Skip to main content

Protective Strategies Against Invasive Questioning

Colleen is a psychotherapist retired from private practice, specializing in human relationships.

In this article, you'll learn how to expertly protect yourself from peoples' prying and invasive questions. Learn how to spot the different types of questioners quickly and how to effectively deal with them.

In this article, you'll learn how to expertly protect yourself from peoples' prying and invasive questions. Learn how to spot the different types of questioners quickly and how to effectively deal with them.

Gain Control and Self-Confidence

Much of life’s pain comes about through verbal, subtle or sometimes direct attacks on one’s privacy. Therefore, the aim of this article is to develop and strengthen your confidence, so that, when confronted by verbal thugs and assailants, you can deal with them quickly and to great effect.

There are no standard or perfect responses. To claim to provide fool-proof stratagems would be to mislead you. However, once you fully acknowledge your rights, and that to stand firm is often appropriate, you too will be able to wake to your world each day with a sense of control and self-confidence.

Some years ago, an acquaintance commented to me: “You have a certain attitude – you won’t take any seconds.”

Our goal here is that, having studied, thought through and practised those skills put forward, you too will feel you can hold out for firsts. Bear in mind, that anyone who takes seconds, will rarely be offered firsts throughout life.

Much of life’s pain comes about through verbal, subtle or sometimes direct attacks on one’s privacy.

Much of life’s pain comes about through verbal, subtle or sometimes direct attacks on one’s privacy.

Invasive Questions: Do You Need to Answer?

A trap interwoven into our social framework is that if someone is kind enough to ask a question, one feels an obligation to answer. However, this is simply “not true.” If a question for any reason makes you uneasy, that is the moment to take a mental step backward and decide if you wish to answer this question.

Knowledge is power; once you have given out information, there is no possibility of calling it back.

It becomes vital, therefore, before answering any question at all, to decide whether or not you wish this person to know this particular fact. Among the answers you might not wish to give are those relating to age, income, cause and duration of disability, name of a former spouse, partner or former employer.

The Detail Hound

As Internet use becomes both more widespread and sophisticated, it grows increasingly easier to gain information, so the more detail you provide, the easier you render it for the detail hound to make inroads on privacy.

But why would anyone bother or care? The detail hound thrives on garnering facts, and if he can find fragments from your past, such as the price you paid for your current home or the causes of a marital breakdown, he is a better-fed, happier hound.

This is not intended to say that there is an evil, self-seeking motive is lurking behind each query in everyday chat, but again, awaken your inward censor, which is the editor who will come forth to assist in deciding when and which questions to answer.

But how to respond without giving info? One way is to say, “I don’t give surnames, addresses etc.” Another is to inquire, “Why do you ask?”, tossing the question straight back to its source. If the answer to this is, “I just wondered,” you have no need to say anything more.

The Self-Vaccinator

A further tactic utilised by intrusive questioners is the lead-in, “if you don’t mind my asking,” as if this immunises their behaviour from any taint of offensiveness. This disclaimer is intended to vaccinate the questioner, in that as he has admitted to prying, you are thereby obliged to provide the requested information.

You may opt to program your inner computer screen to post an alert – Do Not Answer.

Another form this tactic can take is to immediately follow the question, “I know I shouldn't ask,” you can quip with a response of, “So, let’s pretend you didn’t.”

The hearing ear is always found close to the speaking tongue.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Darer

A third probe is when a question such as the following is posed to us: “How long have you suffered from (this or that condition)”? You can answer by saying, “For a while,” and if the inquirer acts as if it has not been heard by saying, “Excuse me?” or repeating your “For a while?”, this in effect repeats their original question, daring you to refuse once again.

Far from weakening your resolve not to answer, this pressure should double it; you are being challenged, your refusal to answer is now under attack.

A backwash of this decision might be that you will have angered the info-seeker on two fronts, first by refusing the sought response, and secondly, by implicitly criticizing the asking behaviour. Having been caught with both hands in the till, people are likely to dislike their accusers.

Expect, therefore, for the question to resurface, either more subtly or in head-on form, “You still haven’t answered my question about …”, as if, since they have asked you, your answer is owed.

Tact in audacity is knowing how far you can go without going too far.

— Jean Cocteau

Why We Answer Instead of Keeping Silent

Aside from the above-mentioned sense of a duty to respond, what are our motivations behind it? Often we fear offending or even alienating the questioner, so let us examine the consequences involved.

If this person is offended to the point of withdrawing “friendship,” what was the quality of that friendship if your response was the price-tag attached? Given this mindset, what have you lost? As to offending, when you answer a question you find disconcerting, you offend the integrity of the self.

Just between us – no matter how genuinely and deeply another person may care about you, it is most unlikely that anyone will ever protect your privacy as completely as you can. If you truly do not want information disbursed, tell nobody, not even your closest and dearest friend.

Private information can be used as currency and traded as such in the social and career marketplace. As the cynical French author, Francois Rochefoucauld phrased it, “We often find something pleasing in the misfortunes of even our dearest friends.”

It is perfectly easy to be original by violating the laws of decency and the canons of good taste.

— Oliver Wendell Holmes

The Side Swiper

The Side-Swiper seeks information which he feels embarrassed to ask for as such, so instead asks something else which he hopes will elicit the sought information. Example: “You look familiar; did or do you go to (whatever) school, or work for (whatever) company?”

Think about what has been said here: even assuming you went, go, worked or are currently employed by the school or corporation mentioned, this person was not acquainted with you, so why should it matter?

Secondly, the purpose of the side-swipe is probably meant to force you to provide information: “No, I went/go/worked/work for” wherever or whoever.

An answer of “yes” or “no” will suffice, with no info added, and if further probing occurs, the below suggestions should guide your responses.

The Turf Bully

This type of bully is not far removed from the playground thug who controls weaker children, either by actual violence or by the threat of it.

The social turf bully senses that often people are intimidated by turfs such as homes or cars, and thus requests information on others' homes or vehicles in the often well-based belief that people are more likely to give information while receiving a cup of tea in the home, a ride in a car, or upon receiving another small courtesy.

Two types of response can prove useful here, complete silence works as a decided rebuke, or a dry “Oh come-on,” states your refusal to be intimidated either by turf or your having accepted a courtesy.

The Obligator

Akin to the turf bully, the obligator might surface on any turf at all—his, hers, yours, or neutral—and reveals some private but entirely unsolicited fact about his life, and then expects, indeed almost demands, the same from his often reluctant listener.

Do not be bamboozled here. You have not asked, and are hence under no obligation to answer. A guilt-tripping whine such as “But I just told you” can be met by a simple “But I never asked.”

The Octopus

Like an octopus, some statements have tentacles, making the statement a question in all but name.

It generally takes the form of, “I don't know,” “followed by such tentacles as “how old you are,” “what year you graduated from” or “why you are going to see a doctor, lawyer, etc.”

The point here is that the reason the octopus does not possess this info regarding your life is that you have not offered it. Whatever your reason for failing to do so remains valid, so allowing the octopus to continue in ignorance or silence and/or accompanied by a brief nod should prove sufficient.

The Ambush Stalker

It is never easy to decline to respond, and the firmer our bond to a given inquisitor, the harder this brand of refusal becomes. Though there is no standard way to decline, various ways can work in diverse situations. The commonplace “That is a personal question” can help, but you will find flexibility in tailoring your response to each circumstance, once you decide on the following key point:

You are under no duty to answer even one question which makes you uneasy, and you will not do so.

One response can be a pleasant but definite, “Whatever.” Or if questions persist, “Questions, questions.”

Refusing to answer a question is hard, especially when confronted by an experienced prier, well-seasoned, uncaring and just plain rude. Here, as in the other types of dilemmas, you might need a moment to frame your response, perhaps to run through your index of images: Detail Hound, Turf Bully, Self-vaccinator, etc., as well as your choices of useful responses.

Silence is not always tact and it is tact that is golden, not silence.

— Samuel Butler


Though silence works as an effective rebuke, it might prove difficult to maintain.

In order to gain thinking time, feign not to have heard, “Excuse me?”, or “Were you speaking to me?” Look elsewhere, smile at another person perhaps, rearrange your hair, scarf, tie, necklace, cuff link position of purse or briefcase, or wipe an invisible fleck of dust off your sleeve.

Any of these will secure you that moment in which you decide how to answer. With practice, you may not need these gap-fillers, but it remains a good policy to keep them well-stored in your repertoire.

A soft refusal is not always taken, but a rude one is immediately believed.

— Alexander Chase

Coping With Annoying Habits

Time is the most irreplaceable, precious thing in our lives. Seconds and heartbeats lost cannot be regained or recovered. Thus, those who squander the time of others, although often unconsciously, are verbal vampires.

One of the most common of these is what I dub “the repeat habit.” People become so accustomed to saying, “what?”, “sorry?”, “pardon?” etc. to the extent of doing so in a robot-like way.

At one point, I was in a separate room from two people, neither of whom had any difficulty with hearing. Their conversation was, by way of example:

A: “It might rain on Wednesday.”

B: “What?”

(Comment repeated).

B: “That would spoil our picnic.”

A: “What?” (Comment repeated)

This parrot-like habit means conversations take twice as long as they need to.

How to Cope?

If close to someone, one might tactfully bring this habit to their attention. If not, I have found the best way is simply not to repeat. Often the person will hear the silence on a deeper level than a verbal response.

Once they realise they will be forced to say “pardon” again, or perhaps a third time, they may soon tire of doing so, or resent the lost time they perceive you as wasting. If confronted on this, you are at liberty to explain your reason. This is also true of those who follow nearly every sentence with “do you know what I mean?”, “right?”, “O.K.?” and so on.

I once knew someone who shadowed nearly every sentence by asking “Are you with me?”, then waited until I said “yes” before continuing. After this occurred several times, I said, “I am definitely with you.”

She replied, “I know; it’s just a bad habit.” Still, it continued.

When I stopped responding, she modified it to “With me?”, and then stopped altogether. When our next conversation took on the same pattern, she halted the question more quickly.

How to Gracefully Answer Nosy Questions

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2013 Colleen Swan