Polite Answers to 12 Rude Questions You Get Asked All the Time, According to Etiquette Experts
These rude questions may make you temporarily freeze or feel angry, but there's a way to answer them politely so everyone feels a little better in the end
One fateful night at the grocery store, I was waiting for the cashier to finish ringing up my groceries when she suddenly chirped, “Oh, when are you due?” She pointed at my admittedly large tummy.
“With this baby? About two weeks ago,” I said with a laugh and pointed out my infant daughter in the carrier on my arm. Clearly, I still looked pregnant. I’m not the only woman who has had to field awkward questions about her womb—”Are you pregnant?” and its cousin “When are you due?” are some of the most commonly asked. I didn’t take it too personally, but the interaction didn’t leave me feeling so great. The cashier was pointing out my extra weight and flabby tummy, after all.
These types of questions—intended to be harmless small talk but actually kind of rude—are very common, says Jeff Temple, PhD, a licensed psychologist and professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch. “Human beings are naturally curious about others, which sometimes leads them to ask inappropriate questions, often without thinking through it first,” he says.
When talking to others, you’re mindful of aging etiquette and weight etiquette. But there are also etiquette rules for what to say when someone lobs a rude comment your way. Read on for expert tips on how to gracefully answer an offensive question.
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General tips for answering rude questions
First, know that there’s a difference between purposefully rude questions and accidental offenses. As for how you should respond to a not-intentionally-mean-but-still-rude query? “It depends entirely on what you want to happen afterward,” Temple says. “Do you want the other person to feel bad or embarrassed? Or do you want to deflect and steer the conversation away gracefully?”
In most situations, it’s better to avoid getting angry or insulting them in return. “That just makes everything worse and increases the risk of more rude comments,” he says.
Instead, give the person some grace. “My preferred method is to answer rudeness with kindness and a little humor,” he adds. “Politeness goes a long way in keeping society functioning.”
There are some general etiquette guidelines for politely answering any awkward question, says Valerie Sokolosky an etiquette expert and author of eight etiquette books, including the comprehensive etiquette guide Do It Right! Being polite can open the door to authentic conversations that can lead to change.
Both Temple and Sokolosky recommend the following tactics:
- Assume good intent and act from that place.
- Consider the relationship with the asker and whether you want to preserve it.
- Focus on being assertive, not aggressive.
- Remember that it’s more important to be happy than “right.”
- Know that it’s possible to not answer their question and still be polite.
- Try repeating the question back to them.
- Be honest about how it makes you feel.
- Change the subject—it’s always a good option.
- Answer, “I don’t want to talk about that. Thanks.” Yes, that’s polite.
- Keep in mind that humor goes a long way toward defusing awkward situations.
“When’s the baby due?”
This question may come from a place of genuine interest, but it has the potential to cause embarrassment and real hurt. “This is a question that should never be asked, and yet people do it astonishingly often,” Sokolosky says. I can personally attest to that! (For the curious: Unless you’re at a baby shower, skip this question entirely.)
A popular answer on social media is to retort, “No baby—just fat.” But while this can be funny if you say it in the right tone of voice, it can come across as a little aggressive, Temple says. You can keep the humor though. Try one of these responses:
- “It’s a food baby, and it’s due later today.”
- “I think I’m about as far along as you are …”
- “I’m actually a virgin, and pregnancy might put me up for sainthood!”
“When’s the wedding?”
“My fiancé and I have been together a couple of years, and even though we’re not engaged, people—OK, my family—keep asking us when we’re getting married,” says Melinda T., 26, of Tacoma, Washington. “It’s especially awkward since we really haven’t discussed that step yet, and we’re not going to have that talk at the family picnic.”
Even though a wedding is public, this is a highly personal question, Temple says. Proper wedding etiquette isn’t just about the big day; it extends to these sorts of nosy questions about a couple’s plans for marriage. “It’s fine to draw a boundary and tell the asker that your relationship is off-limits for discussion,” he says.
Another good strategy is to redirect them, asking, “Why don’t you tell me about your wedding day?” A glib “whenever you offer to pay for it” will do too, unless you really think they might splash out for your big day.
“Can I please cut in line?”
Simply cutting in line is incredibly rude, but sometimes people soften the action by asking first. They see it as a harmless request—polite, even, when you consider the alternative. But it can put you on the spot and force you to play the bad guy.
“I must have extra-nice resting face because strangers ask me this all the time,” says Melinda. “But it’s really aggravating, especially when the person doesn’t give me any reason.”
Does denying the request make you the rude customer? “The first thing you should know is that it’s OK to simply say ‘no, sorry’ to this request,” Sokolosky says. “If they’re polite, they’ll understand.” You can lighten your negative reply by saying something like, “Sorry, but I have to catch the Hogwarts Express before station 9¾ closes!”
If you’re feeling hesitant to say no, consider this: Letting others cut the line is one of the polite habits most people dislike. You may disappoint one in-a-hurry customer, but you’ll be making the rest of the folks in line mighty happy.
“How old are you? Really?! You look so much younger.”
“I have a baby face, so I get this a lot,” says Aaron R., 40, of Denver. “People often mistake me for being in my 20s, and when I tell them I’m 40, they’ll demand to see my license. Or they tell me I’m so lucky.” But, he adds, it can be embarrassing, especially when it happens in a business setting because it can make him seem less experienced than he really is.
After about 10 years old, asking someone their age isn’t polite, Sokolosky says. “It’s even worse if you have a big reaction to it, even if you think you’re paying them a compliment,” she explains.
So how should you respond when someone puts you on the spot? One option is to turn the question on them and say, “You first! How old are you?” which can remind them that it’s an uncomfortable question. “Usually, I just reply, ‘Thanks. I got good genes, I guess,'” Aaron says. “But if I’m feeling spicy, I’ll say, ‘I’m 65’ and watch their heads explode.”
“Are you crying?”
A combination of watery eyes, allergies and (yes, sometimes) emotions close to the surface means that Katy M., 37, of Salt Lake City hears this question a lot. “I know people are trying to be nice, but it comes across as accusatory, like ‘Why are you crying?!'” she says. “Usually I’m not crying, but even if I am, getting asked about my feelings in a public place is embarrassing.”
Don’t ask strangers this, Sokolosky says. And if it’s a loved one? Save this question for when you’re in private. Or, if you’re in a group, follow good texting etiquette and send a simple, “You doing OK?”
As for responding, she says you can use the “nope, just allergies, but thanks for asking” excuse regardless of whether it’s true. For a lighter reply, try “How strange—it’s raining inside!” or “I’m just cutting onions. Don’t mind me.”
“Are you wearing a bikini? I admire your confidence!”
“I’m a bigger lady, a person of size, but that doesn’t stop me from dressing how I like,” Katy says. “And the number of times people have told me I’m ‘courageous’ for wearing something is … a lot.” But, she explains, while she appreciates the sentiment, it can make her feel like others think she shouldn’t be wearing what she’s wearing or that they’re judging her. The well-meaning phrase could imply that a bigger woman is making an etiquette mistake by buying a bikini, simply because of her size—as if she’s flouting an unspoken swimsuit rule.
Telling someone, especially a stranger, that they are inspirational or brave for doing something completely normal in public (like wearing a bikini at the pool or breastfeeding) is very risky, so tread lightly, Sokolosky says. It often doesn’t come across as the compliment it’s meant to be.
If you get this question, take a page out of Katy’s book and say, “Thanks! Everyone should wear what makes them happy!” If you’re feeling a little cheeky, go with “If bikinis are brave, I have a great plan for new army uniforms!”
“Are you gay?”
Sexuality is a question you may be able to broach with a close friend or loved one, but it’s off the table for strangers, acquaintances and co-workers, Sokolosky says. (If that’s news to you, you’re going to want to make sure you’re following these gender etiquette rules too.) Fact is, this line of questioning, even if it comes from well-meaning curiosity or a desire to make small talk, puts people in a very awkward position.
“I present as pretty stereotypically gay, but a lot of people seem to want to confirm that by asking me,” says Jason P., 29, of Edina, Minnesota. “It can be a little weird because now we’re talking about my sex life.”
What’s more, sexuality is a spectrum, Temple adds. So this question may not even have a simple answer.
So, how do you respond? If you choose to answer, follow Jason’s lead and go with a helping of humor: “I normally just point at my husband and say, ‘I sure hope so, or he’s in for a bad surprise,'” he says. But if he’s solo, he replies, “I am: out, loud and proud!”
“Did you get divorced?”
When our friends and family members are going through major life changes, we naturally want to know the facts so we can be emotionally supportive. That’s why, if you’re divorcing or separating from your partner, you may find yourself on the receiving end of a whole lot of nosy questions.
“One of the hardest parts of getting divorced was figuring out how to explain it when I ran into people who didn’t know,” says Emma L., 48, of San Jose, California. “Especially because the next question was inevitably, ‘Why?’ or ‘But you two were such a great couple!’ I’m not going to explain all my relationship problems to you!”
Divorce is a big life change, up there with moving away and the death of a loved one for emotional impact. So it warrants being sensitive, Temple says.
Answering can be straight and to the point or even flippant, like these responses:
- “Bob and I are divorced, yes, and I’d prefer not to talk about it.”
- “So it turns out we were never actually married. The documents were faked because we’re both spies. Shh!“
“Did you really eat all that? Impressive!”
Everyone eats, and yet there are so many deeply personal factors in how, why and what we eat that asking any food-behavior questions becomes risky territory, Temple says. “There are cultural implications, body-image concerns or health issues, just to name a few,” he says. “Just let people eat what they want without questioning it.”
Pointing out someone’s food habits—especially if your words or tone imply they’re odd—isn’t just bad table manners; it can do actual harm. “I’m recovering from an eating disorder, so I’m quite small, but I eat a ton,” says Lea M., 27, of San Francisco. “I know that surprises people, but it makes me really uncomfortable to know that my eating is being scrutinized.”
This is a great time to use redirection, Sokolosky says. “People are often asking out of curiosity because everyone is interested in food, so try changing the subject,” she says.
You might put the focus on the food itself or get a little sassy with the second response below:
- “The food here is really good, isn’t it? What’s your favorite dish?”
- “Actually, I put it in my pockets for a snack later.” (That’s even funnier if you ate something like soup.)
“How did you get that scar?”
Anyone who has a noticeable birthmark or scar is used to fielding questions about it. These queries often come from a good place—someone wanting to make a connection or forge a bond. But that doesn’t make the questions any easier to answer.
Not only can these questions make you self-conscious, but they might force you to discuss an event or physical trait you’re uncomfortable chatting about with strangers or acquaintances.
This is the perfect opportunity to make up a really wild story, Temple says, and it’s even better if you tell each person a totally different story. This gets the point across that you don’t want to talk about it without having to shut them down completely, he says.
So how’d you get that scar over your lip? You were in a kissing contest and made it to 2,000 in one day until your lips just broke! You fought pirates in the Pacific and have the scar to prove it. The crazier the story, the better. Keep them guessing!
“Why are you so happy?”
“I am a naturally optimistic person, but I have a lot of friends who are very focused on politics and current events, and sometimes it feels like they are telling me that I’m naive or dumb to be happy when so many bad things are happening,” Aaron says. “Or that my default state shouldn’t be happy and I need a good reason to feel good.”
This question isn’t inherently rude, but sometimes the way it’s asked implies that you shouldn’t be happy … for some reason, Temple says. So how can this little ray of sunshine respond without putting a rain cloud over someone else’s day?
- If you’re feeling kind: “It’s a beautiful day, and I get to hang out with you.”
- If you’re feeling funny: “I just won the lottery!”
- If you’re feeling cheeky: “I smile because it makes other people ask nosy questions.”
“Did you get plastic surgery?”
Questions about plastic surgery and other cosmetic tweaks are common, especially if the results are noticeable. Of course people are curious about physical differences, but their questions can feel overly invasive and personal—especially if the person being asked is private by nature, Sokolosky says.
“I got a boob job a few years ago, and I was surprised at how many people have asked me things like, ‘Are those real?’ ‘Who bought you those?’ and even ‘Can I touch/see them?'” Emma says. “The things people feel entitled to ask about my body!”
You can always answer with a curt “Why are you asking about my [insert body part]?” and then wait for them to come up with an answer that doesn’t sound creepy, Temple says. Or follow Emma’s lead: “I usually tell them, ‘No, I got my head reduced, which just makes my boobs look bigger.’ It takes them a minute to get it.”
If you’re the offender in this or any of the above situations, don’t beat yourself up. Instead, learn how to apologize genuinely and appropriately, then resolve to do better next time.
About the experts
- Jeff Temple, PhD, is a licensed psychologist, professor and the John Sealy Distinguished Chair in community health at the University of Texas Medical Branch. He’s the director of the Center for Violence Prevention and has more than 230 scholarly publications in a variety of high-impact journals, including JAMA.
- Valerie Sokolosky is an etiquette expert, executive coach and author of eight etiquette books, including Do It Right! a comprehensive etiquette guide. She is one of only 20 Master Brand Strategists worldwide and has served on executive boards including the prestigious Leadership America.
- Melinda T. of Tacoma, Washington
- Aaron R. of Denver
- Katy M. of Salt Lake City
- Jason P. of Edina, Minnesota
- Emma L. of San Jose, California
- Lea M. of San Francisco