Have you ever been asked a personal question by either a co-worker or manager? Or perhaps there’s that one person in the department who is always asking personal questions at work.
Whether it’s coming from your boss, your close co-worker, or a casual department or work team acquaintance, nosy questions don’t require you to respond with the real information the questioner is seeking. You have every right to personal privacy and boundaries when you are at work and don’t have to reveal anything you prefer to keep private. Just because you are asked does not mean you must answer.
Find out 12 ways to deal with nosy questions so you feel comfortable and protected at work.
Here’s what you’ll learn about people asking personal questions at work:
- How to respond to a rude personal question
- How to politely avoid rude questioning
- How to use humor to respond to nosy questions
There are various ways to handle personal questions at work. You can avoid answering personal questions in a polite and civil manner, you can be direct, or you can deflect with humor and good will.
One good approach to take when dealing with personal questions at work is to analyze the questioner and the situation, and consider why they are pursuing this line of questioning. Quickly consider why the person is asking you things of a personal nature, if they need the information they are seeking, and what could and would they do with anything you reveal. Carefully consider all possible consequences of the information you are being asked about being exposed outside of your initial conversation.
You should consider if your questioner is trustworthy, and how they could use the information against you, as well as the consequences of the information being overheard by anyone else.
People asking rude questions may straightforwardly ask what they want to know, or they may be sneaky and throw in a personal question during a casual conversation. Either way, they want to get personal information that isn’t otherwise known or discussed, and isn’t appropriate to ask about in the work environment.
Try one of the following ways to handle personal questions at work.
1. Answer with another question
A good way to avoid answering is to stop and ask a question, or answering a personal question with a question of your own.
For example, if someone asks you how you can afford the kind of car you’re driving, respond with “Why do you ask?” or “What makes you ask something like that?” Your questioner will have to stop and think of a response, and that will create a break in the conversation. It also allows you to dodge the question somewhat and creates a pause so you can steer the discussion in another direction.
2. Shame your questioner
Shaming your questioner is an effective way to avoid answering and hopefully make the questioner feel as uncomfortable as you.
If you are asked about what size dress you’re wearing, responding with something like “Wow, that’s a rather personal question to ask at work, isn’t it?” or “Do you ask everyone you work with what size clothing they’re wearing?” should embarrass them, especially if anyone else is around to hear or participate in the discussion
3. Just Say No
Don’t feel obligated to answer people asking personal questions at work.
You can always say no and change the subject or end the conversation. If asked about personal finances or your marriage or romantic relationship, simply respond with “No, I’m not talking about that” or “No, I won’t answer that question” Alternatively, you can ignore the question and just continue talking about something else.
4. Remove yourself
There’s no law that says you have to stay in the conversation when a coworker asks too many personal questions.
Excuse yourself, suddenly remember an appointment or an urgent matter you have to attend to, or comment that there’s a looming deadline to meet and just leave. “Oops, I just remembered….sorry I have to run.”
Use Humor and Honesty
5. Answer in a funny way
Sometimes you may want to respond to people asking personal questions at work with humor, to ease the tension without being too harsh on the questioner.
For example, if asked about how much your salary is, responding with “Well, I’m not driving that Maserati yet” is both evasive and slightly humble. Making light of an awkward subject will break any tension while preserving the camaraderie without actually answering.
6. Rely on a friendly co-worker for help
If you have a good relationship with a friendly co-worker who knows you have a nosy questioner, ask them to create a distraction when you are in a tough spot.
They can come to your rescue by interrupting with an “important issue” that they need you to step away and attend. Or they can join the conversation with something like “Oh I couldn’t help but overhear that and here’s what I think…” and then steer the discussion in a different direction.
7. Be honest about how you feel
Honesty can be the best policy when it comes to uncomfortable personal questions in the workplace. Just come out and say you are not comfortable answering. Be direct but polite and friendly, then change the subject or ask your questioner something.
For example, “I know you are just asking out of friendly interest, but I am uncomfortable with your question. I’m sure we can find something else to discuss that’s not so personal.” Or “I don’t like when you ask me personal questions at work and would like you to stop. I really enjoy talking to you but not about everything. I’m sure you would feel the same way if I asked you about personal or embarrassing things. I hope you understand.”
Deflect and Redirect
8. Ask about relevance
When a personal question comes up, take a break, then answer by pointing out that the question isn’t relevant to the conversation or is very personal.
If asked about your personal finances or love life, say something like “Hmmm,
and that is relevant how?” or “That’s really very personal, my personal business,
not sure it is appropriate to talk about that with you at work.”
9. Turn the Tables
Don’t let yourself be bullied by a persistent questioner.
Turn the tables and start pushing back.
If asked something you don’t want to answer but the questioner persists, say “What would you say if I asked you that?” or “What about you? You answer me the same thing and I’ll think about answering.”
10. Offer or ask for advice instead answering directly
If someone asks a personal question at work, try offering or asking for advice instead of answering.
If someone asks if you’ve gained weight lately, respond with something like “Well, my cousin started taking a wonderful supplement that she’s telling everyone about, and it has helped her feel more energetic and active.” Or “Why, do you have any advice for losing weight? Because I would love to know any helpful tips to pass on to my mom who needs to lose a few pounds.”
11. Repeat the question but frame it in a different way
Instead of answering, you can repeat the question by saying it in a different, less personal way, with extra explanation.
For example, if someone asks you something personal about religious beliefs, repeat and rephrase it with “I think what I understand you asking about is really the nature of such and such religion, but I’m not that well-versed in that subject.”
Then go on to talk about good sources for religious information that the questioner can look up if they are really interested.
12. Answer ambiguously
When you don’t want to get into a discussion of a personal subject, simply answer ambiguously.
If asked whether you are happy with your performance review and raise, give an answer like “Well, I think my supervisor put a log of thoughtful input into my review, the same way I did, and we had some really great insights together. Overall, it was a great opportunity to understand our working relationship, our department, and our project work.”
Remember, you can always politely avoid answering personal questions.
The above are only 12 ways to deal with personal questions at work, but you have many options. Which tactics would you feel most comfortable using? Have you used any of these tactics already when asked embarrassing questions?
Remember, you are not obligated to disclose anything that you don’t want to, especially in the work environment. And many times, it’s a good thing to push back with someone who is being inappropriate. You can do it in a friendly way, with humor and good will, or with a quick and direct response that can cut off any further personal questioning.
You are allowed to protect your privacy at work and in public.