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How to Graciously Answer Nosy Questions

By: Maralee McKee

Greetings Everyone!

Here’s some good news for our Wednesday: Etiquette gifts us with a way to reply to rude and nosy questions without us having to take the bumpy Low Road to one of two ungracious destinations.

The Low Road-

1. Repaying the offense with a curt response.

2. Caving in just to “be nice,” despite not wanting to, and sharing the information the other person has no right or need to know.

The High Road-

1. Realizing that repaying evil for evil (or, in this case, plain old “impolite for impolite”) always bears like fruit. Always!

2. Realizing that the foundation of etiquette is pleasant boundaries. You can set them and never again feel like the proverbial doormat for the offender to continually wipe his or her prying questions on.

Sound great?

So, what exactly do you say the next time someone puts his or her nose where you’d rather he or she didn’t?

Wednesday is Readers’ Q & A day!

Here’s a letter I received this week from one of our blog family members. Have you ever felt the same way?

Dear Maralee,

What’s the best way to answer questions such as: “How much money do you make?” Or, “How much did that cost?” Also, what do I say when I make arrangements to take off work to take care of personal business and I’m pressed for more details by a coworker being nosy. This happens to me quite a lot…maybe because I’m shy about standing my ground. Thanks so much!

Great question! We’ve all been right there with her, or in a similar place. My favorite (actually my least favorite!) is when someone presses me about why I can’t come to his or her party or event.

So, what should we say?

Before you reply, keep in mind the two points above about taking the High Road.

Next, if you know the other person, get a sense for his or her motives. Is he or she trying to bully information out of you, or is the person an extra-extrovert who will tell you anything about himself or herself? With the latter, the question was probably just his or her way of making conversation, and he or she honestly doesn’t mean to intrude at all. When you live your life “wide open,” you tend to think everyone else does as well. When you’re the close-to-your-vest type, you tend to prefer the details of your life to remain nicely arranged in a locked and closely guarded vault.

Next, humor is always a polite way of keeping things light and civil.

Using this method, if you’re asked:

• “How much are you paid?” You could say, “Half what I’m worth!”

• “How much did that cost?” You could say, “Only my hairdresser…I mean, only my accountant knows!”

• “Why are you taking the day off?” You could say, “My coworkers are driving me crazy! Do you ever feel like that?”

There are other options. A more direct, but still gracious approach is fine. In this case, your tone of voice is going to convey your message even more so than your words. If you’re a parent, you know exactly what I mean! Your child can say, “Yes, Mom,” and it’s the sweetest two words being spoken at that moment in the whole world. Or, he can say the same two words with a different tone and you think there must have been a mix-up at the hospital because surely your DNA could not have created this child!

So, using the more direct method, if you’re asked:

• “How much are you paid?” You could say, “My mom taught me never to discuss money or politics.”

• “How much did that cost?” You could say, “Not as much as it looks like.” Or, “I got a good deal.”

• “Why are you taking the day off?” You could say, “I’m taking a personal day for personal reasons, of course.”

When you use either of these two methods, the person should get the idea (nicely) that you’re finished providing information.

Another helpful (and interesting) hint!

The word because is powerful. It can act as its own complete explanation. No one is quite sure why, but social experiments have proven it true. It probably goes back to the days of our childhood when mom or dad’s answer to our question “Why?” was simply “Because.”

There was a study that involved having a young lady ask the person waiting in line to use the copier at a large public library if she could please go ahead of him or her in line. When she asked if she could cut in front and gave no explanation, only 60% of the people let her go before them.

When she added a reason to her request (“My class starts in ten minutes and I have to have these papers to complete my assignment”), more than 90% said, “Sure, go ahead.”

Here’s where it gets interesting.

When she asked to go ahead of others and gave this reason: “May I please step in front of you because I need to make some copies?”, more than 90% of the people also said, “Yes.” Her only reason was “because,” which really isn’t a reason at all.

This tidbit is useful to remember anytime we’re pressed by someone for additional information.

Take for instance a coworker asking, “No really, why are you taking next Thursday off?” You could answer, “I’m taking a personal day, because I need the day off.” Or, when asked why you’re not going to a party, you could say, “Because I’m not able to attend.” Again, just keep in mind your tone of voice.

It’s also OK to simply say, “I’d rather not say” or, “That’s private,” especially if you believe the person is trying to intimidate you with his or her question.

One last thing…

We live in a new age of “no secrets.” Whether on reality TV, Facebook, Twitter, or video sharing sites—you name it—the smallest details of everyone’s lives seem to fill every nook and cranny of our days. Still, be slow to ask personal questions. There’s a difference between what we choose to share and what we want to be asked to share.

You know me—I could go on and on, but now it’s your turn. What questions have you been asked, and how have you nicely handled them? Or, what nosy question would you like a pat answer for? E-mail me. I love hearing from you!

This is all for now. Corbett, my little one, catches every illness within ten miles of a sneeze. He’s home today with the start of a sore throat and stuffy nose. He needs my attention. I’m off to read him a story and scratch his back.

If you’re new here, welcome! Please add your e-mail in the box on the top right to get your blog posts each week.

See you on Friday for Quick Tip day. I’ll share the polite way to talk with food in your mouth! Just please don’t tell my children!

PS: I just got a return call from the White House! Honestly! I’m so excited! I’ll share on Friday. Corbett awaits!


  • Wonderwoman

    I was asked whether or not I live with my current boyfriend by a family member that I only talk to when we see each other at family events. Wasn’t sure how to respond, so I gave in even though I know this person was probably only asking so he could find some juicy gossip. Anyone have a good response for this? I can’t really say “I don’t know” for this one.

    • Nancy

      I would default to, “Why do you ask?”

  • beagleman1968

    My dad who was a very private person, taught all us kids to always answer a nosy question with “I don’t know.” It was his “catch all” response to cover everything. Imagine our nosy neighbor’s response one day to “Hello, which one are you?” Me: “I don’t know!” (true story!) LOL!

  • $78479375

    One way I tell someone something is none of their business when they ask me a question is I say “I don’t know.” A lot of times when someone is being rude I make up an excuse to get away from them. For example, complete strangers have asked me a personal question in a chat rooms, I said “That is a personal question I’m not going to answer that” or “That is a personal question I prefer not to answer that” or whatever then I say “I hate to cut you off short but I have to go I will talk to you later.” I did not really have to go I was trying to get rid of them and I never intended to talk to them again. Is there anyone on here that makes up an excuse to get away from people that are being rude? If someone asks you a personal question and you don’t answer them and they ask you the personal question again is that very rude? Was that person not able to take a hint? Thanks!

  • H4000

    If someone asks me a personal question I always say “Why?” if the person says “Just Asking” or “Just Curious” or “Just Wondering” I just don’t answer them.

  • H4000

    I enjoyed your article very much. I have a question, if someone asks you a personal question and you tell them nicely you don’t want to answer and they ask “Why?” is it okay to get rude? You were nice but that person is pushing it so does that mean you can give them a direct clear message? If you were nice at first and the person pushes it do you have a right to make it clear to them it is none of their business? Thanks!

    • Maralee McKee

      Thank you for reading the post and saying that you enjoyed it! You’re right, it is soooo aggravating when someone just doesn’t take the hint that you don’t want to answer a question. When someone asks me a question I don’t want to respond to I say something like, “That’s not something I talk about.” If they ask, “Why?” Then I would say, “My decisions are private, may I ask why you want to know?” If they have a legitimate reason, let’s say they’re asking me about a medical condition I have, but then they tell me they were just diagnosed with the same thing (or a close friend or relative was), it changes the game. What they really want is information and a person who understands not just the diagnosis, job loss, death of a loved one, adoption story, son in jail….whatever it might be, they want someone who understands how they’re feeling. Now, if they have no connection to the thing they’re asking me about I would be as nice as I could be but still very clear and say, “My ‘why’ is personal.” You can then either change the subject (“Have you heard anything about the new Sandra Bullock movie that’s out?”) without giving them time to respond to your reason for not responding, or also without giving them time to respond, excuse yourself from them, “If you’ll excuse me please, I’m going to the restroom.”

      Hope this helps you give them a polite non-answer. Anytime we repay rudeness with rudeness we become like the other person, demean ourselves, and miss out on the opportunity to show the world that our manners makes us a welcome mat but never a door mat!

      • $78479375

        I have had people ask me what I did for a living, I said “I currently don’t have a job.” They asked “Why?” I said “I don’t want to talk about it.”
        Was that appropriate? Have a great day.

  • Terri

    Hi Maralee aka M2,     
    Thanks for a perfect post today about questions/privacy.  Here is one of my questions that might fit today’s topic.  On a vacation and our 1st successful year for our business, my hubby bought a gorgeous “lab-created emerald” ring w/ CZ’s.  I was thrilled for his gift of jewelry that was “just because”.  A wife of my co-worker asked me one day if it was real and I was surprised that someone would be so bold to ask.  Maybe asking if something is real should be off the list of things to say to others. Asking questions about “real or fake” just for conversation or just to be curious is not productive.  Imagine someone being asked about their toupee, hair piece etc because of hair thinning, chemo, or breast implants because of a mastectomy.  Maybe one day I will have false teeth…..hope nobody asks me.  Congrats on your WH call.  Hope Corbett feels better soon.  Love ya!  Terri

  • Anonymous

    I once saw Totie Fields the commedienne interviewed on TV. She had recently had her leg amputated. She was asked how she handled questions about how she lost her leg. Paraphrasing her, she said, "I tell people that I'll answer their question on the condition that it is the last. When they agree, I tell them 'It was bitten off'".

    from: Sam Seipp

  • Anonymous

    How about responding in this way to the following question:

    “How much are you paid?”

    "I don't really know. You see, I've always used direct deposit."

    from: Sam Seipp

  • Rhoda @ Southern Hospitality

    HI, Maralee, I'm friends with Christy too & clicked over from her blog. So nice to meet you. I'm down in B'ham, so in AL too with Christy. She's a busy girl & I haven't talked to her in awhile, but must catch up. I subscribed to your blog via email to enter your contest. Hope you'll come & visit me soon!

  • Erica


    Thank you for the gentle reminder to this extrovert that not everyone thinks the way I do! Though there are some questions I wouldn’t dream of asking, it did get me thinking that the ones I do ask might not always be welcome. I’ll be more careful now so as not to “pry.” I appreciate the tips!

  • Maralee McKee

    Hello and thanks for sharing!

    Here’s one suggestion for repsonding to questions about your baby’s conception. (Questions, by the way that no one should be asking you, or anyone!)

    This might help elimante the worry that your current answer sends the impression to some that you’re not proud of.

    When asked how you conceived simply smile and say, “In the way that was perfect for me, of course.” If you happen to know if the other person is a parent, than you can say, “In the way that was perfect for me, just like your way was perfect for you!”

    Another option, “In the way that got me my beautiful son/daughter!”

    Blessings to you and your little one!

  • Anonymous

    I am a Choice Mom, and for some reason my singledom makes people think it’s ok to ask questions about ‘how’ I got pregnant. I just politely say that it’s private, but I do worry that it gives people the impression that it’s something I’m not proud of, and that’s not the case, I’m just not the kind of person who talks about these things in public.

    • Anonymous

      I would reply with, “the same way everybody gets pregnant” :)