Off the Couch

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

Why People Ask You Awkward and Annoying Questions

... and how to respond when they do.

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," she said. "Oh, and that I hated my aunt."

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 concern for her niece. But what about those supposedly caring or concerned relatives, friends and even strangers who ask other inappropriate, intrusive, or downright rude questions?

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What makes someone ask you when you’re going to get married or start a family, or how much you paid for your house, or how much money you earn? 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 when someone invades your privacy with an inappropriate or rude question?

In my experience, there are at least six reasons why someone asks an inappropriate question.

  1. They really do not realize that what they are asking is not OK. This may be the result of social anxiety disorder, narcissistic or other personality disorder, bipolar disorder, being on the autism spectrum, or any number of other conditions. Whatever the case, the rude question may be the result of a person's inability to empathize with someone else’s feelings. He or she simply may not think that the questions might make you uncomfortable.  
  2. Rebelliousness. “I know that it’s not considered socially acceptable,” the person may think, “but it should be! And I’m going to ask!”
  3. Anger and hostility, and/or the desire, either conscious or unconscious, to make another person squirm. This desire may, paradoxically, stem from jealousy or envy of the person they wound. Kerri’s aunt, for example, was envious of how close Kerri was with her mother because her own children did not confide in her.
  4. It may also be the result of having been on the other side of this equation, and wanting to put someone else in the 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 their attacker, unconsciously making them feel stronger themselves. By doing to someone else what was done to them, they unconsciously make themselves feel like the strong one, and no longer the weak one. Kerri’s aunt, who was married to an angry, hostile, and extremely critical man, did to others what he did to her.
  5. (The two most difficult reasons to combat are, strangely enough, often motivated by a desire to be kind and to connect:) A desire to help. While this wish may actually be linked to any of the other, more negative emotions listed above, 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, and 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.
  6. The desire to connect with you. Misguided and awkward as their attempts may be, people like Kerri’s aunt—and the people in your own life who ask when you’re going to find someone to marry or have a baby—are also trying to make a connection to you.

What’s the best response to an intrusive, irritating or embarrassing question? Our first reaction may be resentment, if not anger, but 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 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. 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. Even when the other person's genuine goal 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 then, putting the potatoes on her plate, she turned to a cousin 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?” With a big grin on her face—everyone had had their own experiences with this relative—the cousin complied.

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-body-is-trying-to.html

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

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