Monday, May 25, 2015

6 Tips for Responding to Nosy Questions and Hurtful Words

A few weeks ago, the lovely Jenny Uebbing republished an old post of mine on her blog Mama Needs Coffee as part of Infertility Awareness Week. Can We All Just Agree That Fertility Is Not Small Talk? addresses the seemingly harmless questions that we hear all the time but aren't really appropriate because they're about fertility. And fertility is about sex and cervical mucus and life and death. You know, things that really aren't "small talk". If you're interested in reading it, head over to Jenny's.

But that's not what this post is about. This post is about the request of Brittany, who left this comment to the abovementioned post:
Yes! I completely agree! However, could I make a request? Generally the only thing I see regarding fertility–whether infertility, or miscarriage, or “accidental” pregnancies, or any number of other things– is how the “other” person should act and how they can avoid making insensitive comments. The problem I’ve found with this is #1 inevitably, not everyone is reading this article and insensitive comments get made and #2 sometimes there’s just no way of knowing how what you’re going to say will affect another person. (Although I think the rule in this article surrounding fertility and small talk should be a pretty basic standard).
The difficult fact remains that level of comfort we feel in any conversation is mostly up to us. I’d be really interested in an article that explains to people how they can graciously receive and respond to just about any remark in addition to articles that discuss the “other” person.
Of course, Brittany is absolutely right. I've seen my share of "what to say" or "what not to say" but not a whole lot of "how to respond to no matter what they say".  Which probably has to to with the fact that it's much easier to give a list of things to talk about/avoid in certain situations than it is to suggest possible responses. Because the responses are so personal and varied.  They depend on many aspects of the situation, including the exact comments/questions made, who you're talking to, the manner of your relationship, whether there are others around, and your own personal preferences whether to keep your fertility struggles private or be more public about it.

However, I do think there are some general guidelines you can follow to prepare yourself to gracefully and graciously receive and respond to just about any nosy, hurtful, or unforeseen comment. And I think these tips can apply to any comment and questions, whether it be about fertility, homeschooling, parenting decisions, or any number of things that just aren't anybody's business.

1) Always assume the best. While we all unfortunately seem to know the person who insists on continuing to ask hurtful questions or make rude comments after being repeatedly informed how and why they are inappropriate, the truth is that most people really do not mean to be offensive. Most questions and comments, no matter how misguided, are well intentioned. If I keep in mind that the speaker means well and is only trying to be kind, I'm much more likely to respond with the same intention.

2) Be charitable. No matter how rude a question, if the person who posed it meant to be kind, she doesn't deserve a rude response. And even if she meant to be rude, she probably doesn't deserve a rude response anyway. Turn the other cheek, be the bigger person, and all that. Honestly, I usually walk away from conversation feeling much worse because I said a rude response than because someone asked me a rude question. It's much easier to brush off what someone else says than to forgive myself for making knee-jerk comments or trying to put the other person in her place. We cannot control what other people say to us, but we can control how we respond and I want to be a witness to Christ in all situations. Sometimes that means biting my tongue and practicing a huge heaping of patience and self-control.

3) Don't say more than you're comfortable saying. Being charitable does not mean you have to answer questions you don't want to answer or share private information. Smiling and saying, "I'm sorry, I don't want to talk about that," can be just as charitable a response as an actual answer to a question. A rude comment doesn't even have to be responded to - you can change the topic of conversation or excuse yourself. If someone keeps pushing, you're perfectly justified in defending your desire not to say any more and remove yourself from the situation. As long as it's done with a kind or neutral tone of voice, I think deflecting a question back to the questioner is perfectly acceptable as well: "Why do you ask?" or "My, that's a very personal question!"

4) On the other hand, feel free to tell the truth. I sometimes respond to questions about our family size by mentioning my miscarriages. It usually makes the other person uncomfortable. My intention is never to make the person uncomfortable, but sometimes I like the truth to be known. And I don't think that I should feel like I have to keep my miscarriages to myself because they tend to be taboo topics in our society. In fact, I think it can be helpful to talk about them so they are no longer a cause of secret pain and shame. You have no obligation to answer but if you feel comfortable doing so, you shouldn't feel like you need to keep the truth secret; after all, the other person did ask. But even if you do feel like you want the truth out there, know that you control the conversation and you don't have to answer follow up questions.

5) Pray for strength and the right words. Especially if you're headed to an event where you know you're going to be confronted with difficult question or comments (or people)! Also, feel free to pause for a second and ask for the help of the Holy Spirit when you feel yourself facing an awkward question or comment. Sometimes just giving yourself the time to collect yourself and bring prayer into the question makes the difference between a gracious and not-so-gracious response.
6) Be prepared. We can't be prepared for every question or comment we may receive. There are truly some, ahem, let me say interesting people out there who will say some very unique things and there is no way to see those coming. But I think most of us know the kind of questions or comments we're liable to get, whether it's the 30-something single woman who often gets questions about why she's not married, the mother of five who hears "You've got your hands full!" and "Are you done?" ad nauseam, or the couple with no child after years of marriage who is hounded to "start a family already!" Having a prepared answer to the most common awkward questions and comments I receive takes a bit of the fumbling out of answering. I don't always stick to my "pat answer" depending on the situation, but I can always lean back on it if I'm not up to thinking anything through.

Here are a couple of my prepared responses to common questions/comments:

When are you going to have another baby? I'm not sure. You can't always plan these things.

What are you waiting for? We're waiting for God to answer our prayers.

Do you want more children? Yes.

Is Lucia an only child? Yes, so far.

Oh, you only have one child. We're so blessed with Lucia.

You're waiting a long time to have your second. I know, it's definitely a lesson in patience.

Have you tried Creighton/NaPro/progesterone/this fertility treatment? Yes. or No.

As you can tell, I like brevity.

What questions/comments do you receive regularly (fertility related or otherwise) and how do you respond? Do you have a set of guidelines that help you in those situations?


  1. I've been on both sides of this. My husband and I were married and tried for a baby for several years before the first one came, so we had many questions that were difficult to answer, and even started the process to adopt. The next two children came in quick succession with a gap before the fourth. The 'hands full' or 'you're sure busy' doesn't bother me, but I was floored when a stranger said after our third child, a son came along,"Oh, you finally got your boy!" as though the little girls standing there weren't as valued because of their gender.

  2. Yep!

    I tend to (still) get tongue tied and blush when asked questions about our family (currently made up of just the two of us). When we're asked, "When are you guys going to have kids?" my husband always pipes up with, "We'll have kids when God gives them to us." Charitable, not too much info, and also pretty brief.

  3. Do you know what causes that? Yep!
    Do you guys own a TV? Yes, but it isn't as fun.

    1. Hah! Those are great! I'm usually too busy blushing when we get the "Don't you know where kids come from?" question/joke.

  4. I try to be honest but I agree that there are just times when I'd rather not share all. I think it very acceptable to say, "you know, I'm just not really up for talking about this. " or "I feel like that's sort of private." I think it's also ok to be quiet especially if someone presses on. I did once snap at a woman who was calling private sort of questions out to me across the obgyn waiting room, and honestly, I don't really regret it!

  5. This always seems to happen to me in front of a room full of people, or during a meal at a restaurant. I'm actually pretty willing to be honest with people if they would just choose a better time to ask. I like your tips though, especially about being polite but not a doormat :)

  6. I gave up a child to adoption and answering about how many children I have, or why my husband and I don't have children, or when we will have children it is always a hard thing to answer.

    When people ask if I have children and I quickly answer No, I then feel guilty about not recognizing the humanity of the child I gave away. I now try to say that my husband and I don't have children.