Handling Inappropriate Questions

Did You Really Just Ask That?

Shock. Horror. Disbelief. These are the reactions we have when asked an inappropriate or uncomfortable question. Questions like, “How much did you spend on your last vacation?”, “What brought on your sudden weight change?” or “Are you dating?” In a workplace or interview setting the questions might instead be geared toward learning about your severance package or efforts to determine your gender orientation.

Questions like these are not just inappropriate, they are intrusive. They attempt a level of closeness or intimacy that is undesired and unwarranted. They ask us to reveal things about ourselves or our life that we may not want to reveal. And, they allude to a pending judgment based on our response.

Very often, inappropriate questions leave us speechless and unsure of how to respond. Should we answer the question? Reprimand the person asking? Say nothing and let the question hang? Most often our goal is simply to bring the conversation back onto neutral ground gracefully and tactfully. Below are some guidelines and some suggestions for doing just that.

1.  Take a deep breath. This sounds simple, but it serves several purposes. It helps keep you calm, it provides you with a few extra moments to decide how to respond, and finally, it gives the asker an opportunity to reconsider what they’ve just asked – potentially leading to a retraction or apology for the question itself.

2.  Respond with grace and tact. We’ve all heard the adage “two wrongs don’t make a right”. The same is true here. Shaming the person who’s asking, or otherwise putting them down will only serve to make the moment more uncomfortable. Instead, let them save face by not drawing added attention to the question, but rather redirecting it to a more appropriate one.

3.  Use humor. This may mean a light chuckle at the question, or a friendly but teasing reply of “Did you really just ask me that?”

4.  Be honest. It’s perfectly ok to say “I’m not comfortable answering that question.”

5.  Mirror it. Ask the question back, changing the focus to how it relates to them. For example, you can respond to a question about vacation spending with: “Are you looking for affordable vacation spots?” – This response works regardless of how extravagant your vacation may have been, because it puts the focus on their budget.

6.  Ask “Why..?” As inappropriate as a question may seem to you, perhaps the person asking has a valid reason (or thinks they do) for asking it. Rather than offering an answer, respond with curiosity: “Why are you asking?” or “What do you want to know?” Be sure however, to keep your tone open and inquisitive not irritated or angry.

7.  Silence. Sometimes, ignoring the question is the best response. As you do so, try smiling politely, and acknowledging the other person with a moment of direct eye contact. This has the impact of saying “I’m not comfortable” without actually stating it.

As you choose your best response, it’s wise to consider your relationship to the person. Is this a friend, relative, co-worker, or someone in a leadership position at your company? Has this person asked you inappropriate questions in the past? Your relationship and experience with them should play an important guide in determining your response. If it’s a workplace situation, you may choose to ask why or to be honest about your discomfort. If it’s a friend or an acquaintance you may choose humor or silence. And if it’s a person who often pushes your boundaries, mirroring their question or asking why might be your best response for correcting the behavior now – and in the future.

Managing these difficult or uncomfortable moments, as described, has the added benefit of demonstrating your respect for yourself, and for the other person. It also creates the opportunity for better relationships and better communication.