How To Deal With Family Members Who Pry About Your Personal Life

Experts say it's all about shifting the conversation.
"Hi, welcome! Prepare yourself for 324 questions about your personal life and career!"
SolStock via Getty Images
"Hi, welcome! Prepare yourself for 324 questions about your personal life and career!"

Almost every holiday season, Los Angeles comedian Mary Mack and her husband Tim head out of town to visit family. Inevitably, they field questions about why they haven’t had kids yet.

“The other question we get from relatives is, ‘Don’t you regret not having kids?’ which is way more depressing than the first question,” Mack told HuffPost.

This year, she and her husband are doing things differently: Instead of answering questions about when they’re going to pop out a little one, they’re letting their Christmas card do the talking: Nope, they still haven’t had kids, but they do have a new fur baby.

The card Mary Mack and her husband Tim plan to send out this year.
Mary Mack
The card Mary Mack and her husband Tim plan to send out this year.

“The note we attached in our card says something like, ‘This year for the holidays, we are going nowhere, not even home. We are tired. I hope you all get some rest, as well, and that you start recycling. Dingo Dog (our baby) is really into it,’” she said.

Mack is hardly alone in dreading the annual interrogation about her personal life over the holidays. Blame it on the free-flowing cabernet sauvignon, blame it on after-dinner boredom, but something about the holidays causes otherwise well-meaning family members to pry and throw their manners out the door.

You could follow Mack’s example and skip the trip back home, but sometimes that’s out of the question. If you have to brave some nosy family members this year, come prepared with well-rehearsed responses to the hot topics in your life, said Tara Griffith, a therapist and founder of Wellspace SF in San Francisco.

“If you’re expecting someone to ask you about your breakup, say something like, ‘Yes, the breakup was hard, but I think it was for the best and I’m in a better place because of it,’” she said. “Then say, ‘Speaking of better place, tell me about your new house!’”

A genius follow-up question like that allows you to shift the conversation and get your family member talking instead.

Griffith also recommends identifying your ‘off-the-table topics’ before heading into the lion’s den. (The lion’s den = your nana’s house.)

“These are the topics or questions that are potentially triggering or uncomfortable for you ― anything from who you voted for to who you’re dating (or not dating),” she said.

If you know what triggers you and have a few canned responses beforehand, you won’t be caught off-guard or lose your cool in the moment.

All that said, it’s perfectly fine to dodge the question entirely. Just be sure to do it in a tactful way, since you are dealing with family, said Susan Newman, a social psychologist and the author of The Book of No: 365 Ways to Say it and Mean it―and Stop People-Pleasing Forever.

“You’re allowed to say, ‘Thank you for asking, but I don’t feel like talking about it tonight’ or, ‘Oh, it’s a long story. We can discuss at another time,’” she said.

“A broad response like that acknowledges the asker’s concern or interest and at the same time, frees you from what you feel is an invasive question,” she added.

At the end of the day, you don’t owe anyone a story about your recent breakup or getting laid off from your job, even if the person grilling you is a relative.

“Do you need to tell them the entire story? I wouldn’t say so,” said etiquette expert Diane Gottsman. “If you know you’re going to get teary or feel uncomfortable, you might as well be honest about the topic, without going into a lot of detail. It’s always important to let people know your boundaries.”

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