Top 10 Tips for Responding to Inappropriate Personal Questions at Work

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.

Retorts for Specific Situations

1. You're pregnant and someone asks if you are expecting, wonders how much weight you've gained, whether you are delivering vaginally, going to breastfeed, take an extended maternity leave, or another in the endless stream of inappropriate baby-related topics. Try saying, as Ashlee Simpson recently told US Magazine : "I just think that's an inappropriate question to ask any woman."

2. You get asked to go on a date you don't want to go on: "Sorry, I don't date people at work." Or "I'm not dating now." Or the efficient: "No thank you. I've got work to do."

3. You and your spouse are splitting. You get asked why. From Carolyn Hax's column comes the pithy: "It didn't stick."

4. Nosy co-workers ask where you are heading for vacation because they want to be able to find you there, pretend they are in the know, or disparage you for taking too nice or too lousy or any vacation at all: "Somewhere no one can find me."

5. Someone asks when you are going to have kids or why you haven't had kids. From Carolyn Hax again: "It's not in the cards for us."

6. Someone asks what you did during the blank years on your resume. Instead of self-labeling yourself as a stay-at-home mom (unless you like being a stereotype), try "I stayed home for family reasons," which implies a relative's health issues, a child with special needs or your personal choice (and none of their business).

7. You get asked a personal question in a job interview or at work. Smile and repeat after me:

"Federal and state laws including the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to name a few, legally forbid interviewers from asking questions about race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, age, national origin, marital status, or family matters. Would you like to talk to my attorney?"

Generic Inappropriate Questions and Wonderfully Effective Responses

8. Talk them to death about your personal life whenever they ask. They'll stop asking anything not work-related.

9. Raise both eyebrows, stare for a three-second count, and say: "Did you really just ask me that?"

10. "Bite me."

Try these. They really work.

Next week: Send me your Tips for Dividing Chores and Childcare (and Convincing Your Spouse to do More) so I can include them in next Monday's Top 10 Tips.

By Leslie Morgan Steiner |  April 21, 2008; 7:30 AM ET  | Category:  Top Ten Tips
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Comments

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"8. Talk them to death about your personal life whenever they ask. They'll stop asking anything not work-related."

This strategy doesn't always work. Some people will listen to ANYTHING that keeps them from working.

Posted by: Born Free | April 21, 2008 7:49 AM

First.

Don't forget the Hax "Wow"!

(Sorry I haven't been around lately)

Posted by: mehitabel | April 21, 2008 7:51 AM

OK, so I was second. And third. Oh well...

Good point, Born Free.

(Now it's back to the salt-mines).

Posted by: Anonymous | April 21, 2008 7:52 AM

Eek! There isn't automatic sign-in any more. That was mine at 7:52 AM.

Posted by: mehitabel | April 21, 2008 7:55 AM

No answer at all, just "the look," which consists of lowering your glasses to the end of your nose, peering over them, and freezing them. You ignore the question and turn away from the questioner.

Posted by: babsy1 | April 21, 2008 7:56 AM

Leslie - Tip 6 was poorly worded "unless you like being a stereotype" and in the context of your tip actually extraneous. My two cents, I am not a mom at all.

For number 3: why do people need to know at all? Most of my co-workers didn't know when a long-term relationship broke up. The only reason my boss knew is b/c he asked "was I jealous of co-worker's [recent] engagement and when was it going to be me?" To which I simply replied, we are no longer together.

Posted by: Product of a Working Mother | April 21, 2008 8:05 AM

We're adopting. How should I respond to people who ask why? My standard answer will probably be, "Because we wanted a child" but I know that won't stop the fertility questions. Any suggestions on how to handle that one?

Posted by: Cubeland | April 21, 2008 8:09 AM

"Federal and state laws including the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to name a few, legally forbid interviewers from asking questions about race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, age, national origin, marital status, or family matters. Would you like to talk to my attorney?"

I'm sure they won't want to speak to your attorney however that snotty response won't get you the job.

Posted by: Come on | April 21, 2008 8:12 AM

Pretend you didn't hear all of the question. If you ask them to repeat it they might realize how rude/stupid it was the first time. It can also give a "blurter" a chance to retract.

Posted by: KLB SS MD | April 21, 2008 8:16 AM

HOWEVER, if people don't know you are splitting up, then you get this:

I had no idea, got moved to another dept, knew my boss had been married. It was during lunch and some coworkers were talking about going to her house to help fix something or other. And I blurted out - but you have a husband for that! Kinda joking, but a little surprised that they would be helping her out like that.

It got awfully quiet. And then someone told me she was divorced. Hey, it's not like they send something like that out on an email or anything!

Posted by: atlmom | April 21, 2008 8:22 AM

To cubeland: How about simply saying because we wanted to give a loving home to a child who needed one.

Posted by: Product of a Working Mother | April 21, 2008 8:26 AM

I agree with Come On's response to the "Do you want to talk to my lawyer" suggestion. If you say that, I hope you didn't want the job. The better strategy would be to deflect the question with an answer about how you would do the job. Try to determine what motivates the employer to ask the question and answer that instead. For instance, "Are you married?" Answer, "I would never let my personal life interfere with my position as a widget salesman. I love to travel and have a lot of experience covering large sales territories in an efficient and effective manner."

Of course, if the illegal personal questions keep coming, then maybe this isn't a position you really want anyway and if you come to that decision, I would go with Hax's "Wow" and then exit stage left.

Posted by: sunnydaze | April 21, 2008 8:35 AM

Agree with the others about question 7. If you do that, you've stated clearly

"I'm not a team player. I'll do things my way. If I don't get my way, I'll cause trouble. I'll drag my lawyer in and run over anybody in my way."

If the employer is looking for that type of person, you're in. In the very likely case that the employer is NOT looking for a shark, but is instead looking for a team player, some very legitimate reason that will stand up in court will be found to deny you the job. The vacancy will be canceled if necessary - funding cuts, you know.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 21, 2008 8:42 AM

Leslie, FYI, the link for providing tips for next week goes to a weather page.

I have little to offer on this topic -- I'm pretty open about most stuff, so most of these questions don't phase me. The only ones that get my back up are the ones with a judgment attached -- i.e., "you aren't sending your kids to daycare, ARE YOU?" But I've found the best response to that is to return the favor -- if they're going to presume that I believe what they believe, then I'm going to presume that they believe what I believe. I.e., "Oh, of course, you betcha, isn't daycare great? Boy, my kids LOVE it there." Etc. etc. etc. I have yet to meet someone who hasn't backed off when faced with such cheery apparent obliviousness.

Posted by: Laura | April 21, 2008 8:46 AM

Laura: that is an awesome strategy!

Posted by: POWM | April 21, 2008 8:49 AM

when I went back to work, I was very clear that I had been out of the workforce because I had stayed home with kids, and that was what was important to me. It did not hinder my ability to get a job.

When my future boss said to me: you don't have to give two weeks notice, right? It sounds like you *just need to find a nanny for the kids*.

I knew at that point he had no idea what having kids was all about. Since it took a lot longer to find a good nanny than to give two weeks notice!

Posted by: atlmom | April 21, 2008 8:53 AM

I like "Bite Me" the best. I think I'll have a tee shirt made up.

But seriously, I think it is true that some people have no personal barriers for their personal lives and so think nothing of asking these inane questions. They're the same people who will tell you, at length, about their son's drug problem or how their pregnant daughter doesn't know who the father is. Some people just need to be educated about what's appropriate and what's not and for some, that's harder to learn.

Posted by: Marijean | April 21, 2008 9:05 AM

Atlmom, I remember being warned about this as part of the military lifestyle. If you run into someone you haven't seen in several years, don't immediately ask "And how's Carol doing?" since the individual may have split up with Carol several years back for all your know. Apparently the best greeting is the more neutral, "And how's the family?" This allows the individual to then share or not share the news that he and Carol are no longer together.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 21, 2008 9:07 AM

How did "where are you going on vacation" become an inappropriate personal question?

And if you aren't able to talk about the blank years on your resume, maybe you shouldn't be looking for a job.

Posted by: acorn | April 21, 2008 9:10 AM

#7 and 10 are too rude for me.
In a job interview, you might want to deflect the question by laughing, then mentioning that the person might be kidding since (name the appropriate act here) does not allow these kinds of questions.

#10 might be better handled by walking away without a word. This is not the way to respond to a co-worker that you deal with on a daily basis, or a manager, or in a job interview.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 21, 2008 9:12 AM


Marijean

"But seriously, I think it is true that some people have no personal barriers for their personal lives and so think nothing of asking these inane questions. They're the same people who will tell you, at length, about their son's drug problem or how their pregnant daughter doesn't know who the father is. Some people just need to be educated about what's appropriate and what's not and for some, that's harder to learn."

Refuse to be part of the audience.

Posted by: Born Free | April 21, 2008 9:37 AM

If you have a gap in your resume, one trick I'd suggest using is saying that you inherited a significant amount of money and decided to take advantage of this once in a lifetime opportunity to taketime off for a specific period of time to travel and pursue personal interests. Not many people can argue with this, because they might very well make the same choice!

Posted by: WorkingMomX | April 21, 2008 9:53 AM

WorkingMomX

"If you have a gap in your resume, one trick I'd suggest using is saying that you
inherited a significant amount of money and decided to take advantage of this once in a lifetime opportunity to taketime off for a specific period of time to travel and pursue personal interests. Not many people can argue with this, because they might very well make the same choice!"


If the story is bogus, yes a lot of people could argue with it.

Posted by: Sheesh | April 21, 2008 9:57 AM

It shuts people up, that was my point, Sheesh.

Posted by: WorkingMomX | April 21, 2008 9:58 AM

"It was during lunch and some coworkers were talking about going to her house to help fix something or other"

Nothing like sucking up to a boss on your off-time, huh?

Posted by: to atlmom | April 21, 2008 10:00 AM

Someone asks when you are going to have kids or why you haven't had kids. From Carolyn Hax again: "It's not in the cards for us."

I actually have no problem telling the truth about our childless state as most of my co-workers know anyway - I have only one ovary (my other one was removed last November) and my mother (and mother in law) have ovarian cancer, so it's likely I will in the future. We're actually looking at prophyllactically removing the other ovary. It stimulates discussion on what tests ALL women should be getting - CA125 and transvaginal ultrasounds and it brings the sympathy factor in as well.

Posted by: amwhite | April 21, 2008 10:06 AM

"I blurted out - but you have a husband for that! Kinda joking, but a little surprised that they would be helping her out like that.

It got awfully quiet. And then someone told me she was divorced. Hey, it's not like they send something like that out on an email or anything!"

And this is one reason why a woman should change her name.

When one of our admin people got divorced, there was no email - just a name change when she went back to her birth name. Without saying a word, everybody knew she got divorced. Nobody "stepped in it".

Posted by: better than email | April 21, 2008 10:06 AM

Have we seriously gotten to the point where we are quoting Ashlee Simpson? Regardless of whether it is a good comeback or not, Ashlee Simpson (smacking hand to head)really!

Secondly, if you are interviewing for a job, gaps in your resume are legitimate questions. If you are defensive about it, it will only make you less appealing. My theory is that if you "own" whatever you are doing, people can respect that. Also, remember that if you lie, you will need to remember that lie as long as you work there. It can get complicated. What a tangled web we weave.....

Really, Ashlee Simpson - c'mon.

Posted by: moxiemom | April 21, 2008 10:09 AM

And how would that apply to a male coworker, better than email? I certainly don't want my name to telegraph my marital status.

Posted by: Fern | April 21, 2008 10:09 AM

I'm 4 months pregnant with my second; my son just turned one. I've lost count of the number of people who have asked if this baby was planned or who have called it an accident. My answer is that it is an unexpected but not unwanted blessing.

Inapprorpriate comments at work - my boss, who happens to be our general counsel, made a comment in a department meeting about my roots needing to be touched up. I pulled her aside afterwards and pointed out that being pregnant, my doctor has advised me to hold off on the hair coloring for now... some are ok with it but mine likes to err on the side of caution so yes my grey is going to show through for a bit. At another meeting when I was eating a cookie she said it was ok for me to chow down and get fat but she would pass because she is concerned about her weight. I again spoke to her afterwards and pointed out that her comments could be taken as harrassment if I weren't so laid back and if she has any concerns about my appearance in the future to talk to me one-on-one. She has since been quiet on the topic.

All my answers are based on my gram's theory of killing them with kindness - be polite and they don't know how to react so it usually shuts them up.

Posted by: Worker Bee | April 21, 2008 10:13 AM

Absolutely hilarious about the link to a weather page! Will have to check that out. The tech problems never end...

Love the adoption answer: "Because we wanted to give a loving home to a child who needed one." Followed by silence. Should work for most people. Unfortunately some people just can't help being nosy. They need some of the harsher tips, including Haxie's excellent "Wow. I can't believe you asked me that."

I also believe that if you sue enough potential employers for asking illegal job interview questions, you may never need to work again. And you get karmic credit for being a social vigilante. Not sure I would have the guts, however -- the other tips might work better if you actually want the job.

Posted by: Leslie | April 21, 2008 10:13 AM

amwhite

"I actually have no problem telling the truth about our childless state as most of my co-workers know anyway - I have only one ovary (my other one was removed last November) and my mother (and mother in law) have ovarian cancer, so it's likely I will in the future. We're actually looking at prophyllactically removing the other ovary. It stimulates discussion on what tests ALL women should be getting - CA125 and transvaginal ultrasounds and it brings the sympathy factor in as well."

That would certainly "shut up" the nosiest Parker in my office!

Posted by: amblack | April 21, 2008 10:14 AM

I never thought I'd actually agree with Asslee Simpson.

Posted by: Jen | April 21, 2008 10:16 AM

I don't think the inquery "Where are you from?" a rude personal question at all. If someone refuses to answer it, you don't want them for a friend anyway.

A nice lady helped me to the next platform to board the next train at the Metro station. On the way to the next platform I asked her, "How are you doing today?". She proceeded to tell me all about her pregnancy, (struggle with morning sickness, weight gain, increased clumbsiness...) I think one of the reasons why pregnant women get asked so many [rude?] questions from strangers or coworkers is because we realize that it is a subject that they *WANT* to talk about.

Then there's the woman that I meet on the Metro several times a month. Her son lost both eyes and a leg while serving in Iraq. She's a person that *NEEDS* to talk about her personal life, even if it is strangers that she turns to for comfort.

Posted by: DandyLion | April 21, 2008 10:20 AM

6. Someone asks what you did during the blank years on your resume.

My husband makes buckets of money, so I was able to be a SAHM. After a while, it got really boring staying home with the kids and I missed the psychic "fix" I got at work. When do I start?

Posted by: Mmmm | April 21, 2008 10:21 AM

If I enter into a converstation with someone in a social situation and it becomes apparent they are from a particular state or region, I will ask where they are from. Why is this rude? It is normal to want to find out someone's background. I find it very interesting to learn about people, their upbringing and lives and never found it rude when someone has asked me the same.

Posted by: Get Real | April 21, 2008 10:43 AM

I'm not sure, but I think some people take offense at "where are you from?" especially if they've been here in the US for years. In some ways what you are communicating is "Hey, you look and sound so different from 'us'." A more innocuous guestion is, "How long have you lived here?" or "How do you find living in the US?" In my case, I offended my friend not by asking where she was from, but by idiotically assuming that everyone from Ethiopia works in my favorite Ethiopian restaurant.

Posted by: Leslie | April 21, 2008 10:45 AM

"I think one of the reasons why pregnant women get asked so many [rude?] questions from strangers or coworkers is because we realize that it is a subject that they *WANT* to talk about."

If the 'they' you're referring to is the pregnant woman (women) themselves, I have to wholeheartedly disagree.

Yes, you get some pregnant women who want to discuss every day's list o' pregnancy symptoms to whomever happens to be standing next to them, but overall, pregnant women loathe the stupid, insensitive questions we receive.

Secondly, if I want to talk about it, I've got my little inner-circle for that, not some stranger on the metro platform.

Posted by: Corvette1975 | April 21, 2008 11:06 AM

Leslie, I think out of those questions "Where are you from?" is the best one. It can easily be answered "Here", "Texas", "A bunch of places", "Ethiopia", "Nowhere, really" or any number of ways. I think that "How long have you lived in the US?" is more intruding as it points out difference, rather than being open ended.

Posted by: Fern | April 21, 2008 11:18 AM

Leslie,
A variant on the "where are you from story" --

My husband is an American military officer with an interesting ethnic first and last name. A few years ago, we were at a diplomatic reception abroad where he was wearing the uniform of a US military member and the U.S. ambassador's wife spent about ten minutes asking him things like "Have you ever been to the United States?" and complimenting him on his english! My husband apparently felt it was better to go along with this charade than to point out to her that he was also an American. A few weeks later, she ran into him at his office at the embassy and was really embarassed. I love this story!

Posted by: Anonymous | April 21, 2008 11:20 AM

"Where are you from?" is definitely forbidden in job interviews.

Posted by: tomtildrum | April 21, 2008 11:21 AM

Let's just all stop talking to each other so that conversations formerly considered small talk will no longer offend anybody. I was thinking that all we have left to innocuously comment on is the weather, but then I realized that a simple "nice weather today" could turn into a dramatic offense. What if the person you say that to has a child who has terrible allergies that flare up in the spring and now you've put them in an awkward position because for them it's not actually nice weather due to the allergy problem and now they are upset that someone wouldn't understand the terrible dangers of spring and what it can do to children and families.

Ridiculous, no? Get real. Most of those questions presented are people just being friendly. Since when is a vacation destination top secret? If you say "Florida," do you really think the person is going to call every hotel in the entire state to find you?

Posted by: Oh Please | April 21, 2008 11:22 AM

Also, I am married with no children and people routinely ask me when we are going to ask kids. Do I freak out on them and tell them that I had a miscarriage and make them feel bad about talking to me? No. I just say we're thinking about it and MOVE ON. They are asking because they are nice and they care and most people like babies. Why on earth would I shoot back a snotty response?

By the way, assuming that any person that moves here from a certain country works in a restaurant from that country is just absurd and really speaks to that person's prejudices. That issue is not solved by never asking another person where they are from.

Posted by: Oh Please | April 21, 2008 11:26 AM

I once had a boss who called her employees into her office to announce she was getting divorced, again. Her rationale was that she knew we'd all hear about it sooner or later, so she'd rather tell us the facts in order to reduce erroneous speculation.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 21, 2008 11:29 AM

I like that in the same post that you jump on people for getting offended, Oh Please, you accuse Leslie of having prejudice. I have the same conversation with a woman who is a checker in the grocery store every time I go in about how I look just like her friend. And have I met him yet? I think it's funny and I'm glad she remembers me. I apparently look like a lot of people, because this happens to me all the time. Sure, what Leslie said was one of those things that makes you want to smack yourself in the face afterwards, but if the person she said that to weren't a minority, would it be so offensive?

Posted by: Fern | April 21, 2008 11:41 AM

While it's true that it is against the law to ask certain types of questions in an interview, in my experiance even lawyers don't follow that rule. And I promise, pointing out to a lawyer that they are breaking a law is a sure way to not get that job.
As a person who has very tenious relations with my family, I get really sick of all the questions about parents. But I have stock answers I give out so that I don't sound like an awful person for not having any contact with them, and so we can move on to talking about something else.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 21, 2008 11:42 AM

Don't ask an employee with cancer how long the doctors have given them to live. (I wish I were joking on this one).

Posted by: Anonymous | April 21, 2008 11:46 AM

I once asked a couple visiting our church if they were new to the area, a question I commonly ask church visitors. The gentleman said they were, and I proceeded to ask where they moved from, and the man said, "Korea." "Just now?" I asked. Well, no, they moved here 15 or 20 years ago, but it turns out that he was offended by my question. So now I don't ask. So yesterday I greeted someone who was new and said how glad I was that he came. But I was looking for my children at the moment and didn't stay to chat at all. As I was leaving he said that he was from Bolivia.

Posted by: where are you from? | April 21, 2008 11:46 AM

Um, where are you from should not offend anyone. I would ask anyone I just met where they were from, regardless of whether they looked foreign or not. The answer could be DC, Bethesda, Alaska, or Japan. So what? The question does not imply that you must be from another country. Maybe it's just that I have lived in the DC area all my life and most people are not from here. So, I always ask where someone is from.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 21, 2008 11:53 AM

"And how would that apply to a male coworker, better than email? I certainly don't want my name to telegraph my marital status. "

Men tend to have a thicker skin when somebody steps into regarding divorce. It's with women (in general) that you need to walk on eggshells.

Posted by: to Fern | April 21, 2008 11:53 AM

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?

Posted by: atb | April 21, 2008 11:54 AM

Fern - Saying you look like my friend is one thing (that would be a friendly conversation, glad you didn't get offended by her statement).

On the other hand, when you find out that someone is from Ethiopia (or Mexico, or Ireland, or insert foreign country here) and then assume that it means that they work in an Ethiopian (Mexican, Irish, etc) restaurant because there are people at that restaurant that also look like them, then yes, I think that's a problem.

Posted by: Oh Please | April 21, 2008 11:56 AM

Fern, I agree. I just met a lady with an accent I could not place, she sounded French but also Belgian. It was a strange accent and she repeatedly made reference to it (to my son who had a hard time understanding her), so I asked her "Where are you from?" Which was completely appropriate, asking her how long she had "been here in the US' would have sounded snide, as if I was making fun of her accent.

There is an Iranian lady that works in the McD's in our neighborhood. We go in for breakfast maybe 1-2 times a month and she is always there. Just a couple weeks ago I asked her where she was from, her reply was "Iran, I thought you knew!" I suspected she was Iranian but never asked, and it was not rude at all to finally inquire after 2 years.

Posted by: Get Real | April 21, 2008 11:58 AM

atb

"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

Here is the list of topics to be avoided in interviews with candidates:

Age
Gender
Race
Sexual Preference
Military status
National/Ethnic Origin
Money (except where it directly relates to the job in terms of salary and benefits, and to let applicants know we do perform a financial background check)

Disabilities
Religion
Drinking/smoking preferences
EEOC information (such as "Have you ever submitted a claim to the EEOC?")

I also advise staff not to discuss other issues that can get heated, such as politics, stances on current local legislation getting a lot of press, etc.

It's a lot of fun. Maybe sometime we could talk about giving references for people without confirming virtually anything. It's all done in code these days . . .

Posted by: WorkingMomX | April 21, 2008 12:19 PM

Sorry, should have clarified my post: that's my current firm's list (and one I agree with) for Topics To Be Avoided During Interviews . . .

Posted by: WorkingMomX | April 21, 2008 12:20 PM

The "where are you from" comment - no it isn't rude but it is polite to keep in mind that there are plenty of non-ethnic people with accents. My family is heavily military and moving every 2 years when you are learning to talk really messes with your formation of words. I was born and have lived in the good ol USA my entire life but I am routinely asked where am I from and the questions don't end there. They move on to the "wow I thought you were (Canadian, Russian, European, Deaf ---yes some woman thought I used to be deaf)" It helps to know a polite exit strategy for the questioner - if you ask "where are you from" are you really just looking for a reason to say "you sound weird" or are you interested in the person's background like "wow you lived in all parts of the country before you were even 5?" Even "I'm interested in sounds of the world" is a better response than "you sound like you are from xxx." Where are you from is fine - the next statement normally is the kicker for me.

Posted by: accent | April 21, 2008 12:23 PM

" In some ways what you are communicating is "Hey, you look and sound so different from 'us'." A more innocuous guestion is, "How long have you lived here?" or "How do you find living in the US?" In my case, I offended my friend not by asking where she was from, but by idiotically assuming that everyone from Ethiopia works in my favorite Ethiopian restaurant."

Are you for real? All of your supposedly "more innocous" questions make the same assumption but more blatantly so. And assuming every ethiopian works at an ethiopian restaraunt - that's just beyond the pale. Please tell me you were kidding. Or someone was parodying you.

Posted by: nobodyknowhow | April 21, 2008 12:27 PM

"The "where are you from" comment - no it isn't rude but it is polite to keep in mind that there are plenty of non-ethnic people with accents."

Oh, brother.

Posted by: Come on | April 21, 2008 12:28 PM

"Instead of self-labeling yourself as a stay-at-home mom (unless you like being a stereotype),"

And this is just bizarre too. How is that being a SAHM is a stereotype more than any other way of being a mom? It's what I do, I'm not going to pretend to be ashamed of it if I go back to work. That's like advising a WOHM to be evasive when she talks to teachers or the head of the PTA, so she doesn't make herself a stereotype. I'm sure that'd go over really swell here.

Posted by: nobodyknowhow | April 21, 2008 12:30 PM

nobodyknowhow


"How is that being a SAHM is a stereotype more than any other way of being a mom? "

Are you kidding?

Posted by: ???? | April 21, 2008 12:34 PM

Where are you from can also mean "what state are you from?" Would that also be offensive?

Posted by: KLB SS MD | April 21, 2008 12:38 PM

"When are you expecting" can also mean "when are your relatives arriving for the weekend" but most of us avoid it because the most common interpretation is offensive.

Posted by: Gillian | April 21, 2008 12:45 PM

"Are you kidding?

Posted by: ???"

No. Do you really think there are no stereotypes of WOHMs? Like, maybe, the ones the WOHM here get tweaked about almost daily? Like, maybe, the insinuation that they value material goods over their children, or are not "full time" moms, etc etc etc?

Posted by: nobodyknowhow | April 21, 2008 12:52 PM

"My family is heavily military..."

Funny--I thought it was just me. I'm also a military brat. I was born in the MidWest, but I get a lot of questions about where I'm from, with the implication being that I was born outside the United States. Usually my assumed country of orgin is not one I can claim any ancestry from, which is kind of weird.

I'd assumed it was an appearance thing and it must be that because I haven't always spoken to my questioners, but perhaps it's also the no-accent/all-accent voice.

I now work for a company where almost everybody (really) is "from" somewhere, so the question isn't considered rude. When the answer is met with "no, WHERE in Ireland?" (or whereever) it's less about finding differences and more about finding similarities. Sometimes we draw maps for each other, which is cool.

Posted by: accented | April 21, 2008 12:53 PM

Here, in Atlanta, where no one is really FROM here - that is really the first question people ask when they meet someone new. Where are you from? It breaks the ice, it allows you to maybe find some common ground to talk about, etc. Wow, maybe we shouldn't ask anyone anything anymore.

or is it just that people are now trying to be overly polite in person and are making up for that by being ridiculously rude on the (anonymous) net...?

Posted by: atlmom | April 21, 2008 1:04 PM

I used to get asked where I was from all the time when I lived in Canada (which is where I was born and lived for 28 years). Invariably, the person admitted that they thought I was American and was hoping to learn something about the US and why I came to Canada.

Now that I actually live in the US, I get asked if I am Canadian. Apparently, my word selection/pronunciation gives me away.

Given that I look fairly typically American, I think the question is simply a way to find out more about you and not about race or prejudice. People are curious!

Of course... my husband absolutely hates being asked where he is from. I don't get that because he asks people of his own race where they are from. So maybe the issue is that you can only safely ask it of people who are of your own race otherwise you must have some other motive from asking besides curiosity and wanting to learn something.

Posted by: Billie_R | April 21, 2008 1:05 PM

Men tend to have a thicker skin when somebody steps into regarding divorce. It's with women (in general) that you need to walk on eggshells.

Posted by: to Fern | April 21, 2008 11:53 AM

oh, goodie. more brilliant and helpful insight from one of the enlightened denizens on this blog. crawl back under that rock. I hear your hubby called and asked what's for dinner.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 21, 2008 1:06 PM

"Where are you from" is not only a question immigrants to this country are asked. Our Country has plenty of accents of it's own, and geographical differences, and I don't think it is rude or odd to ask someone what state they are from.

A slight southern accent could be a number of states. Just by saying "y'all" I have been asked where I am from, and I am not the least bit offended.

Posted by: Get Real | April 21, 2008 1:08 PM

accented - I'm really familiar with that. I found that as I got older I acquired an ability to mimic the speech patterns of wherever we were. It made it easier to fit in, or at least not stand out as much. I still do it subconsciously. When we go to NC to visit my brother, within 20 minutes in a restaurant I'm saying to the waitress "Darlin', can I get some more sugar for muh tea, please?" Drives my wife right up a wall!
I've never once been bothered by being asked where I'm from.

Posted by: ArmyBrat | April 21, 2008 1:08 PM

ArmyBrat

"I found that as I got older I acquired an ability to mimic the speech patterns of wherever we were. It made it easier to fit in, or at least not stand out as much."

Why would you want to "fit in" or "not stand out as much"?

Posted by: What is the point? | April 21, 2008 1:15 PM

I find the Ashley Simpson response pretty snotty. People ask questions to be nice and most pregnant women are thrilled with being pregnant. That goes with engaged women too who love to talk about their wedding plans. Not asking would make me stand-offish and rude. I find an easy response to some questions is I don't know or I'm not sure and then you can drop it. The last tip about "here are the laws, meet my lawyer" would definitely strike me as incredibly rude and if I was interviewing someone, it would end right there. The interviewer may not even realize their question was illegal and was just in the flow of the conversation.

Incidentally, I get asked all the time if I have a cold because I sound stopped up on the phone. I could be rude and ask them why they are judging me blah, blah, blah but instead I just smile and say "No, you know but it's really funny that I hear that a lot..."

Posted by: FloridaChick | April 21, 2008 1:27 PM

Why not?

Posted by: ArmyBrat | April 21, 2008 1:29 PM

"Why would you want to "fit in" or "not stand out as much"?"

It's protective coloring. The less foreign you are, the easier it is to find friends. VERY true of children; still true of adults. Adults like a little bit of exoticness IME, but not too much. I did, and do, the same thing without even thinking about it.

Posted by: accented | April 21, 2008 1:31 PM

Hi Cubeland -- Here's a response for you to the question "Why are you adopting?"

"Why not?" Getting a response usually reveals a lot of deep seeded biases that they might not know they even have. All you have to respond to their subsequent comments is "Really? Where did you hear that?"

Good luck with your adoption. We did it 4 years ago -- he's the joy of our lives (most days).

Posted by: Adoptive mom | April 21, 2008 1:44 PM

"Why would you want to "fit in" or "not stand out as much"?"

"It's protective coloring. The less foreign you are, the easier it is to find friends. VERY true of children; still true of adults. Adults like a little bit of exoticness IME, but not too much. I did, and do, the same thing without even thinking about it. "

Does this explain the hip hop b.s.?

Posted by: Why? | April 21, 2008 1:44 PM

"I found that as I got older I acquired an ability to mimic the speech patterns of wherever we were. It made it easier to fit in, or at least not stand out as much."

Dang, AB, I do that, too. Never even noticed it, until one of my friends noticed that whenever I'm on a call with a Texan, my voice gets slower and more twangy.

I agree with accented: I think it was protective coloration, because the new kid in town is always a target (especially when that new kid is a Yankee in Texas -- or a Texan moving back north).

Ironically, my natural voice now has almost no accent whatsoever, because we moved so many places. Same with my mom. Once when we were in Scotland, she was asked if she was from England, because they couldn't identify her accent!

Posted by: Laura | April 21, 2008 1:48 PM

Why would you want to "fit in" or "not stand out as much"?

Posted by: What is the point? | April 21, 2008 1:15 PM

Social Skills 101. Make others more comfortable, as long as it isn't at the cost of your integrity or honor. Example 1: You don't laugh at offensive jokes in order to make the teller more comfortable. 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: Anonymous | April 21, 2008 1:53 PM

"Social Skills 101. Make others more comfortable, as long as it isn't at the cost of your integrity or honor. "

Right. Integrity & honor are the hallmarks of this blog.....

Posted by: Mmm | April 21, 2008 1:57 PM

"Social Skills 101. Make others more comfortable, as long as it isn't at the cost of your integrity or honor. "

Right. Integrity & honor are the hallmarks of this blog.....

Posted by: Mmm | April 21, 2008 1:57 PM

"Right. Integrity & honor are the hallmarks of this blog....."

LOL!

Posted by: Anonymous | April 21, 2008 2:02 PM

Mmm, Why? and What is the point are doing a very poor imitation of Eliza. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ELIZA) They obviously fail the Turing test.

accented, Laura and the 1:53 anonymous poster have it right, though. Most kids and most adults want to fit in to their social surroundings to some degree; it just makes life easier. (I didn't consider What is the point's Eliza imitation worthy of a response - thus my "Why not?" But since those three have given legitimate responses I'll applaud them.)

Posted by: ArmyBrat | April 21, 2008 2:12 PM


ArmyBrat

"accented, Laura and the 1:53 anonymous poster have it right, though. Most kids and most adults want to fit in to their social surroundings to some degree; it just makes life easier. (I didn't consider What is the point's Eliza imitation worthy of a response - thus my "Why not?" But since those three have given legitimate responses I'll applaud them.)"

No sale here. Insecurity seems to be the motivation.

Posted by: Why? | April 21, 2008 2:20 PM

One of the most interesting and surprising parts of this blog is when others feel very differently about things I take for granted -- like wanting to fit in. Good to know not everyone takes this for granted.

But to me, wanting to "fit in" (which doesn't have to mean conforming or compromising one's values) is just a natural part of being human. We are pack animals -- we need each other to survive -- so being part of the group is a pretty normal desire.

Wanting to fit in seems different for women v. men, in my opinion. In general (gross generalization coming) it seems women are more attuned to "fitting in" with other women than men are. Or maybe we just telegraph our desire to fit in in different ways.

But either way, it's one reason why I find these responses to awkward questions helpful. It's good to know how to stand up for your privacy when need be, without alienating others and separating yourself from the pack.

Posted by: Leslie | April 21, 2008 2:25 PM

"No sale here. Insecurity seems to be the motivation."

Now, why would you say a thing like that?

Posted by: Anonymous | April 21, 2008 2:29 PM

I agree it is inappropriate to ask such questions and an I don't know is probably good enough to end it. I've never seen or heard anyone ask such personal questions and it seems to be mothers who ask the most personal questions. I would never dare ask such a thing and never inquire into a pregnancy unless a woman tells me she's pregnant or starts discussing it. It just comes across as snotty to say "that is inappropriate to ask a woman." Remember, many of the people asking are coworkers or other acquaintances you need to interact with on a continuing basis. Giving snotty responses ensures everyone will think YOU are the one with the problem, not the other way around.

Posted by: FloridaChick | April 21, 2008 2:33 PM

Now, why would you say a thing like that?

Posted by: | April 21, 2008 2:29 PM

Take your pick:

A. Insecurity

B. Interesting moral compass

Posted by: Anonymous | April 21, 2008 2:33 PM

when they ask when you re going to get married, or remarry:

"I'm waiting to find the right...dress."

Posted by: terpkat | April 21, 2008 2:39 PM

Another way to look at the pregnancy question- since I think people are assuming the only response would be if you are pregnant when someone asks:

As someone who carries any extra weight around her midsection and is a woman of child bearing age, I think that asking any woman (unless OBVIOUSLY pregnant) when she is expecting or if she is pregnant very rude. I have been asked that numerous times (once just this past Thursday) and I am not pregnant, nor have ever been pregnant.

So I find Ashlee's response completely appropriate (which I never thought I'd say). It IS rude to ask women that, because most like to keep the news to themselves during the early part in order to keep with superstition and also with others, they may not be at all. And by assuming that they are, you probably really hurt their feelings.

Posted by: Kallie | April 21, 2008 2:42 PM

I agree with you Kallie. I have been asked that question too when I went from very small to a healthy size. Many people asked me if I was pregnant and one person even said "You are, you probably just don't know it yet." But I never felt so offended I needed to curl up in a ball and cry. I didn't say anything snotty since these were people I'd have to continue to work with and when 2 years passed and I didn't have a baby, they got the picture!

Posted by: FloridaChick | April 21, 2008 2:50 PM

FloridaChick- oh yes I can understand that. During the time I've worked at my current job (3.5 years) I've dealt with the pregnancy rumor twice. Once someone actually asked me how I was going to handle going to school "with a little one running around soon."

This past Thursday- it was a Hair Cuttery employee who trimmed my bangs. She actually tried to argue with me when I informed her that I was not, in fact pregnant. Like she would know better. It was my birthday and I have to say, it put a little bit of a damper on my day. I know I'm a bit chubby around the middle- I'm working on it! ;-)

Posted by: Kallie | April 21, 2008 2:57 PM

"Take your pick:

A. Insecurity

B. Interesting moral compass"

That's interesting. Why do you think you have those issues.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 21, 2008 3:01 PM

What is the worst question anyone has ever asked you - work or otherwise?

When my father was ill someone actually asked me if I really wanted him to be resuscitated since he was already so ill.

Posted by: KLB SS MD | April 21, 2008 3:02 PM

what if one's boss routinely asks inappropriate questions? one's female boss,who should be smarter?

Posted by: ritamae | April 21, 2008 3:05 PM

"As someone who carries any extra weight around her midsection and is a woman of child bearing age, I think that asking any woman (unless OBVIOUSLY pregnant) when she is expecting or if she is pregnant very rude."

I carry extra weight around the middle and I have been asked that question, as well. But, I am beyond childbearing age, so I considered it a compliment that the asker thought I looked young enough to be pregnant. LOL.

Posted by: funny | April 21, 2008 3:13 PM

In the D.C. area, "where are you from?" and "what college did you attend" are pretty standard, since few are from here. The college question sometimes gets asked because it can segue in the conversation about college sports - an icebreaker when you want to start a conversation.

Posted by: memememe | April 21, 2008 3:17 PM

When a fraternity brother of mine from college became a dad, a coworker asked him if he had any pictures of the birth. He said no and added "But I have a great video of the conception, if you want to see it"

Shut that person right up!

Posted by: Dan | April 21, 2008 3:48 PM

Well I think it's important to note that in most social situations, people don't really CARE about the answer. They are just talking to talk, trying to be interesting and ready to move on to the next part of their day. In these situations, I find glib answers or my "You've suddenly started speaking martian and that's so weird" stare works well.

When it comes to professional issues, my current boss holds zero distance between professional and personal life, so I just sigh and deal with it. It's not that many people and I can give the basics without much else. Giving quick short non informational answers can be good also.

Posted by: Liz D | April 21, 2008 3:49 PM

Gay and lesbian workers get asked rude questions at times. My partner and I have learned to answer them in a way to make the person feel really stupid.

Q. "Which one of you is the 'husband'"?
A. "M,W,F it is me, T and Th it is Tom. I have to keep that straight in Outlook"

Q. "Are you married"?
A. "Define 'married'"

Q. "When did you choose to be gay?"
A. "The same day you chose to be (white, black, etc.)"

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

Another thing to keep in mind about pregnancy comments when you ARE pregnant -- those hormones put you in NO MOOD to deal with any level of stupidity, let alone crass comments aimed directly at you.

Posted by: Corvette1975 | April 21, 2008 3:58 PM

Dan - all right, pal, you hereby owe me a new keyboard! Your 3:56 post caused me to spew Coke all over the old one. You'll be hearing from my representatives forthwith.

Seriously - LOL.

Posted by: ArmyBrat | April 21, 2008 4:27 PM

Dan - please tell me people don't really ask those questions!!
*headdesk*

Posted by: Me | April 21, 2008 4:29 PM

Dan, you have the world's worst coworkers.

The only one of those I've heard with any degree of seriousness is the one about who's the man. We explain that we trade. (In your family, who's the man on weekends?)

I avoided questions about whether we are married by sending out a link to pictures of the wedding. (Everyone else does the same thing for their weddings.) Legally, we're not, but who checks out the legality of any wedding they go to?

Posted by: accented | April 21, 2008 4:37 PM

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

I moved from Boston to Florida when I was 15. I didn't realize I had an accent. After a while I got defensive.....

Q: "Where are you from?"
A; "My mother's womb"

Posted by: Dan | April 21, 2008 7:52 PM

How about this for an inappropriate question? My husband is visibly blind in one eye (due to a childhood accident), and he has had adults, strangers, come up to him in stores, etc., and ask what happened to his eye, as if it's any of their business. I wonder if these people would go up to someone in a wheelchair and ask why they can't walk? I would never have the gall to question a stranger about a disability. It makes you wonder how some of these people were raised.


Posted by: Laura | April 21, 2008 10:07 PM

In regards to the divorce question, my oldest brother is divorced and when people ask why he got divorced he tells them, "For religious reasons". The person usually then looks confused, so he'll say, "She thought she was God, and I thought she was a b-----", LOL!

Posted by: Laura | April 21, 2008 10:09 PM

What's wrong with asking someone where they're from? Especially in the DC area, lots of people are not originally from the area. I've lived here since I was a little kid (and in CA before that), and people ask me all the time. It's just one of those generic questions that people ask each other.

Posted by: reston, va | April 22, 2008 9:27 AM

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