Dear Miss Manners: My husband and I have, on half a dozen occasions over the years, been asked by total strangers (usually salesclerks, etc.): “Are you two brothers?” We are somewhat stymied by how to respond and are seeking your advice.
We look roughly as similar as do any two people of the same race, socioeconomic class and gender – my husband doesn’t look very much at all like my actual brother – but we do, of course, have a very close rapport, and usually these questions come when we are both smiling and have been enjoying each other’s conversation while waiting in line.
Clearly part of the “problem” is our gender: I know many heterosexual couples who look (to my eyes) very similar, but when a man and a woman are traveling together, it is assumed that they are in a romantic relationship (also a problematic assumption).
Then again, my husband and I do wear matching wedding bands, so even when we are traveling in conservative parts of the country, we’re not exactly closeted.
In any case, our response so far has been to look at the offending questioner with a slightly perplexed expression (but still a smile) and say, “No.” If the conversations were not so brief, or if we had any expectation of interacting with the same person ever again, we might perhaps be moved to say something more, like, “No, we’re married.”
Does Miss Manners suggest we adopt the latter response as our primary one? Or, perhaps you have an even better answer? “No” usually elicits either, “But you look so similar!” or, “Oh, just friends then?” neither of which is the exchange we’re going for.
I am tempted to start accosting opposite-gender pairs on the street and loudly proclaiming, “Are you two brother and sister?” but I have restrained myself.
Gentle Reader: You do so because you acknowledge that all such questions are stupid. Making guesses about people to their faces, whether in regard to relationships, age, ethnicity, pregnancy or anything else, is impertinent, even when the guesses are right, which they seldom seem to be.
As you have noticed, continuing the guessing game by saying “no” offers unnecessary encouragement to nosiness. For that matter, any answer invites more probing, and you are under no obligation to strangers, to whom you can say, “I don’t believe we know you.” But she sees no other possible objection to your simply stating that you are married.
Please send your questions to Miss Manners at her website, www.missmanners.com; to her email, firstname.lastname@example.org; or through postal mail to Miss Manners, Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106.