We’ve all been there: a well-meaning friend or relative asks what they may think is an innocent question, and inadvertently ends up making us feel cornered and coerced into giving an answer we might not want to share. As the holidays approach and opportunities to gather with friends and family become more frequent, it’s good to think about different ways to engage people in conversation that may help avoid making others feel uncomfortable.
First of all, prying questions should be avoided at all cost, particularly if the reason you’re asking is because you’re just curious. That’s never a good enough reason to put someone on the spot and force them to provide you with personal information that they haven’t already willingly shared.
A general rule of thumb is to never ask:
- A single person why they aren’t dating or married yet,
- A married couple without children when or if they’re going to have a baby,
- A couple who have experienced pregnancy loss why they don’t “just adopt”,
- An unemployed person when they’re going to get a job,
- A new graduate working in retail when they’re going to get a “real job” or “figure out their life,”
- A question about personal appearance (weight, facial hair, hair color piercings etc.),
- How much money someone is currently making.
Before you ask a question you’ve been dying to ask, think about why you’re asking. Is it because you’re truly concerned about the other person and want to show your support? If so, rather than asking a direct question, simply find a quiet moment to tell them that you’re always there if they ever want to talk—especially if you’ve been in the situation they’re currently facing.
What should you say?
Consider these conversation prompts the next time you’re at a gathering. Not only are they less intrusive, but they’ll also help generate meaningful conversation that doesn’t make anyone feel awkward or uncomfortable.
- Ask someone about something they already have, not something you think they should have or wonder why they don’t have. For example:
- How do you like your new car?
- What have the kids been up to?
- How was your garden this year?
- Ask questions about personal interests:
- What have you knitted/crocheted/carved/painted lately?
- What was the best movie you saw this year?
- Have you read any good books you can recommend?
- Do you have a great recipe you can share?
- Ask questions that allow the other person to share positive experiences:
- What was your happiest moment this year?
- What was your biggest achievement this year?
- What are you most proud of lately?
- What did you do on your vacation?
If you find yourself on the receiving end of a prying question that you don’t want to answer, remember that you don’t owe anyone an explanation about the way you live your life or what you look like. Your choices are yours alone, and as long as you’re safe and okay and not hurting anyone, you shouldn’t need to justify those choices.
How you choose to respond to those inevitable prying questions is up to you. You can answer them if you want to, but don’t be afraid to simply say something like, “thanks for being interested, but I don’t really want to talk about it,” or “thanks for asking, but that’s something I/we want to keep private for now.” Then immediately shift the conversation away from the prying question by bringing up a different topic (see prompts above), or politely excuse yourself and walk away.
You could also shift the focus back to the other person by asking, “Why do you want to know?” Their answer may help you determine whether or not you’re willing to provide the personal information they’d initially asked for, but be aware that it could also make for an awkward exchange. The asker may get defensive, and the initial question will probably still end up being one you have to dodge.
Holiday gatherings can sometimes be challenging, even when we’re spending time with the people we love most in the world. Try to minimize any discomfort by being very thoughtful about the kinds of questions you ask, and by being gracious when you get answers you might not have wanted or expected.
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