Picture this: You’re chatting with a well-meaning friend or family member only to be bombarded by overly personal questions regarding your relationships, career, finances, or health. Or you find yourself subjected to the random queries of coworkers, acquaintances, and even complete strangers, stammering a clumsy reply while wondering how to express your boundaries without sounding blunt.
Sigh. We’ve all been there, and it’s tricky to decide in the heat of the moment how best to react or respond.
Even if you consider yourself (and your life) an open book, it’s perfectly normal to feel stressed, defensive, exasperated, or even angry when blindsided by questions and comments that seem intrusive. But have no fear: Here are a few key strategies for handling difficult conversational moments with grace while keeping the particulars of your personal life just that—private.
1. Redirect the focus.
I grew up eating healthy and to this day I prefer fresh berries over cookies, a giant homemade salad rather than take-out pizza, water with lemon instead of Diet Pepsi. I’m also on the slender side when it comes to body composition, and I can’t tell you how often someone says something to me like, “You’re so thin!”
The thing is, eating well makes me feel great regardless of the number on the scale or what I look like or what I choose to put on my plate. Second, even though society tells me that being called “thin” is supposed to be a compliment, it makes me feel uncomfortable. In general, whenever talk turns to dissecting the female body, I itch to change the subject to something more fascinating than a woman’s size or weight.
So that’s what I do. I redirect the focus of the conversation. I say, “Thanks! I’ve got good genes. Hey, did you catch last week’s episode of Scandal?” Or, “That’s kind of you. How’s your husband/wife/son/daughter doing these days?” And if the questioner keeps pushing along the same lines, I continue to deflect to neutral topics or ask about his or her life. (Trust me: people looooove to talk about themselves if you give them the opportunity.)
The point is, you don’t actually have to participate in a conversation that makes you feel exposed, unarmed, or uneasy. You have the agency to politely change the subject whenever you like.
2. Utilize silence.
In my early twenties, I ended an engagement with my college sweetheart of five years. Plenty of people in my life were quite surprised by this change of heart, and naturally probed for the juicy details out of genuine concern, as well as gossipy interest. Aside from talking to very close family and friends, I stayed quiet. I had no desire to chitchat about the demise of a valuable partnership filled with love, nor did I want to listen to opinions about my decision or defend my choices. I knew I did the right thing by leaving, and I wanted to slowly heal without ripping the band-aid off that wound over and over again.
When others asked what happened, I answered simply, then let the awkward conversational stillness linger. For example:
Friend: “Oh my god! I heard you and X broke up.”
Me: “Yes, we did.” (Insert the longest pause of my life.)
It’s unusual to be silent in such moments, especially in our current culture of oversharing and status updates. But silence can also serve as a useful tool, one that indicates a particular topic isn’t up for grabs. For me, though I often felt a strong urge to fill in the gaps between questions and answers from other people regarding my love life, keeping mum helped carve out the space I needed to process a major life change.
3. Own your boundaries.
“So, were you trying?”
I can’t count how many times my husband and I were asked this question after people learned we were expecting our first child. Though I wanted to fire back with a sassy, “Are you asking if we’re having sex?” I typically trailed off with a stiff, vague statement like, “Um, no, not really.”
On one hand, a person’s choice to have children or not is none of my business—unless said person decides to make it so. You just never really know what someone is going through when you throw up a question about “trying” to get pregnant. Maybe they’ve had five miscarriages or they want to adopt or they prefer to remain childless or the subject is a contentious debate with their partner or they’re struggling with infertility. Likewise, it’s not a piece of information I am inclined to share with others because it feels too personal.
And yet, every time we heard that loaded question, I didn’t really know how to articulate my preferences without coming across as bitchy or cold or aloof or rude—despite the fact that I know I can’t control how other people might perceive me, and I shouldn’t get caught up in what others think.
Boundaries: You have them and more importantly, you’re allowed to protect and honor them. So when touchy issues arise—whether it’s related to money, sex, relationships, children, politics, faith, etc—a few key phrases can go a long way, such as: “I’d rather not discuss that, though I appreciate your concern,” and “That’s a little personal—can we chat about something else?”
Most people aren’t intentionally trying to pry into your personal business and will back off once they know they’ve crossed a line. But it’s up to you to articulate those lines; nobody else is going to do it for you. You aren’t offending anyone by simply looking out for yourself and, chances are, you know when a conversation will bring more harm than good to your mental or emotional state.
Putting these tips into practice may be a little tough or uncomfortable at first, but it’ll be worth it to feel empowered in the face of nosy questions going forward.