can I refuse to answer questions about my personal background?

A reader writes:

After a rough few years, I landed a great job at the beginning of the summer. With the help of a superb manager, I’ve thrived in my new position, completing almost all tasks ahead of schedule and with few errors. I’ve been told repeatedly that my work is excellent and that I’m of great value to the organization. All in all, my first full-time position is going well.

My manager recently raised the prospect of me attending and introducing myself at the next board meeting. Part of my job involves communication with certain board members, so at one level this does seem routine; I imagine the members I speak to on the phone would like to see my face at some point. On the other hand, I am nervous about being asked about my background beyond my professional history, which up until I took this job consisted of mostly unrelated part-time positions.

Why am I nervous? I am still at an age where people, especially older individuals working in the same professional “space,” will ask where I grew up, went to college, what I studied etc. I understand these questions are mostly banal conversation-starters, but they bring back painful memories for me and will often trigger terrible depressive episodes hours later. Telling a coworker, “I’m sorry, but I would rather not talk about that period of my life” is no big deal in my experience. But there are situations where discussing this is unavoidable, such as a job interview.

My question is: Is this board meeting another situation where I would be compelled to answer a question such as, “Where did you go to school”? My manager knows the answers to these questions because she interviewed me, but she is obviously unaware of my condition (for which I’ve been going to regular therapy sessions). If this is a situation where I can reasonably refuse to answer such questions, how should I go about explaining this to my manager beforehand? I imagine she would be stunned, and possibly embarrassed, if I bluntly told board members that I didn’t want to discuss my personal background.

Yeah, you can’t really flatly refuse to answer what will seem like routine, polite questions to them. I get that they don’t feel routine to you, but this is one of those things that will come across as rude because they don’t know your personal history.

But you don’t need to talk about painful elements of your past! I’d recommend coming up with bland answers to the questions you’re most likely to be asked. Someone asking where you grew up isn’t asking for a thorough accounting of your life. They’re just expecting an answer like “Boston” or “California.” Even if the answer is more complicated then that — for example, if you lived in 22 states before the age of 15 — you can still just pick one place (maybe the first or the last or the one you spent the longest time in) and say that one. Most people really aren’t trying to pry and they’re not looking for all the details — they’re just asking what’s normally considered a kind way of conveying “I see you and take an interest in you, fellow human who works in the same space as me.”

And if the fear is that they’ll keep probing from there with follow-up questions, you can politely change the subject by asking about them. Keep following that up with more small talk focused on them — “that’s a great area of the country — did you like it?” “how did you deal with the winters?” and so forth. People usually like being asked about themselves, and most people will find it flattering that you’re taking an interest. (That’s true even when they’re older/more powerful than you. Everyone likes a thoughtful, interested young person.) And best of all, they probably won’t notice that you’ve skillfully changed the conversation completely away from yourself.

If the issue is that you don’t even want to give brief answers like “Boston” or “Penn State” … you do have to do that, unfortunately. It’ll come across as rude if you refuse. And if you explain why you’re refusing (“I don’t like to talk about that period of my life”), it’ll put way more attention on it, because it’s such an unusual thing. Since these are people who don’t know you well or see you often, that will become the biggest thing they know about you, and that’s the opposite of what you want. Quick, vague answers actually get you closer to the outcome you want here — which is to not have this be A Thing and to be able to quickly move on.

{ 256 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. Jimbo

    I like the tactic of after answering briefly, then quickly turn the focus on them and ask them questions. If you are a good listener and can start a conversation rolling, this can deflect attention away from you and make the other person feel good and allow them to talk at length about themselves. For example, Q: Where did you go to school for college? A: I went to Penn State. How about you, where did you go to school? A: I went to University of Pennsylvania. Q: Oh how interesting! I’ve always wanted to know more about the Ivy League! What did you get your degree on? Did you go to graduate school there as well? … etc.

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    1. NotAnotherManager!

      Yes! Most people love to talk about themselves. I personally do not, so I find that this sort of brief-answer-turn-it-around strategy works very well. Practicing it a bit makes it sound more natural, too

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      1. Agatha_31

        Oooooooh, yes. I was so happy to pick up this tactic. I found that reading the Captain Awkward archives was *incredibly* helpful for teaching me a lot of those little conversational “turn around” tactics, too, so definitely recommend that for anyone who’s not too good at going “okay so now you know that yes, I am a human! But enough about me, let’s talk about LITERALLY ANYTHING ELSE AT ALL.”

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        1. Alison Read

          Not to actually ask, “What about you?” Just a personal reminder to focus on them – in this situation probably something relating to their involvement with the organization/field.

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        2. Marillenbaum

          That’s so clever! It’s actually something I look at when I go on dates–I’m a fairly chatty person who likes learning about other people, so if the person I’m out with can’t be bothered to ask me about myself, that’s a big red flag that I don’t want to spend time with that person.

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          1. Mike B.

            :-/

            I’m the type who forgets to ask these questions, but it’s out of nervous forgetfulness, not lack of interest or empathy. Answering questions thoughtfully tends to take me out of a place where I remember to throw the ball back.

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      1. Lil Fidget

        Yes, I would say this is a good technique for a cocktail party but possibly not a board meeting where OP is introducing themselves, depending on the format. There are some other good suggestions in the comments.

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        1. Anonymoose

          Agreed.

          I think it’s far more advantageous that OP starts practicing how to inform without exhibiting outward signs of duress. Because unfortunately, personal small talk will always be a norm, at work and socially. That said, outside of interviews, most folks don’t really care where you went to school (unless you’re currently working at or near a university). In fact, I think I’ve been asked twice in 15 years of professional work, including when I was in my early 20’s.

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          1. Kathleen Adams

            I still get asked from time to time, and I’ve been out of school a loooooooong time now (I’m in my 50s). I think it’s still a pretty common question. Certainly it has been for me. I get asked where I’m from, too.

            Personally, I don’t mind, but I get why other people do.

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      2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

        An alternative could be to quickly switch to the work you’re doing for the organization and/or why you’re excited to be working there. It’s not quite the asking questions of others approach (which I agree is better suited for situation where you’re mingling), but it might accomplish the same end goal in the Board presentation context.

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        1. k.k

          I like that idea. “I went to school in Ohio which is where I got interested in teapot design, which is why I’m so happy to be working here/on this project.” Even if it doesn’t spur a conversation about that project, it moves people away from OP and onto business. If OP happen’s to know what’s on the agenda for the meeting, they can tailor this answer to match. Everyone at this meeting will have their heads in business mode so switching to talking about the company in general will feel natural, but even more so if it’s a specific topic they were already thinking about.

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          1. Specialk9

            Make up a patter with conversational hooks that might interest them.

            “I went to school in Minnesota, where I learned the importance of a good shovel and those hats with the ridiculous earflaps. I’ve lived in Maryland for three years now, and while I love the lack of snow over my head in the winters, I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve never eaten crabs so that’s my goal for the coming year. I play coed ice hockey in my free time, as a goalie. Here at Acme, I have been working on teapot spouts with Jane and Wakeen, and have recently been assigned to the Koffee Klatch account. I’m excited about the opportunities, and thank you for having me here today.”

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            1. Redundant Department of Redundancy

              Yes, this is what I do for the ‘tell be about yourself’ interview question. eg when I was moving from the north to south of the UK. The real reason was that I was moving for my partner who is military. I didn’t want to mention that (as it raises flags about how long I’ll be here etc). So I made a bit of patter about how living in the north I’ve never seen the sun and wanted to witness it, and that I was distressed at the lack of gravy in chip shops. My interviews found it amusing, and helped show that I’m a fairly irreverent person – something they need to know about me to work out if I’m a good fit

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            2. Mike B.

              This is a great idea. I hate making small talk for different reasons (I find it insincere and boring), and having pre-prepared answers to frequently asked questions cuts down on the need to think about the situation. It’s not helpful for really getting to know someone, but in a professional or casual social context it’s just fine.

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        2. Hey Karma, Over here.

          “Oh, I studied X…or I enjoyed studying X in school and I’m using in my work here by doing A and B. Are you familiar with this project?”

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      3. Jimbo

        Oh I see what you are saying. I was suggesting in context of chit chat in between agenda items at the board meeting, such as when they break for lunch and start talking informally. But yes, a formal introduction in front of the board some of the other suggestions are great.

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        1. Danger: Gumption Ahead

          Luckily in that context, after a brief mention of relevant education, you can breeze into professional experience background. No one really wants to hear about where you grew up

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          1. Breda

            This is an excellent point: no one actually cares about the answers to these questions. They’re just trying to get to a place of common ground. You can help steer them there!

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          2. Perse's Mom

            It’s better for OP to co-opt a friend or two to practice shifting the topic to more neutral or work-based conversation than feel cornered and anxious if someone at the board meeting turns out to be someone who knows the area where OP grew up (and has questions!) or thinks her regional accent is charming (and has questions!). These people do exist.

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      4. Ask Me Where I Went to School

        As someone sitting on four boards, I assure you that Alison’s approach will work perfectly outside of the actual presentation. During breaks, meals, or chitchat before or after the meeting, most board members will be happy to answer questions about their education and career, because many board members enjoy talking about themselves. The one time this will not work is during the presentation itself, but in that case, instead of asking the board member about him or herself, simply return to the business issue as soon as you can.

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      5. Artemesia

        I agree. At lunch yes, but in a presentation before the board or an interview by the board not so much. I think the key is to reframe this in your mind as small talk and decide ahead of time on your line. Pick a spot where you went to school or lived and be prepared to make some casual comment. ‘Went to the University of Washington and love Seattle, but the weather does kind of get me down.’ i.e. meaningless gibble which is all this kind of question is. Deep reflection and truth not needed. Because it is a touchy area for you rehearse in your mind how you will respond so you can wear down the anxiety.

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      6. GreenDoor

        I also agree with Mommy MD – this turnaround technique has to be carefully used in a formal setting. With higher ups, I find it helpful for the turnaround to be about bringing it back to the project at hand or my passion for the mission so,
        “Where did you get your degree?”
        “I went to Lakeland U. I loved it because they use the blend-ed teaching style so I was pretty excited to find out that we use the blend-ed model with the students at Workplace. I’m really eager to see how well it helps increase achievement scores for our students!”

        Immediately moves off my personal business and back to the mission that the Board members are championing. I look like a big team player while getting them out of my business.

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    2. Specialk9

      This is a brilliant strategy. I shared an office with a lovely woman and so got to see lots of interactions. People loved her and never knew how closed off she was. She was such a warm fuzzy person on the surface, and so utterly private in a way nobody noticed. Her trick was speaking warmly while looking at a person with full attention (dropping everything, no fidgeting or typing or dual tasking), laughing a lot and making jokes about banal things (football, weekends, TV shows), and asking questions about them. She was brilliant. I hadn’t known that one didn’t have to offer so much truth, that a warm patter could get one so much further. It was so revelatory. (Obv, I’m fairly socially awkward.)

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      1. Hrovitnir

        Not to contradict what anyone’s said about people who are good at this, but I just wanted to add my 2c, which is that at least some people most definitely notice if you’re like this. It’s just I suppose that if they’re decent people they don’t make a thing of it. (And it doesn’t really apply to the OP’s situation of a one-off in a formal situation either.)

        I find it very noticeable if people consistently turn questions around on you and you somehow just never know anything about them. There’s a guy I really, really like. He’s warm and outgoing and genuine and… deflects adroitly any conversation that goes beyond shallow discussion of his life or feelings. It makes me a bit sad it’s so one-sided, but I’m not going to push someone who’s giving all the soft nos to deeper conversation.

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        1. still anon

          Yeah, it’s really noticeable and it’s a bit unsettling. It’s one thing if someone does it when certain topics come up, but another if they do it with every conversation.

          Also, it makes me wary because know all about you, but you know nothing about them. I’m usually less inclined to speak to those people once I get the sense that the conversation is not a two-way street. I don’t need someone’s entire life story, but one word answers before they turn it around on me definitely make me more aware that something’s going on.

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          1. Marillenbaum

            That is so true. There’s a vulnerability to sharing information about yourself, and generally if I get a sense that the other person isn’t reciprocating the conversation, I don’t think of them as trustworthy because they’ve made themselves less vulnerable.

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            1. Bleeborp

              But who cares if your co-worker is vulnerable to you? I think this is a perfectly fine way to act with coworkers, even if it’s obvious they are deflecting for their own privacy. I’m an open book and love getting to know people but I get that some people aren’t like that and would far prefer they be pleasant than just shut it down explicitly like “I don’t want to tell you anything about me.”

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            2. Lora

              Would you prefer the awkwardness of them telling you, politely yet honestly, that you’ve said very much the Wrong Thing by accident? Generally when people press me for details, if I have no reason to be nice after they’ve pushed past several “mind your own beeswax thanks” boundaries, I tell them politely the truth with minimal details and rather than be embarrassed that they pushed a boundary, they get angry and decide I am the bad guy for not being whatever they imagine as “normal”.

              Have seen it happen many many many times with people who are not straight or not of the dominant religion in an area.
              Chatty person: Where do you go to church?
              Avoider of Questions: uh, still looking around. Where do you go?
              Chatty person: My family goes to the First Second Coming and Going Denomination of Abrahamic Protestant Predator-lickers! It’s great, they just switched from anaconda-hugging to skunk-frightening so the kids can participate before they’ve finished Sunday school!
              Avoider of Questions: Wow, that’s really interesting. Say, how bout that sportsball team?

              vs.
              Chatty person: Where do you go to church?
              Non-avoider of Questions: I don’t actually, I’m atheist.
              Chatty person: AAAAAAAGH! *runs away waving braids of garlic, making sign of evil eye*

              I’m sure that you personally are a lovely individual who would never react poorly to someone’s honest answer to a personal question, but the chances that you WILL react poorly are high enough that for people with non-dominant-culture answers (not negative, not wrong, just not the dominant culture), you’re basically Schrodinger’s Querant. As they say, assholes are everywhere. It’s up to the individual person to decide if they feel up to taking the risk at any given moment, because there’s definitely days where you just are running on empty and don’t have the energy to take on the emotional labor of managing someone’s reaction.

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              1. Susu

                100%
                Casual acquaintance who knew my kid as a little kid: Hi! Hey, how’s your son? What’s he doing these days–did he finish college already?
                Me (adoptive parent of now-adult child who developed severe mental health issues and then a heart-breaking, terrible substance abuse issue as he tried to self-medicate, never finished high school): Oh, he’s, you know, trying to figure out what he wants to do… you know how it is… Hey, how’s Araminta? (*goes home and cries for three hours)

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        2. Not So NewReader

          I think that for OP this won’t be too much of a deal, with someone noticing the deflects. The conversations will be shorter than one would have with a friend or BF/GF. That level of need to know is not the same, board members do not need to know everything about you, OP.
          While skirting the question is not an option, that does not mean you have to give them a 3 page essay, either.

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        3. Koko

          It may be that you’ve noticed particularly because you like him. And it also definitely is more likely to become noticeable over time rather than in a single interaction.

          There was actually a social experiment done where people were placed into groups to work on problems cooperatively. Some of the group members were researchers pretending to be experimental subjects, and some were actual subjects. In some groups the researchers asked the subjects a lot about themselves and allowed them to dominate the conversation, while in other groups the researchers talked a lot about themselves and didn’t ask any questions of the subjects. After they finished their problems, each subject was asked to rate how well they felt like they knew the other group members.

          The surprising finding? The more a subject talked about himself or herself, the more likely that subject was to say they felt they knew other people in the group well, even when the other group members hadn’t shared a single personal thing with the subject in question! We are all pretty self-centered when you get down to it, and if someone can make you open up about yourself, you’re aware that you’ve lowered your guard for them which makes you feel close to them–and as a species we’re mostly too self-centered to notice that we didn’t actually ask any questions about the other person.

          (I notice this a lot when I’m working with someone I’ve hired to work with me, like a personal trainer or a music instructor. Part of their job is being friendly and keeping the conversation going during the session, so they are constantly asking me questions about myself, and it is SO EASY to just keep answering their questions and never ask them a single question in return. Like to the extent that I often go in reminding myself that it’s polite and kind to at least ask, “What about you?” and not just yammer on about myself for a while, but once I get in there I will often completely forget and then realize I’ve once again just been talking endlessly about myself the whole time!

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      2. kadi

        My husband does this. He is amazing at it. You could spend four hours with him socially and not know one thing about him; but you’ll leave remarking on how charming you found him. Five minutes with me and you know EVERYTHING about me; I’m almost filterless. It’s an opposites attract thing, I’m sure. Truly it is an art I wish I could master.

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        1. Muse of Ire

          My brother is the same. I’m shy and awkward with strangers, and I told him once I was jealous of how easily he could strike up a conversation anywhere with anyone. He told me he doesn’t like talking about himself, but is genuinely curious about people, so he finds it easy to just keep asking questions.

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  2. LawBee

    LW – this is also something you can practice in therapy. Your therapist can really help with scripts and roleplaying, so you can get used to the “answer-and-deflect” approach Alison recommends.

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    1. Mints

      +1 Sometimes it can be hard to gauge what’s the best non-answer when you’re wrapped up in it and it’s good to practice.
      I used to say “My parents are divorced” when deflecting questions about my dad, but that usually still gets some sympathy I’m not interested in, so I’ve switched to saying “My dad lives in Nevada” and nobody cares and I immediately switch to “What’d you do for Father’s Day?” or whatever

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      1. Snazzy Hat

        I somehow managed to shoehorn my own divorce into a conversation at work recently. Two of my colleagues (one of which is my supervisor) got married right around the same time as each other, and I talked about an “I didn’t plan this well” incident at my wedding.
        Supervisor: Oh, I didn’t know you were married!
        Me: Divorced, actually, for like six years.

        As for my parents’ divorce, it ends up being contextual like you said with your dad living in Nevada. Most of my team knows my father is local and my mother is out-of-state.

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    2. Eh? Non Y. Mouse

      I imagine your therapist would also be able to help you prepare some healthy self care to get past the depressive episodes that may hit depending on how all this goes.

      The advantage is that you have some time to work with so it’s a fantastic opportunity to work with your therapist to prepare and debrief this kind of triggering situation so you’re better equipped should you get less notice another time.

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    3. Mary

      Yes, I was going to say this. See if you and your therapist can come up with a version of your story which is bland and distanced enough from the truth that it doesn’t trigger you, do the crying and feeling unsafe bit with your therapist, and then practise the dry and hopefully non-traumatic Version until you can toss it off casually.

      I’ve done this as a careers adviser where people have got a less upsetting but still emotionally vivid answer to a standard question – why they couldn’t complete that degree or how they got made redundant from their previous toxic workplace – and it really does help a lot. It’s a favour both to yourself and to your interlocutor, who has no desire to upset you but doesn’t know that what they’re asking us sensitive.

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    4. Not So NewReader

      This!
      Write some example questions for your therapist if you wish.

      Stick to facts. Mine story goes like this, “I was born in X, when I was Y age I moved to Z state. Then I came back here to marry my husband.”

      If you think about this you can see I have not told you a darn thing about me. I have just covered some biographical facts. But people are satisfied with this.

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      1. Jean Lamb

        Like if someone asks me how my son is doing, I can say, he’s thinking about moving to a new apartment (totally leaving out the current drama about him and the apartment manager, about half of which he brought upon himself).

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  3. Claire

    This sort of goes along the lines of people who get annoyed when people ask how they’re doing – a full an honest answer isn’t really required here. It’s about starting conversations! Like Alison said, you have just as much control over the direction the conversation goes as the other party does. You can ask the other person about their background and focus on that, or guide into into another area where you can comfortably talk about yourself (local restaurants is something I like to bring up for small talk, because everyone has a favorite place that they love to talk about).

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    1. Lil Fidget

      Yeah people don’t WANT to make you sad and bummed out by bringing up your family or whatever, so it’s actually doing them a huge favor to gently redirect to something you’re happy to talk about. They’re just trying to get to know you and connect a little bit, so give them the opportunity to do that in a positive way.

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      1. Elemeno P.

        Yes, this. My dad died while I was young, and while it’s not painful anymore, it was very tender for a few years. It’s also still a bit awkward to bring it up now because it prompts a sympathetic response even if I’m just stating facts. If someone making small talk asks what my parents do, I just tell them about my mom and then redirect to them. Generally, people are able to read the context and not mention anything further.

        I’m sorry about your pain, OP, and I hope therapy helps!

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        1. Catherine

          Where do you find these magical people who understand context? If I only mention my mother the questioner will invariably prompt me to continue with, “And what about your father?” It drives me nuts. Read the room!

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          1. Elemeno P.

            I’ve gotten lucky! For the people who don’t read the context, I just say that he died, and then they trip over themselves in shame. Guess they’ll get better about context next time!

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    2. Ramona Flowers

      No, sorry, it’s not the same. This isn’t about being irritated. It’s about these questions triggering painful feelings.

      Your comment, while well-meant, is kind of missing this. I have similar issues and being told not to get upset is about as much use as a chocolate frog. What did help was some CBT skills.

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      1. Lil Fidget

        Unfortunately I’d just say that comments like “where did you grow up” or “where did you go to school” are SO common, even if they’re painful to the OP and others, that it’s going to be necessary to find a way to answer that you can live with – because you’re probably not going to be able to prevent this circumstance from coming up, however triggering, and it’s probably not helpful to resent people for asking or try to start a campaign to keep these common questions from being asked. (A frequent one here in DC is “what do you do,” which feels anodyne when you’re a worker – but is so painful for someone who is unemployed or on disability). I agree that a good therapist is the best person to work on this with OP.

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        1. the gold digger

          A frequent one here in DC is “what do you do,”

          I temped in DC for a while and hated that question. I have tried ever since then not to ask it. I don’t want to define people by their jobs and by what they can do for me. (Which is how that question felt to me in DC – “Can you be useful to me? Nope. Bye.”)

          I try to ask things like, “Have you read any good books lately?” “Are you watching any good shows on TV?” “Do you have pets?”

          Which honestly, those are the things I care about anyhow!

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          1. slick ric flair

            In a professional work setting, these really aren’t the same. “This is Jenny, she’s new to the team as a Financial Analyst – Jenny, please give us a brief professional and educational background” is explicitly the kind of situation that is completely professionally appropriate, and if Jenny has problems with that she needs to find a way to adapt.

            (which it sounds like the LW is doing and asking for help with, so good)

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          2. Catherine

            The best answer to that question in a social setting is the flippant, breezy one. What do I do? Why, whatever I please, of course!

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                1. PhyllisB

                  My brother used to say “Why? you writing a book? If the answer was no. he’d say, “why do you need to know?” If you (being a smart eleck) would yes, he’d say “Leave that chapter out.”

        2. Kelly O

          I 100% agree with this.

          I am so sorry the OP is dealing with childhood trauma, but part of being a human (and an adult) is coping with day-to-day things without completely falling apart. When someone asks where you grew up or went to school, they’re not intending on opening up decades of trauma. It’s small talk.

          Your therapist can and should be helping you with this.

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      2. Claire

        Sorry, I meant my comment to compare what the asker is hoping to get out of the question in those two situations, not the OP. I realize the wording made it sound like I was comparing the OP’s situation with my hypothetical, which is not what I meant! The feelings triggered by these questions is definitely not the issue, just that there are ways to get around it without worrying that you’re disappointing someone by not fully answering the question.

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      3. NotAnotherManager!

        But it’s the same to the asker of the questions, who’s getting an out-of-norm response to what’s supposed to generally be pretty safe territory, in polite social conversation. They are not intending to inflict pain, nor will it inflict pain in the vasts majority people in OP’s position. Being able to successfully navigate professional small talk is important, and it does need to be viewed not as an inquiry into someone’s past but as something people in these sorts of jobs do, a skill I guess. And OP needs to have some way to manage her triggers while remaining professional. It’s not fair or easy, but it’s the way it is.

        I also second the recommendation of CBT. It’s been very, very helpful to me in dealing with my own dysfunctional family and severe anxiety.

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      4. Mary

        I know quite a few people who are long-term unemployed or chronically ill who find “what do you do?” considerably more upsetting than just “irritating”. It’s absolutely comparable, in that it can also trigger depressive feelings and episodes.

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        1. Lil Fidget

          I’m not disagreeing, but unfortunately I’d also say it’s a common question, and it’s probably in a person’s own best interest to figure out a strategy for answering it that they can live with (I think Captain Awkward suggests responding with the hobby you are passionate about, since that is what you “do” – or you could say “I’m not working right now, how about you?” or “I’m a citizen of the world” or whatever else you want. But being furious at the questioner, or refusing to answer on principle, might just attract more attention than you wanted on this point). As someone else noted, it’s like getting an out-of-the-norm reaction to “what is your name?” – okay, maybe you were named by your abusive father and this question is super hurtful and triggering for you. That is painful and unfortunate, but … it’s a frequent question in polite society, and I’m not sure that the questioner owes you an apology for bringing it up.

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          1. TootsNYC

            Also, “what do you do” is something I’d expect a category answer to. “I’m an accountant.” And then to keep me from saying “where do you work,” something from “I’m between jobs” to “…I really like how numbers interact with business. People think it’s a boring job, but there’s real wisdom sometimes in the balance sheet. What about you–what do you like about your job?”

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            1. Marillenbaum

              I heard a really lovely answer from someone in my mindfulness group at church; he talked about the things he loved to do, and then said, “But if you’re interested in my profession, I work in XYZ.”

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          2. Mary

            I agree it’s a normal question, and that if you can find a way to work around and deal with it that’s best – but at the same time, it’s not always possible to just get over it! I do think it’s worth bearing in mind that it’s a really upsetting question for some people because why wouldn’t you try and avoid asking an upsetting question if you can?

            Reply
            1. Bleeborp

              No one said “just get over it” rather “you really must find a way to emotionally handle these unavoidable questions” and many people suggested therapy or scripts as tools to help, not at all expecting the OP to just figure it out themselves.

              Reply
            2. NotAnotherManager!

              Because it’s a completely banal, getting-to-know-you question that people shouldn’t have to avoid in polite conversation on the off chance they’re talking to the incredibly small portion of the population that’s going to be harmed by it. When it is no longer acceptable to ask people where they are from, what they do, and other cocktail party small-talk, we will run out of things to say to each other entirely.

              Reply
          3. only acting normal

            It’s regional (in the UK at least) what the question means and what answer you will get. In live-to-work rat-race-y places people mean “What’s your job” and will answer “I’m an accountant\city trader\doctor”. In work-to-live places people mean “What do you enjoy doing” and will answer accordingly “I grow prize gladioli\sew my own clothes\run marathons”.

            Reply
    3. Liz T

      The OP doesn’t “get annoyed” or think it’s wrong to ask–the OP has a reflexive response to trauma that she’d like to prevent. I don’t think we should jump to “OP is wrong about why people ask these questions.”

      Reply
      1. Claire

        Sorry – I see where I mistepped. I meant similar situations on the asker’s end and what they are hoping to get out of the question, not from the perspective of the person being asked the question.

        Reply
        1. sunny-dee

          I saw where you were coming from, and, honestly, it felt like an appropriate analogy. Asking where you’re from or where you went to school is a very generic, common social question, similar to “how are you doing.” “How are you doing” could be an emotionally crippling question if you just found out you had cancer or something … but it is still going to be a really odd reaction to have a meltdown just because someone asked how you were doing, especially if you then refuse to answer.

          Reply
        2. AvonLady Barksdale

          I thought your point was a good one. I have a complicated past that means I usually don’t answer certain small-talk questions honestly, and I have learned over the years to redirect (and I am now really great at parties and talking to strangers). It’s an important skill. It takes time and work to learn how to do this, of course!

          Reply
  4. Daffodil

    I also wonder if this is a self-introduction you could switch the kind of data you provide. Instead of “I went to school at __ I grew up in ___” say “I have a pet rabbit and my hobbies include knitting, jogging and teapot painting. My favorite tv show is __” This gives you some personality but lets you set the agenda.

    Reply
      1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)

        Maybe those exact answers, but I think this can be done gracefully in a diverse range of settings.

        I’ve been trying to shift away from focusing introductions on professions or titles. In social settings, that might look like asking “What keeps you busy?” rather than “What do you do?” or introducing myself as “Victoria, from Saint Paul” rather than “Victoria, I’m a nonprofit manager.” In professional settings, it might look like introducing myself by saying “I work in leadership development, and right now my focus is on figuring out a way to build a bigger pool of people who are able to facilitate my organization’s leadership programs” rather than “I’m the Vice President of Awesomeness at Organization X.”

        Reply
        1. Anon for Shame

          Yes. I have been trying to do this too. But the reality is in the USA what do you do is practically the second getting to know you question after asking your name.

          I like “What keeps you busy?” I use: Where do you live (in town)? And: Why/when did you move here? because not a lot of people are from here.

          Note: Perfectly standard for a life long local is “where did you go to (high) school? which is maybe nor purposely but definitely actually sussing out privilege i.e. which private high school did you attend.

          Reply
          1. LQ

            See I despise “What keeps you busy?” as a substitute for “What do you do?” That doesn’t mean I won’t answer it, but I think that assuming any question is going to make everyone happy is misguided. That said I’m entirely for asking the questions (for the most part) you want asked of you. So if you started off with “What keeps you busy?” I’m most likely going to respond with something and then “What about you?” rather than “What do you do?” So it is a good way to avoid that part.

            Reply
              1. Soon to be former fed

                Because I mostly look after my elderly mother in a nursing home when not working. Questions that work for one person may trigger another. Why don’t we just stop talking to each other, its so fraught with peril now.

                Reply
                1. TootsNYC

                  Nobody is demanding tons of detail, nor do they need the full truth or the most accurate answer–just pick what you’re willing to share.

                  So say, “I spend a lot of time with family.”

                  Or, “I read a fair amount of fantasy novels,” where “faire amount = “a bunch of them five years ago, or so, and I wish I could read more now if I weren’t so busy.”

                  Lie!
                  Leave stuff out!
                  Exaggerate!
                  Indulge in wishful thinking!

            1. Anon for Shame

              I’m going for a person’s hobbies with “what keeps you busy” or what’s your passion” (but that’s a bit passionate for just meeting someone).

              What do you do for fun?
              What do you do in your free time?

              Reply
              1. CMart

                I’ll echo LQ in my personal distaste for these types of questions and agree with them that it’s impossible to find one small-talk opener that will make everyone happy!

                For me I dislike it because I don’t have free time/hobbies/much to do for fun. My life is pretty consumed by taking care of my baby (and I’m very well aware everyone finds other people’s kids to be terribly boring) and if I have a moment of free time I’m laying on my couch watching Parks and Rec for the 18th time. Before that my time was consumed by studying, and before that it was just me being a lazy jerk who enjoyed naps and faffing around on the internet.

                It feels very loaded, like if I don’t have a good answer people are going to assume I’m boring or shallow. I am neither of those things, I don’t think, I just don’t have hobbies.

                Reply
                1. bearing

                  For what it’s worth, I would not be bored to hear you say that your baby keeps you busy. I like to hear about other people’s kids. Now if you are desperate to talk about anything else other than your baby, you might not want to emphasize that…

                  I guess that helps me understand what the problem might be with “What keeps you busy?” which is, maybe if a thing keeps you busy, you would like a break from thinking and talking about it, rather than think and talk about it some more….

                  How about “What would you *like* me to know about you?”

                2. Gloucesterina

                  Cmart, Parks and Rec seems like a really great show, although I haven’t seen very much of it for the usual boring reasons (work, childcare, other TV shows!). If you mentioned that you enjoyed watching it when your child naps, I could totally see having a nice social conversation with you. I’m sorry that you feel like you would automatically be judged for not having a hobby or focusing on childcare.

                1. TootsNYC

                  So, lie.
                  Make stuff up.

                  “keeps you busy” doesn’t have to be about fun.

                  It’s essentially the question, “What would you be willing to share with me about yourself so that we can have a pleasant conversation in which I don’t act like a selfish asshole by only talking about me.”

                  Okay?

                  Don’t make this so hard. The rest of us are trying.

            2. Susanne

              IMO, “what keeps you busy” is the new alternative to the expected social question of “what do you do for a living”. It’s meant to make people who are full-time homemakers and / or caretakers for children or elderly parents, who can’t answer with a paying job, feel better / more included.

              Reply
    1. Cam

      I also thought it sounded like a self-intro from the letter, and I do think it allows you to control the narrative more. I wouldn’t take it into a personal hobbies direction, but they could quickly gloss over the past and then focus on what they’re learning and enjoying about the current job.

      Reply
    2. synchrojo

      I think this is a great idea, but, depending on the formality of the intro, you should be strategic about your “fun facts” and be careful about those that could inadvertently reinforce the stereotypes some people have about young people, especially if you are a young woman. I wouldn’t tell my board (which is nearly all older men) that I enjoy knitting, even though I do.

      I’ve found sports team allegiances a useful topic of conversation. An added benefit for you is that people may assume you’re from whatever city’s sports teams you root for. If you like a team that is not from an area you lived in during the period of your life you’d rather not talk about, mentioning that one may prompt people to ask you, “Oh, did you grow up in _____?” to which you can respond something like “No, I started following the team because [insert reason here]. Who do you root for?”

      Of course, this strategy is predicated on liking a sport and enough general knowledge about a team to stand up to a follow up question or two/good-natured teasing/commiseration from fellow fans.

      Reply
    3. OhNo

      A modification of that might work. I’ve done it before where, in my introduction to a new person/group of people, I put it out there that I’m open to suggestions for something. Then when I always have a direction to point the conversation in if/when it starts to lag or get into information I’m not interested in talking about at length.

      In general social conversation, it’s usually something like, “I like [activity], and I’m always looking for new restaurants/theatres/parks for walking, so if you have any favorites I’d love to hear them!” I think you could modify that to something work-related without it being too clunky. Especially if you’re in any kind of assistance or service-focused position, it would be easy to redirect the conversation from personal topics into more of a “what can I do for you here and now” direction.

      Also, OP, any chance you can redirect with the old “I don’t want to waste your precious time on that” gambit? Prefacing an answer or two with, “Oh, nothing/nowhere interesting, just [answer]” can dissuade people from asking too many follow-up questions.

      Reply
    4. Ask a Manager Post author

      I think that will strike many people as quirky to the point of off/weird, honestly. Especially because in this kind of professional situation, they’re not really looking for hobbies or TV interests — they’re looking for the basics like where you’re from/where you went to school/what you studied/professional background.

      Reply
      1. nonymous

        While I think that Daffodil’s examples were off-point, it’s still a useful approach. So OP could say: “I am an East Coast transplant with a passion for facilitating highly functional teams. I am an expert at Sharepoint, Powerpoint and Excel.” Now people know that a good small talk subject is how much you like weather/housing/restaurants in NewArea and what type of work projects you may be helpful to them with.

        It’s about framing the answers to those generic questions in light of the current position, because presumably OP is qualified! I agree that it may be a good exercise to practice with a trusted soul (out loud in the car is totally legit) some highlights version of her life story. For example when talking about college, I have a few anecdotes about generic campus life (that could have happened at any campus in the nation) and a couple more about what the school is known for (sports and stuff). Then I ask the other person what their equivalent story is. My public life story is superficial and separate from any emotional baggage that lingers.

        My heart goes out to OP, because her letter suggests a lot of self doubt and grief about the value of her challenging past. It is _because_ of that past that OP is the person who she is, which is who the company hired. OP, you’re awesome! Don’t be afraid to sell it!

        Reply
      2. GermanGirl

        Yeah, the hobbies stuff would be weird but you don’t have to rehash your CV either.

        I usually just do “I’m GermanGirl and I’ve been with this company for x years (or month when it isn’t a year yet) and I work on “insert one or two of my projects that the listeners might be interested in or might have heard about”.”
        Or for some audiences just “and I work in the XYZ department” or “and I work in the XYZ department on Mrs Ws team.” if Mrs W was the one brining me into the group.

        No need to talk about your past before this job in a first introduction.

        Of course it might come up over lunch and you can do the short answer and what about you tactic then.

        Reply
    1. nosy nelly

      while it makes sense that an odd answer to a question like “where did you go to school?” can make someone *more likely* to get curious and apply their google skills, the OP can’t prevent people from being curious by providing a specific pat answer.

      we cannot control others’ behavior, only our own. and honestly, it might be an opportunity for more upset and self-loathing if OP is trying to anticipate and prevent something as common and generally benign as a google search. i think the best bet is to find something that can be stated smoothly and comfortably–something true if bland and lacking detail–and not try to control other people’s behaviors or stymie their curiosity.

      Reply
      1. Detective Amy Santiago

        Bland and lacking detail would not pique my curiosity.

        Saying “I prefer not to talk about that period of my life” absolutely would and I would be on a mission to find out why. Not that I would ever do anything with that knowledge, it’s just the way I am. I like knowing things.

        Basically, my point is that by refusing to answer basic social questions, the LW is more likely to attract attention than if they take Alison’s advice to give a brief answer and redirect.

        Reply
        1. nosy nelly

          sure! and while that makes sense, i don’t think “preventing other people from being curious” should be the OP’s goal. just “providing a socially serviceable answer” and not worrying about what people do beyond that. basically i agree with you but think there’s good reason not to focus on things the OP cannot control.

          Reply
          1. Chriama

            But I think if OP is trying to avoid trauma, keeping situations socially neutral is actually a good goal. So saying something that gets followed by an uncomfortable silence or weird/concerned looks is not a good idea. It’s actually a trigger for her to remember all the events and reasons that make her not want to discuss her past. Saying something that gets forgotten in the flow of conversation is better for OP.

            Reply
        2. nosy nelly

          it may be obvious via my nickname here, but i also am very curious about other people’s lives–but this can occur no matter what the OP does, and maybe people already have googled her. it’s impossible to completely prevent.

          Reply
        3. Agatha_31

          It might not even be sheer curiosity. I work in situations where I have to deal with grieving people regularly. Like if client Y just lost a son to cancer, they might just come in and say “my son died and I need to deal with such and such”. NOT a point at which you say “oh, how?”, right? If they bring it up, fine, but if they don’t and I can find something on google, it can really help me avoid using everyday language that might mean WAY more to them than to me. I’ve dealt with many parents who’ve lost children to everything from a freak accident to a blood clot to cancer to suicide. They’re hurting enough already. I feel better when I can at least try my best to sidestep any conversational landmines before they happen.

          Reply
        4. the gold digger

          I have been impressed at how many people found my real name by digging into a few details on my blog. Some of them have become facebook friends. (Hi Cosmic Avenger!)

          BTW, except for the one (awful) person who made a reference to my blog on Doris’ online obituary, causing Primo’s brothers to wonder what was that golddigger thing, everyone apparently has used their power for good.

          Reply
    2. Not So NewReader

      Detective Amy, you are making me think here. OP, do you have an online profile? You know if you can craft something at some point this might help. First, it would highlight the parts of your life that are factual and might become more easier to share. Second, if people google you they might be less apt to ask random questions and more likely to talk about the things you mention on line. It could be a way of steering conversation.

      Reply
  5. Lil Fidget

    OP, try to think of this as a good opportunity to practice something that will probably come up again and again in your life. Now that you’re in a safer place, it’s the perfect time to come up with the pat answers you’re going to use for these things. Remember, people are just making small talk, trying to get to know you better, and you want an answer that will allow you to move on quickly without breaking the conversational flow. I don’t think it’s lying to pick an answer that meets these needs, even if it’s not the whole truth. Just like when someone says “how are you doing,” it’s not LYING to say, “oh, fine, you?” rather than – ” well, I had a panic attack in the car this morning, and now I’m paranoid and irritable, and I might throw up.” TBH I think it’s totally fine to pick, for example, just one school that you did attend, and stick with that (rather than saying you started at one, dropped out, tried another, failed, and didn’t get your degree – it’s fine to say “I went to X” when that’s true. You can say “I don’t see much of my family, but I love to have friendsgiving with my roommates,” without explaining a long tortured account of your early years, or just “Oh, my family is so far away that I’m staying here this year,” when by ‘far away’ you mean Federal prison. People do this all the time, it’s so, so common. Nobody’s going to call you out on it and even if you did later contradict yourself, you can say that it’s kind of complicated and you don’t want to start a long boring story about it. The world is full of messy families, terrible divorces, and heartbreak :(

    Reply
    1. Specialk9

      Yes! All of this yes!

      People just want a hook, for common ground. Make yourself a blandly smooth surface over your pain points, and throw out things of common interest where you don’t mind talking.

      Reply
  6. Eliza

    Does it change the advice at all if even a short and simple answer to a question like “Where did you grow up?” is something unusual that’s inherently likely to raise uncomfortable followup questions, like “Sudan”?

    Reply
    1. InfoSec SemiPro

      You can flat out lie, if you can. I’m a terrible liar, so I skip this.

      You can equivocate – “Oh, here and there, but I think of Smallville as home.” This is a variant of the ‘pick where you want to go and pivot’ technique. Its a solid approach.

      You can try to head it off, “Sudan, but it was honestly boring and I’m much happier here in Metropolis.” This one is the most honest, but risky, so I try to use it with people who have already demonstrated that they respect conversational boundary setting or otherwise have a clue.

      Reply
      1. Lil Fidget

        To be honest there are a few things I do lie about when I don’t want to get into it. I’m not sure I’d recommend it (it creates more mental burden to keep track of what you told to who, and there’s a chance they could find out later and think that was really weird) but sometimes I do just want to get past a certain conversational point and onto something I can work with. YMMV, OP – don’t lie about where you went to college, because that would be an issue, but you could just pick a town you like and decide you’re “from” there now. (Preferably a place you’ve been, in case there’s followup questions, or just be prepared to say something like, oh I haven’t been back there in years).

        Reply
        1. OhNo

          The trick to this, in case it ever comes up for anybody, is to base it in the truth and create a set of alternate answers, or even an entire alternate persona, that you can default to when needed. Use the same one every time so you don’t have to try and keep track of who you told what.

          For example, I get a lot of invasive personal question about my disability (I use a wheelchair, so it’s pretty obvious). Rather than giving strangers personal medical info or lecturing them on why it’s rude to ask, I’ll often default to “I was in a car accident.” I’ve been in a serious car accident before, so I can pull details from that experience if pressed. And since I tell the same lie to everyone, I never have to try and keep track of who’s around that I might have fed a different story.

          Reply
      2. MechanicalPencil

        I grew up in a part of the country that normally wouldn’t be interesting, but because of Events, some people find interesting. My answer when asked now is very regional because 1. I don’t like talking about my past in general because I’m a private person 2. I don’t want to talk about Events/politics/whatev and 3. I’d really just rather not. So I keep it vague and immediately respond with a completely different question about “oh do you watch GOT? what are your thoughts on Theory?”

        For a work setting, I’d probably ask a question about wanting to find a new restaurant or something a little less nerd. But ymmv.

        Reply
        1. Janonymous

          I like the suggestion of a regional response. “I grew up in the Midwest, and I moved to Metropolis in 2010. One of the things I like about living here is the great parks system!” Midwest (or west, or northeast, or south, or whatever) is specific enough to answer the question about where you’re from without having to get into more specific details or follow up about the actual painful place you’re from.

          The same kind of thing holds true for where you attended college. “I went to a state university/small liberal arts school/community college and majored in basket weaving because I have a passion for wicker! It’s allowed me to blah blah blah.” Gloss right over exactly where you were and into what you’re actual interests are.

          Reply
      3. seejay

        One of the things I learned as a PI is that lying (making up a background/persona) is inherently dangerous because you forget details and can back yourself into corners when you contradict yourself. A good PI builds a “fake” identity that is actually very close to something or someone that is already real with enough information to obfuscate who they are if someone wanted to try to find them (if they suspected they were being investigated) so that the PI comes across as authentic as possible. If you make up a totally fake identity and try to be that person, you’re going to come across as false unless you’re an amazingly great actor and have practiced it a lot. Some people can do it, but it’s honestly a *lot* easier to just be yourself (or close to it) and go through whatever business you need to do to complete the job and no one usually notices. I purchased items under my real name and if I had to actually be a different person “under cover”, I went by a slightly shortened version of my real name and my boyfriend’s (at the time) very common last name, so there was very little chance I wouldn’t respond to being called by the name.

        In short, don’t make up things unless you *really* have to. I’m not against lying at all, but it’s not easy to do and if it’s just to cover up something and be someone else to an extent, it’s quite easy to bite you in the butt.

        Reply
          1. seejay

            Oh god, it’s *so* not interesting. I mean… PI / computer forensic analyst but it’s like watching CSI where it’s way more fun on tv than it is in real life. I’ll email you but I can’t promise you that it’ll be fun? I have some hilarious stories about what we’ve pulled off peoples’ computers but I’ll let you be the judge. XD

            Reply
        1. Polymer Phil

          I’ve read that the same is true for undercover cops – they will only lie when it is necessary to do so, and will give honest answers to “small talk” type questions. When you spin a web of lies, it’s hard to keep track of who’s heard what.

          Reply
      4. Beatrice

        Yep, lie, or redirect, or tell a consistent half-truth that gives people the small talk opportunity they’re really looking for, without opening up complicated details about your past to people who really don’t want that much detail.

        To someone I just met, I grew up in the South and relocated to the Midwest after college. I met my husband while I was in college, and I moved to the Midwest after I graduated. We live here because he has a lot of family here, while my family is pretty scattered.

        All of those things are technically true and I tell the same consistent story to any near-stranger that asks, but more honestly – I met him online while I was in college, but he lived 1200 miles away and we had a long distance relationship for 2 years. We have a 12 year age gap. He loves living near his family but I do not – I moved here because I became estranged from my family and I had nowhere else to go. My family is currently scattered, but when I moved 15 years ago, they were far less so.

        No stranger wants to know that much about me, and the ones that do, I don’t wanna share with. Except maybe you guys. But for simple social small talk, I just have a sanitized version of my story that is close enough to the bare truth that I don’t have to worry about keeping track of fiction, and it’s unremarkable enough that I don’t deal with awkward follow-up questions.

        Reply
    2. Xarcady

      Not that I’m from anywhere at all interesting like Sudan, but as a military brat I never knew how to answer that question. Where we just moved from? Where I was born? The city both my parents are from?

      Hemming and hawing and trying to explain things just led to more questions. And I felt like a fool every time I couldn’t answer something as simple as “Where are you from?”

      I just decided that my family was from BigCity where both my parents were born and grew up and where we visited the grandparents every year. It was as close to a “hometown” as I was ever going to get.

      Of course, this did occasionally backfire when I would accidentally reveal knowledge of ForeignLanguage that few Americans ever learn or world events in odd parts of the globe (hey, I lived there for two years–I’m still interested in what goes on there), and got questioned about my knowledge. But it never led to anything bad, just an assumption on some peoples’ parts that I have hidden depths.

      Reply
      1. ExceptionToTheRule

        We moved around a lot when I was in middle school & high school. Like you, I finally just picked a home town and if people get too curious, my back up line is “I went to 4 high schools in 4 years” it’s both true and awkward. Nobody wants to talk about that.

        Reply
        1. Lil Fidget

          Yeah, although this works better if the reason (and people are going to ask the reason, when you say something like that!) is “my mother is in the airforce,” not “my father was trying to escape a bench warrant” :(

          Reply
      2. Lynn Whitehat

        Same. I went to 11 different schools K-12. I wasn’t even a military brat, though, which is at least something people have heard of. And then people get irritated that I’m making this so difficult, not being from anywhere and not even having a familiar explanation for it.

        I usually tell people “I lived in [the town my college was in] before this”. That makes them happy.

        Reply
        1. SusanIvanova

          I just go with “we moved around a lot when I was a kid” or “Texas, mostly” depending on how much I want to get into it. Mom was a military brat and uses the first one, because she lived in much more interesting places than I did – she didn’t even live in the US for more than a year or so until she was a teenager.

          Reply
      3. Elfie

        I just say I moved around a lot as a kid. Now when I get the ‘where are you from’ question, I always ask if they mean where’s the accent from, because I have an extraordinarily distinctive voice that is a mish-mash of all sorts of different accents. Thankfully, I have been told it’s a nice voice (I don’t know, I think I sound awful when I hear myself back). No-one presses for more details, which is fine because I’m not triggered by the question or anything, but it is complicated, and most people don’t want to hear about my being born in Country A, but spent the first X years of my life in Country B, before moving to Country C, before moving back to Country A…etc, etc.

        Reply
  7. InfoSec SemiPro

    Just let the banal conversation starters start a conversation, they’re an olive branch not a prison. Figure out what you are comfortable talking about and pivot to it as quickly as possible. Be pleasant and joyful about this new, unrelated but still enjoyable and personable topic.

    “Where did you go to school?”
    “Oh, Boston. But I became really interested in rice sculpture after visiting the Creative Rice Institute in California – I got a job in rice preparation and really enjoy where it’s taken me! How did you get into this field?”

    Reply
    1. InfoSec SemiPro

      Adding – this will not eliminate the stress of the original question entirely. That sucks and is hard. But it can get you smoothly away from areas of high stress and into the pleasant, getting to know you, professional introduction everyone involved is looking for.

      Then go home and do the recovery and self care you need.

      Reply
    2. Breda

      Yeah, this is kind of the equivalent of “I don’t want to talk about it,” but with the end result being that they’ll think there’s nothing TO talk about.

      Reply
      1. Turanga Leela

        Yeah. You’ll get the occasional “Oh, where in Boston?” so be prepared for that. You can do an equally quick follow-up response and turn the subject back to them.

        If they press further, you can say something like “Ugh, college was my awkward stage. Let’s not talk about it!” and then change the subject. (That works better in a social context than in a presentation.) It helps to be breezy, though, which can be hard when you’re touching on something traumatic.

        Reply
        1. Guacamole Bob

          Boston is the one city where this technique may make things harder instead of easier. It’s kind of A Thing among some people to just say Boston instead of Harvard, because they get tired of the reactions when people find out they went to Harvard (“you must be so smart!”). If someone tells me with a kind of shifty look that they went to school in Boston, I’ll assume there’s a good chance it was Harvard.

          Same with “I went to school in Connecticut” or the especially transparent “I went to school in New Haven.”

          But I went to fancy schools and run into a lot of people who went to fancy schools. This may not be universal.

          Reply
          1. Becky

            Yeah, I live in the rural South and I don’t think people here would pick up on that. I really did go to grad school “in New Haven” – just not Yale! When I tell that to people rather than give them a name of a state school they’ve never heard of, they seem oblivious of hidden connotations.

            Reply
          2. Lora

            Ha! If you went to school in “Boston,” you went to BU. If you went to school in “Cambridge,” you went to MIT.

            Reply
  8. BPT

    I think part of the problem is that you know that thinking back to these times can trigger depression, so you’re obviously apprehensive about that. The thing is, though, that you can’t stop people from asking you that question in situations like this. They’re probably going to ask it at one point or another, so at that point you’re already reminded of it. To me (ymmv), just rehearsing a quick answer and saying it (like “Boston” or “UC San Diego” or something) means that you don’t have to think about it anymore. You know the question is coming, you know what you’re going to say, and that’s that. Most people won’t pry more than that. However, worrying about how to get out of answering the question will probably make you think of and remember those times in your life more than a quick rehearsed answer would. So actually having an answer makes it less of a big deal than trying to get out of it, and takes up less brain space.

    Reply
    1. Duck Season

      Along these lines, it might be good to practice having the conversation with someone you trust until those standard answers just roll of your tongue without you having to think about it. It can be rough at first, but doing it over and over again will dull the pain (even if it isn’t eliminated entirely) and make it easier to do without panicking.

      Reply
    2. Lil Fidget

      Agree, the anticipation can be almost worse. Having a set answer will make you feel more in control. You don’t want to go through life terrified that it could come up any minute.

      Reply
      1. AvonLady Barksdale

        Amen to this, and to your earlier comment about it being ok to lie. It is ok to lie– or, at least, not to tell the whole truth– about some things! I wouldn’t lie about where I went to college or where I worked in my last job, but nobody needs to know about my estranged siblings. If it comes up later, it comes up, but for now, I get the little flicker of, “I wish they hadn’t asked me that” and I give my canned response.

        Reply
        1. AnotherAlison

          I suppose most of us have at least one topic we want to avoid. I have a 20-year old kid, which almost inevitably leads to the comment, “You don’t look old enough to have a kid that age.” (I’m 39.) My stock answer is, “Ah, well, if you start young, you get them out of the house sooner.” No one has ever followed up with questions about my age or how old I was when I had him, and it’s vague enough that they don’t know if I was 25 or 17. It’s not a big deal, but a person just gets tired of telling the same story for 20 years.

          Reply
          1. Lil Fidget

            This is so true! OP might be an extreme case, but just remember that, as you say, almost everybody probably has something they don’t want to discuss. We’re all in the same awkward boat, blindly feeling around for conversational topics that don’t result in tears :(

            Reply
            1. Marillenbaum

              That’s a running joke in my family about my father’s youngest brother! It is a continual source of delight.

              Reply
  9. Greg

    All advice aside, I read this line: “I see you and take an interest in you, fellow human who works in the same space as me.” and laughed way harder than I probably should. Well done, Alison!

    Reply
  10. Katie the Fed

    “I’m sorry, but I would rather not talk about that period of my life”

    I would be REALLY taken aback if someone answered that way to a polite question about where they’re from. I definitely urge you to work on this in therapy and come up with some kind of answer that you can reflexively say.

    Reply
    1. Lil Fidget

      Agree, unfortunately. I feel like this calls MORE attention to your circumstances, not less – now people’s minds are spinning with possibilities and curiosity.

      Reply
    2. sunny-dee

      Yeah, it’s a little like asking someone’s name and having them yell, “I DON’T WANT TO TALK ABOUT IT, OKAY?” I mean … yeah, but it’s going to seem really odd and a little off-putting.

      Reply
    3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

      Co-signed. And I would be inclined to do what Detective Amy Santiago indicated upthread (i.e., Google the OP).

      Reply
    4. Annabelle

      Yeah, I agree. I also really hate saying that, because I have a history of trauma and there’s some questions/comments that seem sooo banal on the service that have been huge triggers for me in the past. But yeah, LW’s therapist might be able to come up with some better conversational diversion tactics.

      Reply
    5. Statler von Waldorf

      Yup, this. I’m an ex-con, and spent a couple years in prison. I used to use that line about not talking about that period in my life, but I stopped because it has never, not even once, made anybody less curious. Not. Even. Once.

      Bland, boring and mundane is the new technique, and it works so much better.

      Reply
    6. Sylvan

      On one hand, it would make me stop asking about your background.

      On the other, I would want to stop asking about anything else, too. I don’t want to be constantly concerned that I am unintentionally needling you about sensitive things.

      Reply
  11. NaoNao

    You could maybe, if the group is right, deflect using a funny lighthearted answer. Like “Where did you go to school?” “Oh, it was so long ago I hardly remember.” But if it’s a job interview or similar, you might have to go with something like “Oh, back East.”
    If the answer is unusual and will raise a lot of questions, maybe answer one of them pre-emptively. “I grew up in South Africa and went to school there. It was lovely, but I’m happy to be in the US currently.”
    I grew up in an ultra fundamentalist almost cult religion and went to very, very small schools (like class of 21 people small) for grade school. To say my childhood was unusual is an understatement. People often really hurt me by saying “Oh how COOL” when I mention that we made almost all our own food from garden produce, or that my mom made our clothing when we were little.
    Yes, fresh organic produce and tailor made clothing is cool—to an adult! To a child who is sensitive and lonely and just wants to fit in, it was hard. Really hard. Seeing kids decline to eat the birthday treats or mock the homemade clothing you wear, not being able to connect with others in my peer group over popular culture, and the lifelong damage a strict religious background does to one is NOT COOL.
    So I’ve learned to give vague answers “Oh, my parents were hippies” or something. And choose who I reveal stuff to.

    Reply
    1. Lil Fidget

      Yeah sadly we have to forgive strangers for the awkward things they say when they’re trying to get to know us and trying to keep it light :( I’m sure I’ve said some stinkers to people on accident, and I wasn’t trying to add to their pain, just – didn’t know what to say.

      Reply
      1. NaoNao

        It’s funny to hear that because I’ve only met 2 people out of thousands of people I’ve interacted with at length (like, let’s say talked to for more than an hour) that had any kind of similar background. We didn’t celebrate holidays, birthdays, or any other secular events.

        We didn’t watch TV, go to movies, or listen to secular music. Our book selection was carefully chosen to be G rated non offensive stuff. We believed in a very literal, strict interpretation of the Bible and we couldn’t have pictures of Jesus because they were “idols”. We were told not to even *think* about demons, devils, or Satan because thinking is how they got ahold of you. For Halloween we gave out candy taped to “tracts” which are little fold up booklets protellyiszing about our faith. And I could go on and on in this vein.

        We attended private Christian schools that were very small and very focused on an extremely traditional interpretation of faith. Classes were basically dumping grounds for wealthy, dysfunctional children of “Christian” families.

        We didn’t eat any kind of junk food, to the point where I now have no cavities (and never have) and have almost no sweet tooth.

        I didn’t know anything about sex education until I was about 12. None of the playing doctor or other rumors or exploration that other kids do. My peer group was all ultra fundamentalists who believed any kind of sexual expression was forbidden. When I got older, sex education was shame based, sexist, extreme, and factually incorrect.

        It wasn’t just home made clothes and organic food. It was a near total rejection, on purpose, of current secular society.

        So…perhaps there’s a huge group of people I haven’t met in my 20 something years as an adult that lived this way? Mormons? I’m certainly open to the possibility, but I haven’t met them yet!

        Reply
        1. Annabelle

          Your background actually sounds a lot like that of former fundamentalists I know. I’m sure they exist in every region, but the smaller enclaves of my hometown are full of incredibly strict Christian sects with very literal interpretations of the Bible. I’m particualrly familiar with tracts being handed out with Halloween candy. People here also tend to leave them in lieu of tips at restaurants.

          And, unfortunately, the sex ed thing isn’t any better even in secular public schools there.

          Reply
        2. Susanne

          “We attended private Christian schools that were very small and very focused on an extremely traditional interpretation of faith. Classes were basically dumping grounds for wealthy, dysfunctional children of “Christian” families.”

          If you don’t mind my asking – this is fascinating. I get what you’re describing, but when you say “wealthy, dysfunctional children” – I don’t think of the kinds of people who are fundamentalists as being wealthy in the least. I mean, these are typically the poorest regions of the country where you find proselytizers. Can you expand on that?

          Reply
          1. NaoNao

            Yes, to some degree.
            The culture I grew up in wasn’t the typical “fundie” culture that one may have seen represented in tvs or movies. No clapboard churches in the holler, snake handling, or extreme poverty. My parents were part of a movement in the late 70’s that is called “The Jesus Freaks”. They were young Baby Boomers who were very unhappy with the increasingly corrupt and materialistic world around them and found a sort of “revival preacher” style of Christianity that was very back to the earth.
            My parents were from upper middle class homes and “left it all behind” to be part of this movement. They were also part of what would now be called “Quiverfull” which means having as many children as possible to fulfill the Christian destiny and make a literal “army for Christ”. Medical issues stopped my mom at 3, but she wanted *at least* 6.
            I would compare others in this lifestyle to the children of the very conservative, wealthy Republicans in the gov’t right now. They’re sort of “undercover fundies”. The appear to be ordinary Christians to the public, but their true politics and beliefs are extreme compared to the mainstream. A lot of more extreme beliefs are taught behind closed doors.
            My family was a bit more extreme, but we left the most extreme beliefs behind when a member of our tiny church died of breast cancer because her husband refused to allow her treatment, saying that God would heal her. So by the time we were in school, we were only slightly right of center.

            Reply
            1. SC Anonibrarian

              Hello. Fellow fundie quiverfuller child here and I resonate with everything except being the rich kid dumping ground – we were too poor and unknown for that. But all the rest? Yeah. It makes SO MUCH of small talk so difficult. I learned about sex from my friends IN COLLEGE. I still have nightmares about demons. Halloween is my favorite holiday because I’m purposefully reclaiming it – I can’t deal with any Christian holidays. I’ve never met anyone in person, but we’re out here online, we just don’t talk about it in real life because it freaks the mundanes and I absolutely don’t want the attention. My good friends know when I finally like and trust someone (around 3-4 years of knowing them) because I’ll start answering their ‘casual’ getting to know you questions honestly. I completely sympathize with the OP. CBT and therapy helped a lot. Distance and time are helping a lot.

              Reply
        3. Lora

          My dad’s side of the family is Old Order Amish and Mennonite. Dad left the community when he got divorced to marry my mother. There are lots of ex-Amish and ex-Mennonite where I grew up, it wasn’t unusual there or when I lived in Ohio.

          We do have junk food though, and lots of it: shoo-fly pie, sugar cookies, sand tart cookies, fudge, apple fritters. Sex ed for my cousins was different but, eh, not sure how to describe it: we all saw livestock mating, we all knew what brucellosis and other diseases livestock could have, the biological part was quite straightforward, but sex was the Thing you were only supposed to do when married or else you would HAVE to get married. Because, that’s why, shuddup and quit with the questions, go help your grandmom in the kitchen/go pick tomatoes/go mind your little cousins. Plus, the accepted method of bathing children was to put as many as you can fit in one bathtub full of soapy water, so we knew that boys had weenies and what generally happened with them, it was just the social parts around that which were unclear.

          For a while there were a lot of Amish TV shows (which of course, I don’t watch, so had to be told about them) and I got ALL THE QUESTIONS OMG PLEASE JUST GOOGLE IT.

          Reply
          1. ThatGirl

            I’m so late to this but HI!

            I grew up Mennonite but totally on the other side of it – my dad is a pastor and we lived in urban east coast and midwest environments. My parents are pretty progressive as Mennos go, but I have gotten so many questions about buggies and so forth. My whole family went to college, we drove cars, I wear pants, etc etc.

            My in-laws thought I was going to have this repressed uber-religious background, but no, I’m … sorta normal.

            Reply
    2. AnonAcademic

      My partner ate home grown food and wore “upcycled” clothing from the town dump because his family was poor. It’s weird how some people fetishize that sort of thing so automatically.

      Reply
      1. the gold digger

        Yeah – it makes me think of the tiny houses movement. People rave about it – but they are people who would live in tiny houses as a choice, not because they had no other options. I think of the raving as poverty tourism and find it kind of offensive.

        Reply
        1. Specialk9

          Most of the people who build their own tiny houses do so for financial liberation – they have a home, and don’t have to pay the crazy mortgages in their area, and some use it as a way to be itinerant but still live well. I don’t think it’s a rich person thing at all – $60,000 will not but you much regular house at all in most places, but that’s an absolutely top of the line tiny house, built by the company. For $20k-$30k, you can build your own (if physically possible). Hard to be bitter about a thing that is making it possible for people to price into a housing market that otherwise will always be out of reach. It’s also being used to create communities of homeless and elderly folks. Some really nice conscious community being built.

          Reply
          1. Breda

            Well, but as plenty of people have pointed out elsewhere: in other contexts these are known as “trailer parks,” not “tiny house communities.” It’s great that the tiny house trend has provided nicer cheap options to people, but there’s still a lot of stigma about having the wrong kind of itinerant small home.

            Reply
        2. Lora

          Ugh, I am right there with you.

          The main thing I kept from my childhood was being insanely cheap about certain things, usually basic life stuff. I can grow 50 pounds of lovely organic Brandywine tomatoes that taste like a tomato for $2 worth of seeds, I’m not paying $6/pound at the store where I have to fight for parking.

          Reply
    3. Rusty Shackelford

      Sometimes “cool” is a euphemism for “wow, that’s really different and I don’t even know what to think about it, but I don’t want you to think I’m judging you or your parents.” Or is it just me?

      Reply
      1. Lissa

        This makes me think of how one of my friends reacted when I nervously came out to her. “That’s so cool!” I thought it was funny, was not offended and was really happy she was OK with it, but I’ve had some people tell me my friend was offensive. *shrug* it was also like 2002, though.

        Yeah, I think it’s somebody reacting in the moment to something very different, perhaps wanting to signal they don’t judge. I’d say “without thinking through all the ramifications” but typically someone doesn’t have time to think through all ramifications of everything they might say anyway, at least not in a casual conversation (if only.)

        Reply
      2. NaoNao

        I really think it depends on tone. “Oh, cool” in a simple, flat tone is “I don’t know what to say”
        “Oh, COOL” with a raised voice, widened eyes and a smile is “Wow, I think that’s noteworthy in a good way!” I generally get the second one. People then go on to elaborate a lot of times “I wish I had handmade clothes!” “That must have been so fun!” or other things that clearly indicate they think it’s desirable or interesting in a good way. I mean, I don’t want negative judgments from people for sure, but it seems….a bit “read the room, dude!” when I’m on one tone and they’re all Tigger over there!

        Reply
    4. AnotherCultChildhood

      Those of us who grew up in cults tend to keep our mouths shut about it, even anonymously online. “Oh I grew up in a cult” blights virtually every conversation!

      I read a book by Laurie R King, A Darker Place, that seemed to *get* it. You might find it hard, but it helped me somehow.

      Reply
      1. NaoNao

        I also recommend “Higher Ground” movie that legit triggered me and my sister super hard but is a must for those that grew up in a very fundamentalist background, and “Deprogrammed” documentary on Netflix which is the first time I’ve ever heard my parents’ religious background ever discussed in the mainstream. Also the TV series “The Path”, while more of a traditional cult, is a very accurate description and depiction of people who are not in abject poverty or uneducated, but choose a simple, rural lifestyle based on religion.

        Reply
        1. SC Anonibrarian

          I showed a Jesus Camp documentary movie to my husband before we married because I needed to be sure he (atheist European male) understood the depth of the crazy in my background. I don’t avoid talking about it online entirely – there are communities out there, and I can always ditch an anon handle and make a new one, but I never bring it up first, or in casual ‘oh hey I saw this cult thing on tv’ sorts of convos. I think most people like to pretend that those ‘crazy cultist’ could never actually be the people they might be interacting with.

          Reply
    1. Detective Amy Santiago

      I found it ironic that Alison used Penn State as an example because I can completely understand why someone might not want to disclose that given the recent controversies there. But in that situation, you could say “Oh, I went to school in Pennsylvania” if you’re in another state or “I graduated locally” if you’re still in the general area. Either way, the redirect is the key.

      Reply
  12. Madame X

    As others have mentioned, working with a therapist on how to answer these types of questions will help you to develop coping skills for how to handle these types of scenarios. The questions you point out are perfectly normal questions for people to ask one another. No one is asking you to go into intimate details about the worst times in your life. Flatly declining to answer any thing (even on a surface level) about your self will raise red flags in others and will make it seem that you have some deep dark secret. Treating these types of conversation as a non-issue is the best way to go if you don’t want to bring any undue attention to your past.

    Reply
  13. Administrative Assistant

    I would suggest getting a friend to role-play this with you. Have him ask you in several different ways those questions you are dreading, and rehearse your answers. Better yet, several friends. Do it over and over, and make it funny too. Build some humor into the process, so it won’t be so scary to rehearse, then even if you’re nervous as hell, when it happens, you’ll know you CAN do it, and hopefully remember the funny things with a smile when you answer for real.

    Reply
  14. July

    Hi, OP. I just wanted to chime in to say 1) congratulations on having a great job you’re able to thrive in and 2) congratulations on making it through the painful experiences in your past. Can we say badass on Ask a Manager? You’re a total badass.

    I think Alison has (as ever) solid advice on this. I’ll also add that if you’re in group setting where it might be odd to ask people where they went to school etc, you can also change the subject to something positive about where you are now. For instance: “I grew up in the Midwest, so I can’t tell you how much I love these warm winter days we get here in Florida.” Or “I actually went to a school without a football team, so I’m loving learning more about the sport from all you State U fans here at Widget, Inc.”

    Reply
  15. Been there

    I like the idea of coming up with a script for these scenarios. Understanding that it’s less about the answers and more about the feelings that the questions raise. The more you script and practice your responses, the easier it may become. This is also something that should be discussed with a therapist as I’m sure they can help you with coping mechanisms and also the underlying issues causing the depressive episodes.

    The good news is generally speaking the people who ask these questions are making small chit chat and except for some rare occasions (job interviews for example) they are as interested in your answer about your background as they would be your opinion on beekeeping, the latest reality/talent show, or where you like to buy your coffee. So not only is it OK to give high level answers, in some cases people prefer them.

    I’m reminded of a LW who was struggling with the “How are you” greeting and she felt like she wasn’t giving a truthful answer if she said “Fine” even if she wasn’t. I think the first few paragraphs in the answer could relate here as well.
    Found it: http://www.askamanager.org/2017/05/saying-how-are-you-feels-inauthentic-to-me.html

    Reply
    1. CM

      Yes, lots of practice beforehand with a trusted person, and I also like the suggestions to change the subject. Give the short, vague answer, but then keep going so you can move the conversation to a new topic. “Where did you go to school?” “The east coast. While I was out there I started working at XYZ Org, doing loom repair. Have you heard of it?”

      Reply
  16. Dancer

    I’d agree on the working up some bland, anodyne answers. I was on a training course last week with people from across the organisation and the trainer wanted us each to say where we worked in the organisation and one fact about us that wasn’t obvious. The sort of things people came up with varied from “I have three children” to “I do historical re-enactment and am laying siege to a Roundhead stronghold tomorrow” to “I have a classic Bentley and spend the weekends maintaining it.” Nobody wants something deeply personal or intimate. It’s just something to give people some context and identify you as a human.

    The main thing is to think of a couple of things that don’t upset you and try and move the conversation onto them quickly. So I’d go with something like “I grew up in N-shire and I’ve lived in C-town since 2010. In my leisure time I’m a professional llama trainer.” Then direct follow ups onto your hobbies or something you’re happier talking about.

    Reply
  17. KR

    Hi OP! It wouldn’t hurt, I think, to clue in your manager that you’re feeling nervous about answering personal questions and ask if they know what the board is likely to ask you. She could also be your ally to change the subject away from personal questions after a few minutes, or if the board members start to pry.

    Reply
    1. The New Wanderer

      I think this is good. I would propose a step further – it sounds like this will be a mini-presentation by OP to the board, rather than one-on-one conversations. I would ask the manager to give a brief introduction that covers the basics before turning it over to the OP, who could then talk about recent or current work projects. Frame it as, I’m a little nervous about presenting to the board. Do you mind introducing me and then I can keep my focus on discussing our projects?

      Reply
  18. Lady Ariel Ponyweather

    I wrote out a long response and then deleted it, but basically: OP, I completely get what you mean. Completely. It’s great that you’re working with a trained therapist. Have they recommended any suggestions for you? Have you practiced any scenarios with them and/or sympathetic friends?

    I have a maximum of three deflection subjects at hand (more than that and I won’t remember them). I also flat-out lie in response to one particular question. It might be handy to make your own list, just so you’ve got something concrete you can turn to and don’t have to flounder to think of something.

    I can say in my experience that people do let the subject drop and move on to other things. I’ve yet to meet someone who just won’t stop – if they were to do, it would make them look like weirdos for pursuing something the other person doesn’t want to talk about.

    Good luck, I hope it all goes well. Cheering you on!

    Reply
    1. caryatis

      >I have a maximum of three deflection subjects at hand (more than that and I won’t remember them). I also flat-out lie in response to one particular question. It might be handy to make your own list, just so you’ve got something concrete you can turn to and don’t have to flounder to think of something.

      I like this suggestion. Part of OP’s anxiety is probably from not knowing what to say, going over and over potential answers and knowing none of them is perfect. Just pick one answer (even if it’s a lie) and say it every time to diminish the amount of mental energy you have to spend on this.

      From another person who doesn’t understand why everyone has to know “where I’m from.” I live here now, who cares what hospital I was born in?

      Reply
  19. Alton

    If you’re giving a sort of presentation/spiel, would it be possible to proactively address some of these questions? First of all, would it be less painful to bring it up on your own terms than have someone else mention it? Second, if you bring some things up yourself, you might have a little more control over what you’re asked because you’ll have satisfied some of the curiosity.

    Reply
    1. Breda

      The issue here, I think, is that “Where did you go to school?” is an icebreaker question. If you answer it in your intro, people are likely to break the ice with follow-up questions. If the goal is to avoid follow-ups entirely, letting others ask the question and deflecting at that point might be easier.

      Reply
      1. Lil fidget

        It’s so true, I think that’s what people are trying to say: nobody’s asking where you grew up because they want to hear about your life, this is just a common conversation-starter. If you don’t like their choice of conversation, it shouldn’t be too hard to redirect to a different one, but you can’t really pre-empt the question or decline to answer it because it’s … not a real question. It’s an entry point.

        Reply
  20. AnotherAlison

    My spouse had a rough childhood. He moved 22 times before graduating high school, and his mom has (now) been divorced 7 times. His older sister was put in foster care voluntarily by his mother. He moved to our current city to live with relatives who were virtually strangers.

    He used to give people all the details, but in his words, he is just “tired of talking about it” at this point. He’s figured out accurate but abbreviated answers that don’t lead to follow up questions that he doesn’t want to talk about.

    I don’t really understand the depressive piece of this, but I think OP has to work through (maybe with therapy) a minimal line of questioning that she can handle and work on having prepackaged answers that don’t cause a lot of uncomfortable follow-up. People don’t really want to hear about painful details, they just have no idea that a simple question will lead there. You don’t have to let it lead there.

    Reply
  21. animaniactoo

    OP, in addition to what Alison is suggesting, I’m going to suggest a different form of self-care.

    Pre and post care when you know it’s *likely* that you’re going to be in a situation like this.

    Do something for yourself right before – even if it’s something small like splurging on a fancy coffee drink or a milkshake or something. Give yourself some sort of pleasurable and calming experience as you go into it.

    On the other end, plan something you will do after. If it’s going to be several hours until you can get home and do it, plan something very simple to enact, which won’t take a lot of effort. Maybe it’s a particular movie you really like queued up on Netflix or rented from wherever you can rent from. Maybe it’s a heating pad and a book and turning your phone off and PLANNING and letting it be okay to do that rather than feeling upset about not wanting to talk to anyone just then.

    Short term, your goal is just to get through it. But long term the goal is to change the some of the emotional association with being asked such questions and needing to answer them.

    Good luck to you. I’m sorry for whatever you went through – but you’ve come this far and that’s an amazing thing. I have confidence that you can tackle this and get through it too. Don’t forget to reach out for help from a therapist and friends and family or whatever you have available to you as you need.

    Reply
    1. Janey Jane

      Yes! This! I was coming here to say the same thing and I’m so glad it’s already been mentioned!

      OP — As a child abuse survivor who used to react poorly to any family-related questions, I have felt this way in similar situations and I agree that it totally, totally sucks. There’s a lot of good advice upthread on how to deflect/redirect/lie about this, so I won’t rehash it here. But I definitely want to validate that it sucks to have to talk about seemingly-innocuous things that can really upset you because of reasons. Therapy’s going to help a lot with this type of thing in the future.

      For now, I do have some advice for preparing for and recovering from the meeting:

      Definitely prepare ahead of time – talking with therapist, role playing, coming up with a script, etc. But devote the day before the presentation to doing stuff on your Good Things List. Have your favorite dinner the night before. Watch your favorite movie or TV show. Exercise. Get a good night’s sleep and eat a good breakfast. Wear an outfit that makes you feel good. Just do as many Good Things ahead of time as you can to build up your reserves and help you coast through this yucky thing you have to do. It will help.

      And then afterwards — congratulate yourself for getting through it! No matter how awkward or weird it gets, even if it goes terribly, you 1) prepared as much as you could, 2) asked for help when you needed, and 3) did your best. AND, no matter how it goes, afterwards pile on more things from the Good List. Have a really nice bath when you get home, listen to your favorite music and order your favorite takeout. It might not fully prevent you from sliding into a depressode, but it might slow it down enough that you don’t go as far, and can pull out of it sooner. Make sure your Good Things List is written out and displayed prominently!

      PTSD/triggers/depressodes suck. But you’re getting therapy, you’re looking for tools and help to get you through it, and you’re doing the work, and that’s AWESOME. This situation right now might suck, but the next time will be easier, and the next one even easier than that. I used to have a lot of difficulty answering questions about my family, and would lie myself into corners. I still get blindsided sometimes when I’m not expecting intensive questions, but it’s gotten a lot lot better, and those conversations are a lot less fraught. You’ll get there, too.

      Reply
  22. Nea

    The best way of shutting down a line of questioning, however polite, that you don’t want to pursue is to make the answer so boring that it will put someone’s dental fillings to sleep, and then either pivot and/or talk about someone else.

    Where did I grow up? “[State].” More specifics? “Oh, it’s so small it’s not even on maps. That’s why I was so happy to live [where you live now]. I especially enjoy [activity/club/museum/whatever in current town].”
    or alternatively, “I’m new in town; can anyone recommend a good club/museum/activity group?”

    School/degree: “To be honest, it’s so far away from teapot design it isn’t really relevant. I got it when I wasn’t sure what to do with my future, but I’ve discovered teapot design I really want to make that my career because…”

    Reply
  23. LQ

    I absolutely get the inclination. But don’t do it.
    When someone asks that they aren’t asking you to look into your soul and give them an answer. Even if that’s where your brain goes first.
    Two of the most important adult skills I’ve had to learn were “lying” about inconsequential things (“I did nothing all weekend and it was glorious” not “I did nothing all weekend because I felt like the world was crushing me to death and couldn’t get out of bed” or “Sorry Mom I’ve got plans that afternoon, but I can do coffee at 10, I’ll have to go at noon” rather than “Sorry Mom I can’t take a full day of hearing you tell me how horrible I am because after an hour and a half you go off the rails and you’re never going to change or listen to me on this so I’m protecting myself”) and deflecting painful things (“Eh I don’t see him often” rather than “my dad is a monster” etc)
    Therapy, practice with a close friend, and just realizing that this doesn’t make you a bad person can all help tremendously.

    People are going to ask awkward questions as long as we interact with each other. Because we are not in the heads of everyone we meet (THANKFULLY!) we don’t know which things are going to get under the skin of those around us. We can not aim for the jugular, but we can also recognize that “how are you?” will come up when the answer is “horrible, someone I love just died”, someone will ask about family when a family member is abusive or dead, being able to reach into the bucket of deflection and nonanswers is one of the most powerful tools.

    I say this as someone who once broke down sobbing to a woman at a coffee shop who asked how I was and it just burbled forth from me. Being able to handle those things without reaching all the way into all that raw open emotion is so worth the effort to go through to get there.

    Reply
    1. Not So NewReader

      I am sorry life has been so cruel, but I am glad that you shared this for OP to see. These are real to life, practical examples.
      Regarding your last paragraph but directing it to OP, this is what grief looks like. Grief is not just for funeral there are many sadnesses in life that we grieve. LQ’s last paragraph is a solid example of how grief works and what it can look like. You may benefit from reading up on grief and the grieving process. Pain that is close to the surface like that many times means deep grief underneath.

      Reply
    2. Ellen Ripley

      Once in the midst of one of my bad depressive periods, I opened the door to a door-to-door salesman and burst out crying. Swear to god it was not a ploy to get him to leave; I just had an upswelling of emotion and couldn’t control it. It makes me laugh to think about it now – I’d never seem a solicitor leave so quickly before in my whole life.

      Reply
  24. Kate

    If it’s an intro at a board meeting, that’s more like a brief statement than a conversation. If you can add a fun fact or something jokey at the end (if you can pull that off), that’ll wrap things up on a positive, friendly note. Like, “I’m Fergus. I went to Penn State. I’m the new Llama Herder and am responsible for X, Y, Z. I’m thrilled to be a part of Llamas Inc.– especially with all the snacks in the break room!” or “Outside of work, I like to read, hike, and groom my llamas.” That gives people something to question/comment on that’s low stakes, like your llama grooming, or a comment on break room snacks.

    Reply
  25. SUPC

    Yeah, I sympathize with this. People ask me where I went to school, and when I say “Slightly Unusual Prestigious College,” they either are generally impressed, or ask me further questions about what it was like there. I was really depressed there and dropped out after three years. Obviously, I don’t want to tell people that, and it’s sort of embarrassing if they’re impressed.

    Reply
        1. puzzld

          I spent a few semesters at _____. Then I realized that Llama herding was where my heart wanted me to be so I took a 6 week Llamas, Alpacas and Vicunas bootcamp and the rest, as they say is history.

          Reply
      1. RVA Cat

        This. It’s impressive you were able to get in at all, that you made it 3 years, and it’s so common for people to not finish college.

        Reply
  26. StellaMaris

    The “pivot to where you want to be” is a good idea. As others said, saying that you don’t want to talk about certain things makes it more memorable. (Example: people still talk about the academic advisor/prof at my school who had a ‘welcome’ meeting with advisees and when asked about their educational background and research interests snapped “I don’t talk about personal things with strangers”.)

    Reply
    1. Marillenbaum

      It’s the standard politician’s tactic: answer the question you wish you’d been asked, and not the question you were actually asked. Done deftly, the questioner doesn’t always realize what just happened!

      Reply
  27. Coco

    My coworker has a similar situation that I’m not sure can be avoided with short answers and redirecting. Management have a habit of asking personal Qs about family during staff meetings, and my coworker has so much family trauma that she can hardly answer any Q without being visibly sad (one time she even cried). They know this, but continue to direct those questions at her. So now she just says “I don’t like to talk about family.”

    Reply
    1. Chriama

      Totally different scenario, your managers are jerks. If a polite redirect doesn’t work because people are seriously interested in probing into your deep dark past you have permission to say “I’m actually not super close with my family, why don’t you tell me about yours?” But that’s a level 2 redirect and there’s no indication that OP has encountered a-holes like that. (I’d also say your coworker has permission to go to level 3 “I’ve told you before that I don’t like to talk about my family, would you like to talk about [safe topic] or should I go talk to someone else?” With a manager maybe “I’ve made it pretty clear I don’t want to talk about my family, and your fixation on bringing it up is making me uncomfortable. Please stop.”)

      Reply
      1. Lil Fidget

        Yeah when someone escalates from your polite side-step, THEY are the ones being jerks and making it awkward, not you. OP should also practice a few flat responses for if people are being weird, all the way up to, “this is really making me uncomfortable, I’m going to go refill my drink” (or whatever).

        Reply
    2. nonegiven

      There’s always, “Pet did the cutest thing.” or “Pet is having digestive issues, ugh.” Assuming you have a pet.

      Reply
  28. Max from St. Mary's

    Your first goal is to create no mysteries and refusing to talk about your past creates a big mystery.
    I agree with people who say that you need to create a script for yourself with answers to the most likely questions, then practice until you feel comfortable.
    Important things:
    Since it sounds like your manager will be there, make sure your answers jibe with what you’ve told her.
    Try not to say ‘but’ when you’re deflecting, say ‘and’, as in “I grew up in (pick mundane way to describe city/state/region) and then moved here and loved it so much I stayed.”
    Don’t fudge about your education. If you got a college degree that’s unrelated to your job, focus on how your goals changed. If you attended college but didn’t get a degree, consider whether it’s relevant–was it important in getting your job? If you didn’t attend college, then similar to the where you grew up question, in fact you could put the two together “…moved here after graduating”, or leaving school if you didn’t graduate.
    Probably too late for this situation, but start to pay attention to how other people answer these sorts of questions, and whether or not their answers draw followup questions or not, then pattern your answers after those responses.

    Reply
  29. Parcae

    Does your position require a certain education? I’ve had some conversations that went roughly like this:

    Person 1: “Where did you go to school?”
    Person 2: “Oh, my education was really more on the job! I got interested in llama raising when I worked as a temp at Llamas R Us. From there, I moved into llama breeding…”

    The implication is usually that the Person 2 didn’t attend and/or graduate college, or at least that their education was in such a vastly different field that it’s irrelevant. The important part is that it lets you pivot into the professional work you *do* feel comfortable discussing. And because some people feel that not graduating college is shameful in some way (it isn’t!), the board members will be unlikely to probe out of fear of embarrassing you, and you’ll have some socially acceptable cover if you seem uncomfortable about the question.

    Reply
  30. OtterB

    I’d encourage you to talk more to your manager about what would be expected. If it was one of my organization’s board meetings, new staff get introduced by the Executive Director (or, occasionally, introduce themselves, but quite briefly, meaning it would be fairly easy to control the narrative) and there are a casual conversations over meals, where the bland answer / turnaround on questioner would work pretty well. Mostly the board members want to talk to each other anyway; my boss encourages the staff to circulate but we often end up at a staff table by default. :-)

    Reply
  31. Amy

    I’ve been a lower level staff person that attended board meetings or interacted with board members fairly regularly. I have to say, it was on the rarest of occasions that they even asked about me. Mostly they just wanted to talk about themselves. You may not have anything to worry about but it sounds like you’re doing some good work on yourself in this area.

    Reply
  32. MicroManagered

    I have difficult family relationships that make office chit-chat feel pretty awkward when the conversation turns to like, what I did over the holidays or how I celebrated X-day-that-people-usually-spend-with-parents.

    I discovered the trick of giving a vague answer and then quickly switching to “and what about you?” plus a couple follow-up questions a while ago. A variation on this is to answer the obvious follow-up question along with the first. If they ask where you went to school, you say “I studied underwater basket-weaving at Clown University. Go Clowns!” and then, “what about you?”

    The other one is that I’ve become a master of the non-answer. This isn’t a lie, rather it’s a statement of fact that sounds like it answers the question but doesn’t. For example, if someone says “What did you do for Christmas?” I will say “Oh, I have lots of family right here in town. There’s always a big get-together at Aunt Myrtle’s house.” That *sounds* like I answered the question, but I didn’t. But I also didn’t tell a lie that I now have to keep track of or risk contradicting in a later conversation. Maybe there is a way you can make that kind of technique work for you.

    And the other piece is to bring your therapist in on this. This is literally what you are paying her for. Therapy can’t turn you into a person who magically has no difficult emotions in life. But it can help you build skills to navigate situations like this!

    Reply
  33. Goya

    I totally get wanting to avoid talking about it, but as everyone else has said, don’t. I’ve found that 95% (definitely a scientific calculation :-p ) of the people who as these questions aren’t looking for the nitty gritty, especially if you’ve just met. I’d find as bland of answers as you can think of and move on. Someone else here mentioned the self-care before and after, and I agree, I think it’s a great idea.

    Reply
  34. Another Secret History

    OP, I feel your pain. Five years ago, I was a member of a religious order (in the process of becoming a nun) and during this time was abused and then developed PTSD, which I spent basically a year off the grid suffering from/being treated for. I have a degree in theology, so earlier in my career (and still now sometimes) people will ask why I studied that, what I did during XY years, etc. And basically, I lie. In the religious community I helped run a shelter, so I “worked” at a shelter at that time. I studied theology because I “was going to get a PhD but decided not to.” Etc. Eventually you just get used to it.

    Unfortunately, you need to find a way to get around those conversations. For what it’s worth, 5 years down the line, there have been MANY times I’ve had a ball of anxiety in my stomach afraid people will ask probing questions or that I will be put in a place of needing to “come clean”. And no one ever has. God bless em, most people want to make easy going conversation and move on and are not that curious about the details. Best wishes.

    Reply
  35. seejay

    If you can, figure out some generic answers to commonly asked questions that people will toss at you for everyday conversations, especially for questions that are triggering for you. If they’re common every day conversation questions that’ll come up in professional settings, you’ll definitely want to have a way to just answer casually without it being upsetting or a big deal and the best way to do that is having answers set up ahead of time. As others have said, no one’s that interested in the details, just the surface answers, such as where you went to school, what you might have studied or concentrated on, pastimes, where you’re from, etc. Someone may bring up family so have a generic answer for that at least (there’s usually some sort of casual way to deflect if parents are split, if there’s estrangement, etc, Captain Awkward has some good answers for dealing with those types of conversations).

    I’ve found that redirecting conversations away is definitely one of the easiest ways of getting out of conversations I don’t want to keep happening as well *and* it has the added bonus of making you look like you’re really attentive and interested in the other person. Give your casual response, then ask a question in return and if you can probe deeper for more details and let the other person talk. If they ask you for more details, you can always deflect with “oh, it wasn’t that interesting, I spent four years at blah school and graduated uneventfully, tell me how you managed to finish yours in three?” (for example)

    Reply
  36. Chriama

    Quite frankly, most people aren’t interested in the answers you give. It’s like driving your regular commute on cruise control. Sometimes I wake up and realize I don’t even remember passing a certain traffic light. You’re putting more weight on this stuff than the asker even cares about.

    Reply
  37. Kelly

    Oh OP, I do empathize. The anticipatory anxiety sucks, the actual anxiety on the day sucks, it all sucks. Lots of good suggestions here, especially working with your therapist and/or a good friend. Rehearse your brief intro many times, then a couple of more. Best of luck.
    Kelly

    Reply
  38. Emilitron

    They’ll be pleased to put a face to a name, but they’re not looking for you to take over their board meeting with quizzing you about your background. When you stand up and introduce yourself, your goal is to say just enough that it doesn’t seem unusual, and sit down. If you slide through it too vaguely and don’t end strong, they might be inspired to ask for more details (I’m Fergus, I’ve worked here for 2 months, this is my first full time job, I just had a few part-time jobs before now… umm… I like teapots… I guess that’s it…). And don’t even vaguely challenge them with the shy “about me? not much to know, really” style of intro, because that’s begging to be quizzed. So, come up with a narrative that has a definite conclusion, and turns the response away from asking you more. (Hi, I’m Fergus, I’ve been here at TeaPots Inc for 3 months, and by now I’ve emailed several of you for ManagerJane. I don’t have a background in teapot design, this is my first job working with teapots at all actually, and I’m really loving learning about pots and tea. I’m not new to scheduling though, so like Jane said, whenever you have issues with your schedule you’ll be emailing me. It’s so nice to meet you all and put faces to the names. Thanks, and I’m sure you’ll be hearing from me soon.”

    Reply
  39. Student

    Another way to spin your introduction: focus less on yourself, more on what you do and will do that matters to the board.

    Instead of the classic, “I’m Joe from U. of Hard Knocks and I spent the last 3 years in an undersea secret prison. Happy to make your acquaintance.”, go more with, “I’m Joe from accounting. I joined back in July, and it’s a lovely company that I am sincerely enjoying; I especially like X and Y. I’m excited about your mission/objective/charity/product. I’m working with Boss on the Client accounts, and I will be managing the budget starting this year. It’s wonderful to meet you all in person. Please feel free to reach out to me if you want information on accounting matters.”

    Reply
  40. girlonfire

    If there’s anything I learned from West Wing, it’s that you don’t have to accept the premise of the question. So if someone asks you where you grew up, can you say “oh, i moved to Boston when I was 23 and have been here ever since!” What did you study? “I’ve been interested in teapots my whole life and am excited to be working in the industry.” Like others have said, work with your therapist to find answers that feel comfortable and practice, practice, practice. Good luck!

    Reply
    1. Lumen

      This is a very good point. A lot of these well-meaning questioners think that a question is harmless and polite. It’s very common and not malicious for people to assume that because their own answer to these questions would be pleasant/not very deep that everyone else’s would be, too. The premise of their question is that your life and experiences have been very similar to their own, but it’s not a conscious premise.

      Underneath it all, they’re just trying to connect, even in a very superficial way. We can meet people in that ‘let’s connect as humans’ place without trying to force ourselves into the ‘we are all alike’ place. I hope that makes sense.

      I will note that I have met people who get ruffled if you do not give the prescribed or expected answer, who can’t take a hint and keep pressing on topics I obviously don’t want to discuss, or argue with me that my experience of life and choices should be more like theirs. Sounds bonkers, but they’re out there. But they’re also few and far between, and not to be fretted over.

      Reply
      1. Marillenbaum

        So true! I happened to be at a panel discussion this week with a congressional representative, and seeing him do this was genuinely kind of breathtaking in its mastery.

        Reply
  41. Susanne

    In order to function in society, it’s important to be able to engage in banal small talk with people who are just trying to find a connection of sorts, of the “how are you / what’s new with you / where are you from / what do you do for a living.” This is true whether your true response to “how are you” is “I suffer from migraines, my birth control is playing havoc with my system, and I’m waiting for the biopsy results to confirm whether it’s melanoma,” your true response to “what’s new with you” is “my dog just died and I’m not sure how I’ll pay the rent this month,” or your true response to “where are you from” is “the mean streets of Big City, until I was taken away by the court system and put into foster care.” I’m really glad that the LW has a therapist who is willing to work with her so that these ordinary banal questions are something she can answer with ease without stirring up painful memories. The great thing is that no one on the other end really cares all that much about the answer – so it’s good to come up with a stock answer, just like we all say “fine, thanks” when we’re asked how we are or “you, too” when we’re told to have a nice day.

    Reply
  42. BookCocoon

    It’s definitely good to come up with a generic answer to these kinds of questions. My supervisor flip-flops between being aggressively private and oversharing. Please find a neutral ground where you can meet personal questions at the low level of genuine interest in which they are asked.

    Reply
  43. Charlie Bradbury's Girlfriend

    OP, I just wanted to say that even if you master the “generic answer and pivot/change the subject” strategy (which is a great strategy), the interactions may still be a bit draining. Make sure you take care of yourself afterwards, and have something nice to look forward to after the fact (favorite movie/TV/snack/activity). Good luck and internet hugs!

    Reply
  44. TeacherNerd

    Something that bugs me is when I, in a professional setting (I’m a high school teacher), am asked to introduce myself. Others are all, “Hi, I’m Snorkarella, and I have 32 children and 417 grandchildren and I’m LDS [Mormon], and my son just came back from a mission! Oh, and I also [provide professional details here].” (I live in Utah, but am not FROM Utah, nor am I Of The Correct Faith. I’m also childless – painfully so – so I feel a slight prick of pain every time these introductions happen.) I usually stick with, “Hi, I’m TeacherNerd; I’m from the east coast, and I’m still looking for good bagels,” which gets a laugh and redirects. I don’t need to have my sole identifying factor be my marital/parental status, which seems to be A Thing here. So: I feel ya, LW.

    Reply
    1. Marillenbaum

      You have my sympathies–my mother moved us to Utah when I was in high school, and there really aren’t good bagels! If you can get to Provo, though, there is a surprisingly good Slovak place called Hruska’s that has amazing kolaches.

      Reply
    2. Safetykats

      Humor is a great strategy, as is riffing on something that a precious speaker has said – which if nothing else shows that you were listening. Both strategies allow you to say something while not saying much, if you know what I mean. And it doesn’t really even matter if you like bagels, although you do maybe run the risk of having random people bring you bagels when they travel.

      Reply
  45. HokieGirl

    LW, I can relate with you. It is very difficult when people ask me where I went to school. I attended Virginia Tech in 2007, and the first follow-up question I get is “Wow, what were you doing during the shootings??” I understand the curiosity, but it does bring back some depressing memories.

    Reply
    1. Lumen

      Wow, I am sorry you get that regularly. I know people probably mean well, but this is the problem with the apparent decline in basic empathy. You shouldn’t have to revisit those memories for the sake of someone’s curiosity. :(

      Reply
    2. Janelle

      I went to high school in a place with a very infamous shooting and have never been met with any amount of annoyance by simply saying “obviously I don’t want to discuss that”. People, in general, are understanding and sympathetic to such circumstances.

      Reply
    3. Anna

      I completely understand not wanting to discuss that, but at the same time I wonder if it isn’t also insensitive on the part of the asker *not* to acknowledge that you were there when a bad thing happened, which may have affected you. Same with someone who says in casual conversation that their parent died a long time ago: neither they nor I probably wants that to be a conversation killer, but also seems insensitive to just waltz right over that kind of thing. And so the conversation is still killed, or at least halted.

      Reply
  46. Humble Schoolmarm

    LW, do you know what form this board meeting is going to take? Will you have to stand up and say “Hi, I’m LW etc etc.”? Will you be there for a casual chit-chat time? I think answer vaguely and redirect is the perfect approach for small talking, but if you have to give a little spiel about yourself, you can probably get away with not mentioning your past at all if you don’t draw attention to it. Something like “Hi, I’m LW, I’ve been working in the teapot industry for x years and I have a background in spout design (an ambiguous word like background could mean formal schooling or on the job training). I’m really excited to be working here at Teapots! Teapots! Teapots! Jane and Wakeen have done a great job of helping me get started and I’m excited to be working with all of you on the Universal Tea Access program.” doesn’t mention anything about you personally, but doesn’t sound like you’re holding back either.

    Reply
  47. Janelle

    I do think LW may be overthinking this a lot. They aren’t asking your life story just a normal set to know you question. They actually expect and prefer that you don’t go into your deep details. Just “oh I grew up in Ohio and then went to school in New York”. Also as many mentioned that could be followed up with “oh how did you like the winters?” No one is trying to ask you invasive questions here and it would come off very odd to be upset over the question.

    Reply
  48. TootsNYC

    OP, I want to echo the suggestions above about working with your therapist on techniques to use for this sort of thing.

    And Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) was really, really effective for me.

    For example, my therapist might have said to me, “let’s talk about college for a minute. It was a traumatic place–lots of academic difficulties, major depression, total loss of confidence in yourself. But…what there anything at college that was good? Even if it’s small.
    “Did you like the bell tower? Were you kind of proud that the school had the old Statehouse building? Was it lovely? Was there one professor who was funny/good/challenged you? Did you like your freshman roommate, or the girl down the hall? Was your dorm modern, or quirky? Were there lots of trees?
    “Now dwell, mentally, on the feelings of that positive thing. Practice summoning up that emotional response to that positive thing from college.
    “Then, when people say, ‘Where did you go to college?’ you can summon up that positive feeling.
    “And, if you need to elaborate, you can talk about that thing: ‘I went to the University of Iowa–it was always cool to me that the Old Statehouse is part of the campus. Lots of history there!’ Or ‘I went to Graceland College; I liked my American Studies professor, he was really challenging, and he gave me a new way to think about our government.’ “

    Reply
    1. Marillenbaum

      That’s so true. I had a challenging time at college–I was noticeably poorer and less popular than my hallmates, I was dealing with untreated depression, and it was only approaching “Not a total disaster for WOC”. But I did costume design and enjoyed that, so it’s the Thing I Talk About.

      Reply
  49. CC

    I came to this thread very late—but I just want to give my advice as a person who has been through every therapy imaginable—practice it! You can do this in therapy, group therapy, or with friends. Have them ask the most invasive and worst case scenario questions so you have a game plan. Reward yourself after this practice—I like to do coloring books, meditation, etc. Then keep doing it until the day comes. You’ll likely see it’s not as bad as it was in your head.

    Reply
  50. Anon anon anon

    This could be me at various points in my life. Shifting the focus to the questioner does help. A potential drawback is that it can be read as naive or shy (you feel more comfortable listening and you’re shy when talking about yourself), especially if you also look young. I’m trying to find a way to communicate “school of hard knocks” in a vague way so that people don’t get the impression that I’m inexperienced with life. The good news is that I have met a lot of people who’ve gone through some Stuff and then went on to have successful professional careers, so it must be pretty relatable if you can find the right way to refer to it.

    Reply
  51. Nita

    OP, I’m sorry that these questions are so painful for you. I wonder if it would help to deflect by looking up the people you’ll be meeting, and then making the conversation about them – as in “How long have you been with the company? Has it changed a lot over the years?” or “I’ve heard so much about you! It’s a pleasure to be working with you! How did you start working in this field?” I imagine there won’t be much time for small talk in most situations, and while they’re answering your question, they won’t have time to turn the conversation around to you…

    Of course sometimes you can’t avoid these questions, or they simply come out of left field around the water cooler. And you can’t always bring a gallon jug of water with you and avoid water coolers (I’ve been tempted…) It may help to work on brief answers with a little innocent information tacked on so there’s less chance of a follow-up question. For example, somehow “I went to college in DC” seems more open-ended and likely to invite other questions than “I went to college in DC. It was nice, but the weather was too hot for me. I prefer the summers here in Vermont!”

    And last of all, it sounds like you’re finally out of your bad situation. Congratulations. These things leave a long shadow on one’s life, but you will feel better and better as time goes by. Keep up the great job you’re doing, at the office and in your life.

    Reply
  52. Ray

    An easy way to prepare for this is to practice your answers. Write down the questions that you don’t want to answer, and then write down the answers. Make them bland and general, as people here have suggested. Then, AND THIS IS IMPORTANT, practice your answers at night, in front of the bathroom mirror.

    (Tip #1: When they ask “where are you from?” or “where did you grow up?” just pick the place that was your favorite. You don’t have to list all of them.)

    (Tip #2: Also prepare answers for expected follow-up questions. Like, when you say, “Scranton, PA”, a board member might say “Oh! Scranton! I was there for about six weeks one summer. What was your favorite activity there?” Have an answer ready. It can also be bland and general.)

    Reply
  53. Argh!

    Being psychologically healthy enough to carry on small talk is pretty much a requirement for any job. There are a lot of people who hate it for a variety of reasons, and they get used to it. It’s just part of life. I have had some horrible things in my past, too, and people who are too nosy tick me off, but mostly I appear to be a normal person with a normal past so I play the part and don’t take it personally. Normal chit chat questions are just the ping-pong of life, though, and I cope with that. Being so fragile that you can’t do that really needs to be addressed with the help of a professional. For this specific phobia it might be a matter of a few visits to develop a strategy and a story. Good luck with it!

    Reply
  54. Safetykats

    If this isn’t a Q&A but simply one of those many situations where you get asked to share something personal about yourself – a really common tactic to giving people some feeling of knowing you a little – please be aware that you can say almost anything. You actually don’t have to talk about where you grew up, or went to school. You can keep it vague – “I’m originally from the Pacific Northwest and my undergraduate degree is in Chemical Engineering.” You can then talk briefly about something totally unrelated – “In my spare time I’m passionate about parakeet rescue and mountain biking. Someday I would like to hike part of the Pacific Coast Trail.” In fact, even if you’re young, where you grew up or went to school is likely not the most interesting thing about you, so maybe think about a few interesting things you won’t mind sharing and practice talking a little about those things.

    Reply
  55. jmm

    Do *not* mention that you’re a customer of the bra store unless you’re applying for a sales-related position. That info has nothing to do with IT.

    Reply
  56. OP

    Hi,

    I just wanted to thank everyone who shared their thoughts on my question. I have read most of your contributions and will try to get to all of them by the end of the week.

    I understand the motivation behind these questions is innocent. I suppose I one day will have to find a painless answer to them (FWIW, this is my therapist’s opinion as well). I won’t lie, though. It’s disappointing I can’t completely escape my personal background at work, which has finally granted me feelings of accomplishment and self-worth.

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