Off the Couch

Thoughts about the therapeutic process, and the dynamics of client-therapist interactions.

What Makes People Ask Rude or Inappropriate Questions?

What can you do when someone asks an intrusive or rude question?

At a family dinner recently, Kerri* was taking a second helping of mashed potatoes when her aunt reached across the table to touch her hand and said, “Dear, do you really want to do that?” In stunned silence, Kerri looked first at the spoon in her own hand, then at her aunt, and finally at her mother. “So many thoughts went through my head. I was humiliated, stunned and angry. I knew that this meant that my mother had been talking about my eating disorder. I was furious with her. I felt exposed and horrified. But the strongest thought and feeling that I had was that I had to get away from the table. Oh, and that I hated my aunt,” she said.

If we give Kerri’s aunt the benefit of the doubt, we could say that she was trying to be helpful, that her action was motivated by her concern about her niece. But what about those supposedly caring or concerned relatives, friends and even strangers who ask other inappropriate, intrusive or downright rude questions?

What makes someone ask when you’re going to get married or start a family, or how much you paid for your house, or how much money you make? What makes someone think that it’s okay to touch a pregnant woman’s belly or guess whether she’s going to have a boy or a girl?  

And what can you do about it when someone does invade your privacy with an inappropriate or rude question?

In my own experience, there are several answers to the question of why someone asks an inappropriate question.

  • First, of course, is the possibility that they really do not realize that what they are asking is not okay. This lack of knowledge may be the result of any of a number of psychiatric disorders, including  social anxiety disorders, narcissistic and other personality disorders, bipolar disorders, or being on the autism spectrum (there are others, as well, but these convey the general idea). Whether caused by a diagnosis or psychological problem or something else, the rude question may be the result of a person's inability to empathize with someone else’s feelings. For whatever reason, the person simply may not be thinking that the questions might make someone uncomfortable.  
  • Second, it may be the result of a feeling of rebelliousness. “I know that it’s not considered socially acceptable,” the person may think, “but it should be! And I’m going to ask!”
  • Third, it can be from anger and hostility, from a desire, either conscious or unconscious, to make another person squirm. This desire may, paradoxically, come from jealousy or envy of the person they wound. Kerri’s aunt, for example, was envious of how close Kerri was with her mother. Her own children (not surprisingly, if she treated them similarly) had little to do with her.
  • Fourth, it may also be the result of having been on the other side of that equation, and wanting to put someone else in that same position. Psychoanalysts call this “identification with the aggressor.” Instead of remembering what it feels like to be the target of hostility and feeling sympathy for the victim, a person takes on the qualities of the attacker. Unconsciously, this makes them feel stronger themselves. By doing to someone else what was done to them, they unconsciously make themselves feel like the strong one, not the weak one.  This was also true of Kerri’s aunt, who was married to an angry, hostile and extremely critical man.  She did to others what he did to her.

But the two most difficult reasons to combat are, strangely enough, often motivated by a desire to be kind and to connect.

  • Fifth is the desire to help. While this wish may actually be linked to any of the other, more negative emotions I have listed, it can also be at least partly genuine. Kerri’s aunt had been an overweight girl and struggled with her weight as an adult. She knew how painful it could be. So although her behavior was rude and inappropriate in many different ways, and even though it was very likely motivated by anger and envy, it was also partly motivated by a desire to help her niece. She did not want her to suffer the humiliation she had experienced in her own life.
  • And sixth, both Kerri’s aunt and some of the people who ask about when you’re going to find a man to marry or whether or not you’re pregnant are also trying, in an awkward way, to make a connection to you.

So what’s the best response to this kind of intrusive, irritating and often embarrassing question? While our first reaction is almost always resentment, if not downright anger, I have found that it can be most useful to start with the assumption that there is some sort of good will beneath the behavior.  This does not mean that we should ignore our own hurt and humiliation. Those feelings are real and need to be accepted, if only internally; but in most instances, responding from a position of kindness is often the best way to restore our own sense of equilibrium.

When a person is trying to connect, or to be kind, our own gentle but firm boundaries can be helpful to them. For example, when someone asks about your marriage plans, a simple, “Oh, I don’t know. It’s not something I talk about in public,” can be your answer. And then you can ask, “And how are you doing?” or otherwise turn the conversation back to them. And, when the genuine goal of the other person is to embarrass you, the same answer, or some other way of being kind is actually a perfect way to turn the tables.  

For Kerri, the response was simple. Although her completely understandable impulse was to toss the spoonful of potatoes at her aunt and rush from the table, she managed instead to take a deep breath and say, “Oh, thanks for your concern. But yes, it is what I want to do.” And putting the potatoes on her plate, she turned to a cousin sitting beside her and asked about her courses at college. Her aunt loudly tried to continue the discussion, but Kerri quietly said to her cousin, “I don’t want to engage in this. Can you keep talking to me? Tell me about a movie, or a date, or something…” With a big grin on her face – everyone had their own experiences with this aunt – the cousin complied with Kerri’s request. And the dinner went on.

*names and identifying information changed to protect privacy

*Teaser image source: http://corefitnesschicago.blogspot.com/2013/01/headache-what-your...

F. Diane Barth, L.C.S.W., is a psychotherapist, teacher, and author in private practice in New York City.

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