Advice: Handling the Nosy

A grown woman who used to cut herself as a teen wonders what to tell people about her scars now.

By Hara Estroff Marano, published on January 1, 2005 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

I am a 24-year-old woman who suffered debilitating depression when I was a teenager. I used to cut myself with razors daily, and although I no longer engage in this behavior, I am left with horrible scars all over my arms and legs. The problem is that people I've just met have a tendency to ask me about the scars and I don't know how to reply. They are too numerous and too elaborate to be "cat scratches." I don't want to disclose the very personal truth, but I don't want to be rude, either. How should I respond to these nosy people?

With Charm and intelligence. Your questioners may not mean to be intrusive; their interest may feel offensive because the questions render you helpless and remind you of an unpleasant time in your life. Curiosity undoubtedly plays a role, but it's probably motivated by some empathy. Let's face it: Scars are compelling. Further, people see visible marks of pain and, given the complex dynamic of social interaction, likely want some assurance that you are not suffering now.

It's best to be prepared for the inevitable questions without having to open old wounds. That means coming up now with a ready answer that settles concerns quickly and effectively. The reply you devise should be constructive and assertive without being aggressive or hostile. You want to put people at ease but also let them know that the subject is closed to further discussion at this time.

A simple statement on the order of, "Thank you for your concern; those are the scars of a disorder I suffered when I was young," has the virtue of truth. It tells people something but not everything and puts the condition squarely in your past.

But this is also a perfect opportunity to parry curiosity with wit, which has the double distinction of disarming everyone and establishing your mastery of the situation. So you could deploy a rejoinder like: "Oh yes, I was once attacked by a gang of vampires. They kept trying to burn me at the stake. But obviously, they failed." Such a playful reply delights because it is so preposterous and unexpected. It puts people who are concerned at ease, disposes everyone kindly to you and allows you to move conversation in a direction you prefer.