Top 10 Tips for Responding to Inappropriate Personal Questions at Work

22 Dec

We’ve all been on the receiving end of painfully personal questions. In the white-collar corporate factories where I’ve worked, protocols abound, so people are hyper-sensitive to blundering into one’s personal life. As a result my awkward questions always come from a) relatives and b) acquaintances. (I find that friends, whom I can pick and choose, don’t venture into inappropriate territory too often). One relative inquired, a few days before my wedding, how often I got my period and did I know when I ovulated. A male relative asked me when I’d be able to fit into my jeans again — two weeks after my first child was born. Another wondered, over dinner with my second husband, whether I missed my first husband.

In fairness, I blunder as well. My worst was the time I asked the mother of my daughter’s new best friend where they were from. “Ethiopia,” the mom answered. My brilliant response: “Oh, I knew you looked familiar! Do you work at Zed’s?” Turned out she was not a waitress at my favorite Ethiopian restaurant. She’d just escaped Ethiopia with her two young daughters, and had had to leave her husband behind. And I’d thought of food. I wanted to chew off my right arm and offer it to her in apology.

Which is why I needed to turn to experts — including all of you — for good advice. The following top 10 tips fall into two categories: very specific answers for very specific inappropriate questions, and generic answers that work well in almost any situation, whether it’s personal, professional or playgroup.

Example 2: You do speak more slowly and clearly, and without jargon, to your colleague’s 90 year old mother when you have occasion to meet her.

Posted by: | April 21, 2008 1:53 PM

“No sale here. Insecurity seems to be the motivation.”

If the mark of a secure man on your planet is to speak rapidly and untelligibly using phrases like, “Yo – whazzup” when speaking to octogenerians, I hope it’s lightly populated.

Posted by: to Why? | April 21, 2008 5:38 PM

Q. “The right girl can change you”
A. (to a woman) “The right girl can change you too!”
(to a man) “If that is true, then the right man can change you!”

Posted by: Dan | April 21, 2008 3:56 PM


“I have this scary vision of people standing around not asking any questions, just blurting out things about themselves or random thoughts on sports and weather. Haven’t we all met people like this? And how are they received?”

Ha, ha! And what’s the deal with worrying about “offending” people? Is this a continuation of a high school thing? We’re not mind readers..

Posted by: Born Free | April 21, 2008 11:59 AM 

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