6 Ways to Deal with Nosy Questions

The holidays mean gathering around the table with friends and family. But along with the turkey, you’ll probably also get served a nosy question or two. Therefore, when grandma demands to know why you’re not married yet, cousin Fred asks how much money you make, or your brother-in-law wonders why you’re not drinking, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen comes to the rescue with 6 ways to deal with nosy questions.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
6-minute read
Episode #223

“Are you guys thinking about having kids?”

“How much did your new house cost?”

“Why aren’t you drinking?”

“Haven’t you found a job yet?”

Nosy questions are everywhere—your co-worker asks how big your raise was, the stranger in the elevator asks when the baby is due, or your mom tries to bond by asking about your sex life. Even the long-form U.S. census is nosy! How many cars do you have, what’s your income, were you laid off from your last job? It’s enough to make you wonder if Aunt Mildred is consulting for the government.

With all the family gatherings, nosy questions go into hyperdrive during the holiday season. Therefore, this week, let’s talk about how to perform some verbal jiu-jitsu when Aunt Mildred asks why you’re still single.

But first, some empathy. Why do people ask nosy questions in the first place? 

4 Reasons People Ask Nosy Questions

Reason #1: They misinterpret your level of intimacy.

A misreading of boundaries often happens with older relatives who remember you as a kid. Especially if they once wiped your butt, tucked you in, or monitored your vegetable intake, they may be used to a level of intimacy that’s much more personal. Years later, their brain may still picture you at the kids’ table and may not have upgraded their appraisal of you to an adult with boundaries to be respected.

Reason #2: They let it all hang out.

Some people wear not just their heart, but their entire life on their sleeve. Your new sister-in-law may be super-open about everything from her digestive process to her sex life and simply assume you are, too. 

Furthermore, since relationships are a reciprocal give-and-take, over-sharers may feel that because they revealed so much about their life, it’s okay to ask about yours. It may not occur to them that others prefer to play it close to the vest.

Reason #3: They’re trying, however clumsily, to connect.

It’s possible that nosy questions are a clumsy way to connect with you. Your cousin Fiona may be asking if you’re single because she would love to set you up. Uncle Max may be asking how much you make because he wants to commiserate about taxes.   

Likewise, sometimes people ask questions because they think it’s what they’re supposed to do. Communication experts exhort us to, “Ask questions! People love to talk about themselves!” But cousin Mel, fresh off of reading How to Make Friends and Influence People might not realize that there are different levels of questions, and that asking about your dating life isn’t equivalent to asking about your food blog.

In short, even if their method lands with a clunk, the intention is good—they just want to connect with you.

Reason #4: Or they may just be entitled and rude.

In general, it’s best to be compassionate and give people the benefit of the doubt. But sometimes there’s just no other explanation. Sometimes people are deliberately or mistakenly impolite. There are lots of folks out there who have a hard time accepting or respecting boundaries. The good news is that you can choose how to respond.

But how? To my knowledge, there is no research on how to deal with nosy, intrusive questions. But there is research on a topic that’s just a few books away on the metaphorical library shelf: microaggressions.

Microaggressions are statements or incidents that indirectly, subtly, or unintentionally discriminate against members of a minority group, like, “So who’s the husband and who’s the wife?” “When are you really going to transition?” “Why do you sound white?” or “Are you documented?”

Nosy questions are not microaggressions, but they have some characteristics in common. For instance, they’re interpreted as negative by almost everyone they’re directed against, they reflect implicit assumptions, and they have an adverse impact on the recipient.

Therefore, let’s take a page from the playbook of dealing with microaggressions and adapt it to plain old nosy questions. Here are 6 ways to deal, both in the moment and after the fact.

6 Ways to Deal with Nosy Questions

Tip #1: Set them straight. 

The direct method isn’t for everyone, but if you’re so over being asked when you’re going to get married, set an unmistakable boundary such as, “I’m really not comfortable being asked that.” “That topic isn’t really on the table.” Or put it back on them with a head tilt and a “Why do you ask?” 

A serious, assertive approach may make the asker uncomfortable, but if you’re sick of being asked why you’re not drinking or told you’d be so pretty if you just lost a few pounds, some discomfort may be just what the doctor ordered.

Tip #2: Use humor.

A dose of humor has the opposite effect of throwing up a hard boundary—things stay comfortable and everybody saves face, though it’s possible the asker may not get the message. But it can’t hurt to try. 

Therefore, answer, “Why aren’t you married?” with “I’m holding out for Idris Elba.” The right answer to, “How much did your kitchen renovation cost?” is always, “Ooh, are you offering to pay it off?” Your cousin asks, “Still no boyfriend?” Answer: “I’m allergic.” Grandma asks when you’re going to have kids? Tell her, “Well, I’m already glowing, so I’m good.” You get the idea.

Tip #3: Give a non-answer. 

The answer to a nosy question doesn’t have to contain actual content. Offer the answer equivalent to Wonder Bread and margarine by saying, “That’s so nice of you to ask,” “How sweet of you to be concerned,” or “That’s a great question--I get that a lot.” And then? Try Tip #4...

Tip #4: Make a good transition.

Changing the subject is a skill—after all, answering, “When are you having kids?” with “This cranberry sauce is awesome,” is awkward and abrupt. Instead, give them something else to ask about. If someone asks why no boyfriend, say it’s just not on your radar right now because you’ve been so immersed in your new band, the app you’re developing, or settling in after moving to a new apartment.

Another variation on changing the subject is to ask a question back about the same topic. Answer “Why aren’t you married?” with, “It’s complicated, but how did you guys meet?” Or, answer “Are you thinking about kids?” with, “Someday—what was the most surprising thing for you when you started a family?”

Tip #5: Seek out a sanity check.

After the fact, seek out someone to commiserate with. If you catch cousin Rosa rolling her eyes when grandma says you need to eat more because no man wants someone as skinny as you, seek her out later to commiserate. Get the validation you need and a reminder that you’re not nuts. 

Tip #6: Ground yourself with what you’re proud of.

Nosy questions can throw you for a loop, make you second-guess yourself, and leave you feeling judged. “Did he really just ask when I’m going to get a real job?” “Why did she ask why we’re still renting?” “What did she mean by ‘You’re not going to have only one kid, are you?’”

So after a nosy question throws you off, re-balance yourself by affirming what you’re proud of and what you value. What’s important to you, how are things going well in your life, and what are you proud of? Ground yourself in the bigger picture, and your resentment will disappear faster than the pumpkin pie.

To sum it all up, asking nosy questions is like picking your nose in public--it’s rude, unnecessary, makes everyone uncomfortable, and more often than not, the offender has no idea what effect they have. So decide on your tactics, get support, take care of yourself, and you’ll be ready for anything Aunt Mildred can dish out.

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.