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How to handle intrusive prying with grace

| Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2008

With three adopted children, two of which are of another race, Lisa Vento of Plum receives her share of rude and intrusive questions.

Vento and her husband, Philip, who are Caucasian, adopted Natalie, 18, who was born in Russia; Aaron, 13, who is African American; and Mariah, 3, who is a mix of Hispanic, Caucasian and African American.

Family and friends questioned why she was adopting children of another race. Some people even asked whether the Ventos had to pay full price for Aaron, because of his color. Lisa Vento would reply, caustically, "It wasn't a blue-light special. We paid full price."

Before the adoptions, Lisa Vento, now 50, struggled with infertility and with the "When are you having children?" question, which kicked a sensitive spot.

"I couldn't talk about it; I really couldn't answer them," she says. "I just would break down and cry."

Whether it's meddling family members prying about your love life, parents or in-laws persistently asking when they'll be grandparents, neighbors asking about the cost of your house, colleagues inquiring about personal health matters, or friends asking about your weight gain, people are bound to receive unwanted, nosy questions at times. Such questions can be overly personal, intrusive, rude and inappropriate.

How do you respond to unwanted personal questions that go too far• A good first step is to consider who the askers are, and their motives, says Anna Post, an author and spokesperson for The Emily Post Institute Inc. in Burlington, Vt.

"I think, 99 percent of the time, they mean well," Post says. She is the great-great-granddaughter of etiquette queen Emily Post. "For some people, they're just lacking good awareness. Or for others, it wouldn't bother them to be asked that question, so they say, 'I'll treat everybody as though they're me,' which just isn't the case."

Sometimes, though, people's motives aren't so pure, Post says.

"There are some people where there is a need to be passive-aggressive, or make a little dig," she says. "They will sometimes ask these questions with a snarky attitude, or with an agenda. Or they can be genuinely interested in something and excited for you, and lose sight of boundaries."

P.M. Forni, author of books including "The Civility Question: What to Do When People Are Rude," agrees that you need to be aware of motives.

"Many people don't mean to be rude, but they're inordinately curious," Forni says. He is a professor of Italian literature at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "Sometimes, they are fishing for information that they can peddle on the market of gossip. It gives them a sense of power."

Post advises people who want to ask personal questions to watch for signals that the other person is open to discussing the issue, if he or she didn't bring it up. Otherwise, the person likely will be uncomfortable if you continue asking questions.

"Most people feel poked and prodded verbally," Post says. "It's not always a nice feeling. Some people feel like they're being set up.

"The bottom line is that good etiquette is about being considerate and respectful of the people you're with," she says.

A great answer for the ask-ee of personal questions, Post says, is "Why are you asking?"

"Turning it back to that person can reveal a lot about their intent," she says. "If they get flustered, they didn't realize they crossed a boundary. If they explain, maybe there's a good reason for it, but you might find their reason not good enough."

Forni says that any questions of a personal nature can be intrusive, depending on the situation and relationship. Off-limits topics often include sex, weight, marital status and money. People should not feel obligated to answer these questions if they don't want to, he says.

"Disclosure is not your only option; you can choose deflection," Forni says. This can be done with humor, he says, or by responding with another question, like "Why would you want to know that?"

For people who ask the intrusive questions, they should ask themselves the same "why" question, Forni says.

"The good rule is, before you ask any questions, check yourself and ask yourself: 'Am I just asking this out of idle curiosity?' If that is the case, stop and don't do it."

People who adopt children, like the Ventos, can be frequent targets of rude, hurtful and prying questions and comments, says Connie Bach, director of adoption for The Children's Home of Pittsburgh, located in Friendship. Families who adopt children of another race or another country, especially, can be the target of questions, she says. People say things like, "What do you know about her real parents?" "Why couldn't you have your own child?" "How much did you pay for an adoption?"

"We teach our adoptive families that, a lot of times, these questions come because people are curious, and they don't really understand the whole experience of adoption," Bach says.

Like with other nosy questions, using humor can help, she says. For instance, a mother can say, "Thank you. She is my own child. Isn't she beautiful?" People also simply can ignore the question or walk away, Bach says.

"They don't feel they have to answer, and they shouldn't," she says.

Lana Lindauer of Greensburg says that, throughout her life, she has been asked numerous questions that are none of anyone's business.

In particular, people often love to ask Lindauer, "How come you never got married?" or "How come you never had children?" She sometimes sarcastically replies, "Maybe I'm gay," although she isn't.

"It's like ... you need to defend yourself," Lindauer says. "It's like they're telling you ... you're not complete.

"I don't ask people anything that I'm not personally concerned about," she adds.

Brenda Shiring of Lower Burrell also received many unwanted questions and comments about her parental role in her job as a supermarket cashier. When customers would see her button with a picture of her then-toddler son -- Chuckie, now 10 -- on her uniform, many had the nerve to tell her it was time to have another child. Shiring, 49, already was in her early 40s, and her husband, Chuck, had thyroid cancer, so having another child wasn't an option, she says.

"They went on and on about how I would be ruining my son's life if he were an only child," Brenda Shiring says. "I tried to pretend that it was happening to somebody else."

Because she had to be polite to customers, Brenda Shiring had to bite her tongue sometimes.

"I usually would say, 'Well, we'll think about that,'" she says. "Sometimes, I was reduced to saying 'OK, OK, OK -- I have to go to the bathroom now.'"

How to handle the questions

To respond to and ask personal questions politely, consider these tips from etiquette experts.

• Use humor. If your aunt is bugging you about being single, for instance, you can say, "Gee, I can't seem to find the right convicted felon to settle down with."

• Show by your body language -- for example, reduced eye contact -- that you are not comfortable with the question. If you are the one asking, pay attention to the other person's body language, to gauge whether the subject is open.

• Consider the source. Your grandma might mean well when talking about your single status, for instance, but a colleague might just be nosy and gossipy.

• Be polite but firm. You can simply say, "I'd rather not say," or "I'm not comfortable talking about that." Repeat if the person persists.

• If people don't answer your questions, they probably don't want to. Respect that.

• If a family member is bothering you about having kids or another personal matter, you can say something like, 'I'm not worried about it, and you shouldn't be, either."

• Answer a question with another question, such as "Do you really need to know that?"

• Change the subject.

• Initiate a polite but assertive discussion with people who repeatedly ask about a topic you don't want to discuss. Tell them how it makes you feel, and ask them to stop.

Sources: Anna Post of The Emily Post Institute and P.M. Forni, author of books including "The Civility Question: What to Do When People Are Rude"

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