How to Handle Uncomfortable Questions You REALLY Don’t Want to Answer in English

Let me ask you something. How do you feel when someone asks you an uncomfortable question?

When you’re chatting with new people at a social event or a party, or you’re interacting with strangers while waiting for the bus or the train, you might get asked an awkward question you really don’t want to answer.

For example:

  • How old are you?
  • Why do you wear so much makeup?
  • Why do you cover your hair?
  • Why do you always wear long sleeves?
  • Why are you still single? Is something wrong with you?
  • Why don’t you have kids yet? Don’t you want them?
  • What’s your religion?
  • Does your job pay a lot of money?
  • Does your wife earn a lot of money?
  • Do your parents pay for your apartment?
  • How can you afford to live in this neighborhood?
  • What is going on with your country? Why are people acting in a certain way there?
  • Did you vote for a particular government official?
  • Why’d you leave your country? Does it have to do with [a certain law or a certain government official]?
  • Do you believe in [a controversial subject that you’re not comfortable discussing]?

When someone asks you a question that’s inappropriate, impolite, or even rude, you might freeze completely.

Or you might feel annoyed, offended, or ashamed, all emotions that can affect our ability to respond quickly or with humor.

In our native language, we’re often better prepared to respond to awkward questions.

We know whether a question is culturally sensitive or appropriate for the situation, and we don’t feel like we have to prove our language ability with our response.

We can make a joke and smoothly change the subject to something less challenging to talk about.

But when you’re speaking English, you might not know how to handle these uncomfortable questions.

In this video, you’ll learn how to confidently respond to uncomfortable questions you really don’t want to answer.

You’ll find out what to say when you don’t want to answer a question and how to handle the situation politely, with humor, or with direct, clear language.

As we discuss these strategies, remember that intonation is absolutely essential to clearly communicating the right meaning behind these expressions.

Decide If You Want to Continue the Conversation

First things first, consider whether or not you want to continue the conversation.

Remember that you never have to answer an uncomfortable question if you don’t want to.

If you think that the other person is trying to make you feel uncomfortable or is even looking for an argument, then you can simply exit the conversation.

This is always an option, and I’ll give you some direct language you can use in just a moment.

But if you think the person is genuinely curious and you don’t want to end the conversation, try one of these strategies instead.

Ask Them Why They Want to Know

One way to handle uncomfortable questions is to turn the question around and ask the other person why they want to know.

This enables you to find out a little more about the reasons why the person is asking these questions in the first place.

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 they have a problem they want to talk about.

Here are some ways to gently ask why they want this information.

This gives the other person a chance to explain so you know how to proceed.

I find it best to assume the other person has good intentions until they prove otherwise.

As you ask these questions, be sure to keep your tone of voice light and friendly.

Lower pitch and a steep fall at the end of these questions can sound annoyed, frustrated or irritated.

With a higher pitch and a slight rise throughout the question, you show curiosity and interest in their response.

  • 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 with [this topic]?
  • Are you familiar with [this topic]?
  • Have you been to [this region of the world]?
  • Do you know anybody from [this region of the world]?
  • Do you know anybody [with this religion]?
  • Do you know anybody [in this profession]?
  • Why don’t you tell me about your experience with [this topic]?

After they respond to your question, you can say, “Thanks for sharing” or “Thanks for clarifying.”

These questions work best when you don’t mind talking about this topic because they’ll probably encourage additional conversation.

If you decide that you still don’t want to talk about this topic, then you can move on to the following strategy.

Handle Uncomfortable Questions with Polite, Direct Language

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.

In fact, you can always say “no” to answering questions that make you feel uncomfortable.

Let’s talk about expressions that directly, but politely, tell your listener that the topic is not acceptable.

Once again, consider your intonation as you make these statements.

You want to end with clear falling intonation at the end of each statement to show that you’re confident about saying “no.”

Falling intonation shows certainty and authority and shows you’ve made a clear decision about whether or not to respond.

Remember that your intonation throughout the sentence should still be expressive and varied.

Flat intonation throughout your speech communicates annoyance.

Your intonation often communicates more than your words.

Useful Expressions to Handle Uncomfortable Questions

As you’ll see, there are quite a few expressions that you can use to handle these uncomfortable questions.

Choose two or three that you feel comfortable saying and practice them.

That way you’ll feel more prepared.

  • I’d rather not say.
  • I’d prefer not to talk about that.
  • I’d rather not get into [this topic] at this event.
  • I’d prefer not to discuss this right now.
  • I’m sorry, that’s private.
  • That’s a little too personal.
  • That topic is too difficult to discuss at this moment.
  • That topic is too complicated to discuss at this moment.
  • That topic is too challenging to discuss at this moment.
  • That’s not appropriate to discuss here.
  • This isn’t a good time to talk about that.
  • This isn’t a good place to discuss 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 share 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 feel comfortable talking about this right now.
  • I don’t feel comfortable talking about this here.
  • I don’t usually talk about this topic with people I don’t know well.
  • I would prefer to talk about another subject.

Respond to Uncomfortable Questions with Humor

Depending on the situation, you may choose to respond with humor while still clearly communicating that you’re definitely not going to answer the question.

  • Shhhh… That’s a secret. [said with a smile]
  • If I told you, I’d have to kill you.
  • If only I knew…
  • That’s a very long story, and a lifetime wouldn’t be enough time to explain.

Direct, Clear Expressions in Response to Inappropriate Questions

At times, you may decide to show the person that they’re being inappropriate, offensive, or rude.

In this case, use one of these very direct expressions with stern, confident intonation.

The falling tone communicates that you want them to drop this topic of conversation immediately.

  • That’s none of your business.
  • That’s really none of your business.
  • Your question is out of line.
  • That question is inappropriate for this conversation.
  • This is 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’ll get what you mean.

Be Honest About How the Question Makes You Feel

When should you be honest about how the question makes you feel?

Most people will understand your desire to change the subject after you use one of the expressions we just discussed.

However, you may need to be extremely clear and honest about how the question makes you feel so that they finally drop it.

This may happen when you’re talking to a curious relative, an extremely chatty coworker, or a stranger sitting next to you on a crowded bus that you just can’t get away from.

In this case, you want to be direct.

Say that the topic makes you uncomfortable and this is not the time to discuss it.

For example, if someone is asking you about a political issue, you can say something like this:

I’m trying to have fun at this party, and I’d rather not think about this issue right now.

If you want, you can clarify that this topic is complicated, personal or upsetting. Try this:

We’re at the office, and I’d prefer not to talk about such a sensitive subject here.

We’re on a crowded train, and I’m not interested in talking about such an upsetting topic.

If the topic is inappropriate, you can emphasize that:

In my culture, we don’t talk about this subject [in the workplace/except with family/in public]. It makes me uncomfortable.

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, you’ll sometimes meet people who are just awkward, inappropriate, or even rude.

They might not understand social boundaries, they might have grown up with different values around these types of questions, or they might actually want to make you feel uncomfortable.

(Those are just a few psychological reasons why people ask such awkward or annoying questions.)

Change the Subject to a Less Uncomfortable Topic

Last but not least, once you’ve responded to the uncomfortable question, you’ll probably want to change the subject.

In my video on how to change the subject or conversation topic, I share four strategies on how to move on to something new while keeping the conversation going.

Let’s review what you can do to change the subject here:

  • You can change the subject by asking a question that’s slightly related but more general. Get the focus off you and onto something else that’s still interesting to the other person.
  • You can change the subject by introducing a new topic. It’s a good idea to head to any social event with an idea of what you’d like to bring up. When you’re prepared with something you are comfortable talking about, you’ll be able to confidently continue the conversation.
  • You can also change the subject by creating a distraction. Compliment the person on something visible and ask a follow-up question that’s completely unrelated to the question they just asked you. You might take the opportunity to get a drink or a snack, head to the restroom, or request a song from the DJ. Or you might encourage another person to join the conversation.

In all but the most extreme situations, using one of these strategies will enable you to move on to another conversation topic.

Your Turn

Now that you know how to handle uncomfortable questions, I’d love to hear from you.

Have you ever been asked an inappropriate or awkward question, either in English or your native language? How did you handle the situation? Did you know what to say?

Leave a comment and share what you plan to say next time you have to respond to an uncomfortable question.

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This article was originally published in November 2016, and was updated in June 2019.

20 thoughts on “How to Handle Uncomfortable Questions You REALLY Don’t Want to Answer in English”

  1. Thank you for your comments There is a lady in our circle who seems obsessed about how old people are She will probably not be able to hold back and eventually ask me how old I am. I am actually the same age as her – but in all modesty I look much younger She knows how old my partner is – he is 15 years younger than me but we look about the same She seems a bit of a gossip so I don’t want to tell her my age. So I can ask “Why do you need to know” ? But how do I continue

  2. I’m studying to take the boards examination for my medical degree & some people seem obsessed with asking where am I working & why am I not working still. I’m not working at the moment, because you must pass the boards in order to apply to work at the hospital, but they still ask why I’m not working still and start comparing other’s people achievements with my current situation, which makes me quite uncomfortable. I’ve been asked loudly in crowded places, even in my grandmother’s funeral… people turned their heads to look at me while my face changed colors. I left crying, just wonder why people are so insensitive, they can’t even respect funerals & people grieving. It’s like achievements are way more important than being human. People don’t even ask me how am I doing, they just go directly to the point “where are you working?”. It’s like they don’t show appreciation for me, just my achievements.

    • Hi Eve, thanks for you sharing your story with me. I am sorry to hear that people keep asking you about where you’re currently working and your professional achievements, especially at such inappropriate moments. The fact that you are studying to take the boards is extremely important, and it’s unfortunate that people don’t understand how that can consume your time and your energy. Like you mentioned, many people do not seem to appreciate our personal wellbeing or fulfillment outside of the professional sphere. This is a frustrating tendency in the US, as many people prioritize work over other aspects of our lives. Your focus on studying is essential to your future professional goals, and you should feel proud that you are dedicating your time to something that matters to you. I hope you are able to use some of these tips to deflect these questions in the future.

  3. You can reply this way : shhhh itz my secret and smile or say o this place is nt convenient to talk about it, and do not meet her any where convenient. To answer the question .

    • It’s often easiest to simply avoid answering the question. The other person will probably forget they asked!

  4. I work within a mental health organisation, I was questioned today on what my personal lived experience is with my mental health by a patient and it took me by suprise, I felt cornered into a group discussion about my personal past life and I didn’t know how to respond immediately with 4 faces staring at me. So I briefed my experience to then be questioned on how I think I feel now? It felt boundary pushing and intimidating leaving me questioning myself which is silly as I know how far I’ve come on a personal level and I’m beaming with sunshine in my life! I’m going to try put practice into place for this question being asked to me on the spot again, hopefully with a prepared answer of “I don’t feel comfortable with discussing my past as that is where I’d like it to stay” or “I’m not sure how this would benefit you knowing my personal life”. I debriefed with a staff member as it made me a little unnerved.

    • You’re right – being prepared to answer these questions will definitely help you if you’re ever put on the spot again. It’s great that you reflected on the experience and debriefed with another person. I’ve definitely been asked some uncomfortable questions in my own work, and I’ve had to learn that I don’t have to answer every question I’m asked. Brené Brown talks about how people have to earn the right to hear our stories, and I try to keep that in mind. At times, you’ll run into people who like to ask these uncomfortable questions on purpose in order to get you to question yourself (and perhaps even shift power dynamics), but it sounds like you were able to come back quickly to your own personal equilibrium. Thanks for sharing your experience!

  5. i have a large discoloured patch on my face where a large skin cancer was removed and as i can,t hide it i get constant enquirys about it . How do i reply without insulting my friends?

    • I imagine it’s frustrating to have to constantly explain this situation. I would probably say something like, “I appreciate your concern. I had a medical procedure done, but I’d prefer not to discuss the details. Thanks for understanding.”

  6. Thanks for this, can’t across it at a good time. I am a native English speaker but my relatives speak another language which I do speak but not at all fluently and in a very piecemeal way. I have found that I am questioned upfront and openly about my dealings with other members of my family when it is known to everyone involved that I dislike these other members, any that talked Ng about them makes me feel uncomfortable and ruins my day. I have told them this directly but they continue to ask anyway. The problem is that I want to maintain an amicable relationship with these relatives, since I have very few family members that I am still in touch with. How do I make it clear, while being nice, that I do not want to talk about certain topics ever since they repeatedly ask about it?

    Thanks for your wisdom.

    • That’s a tough situation, since you’ve mentioned that you already have told them directly that these questions make you uncomfortable. I would suggest acknowledging their interest in the topic, reminding them how it makes you feel, and then saying that you’d prefer not to discuss this. Unfortunately, certain people are persistent, and you may have to repeat the same strategy in several different ways before they stop asking, or you may simply have to exit the conversation. If you’ve clearly established your boundary, you’ll probably feel better, even if you can’t control the other person’s response. Here’s an example: “I understand that you are interested in talking about [this topic], but it makes me feel uncomfortable and I’d rather focus on having a good time right now. I would prefer not to discuss [other people/the topic] and hear what you’ve been up to instead. Would you mind sharing….?”

  7. I am struggling with a very difficult boss. Can you please suggest some neutral/diplomatic and of course grammatically correct responses which don’t commit me to anything but effectively ends/shuts down the conversation? Of course you want them to be inscrutable. This would help me immensely, I appreciate your inputs. And the article is great.

  8. Do you have any advice on how to dodge questions relating to trauma? I had a traumatic medical situation and will be returning to work after many months off and I know people will ask how I am doing or coping with things. I know it is with kind intention but it brings me back to the trauma. I also don’t want to down play what I’ve been through at all by saying “doing great”. I also don’t want to say “I don’t want to discuss it” as my work was really kind and sent me a really lovely care package so I don’t want to seem impersonal either. I’m just so nervous about it.

    • I can understand why you feel nervous about having to address your absence from work or answer questions indirectly or directly related to your trauma. My first thought is that you can acknowledge their concern and interest in how you’re doing. For example, you can say something like “I appreciate your concern/support/interest in how I’m doing.” From there, you can mention your return and your current focus. “I’m grateful to be back here / at work and looking forward to getting back into [project/the normal routine/the swing of things/whatever makes sense for you].”

      If you’re comfortable, or you feel the need to add more, you can mention something about being focused on the present moment, taking things one day at a time, etc. You may or may not want to bring up the fact that a lot has happened recently. You can say something like, “I appreciate your support. I’m grateful to be back at work and I’m looking forward to getting back into things. I have been through a lot recently, so I would prefer not to get into details. I’m taking things one day at a time. Thank you for understanding.”

      If mentioning what you’ve been through brings you back to the trauma, you don’t have to add that part. Your emphasis on the present moment makes it clear that you’re focused on how you’re doing right now, without having to say you’re doing better than you are or downplaying your experience. I hope this helped you prepare for these conversations, and I wish you the best with your return to the office.

  9. I am African American. I believe this topic is relevant no matter if English is you native language or not. Every time I am in places that are predominantly Caucasian they takes turns asking me personal questions. I absolutely hate it, I hate myself for answering when I leave I replay their questions in my head for days until it happens again. I want to be cordial but not at the expense of my personal life. Today a lady made a big deal about my car and was so loud and inappropriate. I come there to play Pickelball. Not once has she reached out to play with me but she constantly comments on my clothes anything other than Pickelball. This is my experience in every space I go. Like I am on display to explain why I am here in a public place or a place I pay to be in.

    • I agree 100%! It is really important to understand how to handle uncomfortable questions, because people are always asking them. I’m sorry to hear you’re having to deal with so many prying questions in inappropriate situations. I can relate to what you said about being frustrated that you end up answering the questions. In the past, I had the tendency to answer whatever question I was asked, without thinking about whether I really wanted to share this information with the person, or delve into this topic, or even engage in this type of conversation. Sometimes you just want to go about your business and focus on what you’re there to do, without having to field people’s questions. I’m still learning how to gracefully exit these situations, but being prepared with responses helps.


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