Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

9 Ways to Handle Rudeness

Tips on how to rehearse responses to those unwanted questions.

Key points

  • Increased socializing can also bring greater exposure to unwanted questions about sensitive topics, like relationships or pregnancy.
  • Remember: You get to choose what to tell other people and when. No one else can decide that for you.
  • Certain techniques, like replying with a question, changing the subject, or complimenting others, can help you control the conversation.
Source: PeopleImages/iStock

Warmer weather, graduations, weddings, and outdoor events mean more socializing, and this, unfortunately, can mean unexpected, awkward, and even rude questions that may take you by surprise. Not intentional rudeness, perhaps, but questions that seem to suggest a lack of sensitivity, empathy, or respect for boundaries. These questions may be about your income, your relationships, or your plans to start a family.

How do you protect yourself and take control over conversations without sounding rude yourself? There are many strategies, and they all start with giving yourself permission to tell others only what you want to share and only when and if you decide to share it. Remember, you can always tell; you can never untell.

So, what do you do when you’re at an event with friends or family, and there are questions you can’t avoid? Since you can’t change the questions, you must change your reactions to them. Here are nine strategies on how to approach these questions and to start rehearsing to prepare yourself

1. Bypass it.

As children, we are taught that it is polite to answer questions, but we are not children anymore, and you can give yourself permission to bypass an uncomfortable question. If you are dealing with fertility issues, for example, and questions around pregnancy and building a family, bypassing would be, “Thanks for asking, but I have no answer yet,” “I’ll let you know when I know,” “Wish us luck,” or just give them a smile. Practice your bypasses so you feel ready and they sound firm. The point here is to answer the question without providing too much information or information you don’t feel comfortable disclosing.

2. Reply with a question.

After you by-pass, then add your own question. I used this strategy the last time I was asked how old I was. I answered by asking, “How much do you make?” They said, “That’s private.” I said, “So is my age.”

That was a very short conversation. It can be any question, and the point is to redirect the focus to something else or back to them.

3. Change the subject.

This is most effective if you can do it casually, without showing emotion. For example, if your cousin asks, “Are you dating anyone yet?” You can answer with an easy, “No, but wait till you hear about the promotion I got.” Take control of the conversation and calmly change the subject from something you don’t want to talk about to something you do want to talk about.

4. Embrace the subject.

You can talk about the question’s topic without answering the unwanted question. For example, if someone asks, “How much weight did you gain during the COVID quarantine?” Ask them, “Do you know how much the nation gained? I read an article about how much comfort food everyone ate. It’s so important to stay healthy, don’t you think?” You haven’t changed the subject, just the focus. It’s no longer you!

5. Return the question.

You can redirect an inappropriate or intrusive question right back to the questioner. “Did I have plastic surgery? Do I look that good? You are too kind. I wanted to ask you the same thing! Did you?” And remember, even if you did, you do not owe anyone any additional information.

6. Script the exchange.

You can also try “scripting” in some situations. This method will let others know what they should be saying by putting words in their mouth. For example, if building a family is a challenge, and your family is giving you inaccurate or unwanted advice such as “just relax, and you’ll get pregnant," tell them you have good news for them. Explain that infertility causes stress, not the other way around, and you’re sure this makes them feel relieved. Hopefully, they will take the "hint" and follow the script and agree that they are relieved.

7. Compliment the questioner.

This is one of my favorite methods. After speaking engagements, I am often asked very personal questions like, “Why did you get divorced?” or “What’s your real hair color?” I express great appreciation that the questioner is so interested in me. “How sweet you are to care!” “Thanks for wanting to meet me personally.” Tell me about you!”

If the questioner keeps pushing, however, I eventually use my mother’s favorite line, “Can you keep a secret?” When they reply, “Yes,” I say, “So can I!” They generally get the point. As much as we all may want to be nice to others, my mother, also a therapist, taught me that we have to set self-protective boundaries and be good to ourselves.

8. Overreact.

Not everyone is comfortable being dramatic, but it can be very effective. For example, if the cashier at the pharmacy asks you about your fertility medication and the side effects in front of three other customers, just look down as if you are too upset and unable to answer.

You can do the same thing when your aunt asks intrusive questions. Then walk away slowly, perhaps shaking your head slightly from side to side. They will probably never be that inappropriate with you again. The reminder here is to use your body language to give signs to the other person that you’re uncomfortable.

9. Be confused.

If you are not comfortable being dramatic, try reacting to insensitive questions as if you are confused instead of annoyed. It’s simple. Repeat their question. For example, if someone asks, “Do you want to have children?” You respond with, “Do I want to have children?” It’s like saying, “Really?!” And “Really?” can be your next response if they continue.

But what if the questions don’t stop? What if you decide your questioner is intentionally being mean, critical, or looking for an excuse to give advice and sound important? You may need a more direct approach. Try what I call labeling. You can label the question as “that’s very personal”; you can label your reaction as “that’s very painful”; you can even label the whole conversation as “that’s not something I want to talk about.” If they still don’t get the point, give yourself permission to stop responding, excuse yourself, and leave the conversation. Humans are wired to respond to another’s distress, and if they do not feel empathy at that point, no strategy is likely to work.

Afterward, try to get some psychological distance by looking at the exchange as if you are writing a book or movie about it or collecting stories to share with friends going through similar circumstances. It will help make you more of an observer than a participant. This can help ease the rudeness of a personal attack and may even help make you laugh. And if you have a partner or friend with you who understands how you’re feeling, show them this list of interventions so they can run interference at your signal and have your back. In the end, what matters is that you feel ready and not taken by surprise.

More from Georgia Witkin Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Georgia Witkin Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today