How to be Curious about Someone’s Lifestyle without Being a Jerk-off

I think one of the cooler parts of living in a more progressive culture (and yes, believe it or not, Columbus is a diverse and progressive city) is that people feel much more free about waving their different lifestyle flags high.  What it also means, though, is that I often meet people who I don't necessarily "get" at first conversation.  They may present a lifestyle choice I've either never heard or or never known someone to participate in.  It's not that I see anything wrong with the way they choose to live, it's just that maybe their lives happen to fall outside of the spectrum of my experience.

In the past, I may have politely ignored the fact that they were different than I.  But that all changed when I decided to cut out land animal from my diet last year.

OK, right, so being vegetarian isn't a HUGE lifestyle change or choice.  Not eating bacon isn't quite the same as choosing to live in an open relationship or being down with BDSM.  Going veggie was a personal decision for me, though, and it did require that I alter the way I was currently living.  And I've also found that when you begin to challenge people's ideas of basic necessities, like food (especially here in the Midwest, where the cow has a sacred place...on a plate, next to a baked potato), you're bound to get questions, looks and outright skepticism. 

Many people have been politely curious when they ask about my choice, and other people?  Not so much.  There have actually been people who have been rude, gracing me with eyerolls, sneers, and retorts that I suppose they think are super clever.  I don't expect everyone else to be vegetarian, and I'm certainly not throwing my food habits in their faces.  (On the contrary, I'm usually pretty reluctant to talk about why I came to the decision to go meatless, mostly because it's not casual cocktail conversation, and I think people need to do their own research.)

But anyway, what I've learned is, it's okay to be curious about someone's lifestyle, but you gotta be careful that you don't pry for prying's sake or sound like you're on the latest (cancelled) episode of Law and Order.  So just how do you ask about someone's lifestyle without being a jerk-off?  Here's a few tips:

Let your curiosity germinate from a place of a genuine desire to get to know someone better.

Are you asking someone about his or her lifestyle because you want juicy details that you can later go giggle to your friends about?  Are you trying to put another notch on your "I'm super worldly belt?"  Or are you genuinely trying to get to understand someone better?  If it's the latter, be sensitive to an individual's situation, but also feel free to ask away.  If it's the former, well, Jerk-off, that's what the internet is for. 

Give the person you're talking to an "out"

So you're in a situation where you geniunely want to know and understand someone better.  Great, it's time to ask some questions.  But before you become the Gestapo, don't be pushy with your questions, and remember to give your person an "out." 

Here's how you do it:  preface your very first question with, "Would you mind if I asked you a personal question?  You can say no...it won't hurt my feelings.  I'd just like to get to know you better."  And then ask your question.  Use your emotional intelligence to gauge whether or not your question is received well.  If the person you're speaking to seems hesitant to answer, say, "I'm sorry...I don't mean to pressure you.  We can totally talk about something else!"  And then help steer the conversation elsewhere.  Remember that you may be putting your friend in an awkward position to discuss something that maybe he or she isn't ready to discuss with you.  Don't take it personally!  Think about how you might feel if someone you didn't know very well began asking you personal questions.

Keep an open mind and a kind face

Let's say your person decides to answer your questions...and you begin hearing information you didn't necessarily expect.  Keep an open mind and let your body language reflect that you are accepting what the person has to say (no crossed arms, try leaning forward, leave your palms facing up, etc.).  Remember, YOU asked for the information, and you should be ready to hear, well, just about anything.  You still might hear something unexpected, but don't close down, just ask for more clarification, or even feel free to say, "Wow...I think I need a minute to process that!" 

Finally...

I think the biggest way to be curious about someone's lifestyle without being a jerk-off, though, is to just remember that we are all PEOPLE.  We all breathe air and eat food and sleep and love and work and play.  And when you remember that we're all essentially the same, it's easier to find common ground.

What do you think?  Is it possible to be curious about someone's lifestyle without being a jerk-off?