Years ago, I brought a new boyfriend to Christmas dinner. “Is this the same boy as last time?” My uncle asked. That was bad enough, but when I told him no, he followed up with, “Every year, different boy.” Merry Christmas! If your family is anything like mine, they like to ask painfully awkward questions, and this can make the holidays stressful. Here’s how to deal with it.
Illustration by Sam Woolley.
The obvious answer to all of this is: just tell your family it’s none of their business. But that can make things worse. Chances are, the older adults in your family still see you as a kid, which is why they often think it’s OK to ask private questions in the first place. Saying “nunya” doesn’t do much to clear that up. When your family asks awkward questions, there are better ways to go about it.
Overall, you want to give a short and sweet answer that doesn’t reveal too much and takes the spotlight off of you. A simple, “we’re not thinking about having kids anytime soon” will do. Granted, I answered my uncle’s question rather curtly and he still embarrassed the hell out of me, but I can only imagine how much worse it could have been had I gone into greater detail.
Strategically Change the Subject
Making a joke or offering a curt reply sends a big hint that you don’t feel like discussing the topic. The problem is, some people won’t get that hint, or worse, they won’t care. In that case, you may need to rely on other methods.
A short answer is great, but it can also leave behind an awkward silence. You can fill that silence by simply changing the subject. Transitions can be tough, though. For example: “No, we’re not having kids. Hey, how about that turkey?” That’s a bad transition, and it can draw more attention to the already awkward moment. Instead, find a bridge. Something like, “No, we’re not having kids. We are planning a trip to Niagara Falls though! You’ve been there, right?” In this case, Niagara Falls is the bridge, and you’ve swiftly changed the subject.
Also, if the family member is genuinely interested in what’s going on with you, a too-obvious deflection won’t work. Here’s what David Klow, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist at Skylight Counseling recommends instead:
Try a sort of conversational jujitsu in which you pull the topic towards you before using the questioners momentum against them. Don’t meet force with force. Instead let them in a bit, only to a point where you are comfortable, then swiftly move the topic in another direction. For instance, when a family member asks, “what happened to your ex?” it can be best to just tell the truth. “We weren’t able to make it. You know how relationships can be. Yet he’s a great guy and we’re in a good place. How’s your son doing at college?”
One of my favourite ways to seamlessly change the subject is to ask the person for advice — a risky move, but it can work surprisingly well.
In general, people love to talk about what they know, so when you ask them for advice, they often start talking about themselves instead of you. If you keep your answers short and sweet, this works well. For example, when our family’s friend asked me about having kids, here’s what I said to change the course of the conversations: “Oh, I don’t know. What’s the hardest part about having a baby?”
This turned into a much more pleasant, interesting conversation about this person’s experience with parenthood. But, more importantly, we weren’t talking about my personal life decisions anymore!
Deflecting works well with people who are just trying their best to make conversation. Changing the subject works because it still gives them what they want: something to talk about.
However, if your family is on the nosy side, you might have to take things up a notch.
Figure Out Why They’re Asking
Over at Psychology Today, psychotherapist F. Diane Barth discussed why people ask inappropriate questions, and she narrowed it down to a handful of reasons, including:
- They don’t know any better: They might not realise the questions make you feel uncomfortable.
- They’re rebelling: They know it’s poor form, but they don’t think it should be, so they ask anyway.
- They’re angry or hostile: They might be doing it to push your buttons.
- They’re trying to connect with you: They might genuinely want to help or get to know you better.
Dr Dave Popple, President of Psynet Group recommends directly asking about the person’s intention. He offers a few examples:
- Have you found a boyfriend yet?
You: Are you worried that I might be lonely?
- How is the job search?
You: Are you concerned that I am in financial trouble?
- When will you start a family?
You: Are you worried that I am waiting too long?
Popple says replying this way will get you one of two types of responses:
For those people who are just nosy, they will quickly change the subject. For those who truly care, you have the opportunity to have an honest conversation about the real issue.
People ask awkward questions for different reasons, and when you understand their intention, you can get a better idea of how to deal with it.
If someone just wants to connect with you, for example, you’ll probably have luck changing the conversation by asking for their advice. If they’re just asking because they don’t know any better, changing the subject works well, too. If someone is rebelling or trying to push your buttons, then you’ll have to go with a more direct approach, like putting your foot down.
Put Your Foot Down (Diplomatically)
It’s hard not to get immediately defensive when someone asks about a sensitive topic, but obviously, that can open up a whole other can of worms. It can make the situation even more awkward or worse, turn an impolite question into a full blown fight.
When you’re dealing with someone who creates uncomfortable situations, and they don’t seem to take a hint, try this simple script, inspired by Lifehacker alumn Adam Dachis:
You may not be aware, but that question is making me uncomfortable. You’re entitled to ask, but maybe we can talk about a topic we can both enjoy.
This dialogue includes three points: the fact that you’re uncomfortable, validating the other person’s behaviour, and coming to a mutual agreement.
With most families, a little awkwardness is usually inevitable. But with a few tactics in your back pocket, you can dodge the cringeworthy questions and get on with the get-together.