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Just like no two snowflakes are alike, each person is unique. And just like each person has their own likes and dislikes, we each also have our own threshold for what we deem as the appropriate number and level of personal questions. On the same note, each person has a different level of interest in other people’s business or personal affairs.

For some, questions like “where do you live” and “where do you work” are perfectly acceptable, while others may shy away from answering any personal questions, especially the not-so-polite questions like, “how much money do you make” and “what’s your mortgage.” While it’s up to you to determine what questions you are comfortable answering, we have a few tips to help you navigate difficult conversations (and personalities) in your family, friend circle or at work.

Tips to Avoid Answering Personal Questions

  1. Take a deep breath. Did you do it? Deep breathing is beneficial, even outside of challenging conversations, as it helps switch from the fight-or-flight part of your brain to the rest-and-relax side. If someone asks you a question you aren’t comfortable answering, take a deep breath or two before deciding how you want to respond. The key to this one is making sure it’s not an aggravated huff or sigh of exasperation (though likely warranted, it won’t help in navigating the situation).
  2. Let them know how you feel. Alright, now that you’ve taken a deep breath and are a little calmer (less irritated or anxious), voice your concerns or stance on answering personal questions. You can simply say, “I’m not comfortable talking about that,” or “I don’t discuss that at work,” and change the subject (remember you do not owe them an explanation).
  3. Get a few details from them first. Since they’ve opened up the line of questioning, go ahead and respectfully turn the table on them. You can ask them why they want to know, or how they heard about what they are asking. For some, they are using information they gather to compare or gossip, but in other cases, they may be asking because they genuinely care about you. For example, if someone heard a rumor about you and is coming to you to let you know about it and clear the air, thank them for being transparent with you.
  4. Be assertive. Whether they don’t pick up on social cues or they are really THAT nosy, sometimes you need to move from gently letting them know you don’t want to talk about a certain topic to very firmly telling them how you feel. You can do this by repeating what you told them about not wanting to talk about it, or by being very straightforward and saying something along the lines of, “I do not want to talk about this” and “we need to change the subject and talk about something else.”
  5. Laugh it off. While being asked personal questions isn’t enjoyable, you can have a little fun with the people who are asking for too many details. Respond to questions about your age with a quip like, “I don’t remember,” “not old enough to retire yet” or “old enough to work here.” Or answer questions about how much money you make or spent on something with responses like, “enough” or “Don’t worry—I put it on your credit card. I’m kidding, but for real, I did a lot of research and shopping around, and found something that’s within my budget.”
  6. Physically move. No, not to another state or country (though that may be pretty tempting), but to another space within the meeting or family gathering to talk to someone else. When all else fails, make a break for the bathroom, leave or just hang up in a virtual event.

While there is no simple guide for what to say in each situation (and no magic eraser for uncomfortable questions), being respectful and letting your friends and family know where you stand in regard to their line of questioning is important for establishing and maintaining healthy relationships and boundaries.