As the holiday season approaches at the end of the year, we are suddenly given lots of opportunities to be social.
There are holiday work parties, Thanksgiving gatherings, special dinners with friends, and family events.
If you are living, working, or studying in the US or another English-speaking country, you are likely going to be invited to one or all of these social events.
This may even happen if you have English-speaking friends who live in your country.
(When I lived in Chile, my American friends and I hosted a Thanksgiving dinner and invited our Chilean friends!)
If you’re looking to practice your English, you are probably excited to have more chances to interact with other English speakers!
Obviously, you’ve already downloaded my guide to making more interesting small talk and you’re prepared with questions you can ask.
When You Might Be Asked an Uncomfortable Question
However, there’s a downside to all these opportunities to be social.
Besides the fact that it can be exhausting to talk so much (even for native speakers!), this also increases the probability that someone will ask you an uncomfortable question that you don’t want to answer.
For example, most Americans dread holiday parties with family after they turn 30.
If you’re single, one of your relatives is likely to ask you if you’re seeing anyone, and if not, why!
If you’re in a relationship, they’ll ask why you aren’t married yet.
If you’re married, they’ll ask when you’re having children. If you have children, they’ll ask when you’re having more!
(Just search for “uncomfortable questions family” in Google to see what I mean!)
Even if you don’t have to face these questions from family, you might interact with someone who asks you about your reasons for living abroad, the latest (stressful) news from your home country, or even your religion.
They might genuinely be curious, so you don’t just want to walk away from the conversation.
Maybe you’re worried about seeming rude.
But you also need to recognize that you don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.
You may be afraid to not answer because you think that will end the conversation.
Or you may feel like not answering will make it seem like you don’t speak English very well.
For that reason, let’s discuss five ways that you can respond to uncomfortable questions that you don’t want to answer.
By practicing these techniques, you can feel confident about the way that you handle these situations.
1. Change the subject
The easiest and most efficient way to avoid answering uncomfortable questions is to change the subject.
You can change the subject in many ways, but the goal is the same: to move on to a new topic of conversation.
The key to changing the subject is to do so confidently. Here are the most common strategies for changing the subject:
- Change the subject by asking a question.
- Change the subject by introducing a new topic.
- Change the subject by giving a compliment.
- Change the subject by creating a distraction.
- Abruptly change the subject.
These strategies take practice, even for native speakers, so be sure to review my tips on changing the subject so that you’re ready!
But what happens if you try changing the subject, and the other person keeps pushing you to answer?
That’s when you need to try a different approach.
2. Ask them why
One way to handle uncomfortable questions is to turn the question around to find out a little more about why the person is asking the question.
You may think that the question is inappropriate or aggressive, but maybe they actually want to learn more about you or your story.
They may be looking for some advice, or have a problem they want to talk about.
Here are some ways to gently ask why. This gives the other person a chance to explain him or herself so you know how to proceed.
Be sure to keep your tone of voice light and friendly.
- That’s an interesting question. Why are you asking?
- Why do you ask?
- Why does this interest you?
- Why would you like to know?
- Do you have any experience or knowledge with __(topic)__?
Pro tip: After they respond to your question, be sure to say “thank you.” You can say, “Thanks for sharing” or “Thanks for clarifying.”
If you feel better about their motives after they respond, you can respond.
But if you still don’t want to talk about the topic, you can move on to the next strategy.
3. Say no using a polite expression
If the topic is deeply personal, complicated, emotional, or inappropriate for the setting, you can confidently tell the other person that you don’t want to answer the question.
You are allowed to say “no” to answering questions that make you feel uncomfortable.
When I first started teaching English, I learned a very popular jazz chant by Carolyn Graham called “I’d rather not say.” (A jazz chant helps beginning English learners remember common questions, answers, and the rhythm of English. You can watch an English class practicing it here!)
Here’s a short section of the chant:
How much rent do you pay?
I’d rather not say.
How much do you make?
I’d rather not say.
Why aren’t you married?
I’d rather not say.
Why don’t you have children?
I’d rather not say.
(You can read the rest of this chant at the bottom of the page here.)
As you can see, there are many questions that you don’t probably don’t want to answer – and you should know that these questions that are really inappropriate to ask in American culture!
So now you know that one quick and easy response is to simply respond, “I’d rather not say.”
There are many other expressions that directly, but politely, tell your listener that the topic is off-limits.
Useful Responses to Uncomfortable or Inappropriate Questions
- I’d rather not say.
- I’d prefer not to talk about that.
- That’s personal.
- That’s private.
- That’s not appropriate to discuss right now.
- This isn’t a good time/place to talk about that.
- I try not to talk about my personal life at work.
- It’s a really long story, and this isn’t the right time to talk about it.
- I’m not interested in getting into that now.
- I’m not interested in talking about that here.
- This isn’t something I’m comfortable discussing.
- I don’t usually talk about that.
Here are some ways to respond with humor, that also clearly show you’re not going to answer the question:
- That’s a secret! (said with a smile)
- If I told you, I’d have to kill you.
Here are some more direct expressions you can use if it’s necessary to show the person that they are being inappropriate:
- That’s (really) none of your business.
- Your question is out-of-line.
- It’s really none of your concern.
- My (personal life) shouldn’t concern you.
Because these expressions have a very clear message understood by native English speakers, they will understand what you mean and let the conversation topic drop.
If you feel you need additional clarification, you can be honest about that using the next technique.
4. Be honest about how the question makes you feel
Most people will understand your desire to change the subject after one of the above techniques.
However, there will be times when you will need to be extremely clear and honest about how the question makes you feel.
This may happen when you are talking to a curious relative, an exceptionally talkative coworker, or a stranger sitting next to you on a crowded bus who you can’t get away from.
In this case, you want to be direct: say that the topic makes you uncomfortable and that this is not the appropriate time to discuss it.
For example, if someone is asking you about a political issue from your home country or region, you can say something like this:
If you want, you can clarify that the topic is complicated, sensitive, or upsetting.
If the topic is inappropriate, you can emphasize that:
Be sure to stay calm and confident when responding with these clear, direct statements.
The other person should understand and respect your point of view.
That said, just as in your native language, you will sometimes meet people who are just awkward, rude, or inappropriate.
If this happens to you, you can feel confident that you have done your best to handle the situation just like a native English speaker.
5. Be prepared with something you are comfortable talking about
In all but the most extreme situations, using one of these strategies will enable you to move on to another conversation topic.
If you want to continue talking with the person, it’s helpful to be prepared with an interesting question on another topic.
If not, you can excuse yourself to get some food, a drink, or use the restroom and leave the conversation.
Have you ever been in an uncomfortable conversation in English? How did you respond to the inappropriate question?
Now that you’ve learned these communication strategies and expressions, which one would you like to use next time? Leave a comment below with the expression you’re going to practice.