I've been fine, and you? Aewsome. How much debt do I owe? uh.. none of your beeswax?
July 28, 2007 6:09 PM   Subscribe

How does one graciously deflect intrusive questions?

This situation presents itself primarily between myself and past female friends that I used to be close to (the friendships were never broken, but the tight bond once shared had definitely diminished over time).

Mainly, when I run into said former-close-female-friend, they start with a barrage of mega intrusive questions. It starts with the regular garden variety of questions you would ask of anyone you care about (seeing anyone? are you working? where do you live now? etc) to the horrifying questions that they loudly inquire about in public spaces (what size do you wear? do you have a boyfriend on the internet? how much money do you/your siblings/your parents make? are you having sex with anyone currently? how much do you weigh?).

The answer to those questions by the way, is a big WTF.

If I try to deflect the question or give them the wtf furrowed eyebrow, they start whining (why aren't you telling me?? I thought we were friends!! tell meeeeeeeeeee!!! *grabbing my arm and shaking me*) or give me a blank stare and repeat the question, as if the reason I'm not answering is because the question hadn't been heard or understood.

If I (begrudgingly) answer the question, they try to pry for more details and then bring up anything they've learned about me to anyone that asks, as if my telling them gives them permission to talk about my personal life to people.

These encounters make my stomach churn. The idea of even running into old friends makes me stomach churn. The idea that one of them will find out that I wrote this and then invite me to dinner to confront me about it and then ask if I'm talking about them after asking me how much I weigh or how much money I make makes my stomach churn.

I realize that I am a pretty private individual, but it's not like I never speak about anything unless prompted to do so. Their questions make me feel like I'm some annoying kid that they pretend to be friends with to dig up gossip on and blackmail. I realize their intentions are not so sinister but it bothers me nonetheless.

I've tried seriously telling them that but it either just gets a laugh and is brushed off or is countered by "they're just questions, gosh." Exasperatingly telling them it's none of their business brings hurt feelings and "why won't you just tell me?" At times I have become quite angry or otherwise emotional about my privacy feeling invaded which just makes me look like a crazy person that's easy to provoke (which I guess I kinda AM).

Anyone have any advice on how to carefully and graciously deflect such questions? How do I let them know that their questions are totally out of line and that I won't answer them now or ever without hurting their feelings? Or am I just being too darn sensitive about all this? Apologies for my extended explanation and examples.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (33 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
"Oh, I couldn't possibly go into that. So how are you?" Repeat, barely changing the wording, until she gets bored / gets a hint / your bus comes.
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:17 PM on July 28, 2007

Almost all of the ways you've used to deflect questions are fine: they're appropriate and polite. The eyebrow and the incomplete answer and the serious "that's outside my comfort zone" are all healthy responses.

The tricky part is how to handle the psychological assault that will follow. If you can stay calm, you'll win. That means not getting sad, not getting angry, not getting icy, and not running away. Practice smiling as you say "that's a little more private than I feel like getting into" -- make it a friendly and sincere (but not over-the-top) smile. Basically, it's all about frustrating their attempt to get information without shifting into any of the emotional states that let them thing the reason you're not answering is that you're a mean person, or an emotional ball of nerves, or crazy.

Almost anyone can ask a private question innocently. Don't think badly of your friends for the initial ask. They're curious about how you're doing and mean well. But nice people will take "no" for an anwer. Asking the question _again_ after having it deflected is where they're going wrong. In this situation, they're being intrusive and impolite, and you shouldn't think that there's anything wrong with you for feeling as you do.
posted by grimmelm at 6:22 PM on July 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

It seems like gracious has gotten you nowhere. In fact it's gotten you mild physical abuse. I say three strikes and you're out. Strike one is where you are gracious and say, "Aw, I'm much more interested in what's going on in your life. How's your grad school application going?" Strike two is, "Well, I appreciate that you're interested, but I guess I'm just private and don't feel comfortable talking about x." Strike three is, "You know what, I don't enjoy this conversation anymore. When you can respect my feelings and stop badgering me, we'll talk."

I know, easier said than done. I'm actually more like you but there have been a few AskMes recently about being overly nice to people and I think I've taken the advice to heart, at least enough to parrot it back as an answer.
posted by cocoagirl at 6:23 PM on July 28, 2007

I like to give joke answers to really personal questions when I don't feel like answering them. For money issues, I give ridiculously silly answers- I make one dollar a year, I pay fifty thousand a month in rent, I paid one million dollars for X. Always smiling, always laughing, but I sure as heck ain't gonna tell.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 6:23 PM on July 28, 2007 [3 favorites]

When I get asked a question I don't want to answer I laugh and tell whoever's asking to mind their own business. Then I quickly move on to asking something about them. It might also be worth turning the question around on them (how much do you weigh? When did you last have sex?) but that's only recommended if you think that they'll be equally reluctant to answer.
posted by Laura_J at 6:26 PM on July 28, 2007

Her: <nosy question>
You: I'd rather not discuss that. <change of subject>
Her: Hang on, you didn't answer me.
You: Nope. <continuing change of subject>
Her: But—wait! You didn't tell me <nosy question>.
You: I sure didn't. So?
Her: Why are you shutting me out like this?! I thought we were friends!
You: It's just an unanswered question. Gosh.
Narrator: Oh snap.
You:<steamrollering change of subject>
posted by eritain at 6:32 PM on July 28, 2007

I think joke answers sounds like a good idea - it might not get across the point that you don't ever want them to ask again, but it doesn't really sound like they're receptive to that concept, so you might just have to deal with it over and over.

Also, I don't think you're being too sensitive - they sound like really weird questions.
posted by jacalata at 6:34 PM on July 28, 2007

Funny I (Male) have to deal with this constantly with my older brothers, even though we are all in our 40s. I don't know if the dynamics work the same with female friends, but with my brothers, the fact that they know that I am private seems to provoke them into being *more* intrusive. It's like I'm still the little kid they can pick on. Is it possible on some level, that it the same?

If so....

Thus, unless you are up for cutting them off entirely, you could boldly throw it right back at them. Answer, loudly, crassly, "He won't let me f**k him up the butt with a strap-on, so it is over. You know what I mean? What a baby! So, now that we're sharing everything, how often do you take it in the rear? I bet at least once a week. <wink> <wink>"

Lean back, you will likely not have to do it more than twice.

Fight fire with fire.
posted by xetere at 6:38 PM on July 28, 2007 [2 favorites]

The best way to dodge a question is to answer it with another question.

"Why do you want to know?"
"What about you?"
posted by emd3737 at 7:16 PM on July 28, 2007

"I'd like to tell you. Really, I would. But I think we've all learned from the Valerie Plame thing that loose lips sink ships. Can't help the terrorists win now, can we?"
posted by paulsc at 7:40 PM on July 28, 2007 [2 favorites]

I sometimes just smile and say, " I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you."
posted by konolia at 7:43 PM on July 28, 2007 [3 favorites]

Honestly, it sounds like you need better friends or to be more assertive.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:54 PM on July 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

I concur with the advice to give jokey/deflective answers. The trick is they must be very blithe and good-humored, as if to suggest that you both realize the original question was itself nothing but a silly set-up line. Any trace of hostility or irritation on your part will blow it. I usually have stock lines, too.

"How old are you?"
-- Old enough to know better, and still too young to care!

"How much do you make?"
-- Only my accountant knows for sure!
-- Oh, you're an undercover IRS agent? My lips are sealed!

"Are you planning on having any more children?"
-- (slightly conspiratorially) Time will tell!

Etc. Always delivered with a serene smile, and indefatigably repeated as often as necessary, with slight variations, until they give up. I'm very private, and this technique has saved me countless times.
posted by ROTFL at 7:56 PM on July 28, 2007 [4 favorites]

Right, someone asks how much money you have, the proper answer is not "$5023.50", it's more like "enough to get by" or "not as much as I'd like." If the questions are persistent, one can be just as persistantly vague and uninformative. Or if necessary, sure, try to be humorous.

"How much debt do you owe?"
-- oh, way too much. Nothing that would break the bank. It's only money, leave that to the accountants.

"seeing anyone?"
-- I've seen a few. No complaints. Nothing too serious. There are always people to see, places to go.

"are you working?"
-- Barely. Sometimes. Work is over-rated, anyway. I've got a few things going, not likely to retire this week.

"where do you live now?"
Some place I found, it's okay, has running water and everything. Nowhere I'm all that attached to.
posted by sfenders at 8:11 PM on July 28, 2007 [6 favorites]

what size do you wear?
if you desire, you can guesstimate my girth by guesstimating the radius of my midsection and multiplying by 6.28.

do you have a boyfriend on the internet?
he isn't here, i don't know if he's on the internet now.

how much money do you make?
as j.p. morgan observed, someone who knows exactly how much she makes can't be making very much.

are you having sex with anyone currently?
well, not at this precise moment in time, but yesterday i had a premonition that john edwards would leave his wife for me.

how much do you weigh?
i haven't weighed myself in ages. i have a scale somewhere, but it measures in kilograms, and i have trouble converting to pounds. how much do you weigh?
posted by bruce at 8:12 PM on July 28, 2007 [3 favorites]

Seems like a lot of good answers here. The only thing I would add isdo not answer their questions. Ever. Even begrudginly. If they are successful in getting information out of you, then they know all they have to do is keep asking/making you uncomfortable until you spill. So don't spill.

Also, if I had people like this in my life, my stomach would churn at the thought of seeing them, too. It doesn't sound like you are being overly sensitive about it. These are invasive questions.
posted by juliplease at 8:32 PM on July 28, 2007

I think you're doing everything correct, except one thing:

Don't give in. By eventually answering the questions you're training them. They now know that if they pester you enough you'll answer. And they sound like they enjoy pestering. Take away their fun.

If being elusive doesn't work and being direct doesn't work, you should maybe find some friends who respect you more.

Don't look for a graceful escape. These poor women don't sound like they'd know grace if they stepped in it.

Lately I've gotten good results with the silent stare. Just look at them. and don't say a thing. Here's a sample scene:

Them: "What's your favorite sex position?"
You: "..."
Them: "Aw, come on! Tell me."
You: "..."
Them: "What?"
You: "..."
Them: "You don't want to tell me?"
You: "..."
Them: "You don't want to tell me."

If someone even tried to to shake the answers out of me I would knock their hands away and tell them to keep their hands off! What are they? Monkeys?
posted by Ookseer at 8:44 PM on July 28, 2007 [2 favorites]

They want gossip fodder. They are not your friends. Do not feel bad about not answering their impertinent questions.

Repeat in your head as needed.
posted by winna at 8:46 PM on July 28, 2007 [4 favorites]

I believe silence is a great tool for something like this. Don't ignore the person, look them in the eye, keep smiling and wait. Not weird but kinda like "hi, you are stepping over some boundaries."

I can tell you this works because I know one person in particular who used the technique effectively on me. I have since adopted it. The key is to tell yourself in advance what are off-limits in advance. That way the smile automatically flashes when someone goes there. Works great with relatives.
posted by Ajit AP at 8:48 PM on July 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

If I try to deflect the question or give them the wtf furrowed eyebrow, they start whining (why aren't you telling me??

The universal TACTFUL response to this is to laugh it off. Literally break into laughter when the question is asked. Treat it like they are only kidding or being SO hahaha for asking in that setting. If they push, give them "I don't kiss and tell" kinds of non-answers. That generally plays really classy, and sends a clear signal. Unless they are total cunts they will get the message. If they are simply boozed up friends who are too excited, give them non-answers until they get tired of you.

You don't care if they get tired of you, right? Why are you hanging with these people in the first place? Sorry... none of my business...
posted by scarabic at 9:03 PM on July 28, 2007 [1 favorite]


"If I (begrudgingly) answer the question, they try to pry for more details..."

Dude, for the love of Pete, don't feed the seagulls. They will just keep hovering over your head, and eventually they will poop on your sandwich. Eventually, you just have to throw a sea shell at them.

"So what did it feel like the last time you had a colonoscopy? Tell me. PleasePleasePleasePleasePleaseOhyYouGOTTAtellMePlease!!!"


Stick with it. Those gulls can be pretty persistent. If often takes more then one shell.
posted by 4ster at 9:31 PM on July 28, 2007 [3 favorites]

Look them straight in the eye and say, "I'm not sure the answer has anything to do with you."

If they continue to badger, try, "Why ever would you ask something so inappropriate?"

The last ditch effort, "Surely you understand that I'm no longer comfortable in continuing this conversation. Enjoy your day." Then bolt!
posted by dancinglamb at 10:48 PM on July 28, 2007 [2 favorites]

I think the classic deflection lines have been covered (silence; joke answers; "Why do you want to know?" "Why would you ask me that question?" "That's private. So, what's new with you?").

I haven't mastered the following technique myself, but another option is the shaggy-dog answer, with or without change of topic, with or without rebukeful punch line. Something like:

Friend: "What size do you wear?"

You: "Oh my gosh, I was just thinking about this the other day, have you ever shopped at--what's that store? Not IKEA, but like IKEA for clothes. From Sweden.--Yeah, that's it, H&M.--Really cheap clothes, sometimes you can get things that look good but other times it is all trendy stuff that falls apart when you look at it, you know? You have to catch it at just the right time, but if you do catch a good batch of clothes, wow, you can get so much stuff for, like, no money. Once I got this awesome green dress at H&M, I loved it so much, but then I spilled bleach on it, boy was that a bad laundry day. The size tags on their clothes are so confusing! You look at them and you're like, what? What country am I in? Sprechen sie deutsch? I actually like reading the care instructions in all the different languages, it's amazing, some of them you can figure out what the words mean but some, I have no clue . . ." (Basically, pick a plausible tangent and witter on without answering the question, but don't give Friend the opportunity to accuse you of withholding information. The long, long story that at first seems to be heading towards an answer is less of an obvious challenge to the busybody's right to have her nose in your business than a blunter change of topic.)

Optional tails for the shaggy dog:

Change of topic: ". . . those multi-lingual labels, wow, they make me wish I had studied more languages. You took Italian in undergrad, right? Or was it Spanish?"

Rebuke, perhaps most effective if you can pull it off as if you have completely forgotten what the asker asked: ". . . [more verbal wanderings] . . . [blah blah blah] . . . so I wanted to buy this shirt for my cousin but I didn't, because the store had a crummy returns policy, and I wasn't sure about what size to get, and I certainly wasn't going to call up my cousin and ask her what size she wears, because you know where we come from, IT IS EXCEEDINGLY RUDE TO ASK PEOPLE WHAT SIZE THEY WEAR."
posted by Orinda at 10:59 PM on July 28, 2007 [12 favorites]

These people are not your friends simply because if they were they would not need to know the answers. You would have shared answers like this in genuine conversation with friends if you wanted to discuss these issues.
So accept these are social acquaintances, as that might help you develop more distance, they are NOT as important as friends.

You are a more reserved person than these gulls,you have high standards of friends, you deserve better friends, keep that mantra up for awhile until you start to believe it. Then work on the one (or two) friendly relationships that bring you joy because you are comfortable when with them. Go out of your way to show how much you appreciate them. Feel like you deserve to be comfortable.

Distance yourself from the gulls. As the posters above suggest it is really not the first moment of defelcting the question, it is the phychological battery you've been getting afterwards that is the real problem. You need to develop defences for that assault.
posted by Wilder at 1:40 AM on July 29, 2007 [2 favorites]

Miss Manners (Judith Martin) is brilliant at the exceedingly polite response to rude or impertinent people. Read her archives here or pick up one of her books at the library, and you'll get loads of ideas.
posted by happyturtle at 2:11 AM on July 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

In a situation like this, my memaw (a very private woman) always replies sharply, "Why, are you writing a book?"
posted by ukdanae at 4:48 AM on July 29, 2007 [7 favorites]

It's likely that your inquisitors are reacting more to your defensiveness in deflection than to your deflection itself. You're a private person - you've got something to hide (that's fine!) and they, your friends, are trying to make sure you're ok. If you project okayness, then they're likely to stop digging for information.

I have a friend who is very private and I keep saying, if I get a no, "that's fine, just seeing if you're ok, I'm always here for you if you need anything." And I AM always there for him if he needs anything. Over a series of months and years, I've proven this by word and deed, and guess what? Now I get all the secrets because he feels comfortable sharing them!

So, from your end of the equation, maybe you could see if there's a need for reassurance that you're okay. If so, give that reassurance. "I'm getting by, thanks for your concern - I'll let you know if there's any problem." Be confident, not defensive, in your privacy, and ask for help when you need it.
posted by By The Grace of God at 7:05 AM on July 29, 2007

I think the time-honored way to doing this is to pretend to have misheard the question even though it is perfectly obvious that you did not. And to follow with a question of your own just to drive the point home.

Q: "How much money do you make?"

A: "Oh I'm fine. And how are you?"

Q: "Are you and X getting a divorce?"

A: "I agree the weather has been terrible. How are your kids?"
posted by LarryC at 9:02 AM on July 29, 2007

You are not being too darn sensitive.

You might consider being honest with them. Explain that you're a pretty private person that doesn't want the world to know your business, and you KNOW that they tell everyone else, which you are very uncool with. That should be enough to deflect the question and stop her in her tracks. Some people tell things that they don't realize are personal or they just don't think before they share, etc. This also lets her know that the information she's sharing is meant to stay with her. Similarly, you could explain that you don't tell anyone that information, so it's not like you're snubbing her and your friendship (it sort of appears that that's how she takes your non-answer). Then her, "but we're friends!" argument really holds no merit, since you don't tell friends that information. You could also ask how she'd feel if you asked those questions, but you'd have to be prepared for a "I'd be fine with it" answer.

p.s. If those are the actual questions, they are incredibly condescending (do you have a boyfriend on the internet? wtf?). It seems that they are mocking you and using the interaction to A - make themselves feel better about their lives and B - mock you to everyone else.
posted by ml98tu at 9:09 AM on July 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

I do not believe that anyone goes into the kind of inquisition described by the original poster because they want to make sure you're ok. What she's describing is other women wanting to be on slumber-party-tell-all-every-gory-detail terms with her and her just. not. wanting. it.

If your siblings are jerks and pester you just because they know it makes you uncomfortable, that's one thing. You have to figure out how much peace you want to keep in your family. But no one should tolerate this from friends. In fact, I would say that kind of disconnect is a good indicator that a supportive, close relationship is not available there.

Exasperatingly telling them it's none of their business brings hurt feelings and "why won't you just tell me?"

This is a person who is telling you that your discomfort is not as important as her desire to "bond" to you. Indeed, a person who hears your frustration and whose first impulse is to ask for reassurance from you rather than acknowledge that they might have misstepped. This is not a basis for friendship, in any sense of the word I understand.
posted by caitlinb at 11:09 AM on July 29, 2007 [2 favorites]

nthing the absurd / jokey response. if you stonewall, that just gives them something to push against. a jokey response is more like a judo flip - you step aside & trip them over with their own momentum. giving an answer, any answer, makes it seem ('psychologically') that you've responded to the question, so they can't do the "go, on, why won't you tell?" routine. Personally, I love the deadpan style:

"so, how much do you weigh these days?"

[earnest]: "hm, well, i've been trying to watch my weight, but i just can't stop myself from eating a cheesecake every morning for breakfast. it's not helping much..." *shakes head*
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:04 PM on July 29, 2007

When someone asks me a question like this, I answer it thus:

"How much *do* you weigh, anyway?"

"Oh, my weight? You'd be amazed to find out!"

"No, seriously, how much?"

"That's a very good question, actually." Then I stroke my chin and look impassive.

At this point, my interlocutor has a choice, although he may not realize he is making it. He can either drop the offensive line of questioning, or he can ask one more time. If the latter, he has chosen to be permanently dropped from my social calendar.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:37 PM on July 29, 2007

Your former friends sound quite insane.

Since these are not people with whom you have a current relationship, I'd just WTF, blank stare, point out that you have an elsewhere to be, and walk away.
posted by desuetude at 6:27 AM on July 31, 2007 [2 favorites]

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