We have all been in a situation where someone asked us an uncomfortable question. Maybe they wanted to know personal information such as your age or weight. They may be asking questions that are not typically shared such as financial information.
This could even be used in a professional setting where sharing information could hurt your career.
When someone asks you a question that is not appropriate, impolite, and even rude, you may freeze or blurt out something quickly.
Before you tell someone it’s none of their business, make sure they really do have negative intentions and aren’t just communicating clumsily. You can then reply by saying: “Sorry, that’s a private subject I don’t want to talk about”.
Why Do People Ask Uncomfortable Questions?
Before moving into potential responses, it may be beneficial to think about why people ask uncomfortable questions.
As the experts at Psychology Today note, there is never one reason why people ask these types of questions. They can have a negative effect but are often not meant to cause harm.
These are a few primary reasons why people may ask questions that you don’t want to answer.
This general category describes a person who may have a condition where they don’t understand social norms.
For example, a person with a certain disorder, a person on the autism spectrum, or even someone with social anxiety may struggle to have normal interactions.
The questions that they ask are often not designed to be rude or inappropriate.
When this occurs, you should try to respond with their underlying condition in mind.
A Desire to Help
This is actually surprising to some people but often a personal question is not meant to cause harm or to pry.
For example, asking a person a question about the recent passing of a family member may seem intrusive but it often comes from a caring place.
The person asking may want to verify that you’re doing well or determine if you need some support.
These questions often come from caring people whose nature may cause them to ask questions of a personal nature.
Anger or Hostility
Keep in mind that some questions may actually be used to cause harm. Maybe the person wants to know something that will put you in a bad light. They may want to ask for personal information about another person.
Think about a person who gossips and constantly asks probing questions. They often come from a place of envy or as a type of bullying.
When this happens, you can usually be more direct with your response.
How to Respond to Uncomfortable Questions
Before moving forward, keep in mind that you don’t have to answer the person and you don’t even have to continue the conversation.
If you think that the person asking is trying to make you uncomfortable on purpose or even looking for an argument, then you can simply exit the conversation.
Many people will exit conversations gracefully by saying that they’re running late or need to complete a time-sensitive task.
This may not always work for you, but it can be an option. It may be the best way to avoid a tense situation in some cases so keep this method in your toolbox.
If you don’t want to use this method or want to have other options available, there are other options that are still polite but will keep you from having to answer the question. Use these ideas if you’re not sure of what to say.
Decline to Answer
Depending on the situation, you can use a few key phrases to let someone know that you won’t be responding.
Think about a few of these ideas:
“I’d prefer not to talk about this.”
“I’m sorry, that’s private.”
“This isn’t a good time to talk about that.”
Depending on the scenario, you can use these phrases to turn down answering questions.
The key to saying this in a way that won’t be taken negatively is to say them with an understanding nature.
If your tone of voice is too flat, you’ll come across as annoyed or tense. To make sure that you don’t have a rude tone, practice saying this at home. Once you’ve got the tone of voice down, you can use this when needed.
If you want to make sure that you’re not going to offend anyone, consider asking a friend or family member to listen to your tone as well.
Respond with Humor
Having a sense of humor is a great benefit.
Not only will you be declining to answer a question, but you’ll also do so in a way that’s not offensive.
It’s also a good opportunity to turn down answering a question and then gives you a window to change the subject at the same time.
Think about one of the following phrases:
“That’s a long story, and we just don’t have the time to talk about it all.”
“If I told you, I’d have to eliminate you.”
“Shh…that’s a secret.”
These phrases should be said with a smile and a light tone of voice. While you’re not being negative in any way, the person listening to you respond will get the message that you’re not comfortable answering that question.
Direct, Clear Expressions
If a question is completely inappropriate, then it may be best to answer in a manner that’s direct and shows that you’re not going to answer. This is something that you should remember but should only be used when you’re prepared for the consequences.
By being direct, you’re telling them in no uncertain terms that their question is not appropriate and should not have been asked in the first place.
You can use one of the following phrases to make your point:
“That is not your concern.”
“That’s really none of your business.”
“That question is not appropriate for this conversation.”
Although it’s best to speak clearly, avoid raising your voice or speaking in a tone that could be seen as aggressive. By speaking directly to the person and clearly, they will understand what you’re saying and avoid responding further.
Ask the Motive of the Question
One way to handle uncomfortable questions without answering is to ask the other person why they’re asking for that information. This will allow you to find out more about the reasons why the person is asking questions in the first place.
You may think that the question is inappropriate but consider that they may actually want to learn more about you. They may be looking for advice or have a problem to discuss. If you anticipate that the question isn’t appropriate but comes from a friendly place, then you may want to ask why they want this information.
It’s best to assume the other person has good intentions until they prove otherwise.
However, if you want to learn more about their motivation, consider one of the following responses:
“That’s an interesting question. Why do you ask?”
“Are you familiar with (this topic)?”
“Why don’t you tell me about your own experience with this (area)?”
Give the person a chance to respond before moving forward. You should thank them for clarifying their reasoning and then respond accordingly.
If it’s an area that you don’t want to discuss, you can mention that you prefer not to talk about it. If their explanation changes your point of view on whether you should respond, you can answer the question.
Tell Them How the Question Makes You Feel
There are many times when a question makes you feel uncomfortable, and you don’t want to respond. Although you want to be careful about how you share this information, it can be a great way to ensure that it’s not brought up again.
This may be the case when talking to a chatty coworker, a stranger, or just a curious relative.
If you feel uncomfortable about the topic you can be direct and briefly review why you don’t want to discuss it at the time.
These are a few potential responses:
“I’m here to enjoy myself and I’d rather not think about that right now.”
“We’re at the office so I prefer not to discuss sensitive subjects in the workplace.”
“In my culture, we don’t talk about this subject. It makes me uncomfortable.”
To make your point heard in this area, be sure to display yourself as being both calm and confident. The other person will likely respond by dropping their line of questioning and moving on.
If they don’t respond appropriately, you can then excuse yourself from the conversation.
Develop Your Responses
Although there are many ways to tell a person that their inquiry is none of their business, your response should be tailored to the situation. It may take time to perfect your response as well so allow yourself time to practice responses to various situations.
Think about how you would like to respond to uncomfortable or inappropriate questions so that you have practice.
All of these responses can be said from an appropriate point of view and said calmly and clearly for the best results.
Sophie Hammond is a journalist, psychologist, and freelance speechwriter for people in politics and business. She lives on the edge of the Rocky Mountains with her dog and a lifetime supply of books. When she’s not writing, she can be found wandering through nature or journaling at a coffee shop.