Service of MYOB

July 28th, 2011

Categories: Communications, Compassion, Courtesy, Manner of Speech, MYOB, Speaking

A recent comment by Lucrezia, a loyal participant of this blog, inspired today’s topic, “Service of Mind Your Own Business.”

In a response I noted that I should do a post on the many ways of saying this, using gentler words, especially when speaking to a client, fragile friend, in-law or other person you can’t be blunt with and Lucrezia suggested: “A family friend advised a simple ‘I don’t know’ when put on the spot.”

Lucrezia continued, “I feel that can get one into trouble. I don’t have clients, and fragile friends know better than to ask me nosy questions. However, if feeling compassionate, I find an ‘I don’t feel up to discussing that right now,’ or (if I can get away with it) ‘I don’t remember,’ is a great help.” [Rupert Murdock said those words on the stand last week!]

She concluded, “Healthy business relationships usually don’t involve intimate remarks.”

A rerun of “As Time Goes By,” last weekend reminded me of a BBC character, Alistair Deacon’s, solution. He’d wave his hands in a characteristic way and say “Hey, hey, hey!” which could mean “don’t go there, you’ve hit dangerous territory” or “Wow, cool!” depending on his tone of voice and facial expression.

My Mom would say, “Excuse me, what did you say?” If the person repeated the question she’d respond, “That’s what I thought you said.” I have never been brave enough to use that one.

Before the days of real estate search programs like Zillow, when it was a pain to look up such information, a friend asked me what I got for an apartment I’d just sold. I answered with a smile: “My asking price.” [I’m usually not that quick.]

When I was going through a dicey patch and didn’t want to attend any social functions for fear of touchy questions, a friend suggested I memorize a succinct answer. To this day, her policy is to make the comeback as flaky as possible, such as on your birthday or anniversary, to “Where’s Joe?” [husband or companion] you’d reply, “Joe’s climbing mountains in Brazil.”

Some people feel we should know everything about politicians-any public figure. Under the gun lately are Rahm Emanuel and Chris Christie. They are getting grief for sending their children to private schools when they run a city and a state, respectively, where public education is under scrutiny. I wonder if “this is a personal decision” is sufficient given the relentlessness of the media–social and traditional–opponents and talk radio hosts.

Innocent young children’s questions are a different subject and some of them are a riot. I’d love to do a post with a list of them as it would be charming, so if you have some to share, please send me the best in an email:

How do you parry unwelcome questions? Are you comfortable asking intrusive ones? Do you think that what one person would consider a personal, inappropriate question another would regard as routine, even thoughtful?

10 Responses to “Service of MYOB”

  1. Hester Craddock Said:

    To answer your question, I am terrible at parrying intrusive questions. I usually blurt out something that gets me into trouble with someone.

    I know that it is wrong in this “show all, tell all” era, to prejudge, but I almost always take an intense dislike to the kinds of people who ask such questions, and stay as far away from them as possible.

    You are right, though, the degree to which we find it offensive to share personal information with others is often determined by the culture in which we were raised. And some people do ask such questions with the best of intentions. I have an aunt who really means well, but is “clueless.” She’s always asking the wrong thing and everybody, including me, avoids her like the plague.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I think it’s the surprise element of an unexpected question that is also intrusive and makes you feel vulnerable that gets you to blurt out something you shouldn’t. Nerves will do it every time. That’s why lawyers practice with witnesses and clients so fear and nerves don’t get in the way of answering questions the right way. Come to think of it, PR people do the same when prepping clients to meet/face the press!

  3. Carolyn Gatto Said:

    There’s a very simple yet effective way to stop intrusive questioners in their tracks. Your reply always should be, “Why do you want to know?” It works every time.

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh. What can I say? I wonder if I dare. But it’s perfect! Geesh. When you say it, is there a smile in your voice or do you sound stern?

  5. Lucrezia Said:

    Thanks for making me the “inspiration” of this blog!

    I like the BBC person’s response, even though a “Hey Hey Hey” isn’t my style. Might try it anyway to see what happens. “Wow cool” also looks like great fun, but it’s not for me.

    The “Why do you want to know?” is a show stopper, to which there is no retort and is a must in ones defensive arsenal.

    As for children, reaction to their questions is tricky. I don’t like the idea of squelching curiosity, but yet circumspection and sensitivity must be taught. In the case of my children, I took the opportunity, when alone, to explain that a given question was not a good thing to ask and why. Children, when treated with respect, usually understand explanations and are pleased to cooperate. The fragile adult is often an act used to squeeze out information. A simple dry cough, accompanied by a “yes” or “yes indeed” with a change of subject might do. Where can anyone go from there?

    The “what did you say?” would be alright if it didn’t imply deafness. It also tends to prolong an unwelcome situation. No sense encouraging the repetition of an offensive inquiry.

  6. Carolyn Gatto Said:

    Jeanne, you asked if there’s a smile in my voice or do I sound stern when replying to insensitive questions with “Why do you want to know?”. It’s easy to smile your way through that sentence because, as Lucrezia pointed out, you already know there will be no retort. Your inquisitor will be completely disarmed.

  7. Jeanne Byington Said:

    One more thing about “hey, hey, hey.”

    A radio program was playing Simon and Garfunkel bumper music this morning and in one of their songs they sing a refrain of “hey, hey, hey!” I think of all the suggestions made–and there were fabulous ones–this chicken prefers “hey, hey, hey!”

  8. Nancy Farrell Said:

    My dad’s solution was to smile and shrug. Not every question deserves an answer in his opinion.

  9. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Your Dad has a point. Have you tried this technique? I am not sure I am brave enough.

  10. Nancy Farrell Said:

    I’ve walked away without saying anything but I haven’t tried shrugging.

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