6 Aug 2023

That's Personal!

Personal questions have traditionally been considered a no-go area in British society. It was considered appallingly rude to ask people questions about their finances, health or emotional affairs and even direct questions on matters like politics and religion were frowned upon. But manners have evolved, and society has changed. We live in a world where full disclosure is the norm, where people communicate their deepest secrets in online forums and probing interviews with celebrities appear to recognise no boundaries. The old strictures on “personal comments” are being eroded; in these circumstances, we must set our own boundaries, decide what we consider to be unacceptably intrusive, and take measures to ensure that we are not overwhelmed in situations where it all gets too personal.

Everyone has a different breaking point and, in general, very extrovert people who have no compunction about laying their own lives bare, are the most likely to ask intrusive questions. Remember, you are under no obligation to answer questions that you think are too intrusive. However, you will need to find strategies for dealing with these questions that do not come across as rude or aggressive. Adopt one, or more, of the following strategies:


There are many ways in which you can turn the attention away from yourself. One simple technique is simply to change the subject. If it’s done politely, it doesn’t really matter if the transition is a bit bumpy; it will reinforce your recoil from the original question. So, if you’re asked an intrusive question like “when are you two going to start a family?” just reply with “We’re not sure but isn’t it good news that James and Helen have finally found a house they like?”. Only a very obtuse person would insist on going back to the original question.

Another useful way of deflecting unwanted questions is to use humour. So, for example, if you’re asked how much you earn, just come back with “not enough!”; if you’re asked how much your new house cost, reply “too much!”; if you’re asked if your recent health scare has been resolved, say something cheerful like “well, I’m sure the hospital is glad to see the back of me!” All these responses give absolutely nothing away, but they’re cheerful and upbeat and close the query down.

Use self-deprecation. If somebody asks you a question you really don’t want to answer you can hide behind a wall of charming modesty: “Oh, I think you’d be bored rigid if I attempted to answer that! Let’s move on.”

Finally, compliments are powerful tools of deflection. Use the question as a springboard: if someone compliments you on your weight loss and asks what regime you used, say something like “I’m sure you’re not interested in that, you’re looking so slim and well yourself”. If a nosy person asks, “Are you two thinking of getting married any time soon?” say “Who knows? It would be hard to compete with your wonderful wedding!”


There are several ways in which you can appear to answer a question and give nothing away. In the first instance, you could try meeting specifics with generality. For example, if somebody questions you closely about a contentious political issue, you could reply with general remarks about the state of politics, your frustration with the political discourse, your disgust with politicians etc.

Another evasive technique is to sidestep the original question and to move it into more general, less personal territory. So if, for example, somebody questions you about how you are affording personal care for your elderly mother, just say something like “It’s very difficult, but that’s the case for everybody, when there is so little state provision etc etc”. Or “How did your scan go?” could be deflected with “Well, I felt really lucky to see the doctor, considering the state of the Health Service.”

Vague replies are a good way of evading probing questions. So, no matter how specific the actual enquiry, come back with a waffly response: “Why did you take the day off on Friday?” could be met with “I had one or two things to sort out.” Or “What was that urgent call last night?” could be countered with “It was just an old friend”. These vague non-answers send strong signals that you are not willing to answer the actual question.

Finally, a very effective way of evading intrusive questions is to restate and reframe them. So, if somebody bluntly asks you “when are you going to get that promotion you’ve been waiting for?” say something like “I think what you’re really asking is, am I still finding my job stimulating?”. Or if they ask, “I bet you made a killing on that flat sale?” you could come back with “I think what you’re really asking is, am I happy to be moving out of the neighbourhood?” Of course, this is not what they’re asking at all, but your re-framed question makes it very clear that you find their original query intrusive.


One simple way of meeting intrusive questions head-on, is to simply come back with “Why do you ask?” This is a very direct response which will throw many people into confusion. The honest answer, which of course they cannot give, would be “Because I’m nosy/curious/can’t mind my own business”. The result is that often retreat with an embarrassed apology.

Turn the Tables

Frequently people do not realise the questions they are asking are intrusive. They are curious about you, perhaps excessively so, and do not have the sensitivity to realise they may be trespassing on difficult territory. One way of pulling them up short is to ask an awkward question back. So, for example, if they ask you “Are you and Ben really getting divorced?”, come straight back with “Are you concerned about my emotional wellbeing?”. By challenging them and questioning their motives, you’re putting the boot on the other foot. You can then really put the knife in by complimenting them on their (so-called) care and concern (“that is so kind of you!”).


Intrusive questions can be both distressing and invasive, so there really is no reason why we should tolerate them. Of course, none of us want to be rude, but if the above techniques don’t work, it is quite acceptable to call the questioner out. You can be quite direct about this (“Wow, that’s a very personal question. I don’t think I really want to answer!”), or you can simply come back with a selection of shut-down phrases: “I’d prefer not to answer that”; “I’d rather not say”; “Sorry, that’s too personal”; “Let’s talk about something else”; “That’s a bit of a fraught subject – let’s move on”. If the questioner does not know you well enough to warrant such probing enquiries, comment on the fact: “I don’t think we really know each other well enough to talk about this.” You know when people are crossing the line and invading your privacy, but you must accept that it is your responsibility to communicate the fact that they are doing so.


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