“Well, how old are you?”
I was standing in the very manicured backyard of a gorgeous home in Los Angeles, six sentences into a conversation with a complete stranger. The impetuousness with which he asked his question caught me off guard a bit, and I paused, not sure if it had really happened. He doubled-down and asked again, without a whisper of potential impropriety.
“How old are you? Just say it, I mean, you can’t be that old?”
Wow. Just what every woman wants to hear. Once my slack jaw came back together again, I spent the rest of the night trying to lasso, then translate the seemingly dichotomous conversation that was going around and around in my brain.
On one hand, I have felt as if I’ve earned every second that I’ve been alive on this planet. There have been experiences and moments in my life that I didn’t think I could or would survive, so the fact that I am even here is an honor. And for that, I am so appreciative. It makes me proud that I have survived as many years as I have. And following that pride further, if this country is going to transcend the stigma still attached to age, then we must be able to talk about our age without negative connotation, to redefine and reframe the pigeon hole of social construct.
On the other hand, our country is not quite there yet. We are still obsessed with age, youth, beauty, with “beating the clock,” and we still have strong feelings attached to the number of years that people have lived. I am an actress as well as a writer, and I have watched roles open and close to me depending on what number I have put in the box.
I felt as if I was being pushed into that very same small, ill-fitting box by the gentleman at the dinner party. Though he may not have meant anything negative by it, it still felt as if he was emotionally wrestling me into a tight-fitting, dark, uncomfortable space. Perhaps our household was just old-school, but growing up, there was more than an unspoken rule—it was, in fact, very spoken—that after the age of twenty-one, no one was to ask woman her age. It was simply uncouth. And unless you were some sort of medical professional, it was even considered rude. I wouldn’t necessarily want to think of someone as rude for asking with good intentions, however, if someone declines to answer the question of age, the least that we can do for them is respect their wishes.
Maybe in this digital day of information at our fingertips, we have become a bit desensitized to the “personal” component of personal profile stats. Maybe we have had the luxury of skimming so many profiles, of consuming so much information that has been distilled down into bite-sized nuggets, that we have forgotten that attached to that age is an entire lifetime of love, loss, ecstasy, grief, success, failure, joy and pain. The gentleman whom I had just met was impatiently miffed that I wouldn’t disclose the personal information that he had loudly summoned. But perhaps he forgot that I am so much more than just the remainder left by this present year minus the year in which I happened to have been born. We are all so much more than a remainder. We are all so much more than just a number, than just our age.
After all, an older personal chronology may correlate to a greater number of experiences amassed in our life’s collection, but rarely does it infer a larger amount of wisdom gleaned from said experiences. Nor does age always relate directly proportionally to maturity that can only result from absorbing the above wisdom into our mind/body/spirit, then processing and applying it to our daily lives. Objectively, our age simply marks the arbitrary human construct of time between our first and last breathes on this planet. For trying to really get to know someone, age remains an almost irrelevant factor unless you want to bond over something specific. For instance, if the gentleman at the dinner party thought I had looked vaguely familiar to someone with whom he went to elementary school, his question could’ve been, “I was in Mrs. White’s class for first grade in 1991…were you in that class as well?” To which I could’ve responded yes or no. If no, he would hopefully have let it go. If yes, we could’ve talked at length about how we both used to hide Koosh balls or Sony Walkman’s inside our Trapper Keepers, and we would have had a ball.
I am not advocating for us to make a big huge deal around the issue of our age. Rather, the opposite. If you ask someone their age, and they choose to answer unabashedly, then celebrate that. And if you ask, and someone chooses to refrain from answering, then celebrate that by respecting their choice. And choose from a myriad of other more meaningful ways of categorizing, labeling, organizing those with whom we want to forge a relationship. Instead of age, which is out of their control, why not inquire about those things that are within their control? Categories that illustrate their life choices, and are indicative of their deepest desires, attitudes and intrinsic belief systems; categories that connect us, like, “What lights you up? What do you want out of life? What meant the world to you as a child? Do you believe that we live in a friendly or hostile world? What means the most to you right this second?” etc. I cannot help but think the answers to these questions would give you far more useful information in getting to know someone rather than, “How old are you?”
Until we eradicate the automatic assumptions and connotations surrounding age, youth, beauty, family, career, children, etc, I maintain the right to do what feels best when faced with that question.
To answer, or not to answer...that is the real question.
And who knows...perhaps declining to answer will open up the most in-depth, brilliant and unique exploration of one another that two people could possibly have at a dinner party in Los Angeles...
I can’t wait to find out.
Polo REO Tate was born in Lansing, Michigan, where her family has deep ties to the community. Her Great Great Grandfather was Ransom Eli Olds (R.E. Olds), a pioneer and prolific inventor most notably responsible for inventing the first internal combustion automobile—the Oldsmobile. Growing up, [...]