Nosy questions. We all face them for different reasons. Perhaps while making small talk with an acquaintance you inadvertently confront a topic you’d rather not discuss. It could be a question as simple as the reason your name doesn’t match that of your partner, children, or parents: “Were you married before?” “What was your family’s name before your father changed it?” Or, the question could pertain to some fact about yourself that you’d prefer to keep to yourself: “Why aren't you drinking tonight?" You feel it's no one else's business.
The questions we consider too personal may not come from strangers. Sometimes friends or coworkers discover something about you they didn’t know before, such as how you took five years to complete high school. The reason might have been something very personal, that you rather no one know. You feel obligated to explain, however, because the questioner seems genuinely interested.
In these situations, people commonly fabricate something that’s not quite true that may satisfy and the conversation continues. This strategy may haunt you later, however, if the facts surface. If your partner remembers it, you'll have to continue the pretense from then on out.
Or, you may be talking with a person performing a service for you, such as getting your hair styled or going to the dentist. Your service provider may venture into territory that feels overly personal. You’re unable to move away and faced with an onslaught of probing questions, all you can do is squirm or feign sleep.
Generally, psychologists do not study the problem of nosiness. A concept called "nepotistic nosiness," however, was the topic of a 2007 article published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior by University of British Columbia psychologists Jason Faulkner and Mark Schaller. They addressed how knowing about those we mate with would benefit the species.
Faulkner and Schaller point out that “it is no surprise… that when matters of sex intersect with matters of kinship, people care a lot” (p. 430). According to the principle of “inclusive fitness,” we care (and should care) the most about the people genetically closest to us. It would be appropriate, by this way of thinking, to be nosy about the sex lives of our first-degree kin, because what benefits them benefits us.
Before you regard this as a license to interrogate your siblings, parents, or children about the details of their sex lives, remember that this approach to understanding nosiness is somewhat narrow. You may have an evolutionary right to gain inside information about your relatives, but your nosy questions may not be appreciated. Similarly, these people may have the right to query you, but you may not feel like providing answers.
While there are no empirically-tested prescriptions for how to understand and deal with nosiness, the psychology of communication can help. Here are 9 ways to handle the unpleasant questions that invade your boundaries:
1. Notice the cues that signal oncoming nosiness.
If you fear the person next to you in a bus, airplane, or waiting room will pry, arrange the situation so that you don’t have to go deeper into conversation. Consider getting something to read or fiddle with your phone. If that fails, politely answer a few questions and shift your attention elsewhere.
2. Tell the truth.
As stated earlier, once you start to lie, you may find yourself inextricably bound to facts that later conversations can’t support. You don’t have to give all the facts, but be honest about what (if anything) you decide to share.
3. Decide what makes the question “nosy.”
The questioner may have no ill will in mind, but is just asking an ordinary question. It may just feel nosy because it relates to something in your life about which you're sensitive. If so, feeling invaded may help you to understand some of your own personal insecurities and concerns.
4. Keep the notion of "inclusive fitness" in mind.
If the survival of our families is our priority, relatives may ask you questions, not because they care about you, but because they care about themselves. The search for information, perhaps on your ability to have children, may fit into this evolutionary framework and not reflect any of your own shortcomings.
5. Practice a socially acceptable way to respond to common questions.
If you repeatedly get the same question, create an answer to use that helps you avoid anything that makes you feel uncomfortable.
6. Use deflection.
Rather than deception, change the subject. The questioner may not be happy, but if you feel that things are getting too personal, shift the focus. If you’re at a social gathering, find a way to move on to someone else (“I need to refill my plate”) or engage someone nearby in conversation and then discretely move on.
7. State your discomfort.
It may not seem socially acceptable to let someone know you feel invaded but, by making your desires known, you do both of you a favor. Because people may not realize that an “innocent” question is too personal, most will respect your desire for distance and appreciate your honesty in communicating this.
8. Realize that some people are “compulsive communicators.”
Some individuals can’t stop talking. A 2015 paper by Oakland University’s Robert Sidelinger and Angelo State’s Derek Bolen described how some students can’t stop talking in class, and some instructors don’t know when to give those students a chance to participate. Some hair stylists and dental assistants repeatedly question their clients or patients because they don’t know another way to interact. You need not be forced to listen to their chatter if it becomes burdensome. Through nonverbal cues, let them know you prefer a little peace and quiet.
9. Don’t be too nosy yourself.
We more often recognize other's failings than our own similar ones. Perhaps your conversation partner is reciprocating the cues you provide through your own questions. Stop and consider whether you inquired a bit too much in the past. If so, reduce it on your end to help maintain conversational boundaries.
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Faulkner, J., & Schaller, M. (2007). Nepotistic nosiness: Inclusive fitness and vigilance of kin members' romantic relationships. Evolution and Human Behavior, 28(6), 430-438. doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2007.06.001
Sidelinger, R. J., & Bolen, D. M. (2015). Compulsive communication in the classroom: Is the talkaholic teacher a misbehaving instructor?. Western Journal of Communication, 79(2), 174-196. doi:10.1080/10570314.2014.943416
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015