How To Ask About Arranged Marriages Without Being Offensive

White People Asking Questions is a series where White people submit questions and they are posed anonymously to the public for a 24-hour period and are answered anonymously.

Oftentimes White people have questions about themselves, People Of Color (POCs), or awkward situations, but are afraid to ask them due to public backlash. On the other hand, POCs get asked these questions every day and are burdened with the emotional labor of constantly explaining the same concept to people that will never relate because it is not their experience.

But just because you can’t relate doesn’t mean you don’t want to learn and do something about it. Amirite? As Angela Davis said, “You have to be intentionally and actively anti-racist.” 

Therefore, this series is having the conversation on how White People can be ACTIVE in dismantling racist systems and not passively watching. What is unique, though, is this series is set up to be answered primarily BY White People FOR White People teach each other about their privileges. POCs are always welcome to participate in dialogue, but this also creates a space for POCs to watch White People do the work in educating each other. Many times our communities are so disconnected that we don’t know the conversations happening amongst other communities. This is also meant as a resource for POCs to direct White People to for difficult concepts.

How Not To Travel Like A Basic Bitch wants to acknowledge and thank everyone who took on the emotional labor of sending in these responses. We include all responses that are directly relevant to answering the question. We don’t filter or edit, but we do correct spelling and grammatical errors. Highlighted in red at the bottom is the takeaway of the discussion.

[Kiona: This series is to promote a safe learning environment so that no one can attack your anonymous responses. And not all people who ask have been White…Anyone can respond. I just ask that you identify yourself as White or not so we can see perspective…]

Question:

Ok here goes. And I’m incredibly self conscious because I feel so ignorant. So I’m a manager and it’s so important to me that all my people feel included. One of my gals moved to the country from India when she was 16 and has a very traditional upbringing, and…an arranged marriage. As in, she’s legally married now to a man in New Jersey her fam picked for her, but she’s never even kissed the guy. And does not consider herself actually married until they can get their visas figured out and go home and have their traditional ceremony…I have other girls who are trying to have babies and very open about that process, and girls who are just fucking around and open about that. And this girl is involved in all these conversations asking us to explain Tindr and dating all those shenanigans…but I’m always very worried about how I can ask her questions and get her to open up about her life without….a. Asking something that would be offensive or b. Displaying that my Western background actually views her arrangement as something that I would rather die that have happen to me. I want to be able to have her be open and talk about things…I just don’t know what questions I’m allowed to ask…basically.

[Kiona: I think the question is: how to ask about arranged marriages without being offensive.]

Desi Responses:

Hello! I’m British but with a Pakistani/Indian background. arranged marriages are often the norm in these culture and in my community although less so in the last decade. my response would be that if any question you feel the need to ask should come from a place of non judgment. only ask a question if you’re genuinely seeking to understand and not from a moral high ground. also to be educated on the difference between forced and arranged marriages. [Kiona: when this is really the only answer we needed lol]

Maybe not come at it with the idea of “I’d rather die than this happen to me” I’m British with Pakistani heritage and have been around arranged marriages all my life. If you want to ask the question first ask why you want to ask it, are you genuinely interested in the culture of arranged marriages or are you coming in judging? Asking others first is right because most people don’t understand the difference with arranged marriages and forced. My experience of arranged marriages around me have been “introduced marriages” where you get to meet each other and know one another before you proceed. I’m not saying this is the case here but understanding this helps. For some cultures dating one another isn’t the norm regardless of whether you live somewhere where it is. People also assume that people who have arranged marriages don’t know anything about relationships and sex. You’d be surprised. And do you know what maybe she doesn’t want to open up about her life or marriage. Are you trying to get her to open up so you can find out things or because you genuinely think it is good for her.

There is no “good or bad” with anything—it’s all situational. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t ever hate or be against arranged marriage because I myself am a literal product of it and so is my sister. I there’s tons of ways ppl arrange or get arranged marriages and even relationships (we call it match making) here but people would never word it or WANT to word it like that here. Also I don’t know that girls situation in the above stories but I do not agree with child marriages of any sort if said child is not of age to make competent decisions for themselves. It is disturbing to me both as a human and as an Indian woman.

White Responses:

I’m White. I was going to say that I’ve met several people in arranged marriages. Just because it’s not the norm in western culture, doesn’t mean it’s something we should fear/think poorly of. Those I’ve met in arranged marriages had good marriages. I’ve often considered how much nicer it would be to have family members help find a good suitor…as the modern western dating world is rather painful to navigate. Imagine a world where a man had to be respectful towards your family to gain your hand rather than random men sending dick pics. Arranged marriage sounds pretty wonderful to me.

I feel like these are not conversations to be having at work with staff who report to you. I’ve had managers before who try to be my best friend and ask all about my personal life and I find it really annoying and unprofessional. I purposely don’t share too much of my personal life at work. I’m White btw.

Open ended questions that don’t project or centre yourself (I’d hate it etc.) + ask her in a way she can choose to answer. I.e. asking about perspective in a low pressure way (how are plans coming along? How are you feeling? + u can offer support/value here). A friend was speaking with me about this the other day, she was excited about the possibilities and happy to work on herself for the time being…so we just ended up talking about her future plans, career goals, fam and wants it was nice. Centering yourself I see as all around bad White approach to convos (OH, BUT I blah blah) that’s not a convo that’s a weird emotional dump or infographic about yourself you lured me into. A conversation is shared so pay attention to her cues, follow her lead and be ready to see the convo evolve. Re: workplace context not sure if there was subtext about her comfort levels discussing these things? Does she bring the subject up herself or is forced to when everyone discusses their love lives? It’s still work and she could just not want to talk about it to, even if you do. she may already have all the friends she needs/wants for that.

If I’m understanding this, she is saying she would rather die than have that happen to her? I don’t see a way to engage from that level of judgment. I would take a minute and research on my own. Work to create an environment in which her employee feels comfortable in general and I wouldn’t ask questions at all unless her employee creates a bridge in that regard. White woman here.

Yes, there are still these traditional, arranged marriages happening in which two people are completely set up in what we typically think of as an arranged marriage. But the reality for most Indians doesn’t look like that now…the marriage is arranged in the sense that it’s coordinated by the parents. But not actually the wedding itself. Parents coordinate amongst themselves good matches for their children based on whatever the family collectively deems to be important. Then, the to-be-wed potentials date each other…yes, they go out. On dates. With these different prospects. And they decide who’s a good fit over time. This is what I was taught. I’m sure the experience is so variable for different ppl based on many factors like class, caste, religion, ethnic group, etc.

White person here. It sounds like right now they’re coming at this topic from more of a morbid curiosity than a genuine seeking to understand. Perhaps they could read up on arranged marriages and stigma around arranged marriages before asking any questions. If they do ask questions, maybe phrase them like “can you tell me more about…” rather than “why do you do…” Then just appreciate her answers. Also, as her manager gotta be careful of the power imbalance. AND better be ready to stand up for/defend/advocate for her if any of the other employees say something offensive!!

Hey! White woman here—just don’t ask. Be there and be supportive if she wants to talk about it, but it’s not your business, so if you don’t have an established friendship and she doesn’t trust you as a friend, just don’t ask.

I want to chime in here as a White person who has had first hand experience like that of the OP. I’m White and was part of a study abroad program with a girl whose family is from India. She was partially raised in both the U.S. and India. She had a secret bf but ultimately knew her family wanted her to have an arranged marriage. The group was staying up late talking about anything and everything and she brought this up. I think like any relationship she had mixed feelings. But ultimately for her her family was the most important thing. She knew how much it meant to her family, her parents had a healthy arranged marriage. So I think it’s important to understand all of what goes into any relationship. There’s so many factors and different people value those factors differently. She is happily married to someone her parents arranged for her. It ended up connecting her more strongly with her family and it was completely her own choice.

I’m White—I would say that unless she’s coming to you specifically to discuss her feelings about it (good/bad/excited/neutral/etc.) don’t have the conversations at work, especially as someone in a management role. This based on my experience managing a retail store and running myself ragged trying to be everyone’s shoulder my first year.

White, working in senior management: you don’t ask—it’s none of your business. The employee can initiate conversation, and you, as the manager, can make it a welcoming place for that conversation to be had, but it needs to be employee-driven. If the employee chooses to share information, the manager should follow up with the employee in private and ask how the employee would like questions and conversations to be handled –and loop in HR.

I think this is very important!!! Manager/manage relationships can be tricky, esp. when you are a White person and you supervise POC. The inherent power dynamic is amplified! Asking folks you manage about their love life is tricky. I usually go with a quick how are you/your family and let it be. (Me, white person who was a manager)

I’m a White woman. I work as a career counselor so ask probing questions for a living. My family also has long term business connections, now family friends, in India. It sounds like the manager wants her to feel as relaxed as the others in their workplace, but I absolutely agree, the inappropriateness of asking in Australia could border on not legal. BUT she can easily include her in conversations by asking about what she already know about: e.g. how are your wedding plans going? She probably finds “love matches” as interesting and might be happy to listen and learn herself (this was our family’s experience with our friends). If she feels comfortable she’ll contribute. There could very well be group dynamics going on that affect this too and the manager needs to take responsibility to ensure this chit chat gives everyone space to contribute or not. Also, our friends were arranged, but not forced and their marriage seemed happy enough. He worked in his Dad’s business and she had a business degree and her own business. So we also can’t assume that the old ways can’t still update themselves for modern society. It always seemed like a short cut to me, cut through the crap and let everyone find someone with the same values as you. Anyway, just my thoughts for what it’s worth.

I am White and learning that satisfying my own curiosity is not a sufficient reason to ask a question. Neither is education. If I care about someone as a leader or a peer, I do as much work as I can to move my understanding towards them to teach me how to treat them. Use the Google. Read a book. Do some internal antiracism work. But I’d work hard not to put her in a position where she has to tell me about her private life or serve as some sort of cultural ambassador.

White cis lesbian here. 1. Perhaps don’t talk to her about it until you can check yourself and educate yourself beyond “I would rather die,” 2. I find it extremely unprofessional (and occasionally fetishizing) when managers try to initiate conversations about my romantic/sexual life. If she wants to talk about it with you, ask follow up questions that come from a place of judgment free respect. If she doesn’t, it’s not really your business in a work setting.

POC Responses:

If she’s her manager, like maybe don’t ask. Read things on the subject if you’re curious! I’m a White-passing NBPoC lady

SE Asian. Why does it matter what kind of relationship this person is in, and why is it anyone’s business but their own? Why is it being discussed at work? Are they asking questions about any other relationships? Why is it this person’s job to teach people about arranged marriages? (Hint: it’s not) the fact that the asker said “I’d rather die than have this happen to me” already shows me that this conversation is over. It’s not coming from a place of genuine desire to learn, it’s coming from a place of morbid curiosity of the “other” and that is not ok

She should feel ignorant she is just curious. I like how she worded the question and articulates her thoughts.

It’s none of their business. Read a book on it and keep it moving!

How is this so hard to understand. No one cares if you’d rather die. Shut your mouth. And why are we speaking about this at work. She’s already judging hardcore in my opinion. I think it’s best you just read up on it…there’s plenty of resources there. She’s already entering the conversation with all these preconceived notions so I don’t think anything will change her mind at this point.

Hi! Mixed Balkan Rrom/Romani who actually had an arranged marriage here! First, the fact that the person who asked this question had to insert the whole “I’d rather die” opinion is to me kind of indicative of a lower level of understanding behind this cultural practice and should start with a fair amount of googling on the subject before potentially engaging with anyone with preconceived notions (especially at work!). In my culture, marriages are usually arranged early on (childhood – early teens) and in my case, I got to spend a lot of time with my husband to be through community events and gatherings, parties, family dinner, etc. We got to know each other well , and a genuine bond formed between us. HOWEVER, when the time came, we both ultimately decided to bail out on our arranged marriage (We both fell for Gadjes/Non Romani folks), and that came with some very heavy consequences for me. I became something of a disgrace to my family and was essentially shunned out of my community. So kindly think twice before bringing it up, and asking these kinds of questions at work, especially if someone doesn’t offer up this kind of information on their own. Also just need to say that just because mine didn’t work out doesn’t mean I am against arranged marriage or implying arranged marriage is a negative thing.

Black Jamaican woman here: refrain from suing possessive language for POC (“one of my gals”)—it’s icky. Allow any conversation about your employee’s arranged marriage to be initiated by her. People with non-American cultural backgrounds may take offense to questions you may deem curiosity but they may interpret as inappropriate, especially from an employer. Tread consciously and seek to build trust before getting a stranger to open up to you.

I’m a multiracial/multiethnic Black woman: Ask yourself why you are curious? Is it for yourself (then maybe you can google) is it because you care/are concerned (you can check in how she’s feeling and doing without prying specific details) if you feel concerned, ask yourself why (is it because you assume something negative of it?) I also think reflecting on power structures of her being her supervisor/white and how PoCs are discriminated against in hiring/keeping jobs is key and maybe she’s not being as open about it as you’d like for that reason. I’ve been in bad work environments where I’ve had overly curious white supervisors/coworkers and ones that were really open about their lives but PoCs don’t have to be open about their lives in return especially when power structures are in place at work.

Undisclosed Responses:

Funny to many folx turn their noses up at this when “then White elite” have been playing this game for centuries to hoard power.

I remember I had an Indian friend in middle school who told me her parents had an arranged marriage. It kind of internally blew my mind for a sec bc their happy healthy relationship defied all negative stereotypes I had seen. And then I went back to eating fruit roll ups and watching Monty python and haven’t really given it a second thought since. Hence why we have to destigmatize this conversation too. Actually it’s not just the white elite in history. It’s anyone “elite” with money and power who wants to keep it.

I think she should work on developing a true friendship with her first based on mutual respect and if the employee feels safe and respected she will share her life with her. The employer can’t impose their cultural and moral constructs on someone else and have an authentic conversation. Personally I know many couples that were arranged that are very happy, I know some that aren’t, and I know a few where it was a very bad situation. [Kona: isn’t this all marriages tho?]

I personally feel it’s inappropriate for a person in a position of power at work to ask someone about their relationship at all bc it’s none of their business and they may feel pressured to have to answer when they don’t want to /power imbalance/

Yes!! HR person here. Not appropriate for the manager to ask to be in all her team members personal business—none of them. Sit back and be friendly but don’t push you biased curiosity on people who aren’t in a position to tell you to mind your own business.

Takeaway:

When in a managerial position, it is best not to ask questions you would not ask your other employees such as “how is your wedding coming along” and if you’d like to know more about arranged marriages, do not put that labor into your employee to teach you. Research it yourself.

If simply asking about a marriage arrangement not similar to your upbringing (without a power dynamic involved), ask from a place of genuine curiosity and throw away all preconceived notions and judgments going into that conversation. This will usually naturally result in open ended questions where a person can answer as much as they feel comfortable with. Make sure you actually have a friendship with this person before delving into their personal lives.


To submit a question, go to How Not To Travel Like A Basic Bitch and submit a question in DM or email kiona@hownottotravellikeabasicbitch.com.

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