Most of us have been there—we’re trying to enjoy our pumpkin pie when suddenly we’re cornered by an inquisitive relative.
Still no kids?
Why aren’t you drinking?
Have you found a real job yet?
Did you lose weight?
When are you going to settle down?
Whether they mean well or not, intrusive questions from friends and family during holiday events or otherwise can turn a jolly time into one that makes you want to crawl into bed and pull the covers over your head. If the thought of prying personal questions are making you dread upcoming gatherings and events, you’re not alone. Here are a few ways you can deal with nosy family and friends.
Before you head out your own door (or have guests come in!), think about what topics might come up, what questions might be asked, and what subjects you would rather avoid altogether.
“Get clear on a concise answer (or refusal to answer) that you feel comfortable about,” said Joanne Davies, a hypnotherapist and MyWellbeing community member. “Then use that EXACT phrase every time and with every person that asks. It helps you to disengage from having to think about it and makes people less likely to ask if they're getting the same boring response.”
You don’t have to obsess over every question you might get asked and every possible response you could have, but if you know there is a certain topic your family or friends are bound to bring up, think about what you’ll say so you can respond confidently—and maybe even with a bit of humor.
“I recommend letting your personality take the lead,” said Janette Marsac, a therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “Are you funny? Make a joke about it. Serious? Give them an honest response about where your attention or passions are focused at the moment. Feeling insecure? Politely decline the topic and initiate another topic.”
“Often these questions are ice breakers, and if it’s a conversation with a distant family member, they might not know much about your life, priorities, or goals. If you want, share with them what is important right now. If you don’t want to share, politely request to move on.”
Maybe the same script won’t work for everyone and depending on the relative, your answer might change. Think about who is most likely to start the interrogation and have an answer ready for them. For example, if your family is dying to know when you’re going to have children, Ruth Kyle, a therapist and MyWellbeing community member, provides a few different directions to take:
If humor isn’t your thing or the topic doesn’t strike you as funny (or you’re simply fed up!), take the direct route. If you just can’t take one more query about when you’re going to have kids, use this line from therapist and MyWellbeing community member Stacy McCall-Martin: “Thank you for your concern. My reproductive choices are a personal matter that I'm not discussing at this time.”
Just because you’ve always gone home for the holidays for a week or gone to visit a certain relative doesn’t mean you have to continue doing it! If an event or gathering simply isn’t bringing you joy anymore (or if it never has…), you’re well within your right to decline or to figure out the amount of time that works best for you. Maybe instead of a week, you’ll go for a weekend, or instead of having family stay in your home, you’ll send them a list of nearby accommodations.
There’s no need to add to the delusional insistence that family gatherings are perfect and wonderful and everyone should be brimming with joy at every moment because that is simply not the reality for the majority of people—and that’s okay! You’re allowed to set the boundaries you need, whether that means exiting conversations that make you uncomfortable, shortening your stay, or not attending gatherings at all.
What would you rather talk about? You don’t need to be the recipient of conversations in which you want no part—you can take control and guide the situation to suit you.
“If you think Aunt Rosa is just trying to ask about your life but going about it the wrong way, guide her to something you're more comfortable sharing about,” said Teresa Thompson, a therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “‘That's not a topic I want to get into right now, but I'm really excited about the backpacking trip I'm planning next year. Do you want to see some pictures of the spots I'm going to visit?’"
“Sometimes there's a generational or cultural difference in acceptable subjects of conversation—what the question asker might consider a normal inquiry, you might find presumptuous or intrusive.”
If coming up with things to talk about is hard for you, look up a few conversation starters in advance, suggest a game, or do a little digging and see if there aren’t some questions you can ask the other person instead—simply chatty and non-intrusive ones, of course.
And if you know you’re going to get in a sticky situation that’ll be difficult for you to manage, reach out to an ally for support. A sibling could help step in when you’re cornered, or a cousin who is always the life of the party can keep an eye out and change the subject when needed. Give them a heads up to intervene if they see you speaking to an unfriendly family member or even have a code word or signal you can use to let them know you need to be rescued.
As best you can, let their words roll off your back. We’re not trying to minimize how hard inappropriate personal questions from family and friends can be. But those prying questions are a lot more about them than about you.
Even if their questions not-so-subtly imply that they disapprove of your life or decisions, that doesn’t mean you have to take it that way. By asking if you have a “real” job yet, are planning to start a family, have gained or lost weight, or any other inappropriate query, it signals to you that this might be a sign of societal or family pressure on them—and they’re trying to pass it along to you. Smile, redirect, remind yourself: it’s not me; it’s them, and move on to a conversation that fulfills you.
Even if you adore your family and friends, gatherings can be a bit overwhelming, especially over the holidays. But with a few tools in your back pocket, you’ll be able to prepare for their prying questions and enjoy your pie in peace.
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Caitlin is MyWellbeing's Content Lead, a writer, speaker, communication coach, and the founder of Commcoterie, a communication consultancy. She teaches teams how to use professional coaching communication techniques in their everyday conversations, helps leaders engage their teams with effective and inclusive communication, and partners with service providers to activate their programs and offerings with their own clients through inspiring communication strategies. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.