I expect we’ve all been there: you’re chatting to a colleague at lunch or a fellow participant at a conference when suddenly they come out with a question that you find much too personal. Perhaps How much do you earn? or When are you going to start a family? or Why aren’t you drinking tonight? Your first reaction to such intrusive questions might be to say Mind your own business!  Very understandable. But wait a moment.


Nosy or normal?

Which topics it’s ok to ask about differs from country to country and person to person. For example, more extroverted people may feel comfortable sharing personal information with relative strangers themselves, so they see no harm in asking. On the other hand, someone may just be inexperienced in this sort of social setting, unused to making small talk and unaware that a certain topic is inappropriate.  

So don’t automatically judge people harshly if they ask a question that invades your privacy. And it’s really not helpful to come out with an aggressive or rude reply. But that doesn’t mean you have to answer the question out of niceness or because you don’t want to rock the boat.

You know instinctively which topics you don’t feel comfortable discussing with certain people. You have every right to set boundaries and make them clear to the other person. Let’s look at three ways you can do that.


1. Talk about the question

If the other person is someone you’ll be seeing more of in the future, a direct approach can be useful to clarify the situation once and for all (hopefully). You don’t have to go into a lot of detail, just state what is usual in your country or company or say briefly how the question makes you feel. A conversation about cultural or individual differences may then develop or the other person may simply apologize and move on to another topic.

Q: Are you planning a family?
A: That’s a rather personal question. We don’t usually ask colleagues that in Germany.


Q: I like your coat. How much did it cost?
A: Thank you. But I don’t feel comfortable talking about money.


 2. Answer without answering

Another approach is to answer the question briefly and very vaguely. This way you don’t actually give any real information, but at the same time you avoid confronting the other person with their faux pas. You can then change the subject by asking a question yourself. Here are a couple of examples:

Q: How much did you pay for your house?
A: Oh, the going rate at the time. Have you always lived in Munich?


Q: Why are you taking a day off on Friday?
A: I need to organize a few things. Is there anything you need from me before the end of the week?


3. Try humour

Giving a humorous reply can also help to smooth over a potentially embarrassing situation. This way you keep things nice and light. Again it’s a good idea to then lead the conversation on to a new topic by asking a question.

Q: How much do you earn?
A: Nowhere near as much as I deserve. (laugh)


A: Enough to pay the bills and buy myself the odd bar of chocolate.


Q: How much did that cost?
A: Don’t ask (laugh). So what did you think of the last speaker?


And if someone won’t drop the subject?

If you’ve tried humour or answering without answering and the other person doesn’t get the message (or doesn’t want to get the message), you’ll need to be more explicit:

Q: How much did you pay for your house?
A: Oh, the going rate at the time. Have you always lived in Munich?
Q: No, come on, how much did you pay?
A: I’m not going to answer that question. Let’s talk about something else.


You shouldn’t feel pressured into giving information you don’t want to give. You’re not being unfriendly by showing someone that a topic is off limits. By taking your boundaries seriously and protecting them you’re taking responsibility for yourself and the relationship. After all, the chances are you’ll have a better, more relaxed relationship once you’ve clarified which topics you’re comfortable with and which not.


Other useful phrases:

  • I’d prefer not to answer that.
  • I’d rather not say.
  • I’m afraid that’s too personal.
  • Sorry, I don’t talk about my personal life at work.
  • No offense, but I don’t feel comfortable talking to you about that.
  • I’d rather not talk about it. (If some asks about a painful or unpleasant topic.)


By the way, When colleagues want more information than you can give looks at phrases for withholding information politely, but firmly.



Porträt Nicola Bartlett
Nicola Bartlett
I’ve been an English trainer for over 25 years, helping adults to get their message across in English – clearly and appropriately. Successful communication in English requires more than just a good knowledge of the language. An understanding of different mentalities and a feeling for the best approach are vital, too. » more