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How to Handle Personal Questions in the Workplace

How to Handle Personal Questions in the Workplace

“So there I was, standing in the receiving line at this high-powered fundraiser when this VP I know asks me ‘What happened to your hair?’” says Daria (not her real name). “I suppose she was referring to the fact that I had blown my hair out since I mostly wear it slicked back and curly, but I said something inane and kept smiling and moving through the line.”

Sound familiar? You’re not alone. African Americans are often surprised by how casually some people make personal remarks or ask questions that probe a little too deeply.

Donna Smith, a sales director for a popular women’s magazine, finds that her white colleagues think nothing of asking about income, mortgage and car payments, “and a lot of other things I think fall under the category of more than they need to know.”

So how do you handle these scenarios?

“I rely on humor,” says Neal Johnson, a media executive. “When somebody makes those comments to me, I might respond with, ‘If I tell you, then I won’t have any secrets left.’” And if the person presses the issue? “I redirect the conversation to another topic,” says Johnson.

Pamela Brown, a transportation entrepreneur, takes a more direct approach. “I’ll ask why they need to know that information,” she says. “Usually they are so stunned, they change the subject themselves.”

Bill Jones, also an entrepreneur, uses a strategy of deflection. “I’ve actually told people I was a drug dealer,” he says. “When they hear that from a 6-foot-4-inch black man, they usually just go on about their business.”

Humor, flippancy or redirection are great strategies when nothing’s at stake, but suppose these comments are coming from your boss?

Tactful Approaches

Chandra Jackson, a hotel manager offers this advice: “I carry myself in a way that let’s people know I’m all about business. When employers ask inappropriate questions, I let them know, gently but firmly, that I consider that personal and choose not to respond.”

Many factors influence how people perceive comments made by others. Culture, personality, cognitive styles, generational differences and other variables come into play. When you’re the focus of unwanted remarks, however, you need to know how to respond. Here are some tips:
  • Consider the Speaker’s Intent, Not the Impact on You: Recognize that from the speaker’s perspective, the remark or question may be purely conversational.
     
  • Evaluate the Context: Responding to someone in the grocery store line might not be worth the emotional energy. In the workplace, where you need to establish and maintain boundaries, a well-thought-out response may be needed.
     
  • Don’t Attack -- Use ‘I’ Statements: Try saying, “I feel uncomfortable responding to that question, because it strikes me as too personal. I’d appreciate it if we kept our conversation on a different level.” Don’t say, “You’ve got no business asking me things like that. Who do you think you are?”
     
  • Practice ‘The Moment of Awareness': This was coined by Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline. Observe how the comment makes you feel. Ask yourself, “What am I feeling? What am I thinking? What do I want to accomplish through this situation?” This technique helps you gain perspective in the moment. Using it gives you a better chance of saying what you mean in the way you mean it.
     
  • Deal with Repeat Offenders: If someone doesn’t seem to adapt based on your responses, you may need to take a firmer stand. It’s important to have substantive discussion about topics or behaviors you find offensive. But plan your approach before you engage in dialogue with the offender. And always remember to pick your battles.

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