How To Ask Me About My Cover

Yes, that's Tux in the background. Good catch, you.Yes, that's Tux in the background. Good catch, you.
Yes, that’s Tux in the background. Good catch, you.

I wear religious dress. (Quakers call this “plain dress”). Sometimes, people ask me about my clothes or my religion. Most folks are very polite and respectful, and I’m usually happy to answer.

But I’ve also had to put up with a lot of bad behavior. Even innocent curiosity can cause a few moments of stress while I figure out if the person asking is genuinely curious, or if they’re just trying to engage me in conversation so they can be a jerk.

I want to talk a little bit about how to approach these questions respectfully. I’m not the Voice Of All People In Religious Dress, but I’ve user-tested this conversation enough times to have run into many of the common user experience bugs. So if you’re curious about someone’s religious dress and you want to ask about it without making the person uncomfortable, here are some ways to avoid the common pitfalls.

0. Be Mindful of Power Differentials.

Questions about religion have the potential to be fraught and uncomfortable. If I’m not at liberty to refuse to answer you, or may feel that I’m not at liberty to refuse, you should think long and very hard about where the burden of your curiosity should lie. Teachers, bosses, and law enforcement officers should be especially careful here. If you’re in a position of power and not absolutely sure of your rapport with the person you’re asking, it’s best to just not ask.

1. Choose your moment.

Asking people about religion can be personal, but before we even get to that, it’s still striking up a conversation with someone, and all the normal rules apply. Take a second to consider whether I look like I’m interested in a conversation with you. Am I rushing to get somewhere? Am I using body language or other clear signals (book, earbuds) that say ‘leave me alone?’ Am I already in the middle of another conversation?

When I’m at restaurants with other plain-dressed Quakers, people routinely come up to our table and interrupt us mid-sentence to ask why we’re dressed the way we are. Follow-up questions about what Quakerism is and what we believe are common. Sometimes I just want to have a nice meal with my friends and family without having to table for Quakerism to complete strangers.

2. Ask if you can ask.

If I seem receptive to conversing with you (or better yet, if we’re already conversing, or have done so in the past), ask me if I want to talk about my religion. It helps to phrase it in a way that makes your intentions clear. People sometimes bring this up because they want to start an argument. I appreciate it when people open with something like “I’m curious about your head-covering, but I don’t want to be disrespectful. Is it okay for me to ask about it?”

When you’ve asked, respect my answer. If I’m not up for it at the present moment but I’m okay talking to you about it later or in a different context, I’ll tell you so. Also, I may be up for a quick question, but not a lengthy theological discussion–when I tell you I’m done, I’m done.

3. Don’t argue with me.

I’m not going to try to convert you or tell you how to dress, and I expect the same courtesy. Curiosity is normal, but telling me I’m wrong to dress the way I do is incredibly presumptuous. I’m also not interested in debating my beliefs or politics with strangers in this context.

4. Be careful with assumptions.

The assumptions I get about my clothes range from the benign (mistaking me for an actor in costume) to the tiresome (launching into a tirade about my assumed politics without stopping to say hello first).

I don’t tend to care when someone asks me what play I’m dressed for, but they usually look super embarrassed when I tell them it’s not a costume, and then I have to assure them that they didn’t offend me, and it’s all quite awkward. You also shouldn’t open with “are you [name of religion]?” It’s easy to guess wrong, and keep in mind what I said about making your intentions clear–I’m unlikely to answer that question unless I know why you’re asking.

If you make assumptions about my politics and try to start arguments based on those assumptions, I might troll you. I’m not sorry. You know what they say about assumptions.

I’m not trying to scare people off asking. I’m quite a geek about religion, and we all know that geeks like opportunities to geek out. Just, you know. Treat me like a person, not a walking Google search, and we’ll get along fine.

10 thoughts on “How To Ask Me About My Cover”

  1. Well said. Thank you. If you have time, I am curious about something else. I’ve never seen a numbered list that begins with zero. Is this a set style or perhaps a personal preference? Thanks.


  2. Thank you. I live in a very ethnicly diverse neighborhood, and there are many women with really lovely head coverings. I’m a costumer with an interest in design, so I’m curious not just about the whys but also about how they go together structurally. But I also know that for many it’s an intensely personal subject and I do not want to give offense. I somehow never thought about asking if I could ask. Thanks for the hint – and here is hoping that my next bus ride is more interesting as a result.


  3. So the short answer is that it’s a programming joke–computers count from 0 rather than 1, and so programmers sometimes do it, too.
    But stylistically, for me it implies that item 0 is fundamental; superseding or underpinning all others. Since I’m spending this post saying it’s usually okay to ask, I wanted to mention the circumstance where it is most likely to be not okay at all.


  4. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that I’m speaking from a position of massive Christian privilege on this one. While I sometimes have to field weirdness around my religious dress, I don’t have to deal with racism, and rarely get the short end of jingoism. Muslim and Jewish women might understandably be a little more guarded/not interested in having these conversations with strangers.
    I’m not saying don’t ask, because I can’t speak for other people. But I’d advise paying close attention to nonverbal cues that they’re not interested in discussing it.


  5. @wendy–I’ve found that asking respectfully and in the spirit of being interested in the head-covering itself, rather than a woman’s reasons for wearing it (while also following annalee’s advice, natch) has been well-received. “Excuse me, but I think your head-covering/scarf/headwrap is beautiful/elegant/really flattering/different than any I’ve seen before; may I ask how it is pinned/draped/wrapped/made?” has been generally well-received, when politely approached.


  6. I wear a lot of dresses and skirts, and a fair number of people get startled when they find out I’ll have a beer or a shot of whiskey, sometimes. I can only assume it’s because there’s a significant population in my area that believes women must only wear skirts + has those other rules about alcohol and such.
    So far, folks have all been good-natured about that, but it isn’t unusual for folks to make assumptions about my age, experience, and politics and launching straight into their lecture of choice. That gives me some experience with the assumptions you speak of, though not for the same reasons. (I generally look like a teenager who’s wearing unusually nice clothes. Got called a high schooler’s “twin” just yesterday.)
    I did have a time where I wore a head covering in church, and though I’ve always believed they were more of a conscience issue than mandatory, I wore it because my father wanted me to do so. Some folks at church would make assumptions about what I believed or knew because of it, which was also annoying. (Note that the church was reformed presbyterian, on the conservative end, and while women who wore head coverings were in the minority, my mother and I weren’t the only ones.)
    (Just a quick aside to any site visitors unfamiliar with the topic: a head “covering” can merely something on the woman’s head. Some folks use doilies. I used a brown kerchief to blend into my hair, so it wouldn’t look as if I were trying to show off. The Scriptural foundation stems from I Corinthians 11. The verse may be interpreted to say that a woman should wear a head covering in worship/prayer [which some folks interpret to only apply to church service, not at other times], that she should have long hair, and/or that she shouldn’t look like a prostitute. Any argument that calls I Cor. 11 “cultural” is actually pulling from that last one—it’s claiming that, in Paul’s day, [presumably] only prostitutes went with their hair uncovered/shorn. I go into that to possibly prevent you from getting as many questions. ^_^)
    I do find interesting that plain dress remains among the Society of Friends. I hadn’t realized. I don’t remember plain dress in the Friends meetings my family attended when I was a child, but perhaps I’ve forgotten or they didn’t wear it. 🙂
    I hope your week’s off to an excellent start!


  7. Mackenzie, would plain dress therefore be considered a conscience issue among the Friends? Just want to make sure I’m understanding this properly. 🙂


  8. Carradee:Plain dress among Friends is spotty. You’ll find it more among the three Conservative yearly meetings (Ohio, Iowa, and North Carolina), but it occasionally pops up in the other branches as well. Annalee, her brother, and I are the ones with distinctive headwear in our Meeting, but I know of two other Plain Quaker men in our city, who are part of other Meetings.


  9. Carradee:Yes, it’s taken up as a leading.
    Some Quakers refuse to buy things that contribute to labor injustice (sweat shops, children or slaves picking cotton) or environmental degradation (cotton comes up here again), and I think it’s a mixed bag on whether those people consider that a form of plain.


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