how can I avoid answering standard, polite questions?
September 20, 2013 1:39 PM   Subscribe

I hate responding to small-talk interrogations. I'm a private person, and I just don't feel ok with giving relative strangers answers to personal-feeling questions, even though the questions themselves may be fairly innocuous. I also get confused and flustered when people ask me a lot of questions, and I will make mistakes, even though they are about me. How can I avoid answering these kinds of questions?

Part of the reason is that the answers to a lot of "basic" questions are complicated for me, and I hate getting into them. Part of it is that I just have talked about small-talk subjects (where were you born, what school did you go to, etc) enough times that I hate repeating it all again. And part of it is that I just don't feel like my info is peoples' business if I've met them only a few times, and it feels very invasive for me, or I feel like I'm on the spot. Plus, I'm kind of un-smart in some ways, and I just "loose" information sometimes, or get mixed up and confused.

An example: a client of mine asked me what street I lived on. Although this is a perfectly innocuous question, and one that doesn't seem private enough for me to say "I don't like to dscuss that", I felt really uncomfortable and I wished there was some way I could have avoided answering it. This was after she'd asked me a variety of other questions about what neighbourhood I was in, and I felt cornered into answering.

Another example is that people often ask about family. My family situation is complicated at best, and I often don't have straightforward, pleasant answers to give.

Another situation will come up where people will ask me questions to which I don't know the answer at the time because I wasn't expecting them, but feel I should, because they are questions about me. I then feel super flustered and upset, as though I'm being tested.

I know that, in theory, I can refuse to discuss anything I wish. But in real life, I need to be polite and engaged when talking with people in social and business settings. If I just refuse to talk about anything, I'll just seem standoffish. I wish I could just avoid talking about myself at all in those settings. Any ideas?
posted by windykites to Human Relations (24 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
"Pff... enough about me. How's your family doing?"

"Whoo... that's a novel, not a story. Where did you go to school?"

Most people only ask questions that they want to answer themselves. Give them that opportunity and they'll hardly even notice that you didn't answer it.
posted by Etrigan at 1:42 PM on September 20, 2013 [28 favorites]

Lie. Seriously.

"How's your family?" = Good or fine or something else like that.

"I don't feel comfortable giving clients that sort of information" is perfectly valid.

"I've never really thought about that. Let me get back to you" for things that you don't know the answer to. Then don't get back to them.
posted by theichibun at 1:48 PM on September 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

posted by joan_holloway at 1:49 PM on September 20, 2013

An example: a client of mine asked me what street I lived on. Although this is a perfectly innocuous question, and one that doesn't seem private enough for me to say "I don't like to dscuss that", I felt really uncomfortable and I wished there was some way I could have avoided answering it. This was after she'd asked me a variety of other questions about what neighbourhood I was in, and I felt cornered into answering.

I guess it depends on your profession, but I think that's kind of an invasive question for a client to ask. Could you head off discussions of where you live, even general ones about neighbourhoods, etc., by saying something vague and non-defensive like, "Oh well, actually we're not really supposed to talk about that kind of thing on the job...privacy regulations, that kind of thing..." and then change the subject. Essentially you're saying, "Workplace-type rules, you know?" and then shrug, smile, and get back to the topic of work.

I like Etrigan's suggestions for questions about your family.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:49 PM on September 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

I think you can answer a lot of those with some version of "It's complicated" or "it's boring." But do it in a way that's sort of distracting and puts the attention back on them. Like "It's complicated, families are crazy right, did you say your family had a dog?" Or "Oh that's so boring you don't even want to hear about it, where did *you* grow up?"

I agree that pressing for a specific street sounds sort of odd. If you can, in that situation, try something like "Oh, you know, one of those little streets near the school, where do you live?"

I also agree that some sort of "Good question, I'll have to think about that one!" and then just don't follow up, is a good idea.

I would not lie, unless you feel threatened. Way too easy for them to find out the truth and get all offended and make a non-deal into a big deal.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 1:57 PM on September 20, 2013

I'm always stumped by "Where are you from?" I've lived a ton of places. Then the follow up is, "Oh? Military Brat?" Yeah, sure, why not? The truth, not really even close but do you want to have an actual discussion about that?

People don't really want to know, they're just making polite chatter with you while the copier warms up.

Is there anything you DO want to talk about? Have some set stuff ready and redirect your conversation to things that you're comfortable with.

"MY family? Bag of loons there. So, where are you going on vacation this year?"

"Street? Elm. So what did you like about the neighborhood when you lived there?"

"The holidays? No plans as of yet! Where are YOU going?"

Most talkers would rather talk about themselves anyway. Ask a question and then sit back and let them drive.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:58 PM on September 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

Yes to Etrigan's suggestion.

But another thing to keep in mind is that, generally, when people ask small-talk-ish questions, they're just rooting around for a topic you're interested in talking about. They don't really care where you grew up, they're just trying to find some common ground or something that will lead to an anecdote or a larger topic.

So just jump ahead for them. For example, I have no particular interest in talking about where I grew up, but I do like talking about shopping malls (they are so strange! with those plastic trees and the weird music and the cinnamon buns!). So when someone asks me where I grew up, I often say "Oh, I grew up in X town, kind of a boring place but it does have the second-largest shopping mall in the US" and bang, we're off and running.

Just talk about what you want to talk about. And ask the other person questions. That will solve 99% of these problems. The person demanding to know what street you live on, yeah, I'm not sure what's up there.
posted by Mender at 2:02 PM on September 20, 2013 [32 favorites]

Looking at it from a different perspective, give them the answers they are looking for. They are probably just trying to make conversation and find a connection.

There are two ways out: make it uninteresting to them, or shift it back onto them. I prefer the "make it uninteresting" variety, because turning it back on them means you have to listen to them babble endlessly about themselves. The key is to give information, but no openings for them to dig.


Where do you live?

"West Beltridge."

Oh, I know the area, what street?

"Right off of Main, by the Walgreens."

But what street?

"[tell them the next street over]"

Or the siblings thing:

Do you have any siblings?

"I have two brothers and a sister."

Are you close?

"Yeah, for the most part. They are good."
posted by gjc at 2:04 PM on September 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

The reason for many of these questions is because the questioner wants to find something they feel connected to you about or has some connection to the thing they're asking about (the street question was probably because the client knew your neighborhood and was interested specifically where). If you cannot or will not manage these questions, then your clients will feel disconnected from you and will be less comfortable working with you.

While you don't have to go on and on about the specifics of your situation, you do have to "manage" this kind of small talk so that your clients feel comfortable around you and feel that they "know" you.
posted by deanc at 2:06 PM on September 20, 2013 [6 favorites]

Honestly most of them don't care and are doing social niceties 101. The correct response is a bland answer, it doesn't have to be detailed or even about anything.

After reading about someone else trying it I have answered the questions "How are you doing?" with "Feeling" for the past 5 years, only a few people have ever noticed, no one really cares what you say. I have a very complicated family, my response to questions about them is an exaggerated eye roll and a "Don't ask *chuckle* how's your family?"

By throwing a question back at them you can control more the flow of the conversation to subjects you don't mind talking about, and if you ask enough questions you can get by with barely saying anything at all, and the person you are talking to will tell everyone what a great conversationist you are because they got to talk about themselves for 15 minutes straight. People love nothing more than talking about themselves. My FIL is a chiropractor and has to make small talk with patients all day, he is the king of keeping them talking about themselves. Heck you don't need to listen just make the right noises.

I've had problems with stalkery customers so I would be vague on addresses, but if it's a more client based business then a general you know "such and such busy main road, near large store, I love the area lots of trees. Do they have many trees down your way, they are so pretty this time of year/pain to rake up leaves"

It takes some practice, but people I meet think I am chatty and outgoing and super friendly and I hate meeting new people and making small talk so I let them do all the work.
posted by wwax at 2:13 PM on September 20, 2013

People are not *actually* interested in knowing you. Like when they ask about my wife, they don't want to know about her latest dental visit and how that went or what the doctor said last time she was in (that, ironically, would be considered oversharing even though they asked), they're just doing the ritual "I am showing interest in you as a person" back and forth that's considered a social good.

I was just at my physical therapist, for example, and we talked about where I lived not because she was super-interested in my condo complex but because otherwise we'd be sitting silently in a small, dark room while she jabbed her fingers into various parts of my anatomy and twisted my arms around and it'd be really weird, you know?

So like the "Where do you live?" question for me would be "Oh, off (major highway) past (landmark), you know that big development up on the hill? Up in there." Which is concrete enough to answer the question but not so concrete you could show up unexpectedly unless you knew exactly what I drove and hovered around to see where I lived but at that point shit's officially gotten weird.

Or "plans for the weekend", they don't actually want to know that I'm going to the grocery store to pick up milk and eggs and whatever and then going to the clothing store to handle a mundane thing then dropping off some dry cleaning, but if I was doing something kind of different like going out of town, then maybe we could segue into that.

Basically, small talk is a tennis game. Your job is not to make a deep, abiding personal connection, it's to get the ball back over the net.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 2:21 PM on September 20, 2013 [6 favorites]

Sometimes you'll meet people who seem to talk plenty, be the life of any party, are full of interesting stories - but then someone else will ask you a question about them and you'll realize you don't know the first thing about them. Sure, you might have a good feeling about who they are as a person, the sort of attitude they might have about a situation or the sort of opinion they'd have about a problem, but you have no clue, say, where they live, if they have a family, what they do when they aren't around you. I think that's what you want to aim for.

People who pull this off basically sidestep smalltalk by being already interested and engaged with the person they're talking to. Smalltalk is there to help people find things in common. If you can manage to convey that you're genuinely interested in something that person actually wants to talk about, smalltalk becomes irrelevant. It might happen though that whatever topic becomes quickly exhausted, and the other person will try to fill the silence with "so, what's your favorite animal/color/movie?" This is transparent. Learn to recognize it and develop some go-to topics to make them feel comfortable again. They truly will not care if you don't give an answer beyond "never thought of it" or "can't remember" if you quickly mitigate their social discomfort.

One way to help you be like this is to stay on top of current topics and events, both local and worldwide. If you don't read or watch news of any kind, well, luckily you have a Metafilter account, so that gives you lots of interesting things to start with! I don't know what kind of job or workplace you have, but if your clients give you any information before you meet with them, you can use that information to help you form ideas on what they might be interested in.

You can also work on some stock answers for the default questions. Family questions can always be sidestepped with "Oh, it's complicated in an uninteresting way." If anybody pries after that, you are totally within politeness-rights to say "none of your business" because that's just rude.
posted by Mizu at 2:24 PM on September 20, 2013 [8 favorites]

Say, "Why do you ask?" with a polite smile. Then listen to their reasoning. "Oh, I see. I (give very general pat answer)." You could say. Or, "I don't typically give that out. Is there a reason you'd like to know?"
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 2:33 PM on September 20, 2013

Also, this varies but sometimes people ask these things because they do care - maybe not about you exactly, but about something. So the street example, which I thought was odd, I realize after thinking about it for a few minutes that I might ask that. I would never ask it if the person already seemed uncomfortable talking about their neighborhood. But I am interested in cities and buildings and neighborhoods and how it is to live in certain places, so if I was familiar with the area I might end up asking that. Which doesn't mean you have to answer it! But you could say "I live sort of near that little boutique with the hats. Why do you ask, do you have friends who live in that neighborhood?" In general, "Why do you ask?" can put the whole thing on a different track, either about them or about a less personal topic. E.g. they might be asking where you're from not because they care about your past but because your accent sounds like you're from X, and then you can talk about accents in general.

On preview: what TBoaF said.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 2:40 PM on September 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

An example: a client of mine asked me what street I lived on.

If you live in LA or possibly any other metropolis with big traffic problems, this is just an attempt to segue into reenacting The Californians sketch from SNL, wherein you spend ten minutes complaining about traffic and detailing your route to/from work, etc. Otherwise, you can get away with some generalities about your neighborhood, i.e. "Oh I live off of *insert major street here*. It's a great area, near *insert landmark here*. *Relevant question about area/landmark/whatever*"

In general, people do not care about the answers you give to small talk questions, and they will in all likelihood not remember or think about your answers. It's all just about filling the silence and demonstrating to each other that yes, we are social animals, and we are fulfilling our end of the social contract by politely interacting with each other. Keeping the purpose of small talk in mind, just give whatever answer keeps the conversation going until such time as your socially mandated small talk time is fulfilled.
posted by yasaman at 3:13 PM on September 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

There's no such thing as small talk. And when you bother to ask the question you don't have to be worried about answering them.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 3:13 PM on September 20, 2013

I can see the value in a good white lie, but frankly, my memory is awful. Trying to keep track of bullshit I came up with just to make other people comfortable would cause me more problems than it would solve.

When it comes to deflecting too intrusive family-of-origin type questions, I've had a lot of success with a terse "We're not close." I don't feel bad at all telling people it's not a fun topic for me if they're obnoxious enough to keep pushing after that. Just because people push for specific info doesn't mean I have to give it to them. Generalities are your friend.
posted by Space Kitty at 3:17 PM on September 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Practice. Put yourself in low risk situations with new people and practice. The most important thing to practice is the break - how to end the conversation. (I see Betty. I left a file on my desk...) When you don't feel like you'll be trapped forever it will seem less threatening.
posted by 26.2 at 3:39 PM on September 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Much as we may like we are living on a planet with other human polite because most likely they are just trying the small talk. The more evasive you get the more curious they get. Just the way it is. Practice some small talk answers. Then apply.
posted by ladoo at 3:48 PM on September 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Hmmm... I don't know. What does it mean to you to be a private person? It's really hard to find commonalities with other people if you want to keep your whole life a big secret, and those shared commonalities are the foundation that trust and relationships are built on. A lot of what you mentioned seems like basic information that people tend to share - What is it that you want to avoid? It may be that you are feeling ashamed or guilty about some aspect of your life, and you might get more comfortable about being open if you looked at whatever it is.

It's okay to have a crazy family. You can find a lot in common with others if your family is nuts because lots of people's families are. Sometimes if I ask a friend how is your family, and widens her eyes and raises her eyebrows and makes some joke about it, then she's all at once disclosed that her family is a handful, that she may or may not like her family, that she's comfortable enough with the situation to share it, and that we possibly have something in common that can be a bond.

Your personal brand of crazy can be great fodder for connecting with others (I think Louis C.K. makes his living based on this principle!) So whatever it is you don't want to tell others, maybe it's actually okay and you can connect with others despite it.
posted by mermily at 6:33 PM on September 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

The more evasive you get the more curious they get. Just the way it is.

Yes, the more evasive you are, the more curious people get, and the more put off/angry/annoyed they get at the guy or girl who refuses to answer even the simplest of questions. Small talk is a mandatory part of living in human society, and I think you are just going to have to suck it up and deal with it to some degree.

I think what you might need to do ahead of time is (a) either make up some consistent lies to tell people, or (b) come up with some pat phrases ahead of time so you don't have to think about them, such as "We're not close" about your family. I have a friend who doesn't tell most people her address (hell, she doesn't want to put her home address on her driver's license!), so she claims to live somewhere else.

But whatever kind of answers you give depends on how regularly you are dealing with these people. If you meet them once, who cares, but if it's someone you see more than once, you'd better keep it consistent.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:41 PM on September 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you don't want to lie but don't want to give specifics, answer the question more vaguely: "what street do you live on?" "I live between [big street] and other [big street]." or "I live in the [X] neighborhood." This is how you send the polite signal that you are not going to be more specific, but usually gives people enough info to carry on a conversation "Oh, my daughter lives in that neighborhood and loves it!" However, clueless and nosy people won't get it, and when they continue to ask that is when you get a bit formal about your non-interest in divulging personal information.

It used to be that asking direct personal questions was considered rude, and it can certainly feel quite intrusive even if that's no longer the case for much of society. There are a bunch of ways people can manage to make small talk without interrogation, such as just making observations that allow other people to respond with as much or as little personal information as they choose: "I see you have a copy of People magazine. I really enjoyed their coverage of the royal baby." ----> (you don't read People) "Ah, well, babies are pretty exciting." or "Great day for an iced coffee!" ----> (you don't drink coffee) "It's a great day for pretty much anything!"
posted by oneirodynia at 7:58 PM on September 20, 2013

This whole vagueness advice is bizarre to me. As someone said upthread, these people do not actually care what street you live on--what a boring question. No one actually wants to ask that unless, like, they live on your street. But by being vague, or terse, or awkward, you're making them do all the conversational work and so they awkwardly have to be like "so... what do you think about the color blue, huh? How 'bout, um, oatmeal as a breakfast food? What, uh...What street do you live on?" That is boring for them and for you both.

Give people something to grab onto in a conversation and they won't have to stumble down this path. Ask them questions, or tell a funny story, or comment on your surroundings. Start a conversation and they won't have to interrogate you just to be socially acceptable. Also, stop giving them control of the conversation; it seems like you think you're being private, but you're actually being socially lazy by taking the passive role in conversation.

Again, I promise most people do not give a shit about the things you're being private about, but it doesn't seem like you're giving them much else to talk about so they're trying to draw interaction from scraps. So figure out what you're interested in talking about, or what your ideal conversation would be like, and then shoot for that. By engaging with people actively, you'll not only make the conversations less difficult and awkward (like they are now for both of you), you'll show people that you're genuinely interested in interacting with them. With the exception of very nosy people, few conversations should ever go so far down the boring small-talk path that people resort to asking you what street you live on. You have just as much a role in that as they do, so take responsibility for your interactions and make them better.
posted by c'mon sea legs at 1:17 AM on September 21, 2013 [9 favorites]

I sometimes ask what street people live on if I know the area - especially if I live there myself. Because if we live(d) around the same street then we can bond over the crazy drycleaning lady or the heavenly souffle at the french cafe.

That said - develop your own small talk agenda, and steer the conversation towards that. You can either focus on asking them questions, or on the things you are comfortable discussing. For really keeping it impersonal, I'd stay abreast of local current events that aren't too political - new museums opening, historical building being destroyed, local author's new book, bizarre fish found in local lake ...

As for your family, you can create a story that is true but ... curated.

example 1:
Client: So how about your family?
You: Well I haven't spoken to them since Mom quit AA. She says she doesn't have a problem, she can quit any time, and honestly I used to just ignore the reek of whiskey on her breath and the constant parties, but when she threw up on my wedding cake I just lost it. Dad's no help at all since he went to jail. I can't believe he cheated on his taxes. I mean I thought they were broke, and here he's been socking money away in an offshore account. Now he just plays poker with Nails and Guido in the cell block all day. WTF.

example 2:
Client: So how about your family?
You: They're good - dad found this group of guys he plays cards with, seems to really enjoy it. Mom loves to entertain - she's such a character. Hey, did you see that article about how OurCity has more art per capita than any other city in the world?

Formula: brief, vague answer + firm redirect

Another good redirect is asking people for generic advice - good places to eat, a good movie to see, where the best hamburger is, a good place to take piano lessons. (Substitute with stuff you are actually interested in knowing.)
posted by bunderful at 7:36 AM on September 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

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