As I took my seat on a flight from Toronto to LaGuardia recently, I noticed that the female flight attendant was considerably taller than 6 feet. Because I know that many people in the USA ask tall men, “Did you play basketball?” I was curious about her experience with that or similar questions.
When there was a moment when she was not performing her duties, I had my chance. “Excuse me”, I said. “I have a question. How often in a day of flying are you asked, ‘How tall are you?’” She smiled, and said, “At least ten times a day and often more.” She shared that it was only 7:15am as we spoke and she had already been asked three times.
Later in the flight she returned. The aisle seat next to me was empty. She sat down shook my hand and said, “My name is Samara. May we talk?” “Yes, of course,” I said. She was curious about why I asked my question, and grateful that I had not asked the same question as most. After I explained that I work in the area of diversity, unconscious bias and multicultural competency her curiosity piqued. I shared that I had conducted unscientific research several years ago and discovered that very tall men in North America are asked, “Do you play basketball?” on average of fourteen times a day when they are in public environments. If they say “no” the inquirer does not know how to continue the conversation. No doubt, they don’t want to say aloud, “What’s wrong with you?!”
Samara went on to share her experience and how frustrating this question is. She fully understood that people have good intentions, and think it is a way to acknowledge her and be friendly but the result of that question and some others create an opposite effect. She and the men I have spoken to about this predictable behavior do not waste their energy becoming angry with the inquirer, but have no motivation to encourage more conversation. One former pro basketball player told me if that is the first question a person asks him, he quickly ends the conversation and walks away. He feels they have not taken a moment to recognize that it is a superficial question that reflects an inability to hold an interesting conversation.
According to research conducted by Judge and Cable only 14.8% of
adult American men are over 6 feet tall, yet 60% of American CEOs are over 6 feet tall. A similar statistic is true for US presidents and generals. Although this is a career advantage, it does not dismiss the annoyance of ‘the question.’
I know, some of you are wondering what is the big deal? Why can’t they just get over it and go with the flow and be thankful they have this perceived advantage. But since you are still reading, that suggests you are curious.
Will the sun not rise if you ask ‘the question’? Of course it will. Will you get punched in the nose? Not likely. So in the scheme of things, asking this question is not going to prevent world peace, but if your motivation is to engage in a conversation to get to know the person, I suggest that you hold back the urge to ask ‘the question.’ If you want to get to know this tall person, start by asking a non-judgmental, open-ended question that reflects the present. In Samara’s case, perhaps the question would be, “What motivated you to become a flight attendant?” If there is no opportunity to have an in-depth conversation, which is usually the case with a flight attendant or a tall guy standing in line to board a plane, then just don’t ask anything. This will be difficult at first. The urge to ask the obvious question is strong for some people.
I can guarantee you if you start with a more open-ended question you will learn about the real person, not just the possibly envious attribute they have. And, if height is important to them, somewhere reasonably early in the conversation they will mention it without you having to ask.
Samara shared that she speaks three languages, lived in Germany and France for a time, speaks to youth groups about the joys of travel and how one can learn about other cultures. The other question she hates is, “How old are you?” According to her, apparently older folks think it is okay to ask that question. She feels it immediately puts her in a box with an assumption that she is too young to know certain things when she has actually had amazing experiences beyond those of many older people.
Lean outside of your comfort zone and try this. Look for ways to engage in conversation by asking a question related to the reason you and that person are in the same place at the same time. Don’t ask the following questions, and see how long it takes for people to share the answers without you asking:
- How tall are you?
- Where do you work?
- Do you have kids?
- Where do you live?
No, I never did ask Samara ‘the question.’ I gained so much more than just knowing her height. Yes, I still have an inner urge to ask ‘the question’ but I fight it. I know that it only feeds my curiosity, and does not honor the whole person. Let me know your results.