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.