Responding to Inappropriate Questions

Most people are tactful and clear about what information is public and what is private, thus abstaining from asking personal questions about discrete matters. Yet, there are some individuals whose curiosity has no bounds and their appreciation for personal and intimate boundaries is limited. Those in the latter group take the liberty to inquire about information that most people regard intrusive solely to satisfy their own curiosity. What is an appropriate response to intrusive questioners?

There are sensitive subjects about which the veracity of responses is low. It is as if respondents feel resistant to answer accurately due to feeling intruded upon by requests for personal information. Researchers Roger Tourangeau and Ting Yan of the University of Michigan studied the results to “Sensitive Questions in Surveys”. They found that participants’ responses to sensitive questions about social and personal conduct that is unacceptable lacked veracity. For example, “self-reports about illicit drug use with results from urinalyses found that some 30%–70% of those who tested positive for cocaine or opiates denied having used drugs recently.” They also found “a correlation between truthful answers to socially acceptable behaviors and untruthful responses to socially unacceptable or undesirable conduct.” These researchers add, “Respondents may be reluctant to report sensitive information in surveys partly because they are worried that the information may be accessible to third parties. Almost all the work on concerns about confidentiality has examined attitudes toward the U.S. census.”

Similarly, voting habits feel private to many individuals. Studies by Belli, Traugott, & Beckmann about voting honesty discovered that more than 20% of the nonvoters falsely reported in the survey that they had voted.

Intrusive questions about our personal lives are often evaded by responders. Yet, it is hard for many people to know how to politely and kindly fend off questions that they may not choose to report or have no permission to divulge, such as their or their friends’ health, marital relationship issues, fidelity in marriage, financial standing, and any other information about others that they promised to keep confidential.

The dilemma about how to answer questions when the information may be private, secretive or in violation of another’s confidence leads some responders to become aggressive with the inquiring individual and rudely inform him/her that this is not his/her business or falsely profess not to know the answers he/she seeks. These circuitous methods are insincere and may leave both individuals feeling unsatisfied and even estranged from one another.


To respond to inappropriate questions:

  • Compliment the asking party for his/her caring, concern and kindness regarding the individual or couple in question. If he/she persists, label the information as confidential.
  • Kindly redirect the curious individual’s search for information to the involved party. State your confidence that matters are in the process of being resolved.
  • Abstain from admitting any knowledge about another’s disease, social, financial, marital or emotional problems.
  • State your confidence that you or the other party will seek the necessary help and get well again.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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