Sunday, 20 November 2011


"Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter which fork you use." ~Emily Post

I was having a conversation with a friend last week, and realized that it was the same general conversation that I have had several times over the last few months. We were talking about a particularly rude question that each of us had experienced. Many of our acquaintances had also been asked this question.

Having to deal with rude, nosey people who won't mind their business is not a new phenomenon, but it is an increasingly common one. I'm not sure if it is because good manners aren't quite emphasized as much these days, or because the advent of the internet, facebook, and twitter give the illusion that we don't have or need privacy. Probably a combination, with a few extra factors thrown in. No matter what the cause, I think it's time to become more educated about what not to ask and why, how to leave a door open for those who wish to share.

Here's my (rather incomplete) list of rude questions that have become common:

1. "How old are you?"  Unless you are a medical professional treating the person you are asking, and need to know this information for diagnostic or prognostic reasons, this is none of your business. Ageism is real, both in the work place and within social settings. Many, myself included, do not like to be placed in a box with assumptions attached, simply based on my age.

2. "How much money do you make?"  Unless you are an accountant doing someone's taxes, or an investment consultant, etc., this is none of your business. Whether or not you agree with assumptions, money is often linked to social status, to perceptions of success or failure, and to social class. Especially in these days, when so many are unemployed or forcibly retired early, this question is insensitive. On the other hand, one who has a very large salary may feel uncomfortable with the discrepancy s/he has with others, or may be wary of those who will try to to take advantage of him/her.

3. "Are you pregnant?" or "How many months along are you?"Unless you are a health professional who needs this information, this is none of your business. There are many women who look pregnant but who are not. One woman I know had to sit in OB/GYN office waiting rooms, for multiple appointments over the course of years, listening to other women chattering on about their pregnancies. Inevitablly, she would have to try to politely answer probing questions when they got tired of talking amongst themselves. After the first year, she would say in a very loud voice "I'm not pregnant - I have very big tumours!" She says that this shut people up quickly, and she hoped, made them less likely to ask the question again. Uterine tumours is only one example of many conditions that result in an extended belly.

4. "Why don't you have children?"  Unless you are a health professional who needs this information, this is none of your business. Many people struggle with infertility. Some people choose to remain childless, and often feel that they have to defend this choice. There are people who have had children, but have lost them (death, kidnapping, child custody). This question can be particularly painful.

5. "How did ________die?"  Death is almost never a happy topic. I have known two murder victims, and two suicide victims in my life. Their families are not eager to discuss painful family histories for the sake of someone's curiosity. Even if a loved one has died from a 'natural' cause, like a disease of some sort, it is likely that this subject will be painful. Unless you are a police officer investigating questionable circumstances, or a health professional taking a family history, this is none of your business.

6. "Why don't you drink?"  There are many reasons why someone may choose not to drink. A family history of alcoholism, religious reasons, medication which contraindicates alcohol consumption, alcoholism. None of these reasons are any of your business. On a personal note, I also find it rather disturbing that someone is placed in a position where the assumption is that s/he has to explain the choice not to use a drug. How often is one asked "Why don't you use heroine?" Dramatic comparison, I know, but that is often how someone who chooses not to drink feels.

7. "Why are you here to see a doctor?"  I have actually seen a family member sit down in a doctor's office, spend fifteen minutes telling a stranger sitting next to her all about her breast cancer, and then turn to the poor person (who looked like a cornered mouse) and say "why are you here?" Unless you are a medical professional, this is none of your business.

8. "Why are you getting a divorce?" or "Why did you break up?"  Unless you are involved with the person and suspect a pattern of behaviour that may affect your present relationship (eg. cheating, financial irresponsibility), or non-disclosure of a contagious disease, then this is none of your business.

9.  "Did you give blood?" or "Why didn't you give blood?".  I was guilty of asking this just last week, I' afraid.  There are many reasons why people don't donate blood (or organs) - religious conviction, health status (everything from HIV and Hepatitis to anaemia), recent tattoos (and unless someone wishes to share this, tattoos are personal), sexual history or a partner's sexual history.  Unless you are a health care professional directly involved in collecting blood for the Red Cross (or Red Crescent), this is none of your business.

At the end of the day, people who want to share with you will. Family and close friends will tell you without prompting, or if they need prompting to feel that you are interested, there are ways of leaving doors open for expansion of a topic without putting someone on the spot. 

For instance, "I'm really sorry to hear about your divorce. That must have been really difficult" provides someone with the opportunity to expand on the subject, or simply say "yes, it was." "I'm sorry to hear that your Dad died" provides an opportunity for someone to cry on your shoulder, but also provides a graceful way for someone to close the door to the subject by simply saying "Thank you."


1. Do not ask rude questions.

2. If you must ask a personal question, phrase it in such a way that a person can expand on a subject, or gracefully close the door without having to actually say "that's none of your business". I can't tell you how many conversations I've had that go as follows:

Her: How old are you?
Me: Oh, I never tell anyone how old I am. 
Her: Oh, come on. I won't tell anyone.
Me: Why do you ask?
Her: I'm just curious. After all, "age is just a number."
Me: Well, if it's just a number, why is it so important to you?Her: It isn't, but you really seem to have a hang-up about it. You should just loosen up.
Me: I don't have a 'hang-up'. I just consider it personal information.
Her: Well, with the Internet these days, there really isn't such a thing as 'personal information'.

By the time I get to "none of your business" I am frustrated and angry.

3. Pay attention to body language, and to avoidance techniques. Many people are reluctant to just come out and say "none of your business". In a world where many are trained to be polite, nosey people actively prey on others' reluctance to be confrontational and appear rude. 

Nosey people usually get answered because others cannot figure out how to get out of answering once they run out of social clues. Social clues that you are being too nosey would be physically withdrawing from the space, and from you (if possible). Avoidance techniques would include answering your questions with "why do you ask?" or "Nothing, really", or "It's a long story", etc. Be kind, and polite, and pay attention to these clues.

4. Ask yourself what your motive for asking is. If it's just to satisfy your curiosity, then you don't really need to know. If it's just to have something to talk about, or open up a dialogue, then you don't really need to know. By all means, let someone know (subtly) that you are willing to be supportive listener if they need one (if you are ready to listen that is, not if you are just collecting gossip), but do it in a sensitive and respectful manner.

5. If you are the person being asked, then send out clues. Many people ask out of caring. If they care, they'll 'listen' to your clues. If they are totally clueless in terms of social signals, then you may (if you like) educate them as to why this question can be hurtful to someone (and include all the reasons - and know that your privacy may be compromised if this is the option you choose). 

You may also use shock tactics if they continue. "I'm not pregnant, I'm just really fat" would be an example. If they continue to push, then by all means, tell them in no uncertain terms that what they are asking is NONE OF THEIR BUSINESS. If more people did this (and most people are shocked when they are told this), then fewer nosey people would continue to push. You would, in many ways, be helping the next person down the line.


  1. Thanks for this, particularly the reminder that by confronting rudeness you're helping the next person down the line.

  2. CM: Thanks for your comment. I sometimes wonder if I am too outspoken. It's nice to know that my intentions are being received in the tone that I wish!