal all your secrets.”
“I’m not going to do the work to look this up myself, because I don’t really care. I’m asking to see if I can catch you in a word trap and then tell you why you’re wrong.”
“Explain yourself so I have more evidence of why I’m right.”
“I think you’re wrong, so if I know exactly why you think this way, instead of using that knowledge to understanding you as a complex human being, I can be justified in talking about you and your bad opinions behind your back.”
Or even something as simple as, “you’re stupid.”
Realistically, nobody would say these things, even to someone they completely disagree with or even hate. But saying you’re “just curious” doesn’t really do these thoughts justice, does it?
Eradicating the phrase will create a need for people to more fully articulate these thoughts, even if they decide against sharing them.
However, eradicating it will also create another need: people who are genuinely curious to know what other people think and feel need to find a new way to express that.
Here are a few examples of what someone who is genuinely curious might say in the absence of that horrible phrase:
“I want to better understand you and your point of view. Why do you feel that way about this topic?”
“Your opinion on this subject has piqued my interest. Could we talk about it for a while?”
“I’m not sure I get why you feel this way, but I want to get it so we can maintain our friendship. Would you mind explaining it to me a bit?”
Isn’t that better? And so much less cryptic and threatening?
If you don’t genuinely want to understand someone, then don’t try to engage with them at all. It’s probably in your best interest — and theirs — to just leave it be. If you do want to understand someone and where they’re coming from, and you’re doing so with good intentions, make that clear.
In all honesty, I didn’t handle the reception of the aforementioned message with as much grace as I could have. I shut down the situation entirely and refused to discuss it further.
What could I have said or done instead to make it a more pleasant exchange? How could I have expressed that I still care about this person, even though our political views stand in such stark opposition to each other?
These are questions we should be asking ourselves at every opportunity. I don’t believe every conversation needs to be sunshine and rainbows and free of all conflict, but I do believe we can make it easier on each other by doing our best to be kind and practicing more clear and direct communication.
Talking to people with differing opinions, though often stressful, is good for us. It’s an opportunity to open our minds and expand our compassion toward our neighbors. If we view it that way, maybe every conversation about a controversial topic won’t be like walking through a minefield.
And remember folks: if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.