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.
- 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.)
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.
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.
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.