Ask Ariely: On Invasive Inquiry, Circumcision Conversation, and Admirable Advice

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

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Dear Dan,

I’m a single woman in my mid 30s. I get invited to a lot of cocktail parties, which I don’t particularly enjoy, but I feel I have to go. To make things worse, during these parties people who I know only superficially often feel free to ask me why I am so wonderful and yet unmarried. I have some real answers to this question (I didn’t find the right person, I’m very excited about my career right now), but mostly I’m annoyed that they have the audacity to ask me such a personal and complex question as a form of small talk. How would you deal with this situation?

—Jax 

It is indeed odd that while so many topics are considered taboo for standard small-talk—how much do you earn? what are your sexual preferences?—others that should be considered just as personal, like marital status, are considered fair game. With this in mind, I think that your job is not to answer the question but to demonstrate to the people asking it how inappropriate it is.

I’d suggest that you respond by saying: “That’s a very personal question. Before we talk about me, can you tell me what aspects of your life you wish were different?” It might be difficult to say this in the beginning, but my guess is that if you stick to it for a few cocktail parties, it will become second nature. A side benefit of this approach is that you might get invited to these parties less often.

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Dear Dan,

I am Jewish, and my wife is agnostic. We are both economists and big fans of your work. Our first son was circumcised as a newborn. We are now waiting for our second boy, and we are not sure what to do. My wife prefers not to have him circumcised, and I prefer to have it done for ritual reasons. Any hint how to approach this decision?

—Michael 

On this question, there is a long list of very different pros and cons. Against circumcision is the argument that sexual pleasure is said to be greater for the uncircumcised—though this is difficult to measure. On the other hand, some authorities say that a circumcised penis is easier to clean, and there is data that suggests circumcision reduces the odds of contracting HIV. In the end, of course, only you can decide how important the religious aspect of circumcision is to you. But since your first son was circumcised according to your preference, it would seem fair for your wife to make the decision for your second child.

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Dear Dan,

What was the best advice you ever got?

—Alison 

It was when I was a Ph.D. student interviewing for my first academic job. I had a few offers, and one of my advisers suggested that I pick the department most different from where I had studied, in order to force myself to learn new things. I did, and I learned a lot over the next 10 years. Generally, I think it is good advice to think about such choices not as the immediate next step but in terms of how they will help us to develop in the long run.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.