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Responding to Unwanted or Inappropriate Questions


Decades ago, a near stranger asked me why I often wore neck scarves. True, this was my habit and that of many others, as was the fashion back in the 1980s. I’m sure I mumbled that I liked how they looked or some such, but this woman’s question never struck me as coming from curiosity. It rang of judgment (as I got to know her, it turned out she was a preachy sort) which irked me.

Recently, when a client described how her mother keeps asking her why she doesn’t want children, I thought of the scarf interaction and how people often ask questions that are clearly inappropriate or unwanted. Fortunately, in my clinical training, I was taught to answer inquiries of a personal or impertinent nature with another question: “Why do you want to know?” I’ve used that response over the decades well beyond my professional arena, asking it softly, with no emotion but the curiosity I’m genuinely feeling. 

I know I’m not alone in asking this question because Washington Post advice columnist extraordinaire Carolyn Hax had this to say to a reader who inquired what to tell a friend who peppers her with questions about the price of her purchases. Hax’s advice? Ask, “‘Why do you want to know?’ Every time. Don’t answer unless you think the reason is valid. And when you don’t want to answer, just say, ‘I don’t want to answer.’”

I know this smacks of what might be deemed bad manners, but it’s not. It’s the same as someone touching you inappropriately and you calling them on it. One act occurs through words and the other through physical contact.

Then again, even if it might be perceived by some as bad manners, so is asking questions that are judgmental and expecting you to engage in conversation as if the interest was pure curiosity. Be wary of questions that come out of left field, lack genuine concern, sound more like judgment than query, aren’t someone else’s business, or feel inappropriate situationally or in their timing. Be doubly wary if the question passes muster but is asked by someone who shouldn’t be asking it. 

Awkward? My yes. Character building? You betcha. If you’re lucky, asking why someone wants to know something about you may actually be a wake up call for them to acknowledge that there was something wrong with their question or its timing. If you’re not so lucky, the person won’t answer why and may be snippy, argumentative or (a favorite of many bullies) insist you’re too sensitive, in which case you can practice another of my favorite clinical techniques called strategic silence. Either way, you’ll end up getting your message across and protecting your boundaries.