Ask Miriam | Looking for Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions

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Dear Miriam,

Can you help me compile a list of the best witty retorts and evasive platitudes to use in response to nosy questions? Like most people, I always come up with the best thing to say after the situation has passed, and I’d like to keep myself better prepared.

Signed,

There’s Always a Next Time

Dear Always,

Breathe. First and foremost, absolutely always, take a deep breath before you answer. This is really true anytime you need to respond to someone and feel caught off guard, but especially when someone has crossed a line, made you uncomfortable or asked something shockingly inappropriate. Then, regardless of what happens next, you’re coming from a place of composure and decisiveness rather than from a place of being flustered and embarrassed.

This is advice columnist stock footage, but it helps to remember that when you’re asked an inappropriate question, the other person is the one who should be embarrassed, not you. The other advantage of the stop and pause response, besides a chance to compose yourself, is that your deep breath gives the other person a chance to reflect and possibly rescind the question.

You can always say, “That’s a personal question,” and leave it at that. Other options are, “I’m not comfortable discussing that,” “That’s not an appropriate topic of conversation for this setting,” “Can we discuss something else?” or just an incredulous, “Really?”

If you want to go in the direction of witty retorts which can backfire and make you look like you’re in the wrong even when you’re not, consider, “How would you feel if I asked you that?” or “I could tell you the answer, but I don’t think either of us would be very comfortable with the rest of the conversation” or “This seems like the set up for a bad joke.”

The wittier witticisms are usually more content specific (and less effective overall in terms of de-escalation), but a good guideline is to figure out what will end the conversation in the shortest amount of time with the fewest back and forth exchanges and the least invasion into your privacy. You also may benefit from asking yourself, “Will I regret my answer later after I’ve cooled down?”

The other option is to answer someone honestly, followed by something like, “That’s the kind of information you get when you ask invasive questions.” The other person may learn a lesson but may just be oblivious to social graces, so it’s kind of a gamble. This is especially effective if the question is about something that is likely to embarrass the other person but that you actually don’t mind discussing.

You’re right that most people feel like they come up with the “perfect” retort at a later time, but if you choose one or two of these to have at the ready, the perfect response will become less important. And don’t forget that you always have the option of a dumbfounded or utterly confused expression on your face, followed by walking away.

Be well,

Miriam

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