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This morning a colleague who has been working here for six months came into the office wearing a turban. She hasn't discussed it beyond mentioning that she will be wearing it from now on. While we believe her husband is Sikh we don't know what prompted her decision to start wearing this headdress.

Is it professional to ask her for the reason? If so, how can I do so tactfully?

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The answer as always is it depends.

If this is a person you normally chat with, then don't ignore the elephant in the room. Just ask her. If you have asked her about her new jeans or last nights movie, you can absolutely ask her about her turban. Maybe she wants to talk about it, maybe not, but the question should not offend her.

Now if you never exchanged a word with her before, I'd say better err on the side of caution. Don't jump her with that question. If you are curious, start off with something uncontroversial like her new jeans or yesterdays movie. You will either get to the point where the above paragraph applies, or not. If not, then better let it rest. If she does not want to talk to you, that's her decision.

  • This is one case where it is better to seek permission than have to apologize. – user37746 Sep 14 '16 at 12:15
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    When you say "asked her about her new jeans", presumably you really mean "compliment her on her jeans" or asking her where she got the jeans, etc. Questions ilke "Why do you wear jeans instead of X" or "Why did you choose to watch that kind of movie instead of X" could very well be considered invasive and "unprofessional". Asking "Why did you start wearing a turban" is a question of the latter kind, not the former. – Chan-Ho Suh Sep 14 '16 at 12:28
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    @Chan-HoSuh indeed. The same goes for the turban. "Hey I like like that. Do you have different colors to wear?" is a lot less invasive than staring at somebody saying "why do you wear that?". If she wants to talk about it, she will. If not, then not. – nvoigt Sep 14 '16 at 12:32
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I think it's entirely ok to ask about other people's religions with a view to learning about them.

Assuming you're already on speaking terms, something like "I can't help but notice the change in headwear, can I ask you more about it?" and lead the conversation into learning something positive about another culture. The lady involved almost certainly knows is a radical change and no one saying anything could be interpreted as people not caring or afraid to ask.

We live in an age where religious tolerance and understanding are becoming increasingly more important. It stands to reason that we should take the opportunity to learn and be enlightened about other peoples ways of life.

Not talking about things (in a positive way) only extends our ignorance and reinforces and sense of exclusion. At least that's the way I think of it.

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    I agree, subject to the vital point that "there is a time and a place for things." The attitude of respect is important when inquiring in to something personal. – user37746 Sep 14 '16 at 13:37
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The question is not only "unprofessional", I would categorize it as exactly the kind of question you don't want to be asking in the workplace. You already suggested by your use of the plural in "we don't know what prompted this decision" that you and others have been talking about this.

The turban wouldn't appear to be affecting any of her work or your work relationship. You are merely curious. Generally I would not ask questions that are designed to sate one's curiosity beyond say, wanting to know where someone got a nice shirt so you can get one too, etc. It leads easily into gossiping behavior.

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You may ask someone a personal question if you have a personal relationship with them. Otherwise, act as if the details of their appearance are invisible to you.

We have struggled for hundreds of years to overcome sexism, ageism, and all sorts of other -isms. The message is: appearance does not matter in the workplace and is none of your busy-ness. No other position is equitable and fair.

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Is it professional to ask her for the reason

If it doesn't directly impact her job performance it is, prima facie, unprofessional to ask about it, since it is unrelated to her or your profession. It may be within the acceptable bounds of non-professional conduct, depending on local cultural norms, and how close you are to the person.

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