my coworkers won’t stop asking why I’m walking with a cane

A reader writes:

Recently (as in within the past five weeks or so), I’ve developed a rather painful foot condition and started using a cane to help keep from over-stressing the injured foot. I’m still young — mid-20s — and I’ve found that a lot of distant coworkers, people I have never spoken to before or only greeted in passing, have started to be very rude in the guise of expressing concern! They’ll say things like, “Oh, what did you do to yourself?” or “Uh oh, what did you do?” in a tone that suggests that I’m some kind of a naughty child who broke something or tracked mud in the house, instead of an adult who happens to be dealing with a health challenge.

I’m already struggling with self-consciousness over the use of the cane, and every time someone else I don’t know from Adam (or, more often, Eve — it seems to be women, especially older women, who are bringing this up the most) opens a conversation by implying that I did something wrong that has me using the it, I get more and more unhappy about having to use it at all.

Is there a good way to shut down these conversations? I don’t want to discuss my health with the entire (very large) office, to the point where even just saying, “I hurt my foot” over and over feels like unwarranted oversharing. I do not want to discuss my health, I do not want to discuss my body, I would like these people to just go back to saying “Good morning,” to me as we pass in the hall and leave it at that. Unfortunately, the only responses I can think of that would stop the conversation, something like “I’d rather not discuss it” or “Please don’t talk about this,” seem to me like they would be very brusque — or come off that way given how irritated I am over the repeated questioning! As a young person new to this part of the building, I don’t want to develop a reputation for being cold or unfriendly — it’s already bad enough that I tend not to socialize very much with people. It also seems like declining to talk about it would possibly spark gossip and speculation, which is the last thing I want!

Hopefully the condition won’t go on long enough for the cane to become a regular fixture of mine, but in the meantime, I’m feeling defensive and extremely self-conscious at work about a mobility aid that I’ve finally been convinced I need.

I’m sorry about your foot! You’ve come to the right place for foot-related empathy, believe me.

Here’s the thing though: The comments that you’re interpreting as infantilizing or scolding almost certainly aren’t intended that way — they’re intended as a sincere expression of concern, even camaraderie. These are people being warm toward you.

And yes, perhaps they’re not being as thoughtful as they should. Few people, after all, want to go into the details of their health conditions with near-strangers, especially not multiple times per day. But when your coworkers are used to seeing you without a cane and suddenly they’re seeing you with one, they’re almost certainly assuming you have a minor injury and maybe even an amusing story to go with it.

This isn’t right, but it’s understandable. You may have even done it yourself in the past, when asking someone about the cast on their arm or their sudden use of crutches. (In fact, some people would find it rude and uncaring not to ask about, say, a cast and crutches. A cane is different — or can be — but I suspect a similar principle applies for people who saw that you weren’t using it a few weeks ago.)

To be clear, I’m not arguing that you’re obligated to answer their queries or that we shouldn’t all be more thoughtful about this stuff. We should be. But I do think you’ll be better served by understanding where people are coming from and that they’re not chastising you; they’re expressing concern and warmth.

As for what to say in response … Try just saying “It’s a long story” in a friendly tone and continuing to walk (or changing the subject if you’re in conversation). To all but the rudest, that will communicate “I don’t want to get into details about this” without seeming overly brusque. If someone does continue to ask, you can say, “It’s a difficult topic and I’d rather not talk about it.” Anyone who continues to ask after that is a boor and may be legitimately ignored.

I hope this helps, and I hope your foot heals soon!

{ 270 comments… read them below }

  1. EngineerGirl*

    Thank you Alison for the right perspective. There are so many things out there that people want to take offense at, when they are really ham-fisted acts of concern/caring. Reframing things goes a long way.

    1. Meg*

      Totally agree. I sincerely doubt people are trying to infantilize the OP, and while I do get that it’s irritating to explain over and over (or, more likely, to explain that you don’t WANT to explain, over and over) people are really just trying to show they care.

      I do get the OP’s annoyance with that condescending voice – i.e. “uh oh, what did you do?” I know that people who say that are trying to make light of the situation, but yeah, it gets annoying after awhile.

  2. Jen*

    If people proceed to pester you even after you have giving them the signs that you don’t want to talk about it, y0u could have some fun with this and start telling every co-worker a different story. My brother has some horrific scars on his left arm from a work accident and when people say “OMG what happened???” He likes to tell them that he was bit by a shark and at times he will proceed to go into a story about how he fought off the great white which seems to get larger and more menacing each time he tells the story. Sometimes adding a little humor can help you feel less self conscious. Good luck with everything :)

    1. Steve*

      Boring me would probably stick to the “It’s a long story” – and maybe even adding, “I’m sick of telling it, so I know everyone must be sick of hearing it. ”

      But I LOVE this!! And I love how he tells the story differently each time. (Reminds me of a song by Jane Siberry ; “I tell everyone a different story – that way nothing’s ever boring – even when they turn and say ‘you lied!'”

      1. Jessa*

        Yes and when they say “you lied,” you smile and say “yep, I did.”
        And you follow up with either, ” I didn’t want to get into details,” or, “I was just so tired of hearing the question so I had to get creative.”

    2. Kristen*

      Yes! I have a long and very noticeable scar on my arm that people ask about all the time. In a new office/ new group situation I usually tell one person the truth (fell from a tree as a kid) and tell the rest something crazy and watch how the different stories merge and circulate. Often people will give me a skeptical look, so I just smirk right back, and they either drop it or seem to realize that a rude question deserves a silly answer.

    3. Amanda H*

      I was going to say something similar! A while back my mom severely broke her knee and had to use a walker. She did get tired of all the well-meaning comments from strangers and once or twice said she broke it skydiving (not true, and if there is a skydiving type, she doesn’t look like it). IIRC, she did get the “Really?” response. She said no, in a rather neutral tone, and then they were able to take the hint that she didn’t want to talk about it.

      1. Jazzy Red*

        I would have been all impressed about her skydiving! I want to do that, but I’m too chicken (and too broke). I would believe every word she said about her experience jumping out of an airplane. I’d be thinking “more power to her!”

    4. Chinook*

      I would have the same reaction to come up with a huge, implausible story to respond to those type of questions. Or, Iw ould look at the cane and/or cast in surprise and go “whoa – I don’t know man. How did that get there?”

    5. kdizzle*

      Carry a monocle in your pocket and tell people you’re testing out your Mr. Peanut costume for Halloween…that’s what I did when I busted my knee. Worked like charm.

    6. Loose Seal*

      My first husband was missing part of his thumb and his first two fingers as the result of being an unsupervised teenager where alcohol and firecrackers were present (let that be a cautionary tale!). When people would ask about it, he’d look at it and sigh, “I really need to stop biting my nails.”

      It was a funny way to let people know he didn’t want to talk about it — no need to let current co-workers know you were a super stupid kid back in the day.

      1. Pussyfooter*

        I so have never understood that these kind of replies were intended as hints that the person didn’t feel like discussing it. In fact, I may have laughed at their joke and then asked again! This kind of indirectness just confuses me. (I say when I don’t feel like talking about something–or give a short phrase summary and move the conversation past the asking point.)
        …….stupid… tacit… non-universal… cultural norms!:’P

    7. ella*

      I do this. Attacked by a bear, full-contact yoga, tried to fly and missed, exploded cat, tragic dartboard accident…all good options.

    8. JessB*

      I love this!

      I heard about someone who was on crutches, and whenever he would be asked what happened, he would look around, lean in close and whisper “Ninjas.” Then he would lean back and say, “I can’t tell you any more than that.”

      It was apparently quite hilarious and I always loved the idea of doing this!

  3. Mike C.*

    You’re carrying a cane and can’t think of a way to shut people up? Come on, this is too easy!

    1. MR*

      I was thinking the same thing as I read the story. A quick whack across the shins…problem solved!

      1. LCL*

        When I had to use a cane for a short time, I told people the hardest part was refraining from reaching out and hitting people with it, thereby losing my job and health care coverage.

    2. Jamie*

      Am I the only one shocked that Mike C, of all people, is making an inference to a safety violation? :)

      1. Mike C.*


        If the first few whacks are well publicized then everyone will stop asking questions, thus saving countless people from getting whacked in the first place.

        You should always look at problems as opportunities! :D

    3. Allison (not AAM!)*

      Oh, this cane? It helps me stop nosy people from asking too many questions…wanna see how it works? ;-P

  4. Anonymous*

    The only thing I might suggest about “It is a long story” is that it suggests a story. And some people like stories. A shrugged “eh no big deal” might work if you do find people want you to tell them the story. Alternately depending on your personality you could just brush it off with humor, “I’m working on my tapdance routine.” or “Getting into character.” etc

    1. Ashley*

      I tell people any injury I have was a result of “fighting crime” followed by a knowing shrug.

        1. TheSnarkyB*

          Yeah, I’m wondering if people are askin *because* OP is young and some of the older people are (insultingly, I admit) assuming that it will come with vicariously exciting youthful exuberance and stupidity.

          1. LJL*

            I’d say probably more health. We think of young people as healthy (and they generally are). An 80-year-old with a cane, we assume, has arthritis. A 20-year-old with a cane, we assume, must be using it as a result of an accident which may have a good accompanying story. Still, it must get very wearying to continually be asked the same question. Good luck with your condition, OP; I hope it’s better soon.

  5. Katie the Fed*

    Some people are nosy. Some are concerned. This doesn’t need to cause that much stress – just say “I hurt my foot” and be done with it. I was on crutches once and it drove me nuts too, but that’s just how people are.

    My current struggle is how to deal with people commenting on my weight. I’ve been working hard to lose weight but it’s a private thing and I don’t want to discuss it, but everyone seems to want to comment. I don’t mind the comments as much as the questions (“how much have you lost?” come on, who asks that!)

    I hope you feel better!

    1. Anonymous*

      Weight loss is a horrible thing to comment on and I don’t get why people do it if they don’t know you very closely and know that you are trying to. Yeah! I have cancer! I lost weight!….

      1. Jamie*

        Yep – and can people stop this now?

        I’ve lost enough weight to be noticeable since beginning treatments, and it doesn’t matter how nicely you say it or how encouraging you think you are what I hear is you insulting what I looked like a couple of weeks ago.

        My mom’s entire life she was self conscious about being too thin, and is the only woman I’ve ever known who wanted to keep some baby weight after delivery. It broke my heart when she got cancer and everyone, even near strangers, would comment on how thin she was and how she “should eat something.” Never thought of that, thanks for the health tip. She didn’t hear concern, she heard people telling her she looked terrible.

        If people ask for public opinion about their bodies fine, but the unsolicited comments should remain unsaid.

        1. KJ*

          I lost 30 lbs a few years ago, after a huge overhaul in my eating habits. I was so proud. Then a co-worker’s wife actually said to me, “You’ve lost TOO much weight, you look terrible!” I wasn’t close with her or anything, but I was still heartbroken. It ruined my day. I know I didn’t look terrible, but it still hurt. People can be so rude. It’s funny, it’s not socially acceptable to comment when someone is overweight, but it seems like anything goes if people think you are too thin.

          1. LJL*

            THIS. I’m naturally thin (OK, I’ve put on some weight in my middle years, but am still fairly lean). I got comments on my weight for at least 20 years, from strangers as well as people I know slightly. You would be amazed at the comments I’ve received: “Are you anorexic?” “Wow. don’t you ever eat?”

            1. Marie*

              I’m faily lean, but recently I gained a little weight (not eough to chage my clothing size, but..) am older male coworker commented on it, with the curvy hand gesture… I told him it was never appropriate to do that.

          2. Melissa*

            Well, I would disagree a little bit – I think it is *less* socially acceptable to comment when someone is overweight, but people still do it, and there is far more stigma in their comments than when people are thin. Not to mention that people make more tacit negative assumptions about people who are overweight.

            With that said, there was a time in my life when I was very thin (BMI around 18) and people made a lot of rude comments about it, including asking me if I was anorexic. Even if I did have an eating disorder, do you think I would tell you, random stranger on the street? And if I said yes – what then? Sometimes I wish I said “Yes – and it’s very painful to talk about,” and made them feel bad. Maybe they would think twice about asking the next person.

            But now people who knew me during that time make a lot of rude comments about how much weight I’ve gained (a perfectly normal amount of weight for someone growing from late teens to late 20s, but it has made a very noticeable difference in my body).

        2. littlemoose*

          Jamie, my apologies if I am overstepping my bounds, but your comment suggested you are dealing with illness. I am so sorry to hear that and I wish you a speedy recovery!

          1. Jamie*

            Oh thanks! It’s nothing too serious, just a bump in the road. Iron infusions for anemia – so just a major inconvenience but hopefully back to normal soon.

            There has really been an upside to this, work wise. I’ve never been on the side of the person needing time off before, or scheduling around appointments, etc. It’s been a real eye opener about how complicated this can be, to deal with a medical thing that is impacting everything and still deal with work. I mean I was always compassionate for people in that situation and tried to make it as easy as possible for them, but the understanding was intellectual.

            This has driven the point home on a personal level how important it is for an employer to be flexible when possible and how communication makes things so much easier. My bosses have been amazing – I do as much as I can and if I need to take time off because of appointments or being sick or too fatigued to function they totally understand. I truly don’t know what I’d do if I were in a situation where I was getting a hard time from work and not allowed the flexibility to work when I am able, be it weekends, or 3:00 am if I can’t sleep. If I had to keep up my previously typical hours during this I’d have had to make a choice I can’t afford to make…I’d have had to leave because I couldn’t do it.

            The attitude of an employer toward this kind of thing really makes a huge difference in quality of life. So while I wouldn’t have gone through this of my own volition I’ve gained a new perspective as an employee and as a manager.

            (and it’s forced me to learn to delegate which I’ve always kind of sucked at…so that’s been AMAZING!)

            1. ChristineSW*

              Jamie – I noticed your post too. I wish you nothing but the best with this. I know hugging at work is inappropriate but…. (((hugs)))

    2. Lucy*

      I hate that so much! I was at a work event once and part of our booth was a video of me talking. The video was a few months old and I was around 50 pounds heavier. I could not stop people from commenting on it and asking how I did it. I gained the weight because at the time I was very sick. I was healthy again, and went back to my normal weight. But that’s not a very fun story to tell.

    3. Anonymous*

      I think this is another opportunity to understand where people are coming from:

      – generally, on-purpose weight loss (as opposed to the kind that comes from illness) is considered a good thing in our overweight society. And usually it does make people look better. I don’t think that a co-worker commenting on how lovely you look for whatever reason is something that we should get worked up about.

      – frequently the people who are curious about how much weight we lost or how we lost it are trying to lose weight themselves. Again, in our overweight society, that’s probably a good thing.

      Granted, if people keep going on and on and on about it, it gets wearing and annoying and should be stopped.

      But at the rate this is going, no one will ever be able to say anything to anyone, and work will truly become an impersonal place where no one gives a rat’s behind what happens to us. Because we yelled at them when they expressed an interest.

      1. BCW*

        Agreed. You can’t even compliment someone about something without it being taken badly. A guy complementing a womans haircut is “unwanted attention based on her looks”. Congratulating someone one weight loss is offensive. Yes, there are times when these things come about because of unpleasantness (illness, etc) however sometimes people really are trying to be friendly and pay you a compliment.

        1. Jamie*

          It perpetuates the notion that other people’s bodies are there for you to appraise and comment on. They aren’t.

          At work there should at least be the facade that the focus is not on how you feel about the bodies of your co-workers.

          Some people will be complimented, some people will be offended (and you have no idea who has a medical issue or if they are one of the millions of people who have an eating disorder – these kind of comments can be huge triggers) and some people – frankly – won’t give a rats ass if a random co-worker is liking their body better, or hair, or anything else. Not everyone needs approval from the people with whom they work that they find them physically appealing.

          People with close relationships aren’t involved in this discussion, because those people should know what they can and can’t say. Co-workers who aren’t close friends? I have yet to hear an argument that supports the right of people to comment on other people’s looks being more important than the rights of people not to have to hear it.

          1. Anonymous*

            Saying ‘you look nice today!’ is, in fact, appraising and commenting on a person’s body. Which is right out, in your book. So that, too, should be off the table.

            You can not have this both ways, all the way down the line.

            Look: people need to be more considerate, absolutely. And people also need to be a little less sensitive.

            1. Jamie*

              Nope – people can look nice because they have on cute new shoes, or seem to be in a good mood so they are kind of glowy, or because the color they are wearing is super flattering and it lights them up.

              It’s not in the same category of talking about the shape of someone’s body.

              1. BCW*

                I guess the problem still, is if a guy who you ladies decide is “creepy” says you look nice, then its a problem. Whereas if person you determine is just friendly, then its ok. It gets to be very impersonal where eventually no one will feel like they can say anything that doesn’t relate to work

                1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  But no one is suggesting that you can never say anything that doesn’t relate to work. Ask about people’s weekends, hobbies, whether they saw Top Chef last night, where they got that great pen, whether they’ve eaten at the new restaurant that just opened downstairs, etc. Just don’t appraise and comment on their bodies. Why is that so awful?

                2. KellyK*

                  Have you ever encountered a situation where a guy told a woman she looked nice–without leering, staring, giving her that up-and-down look or adding specific comments about her body–where she reacted negatively or said she thought it was creepy? Because I have never seen that occur.

                  Honestly, I feel like there are a lot of people making it very very clear what kinds of comments they find inappropriate, leaving plenty of room for all sorts of friendly social interactions, and a lot of other people still throw up their hands and go, “It’s too hard! I can never say anything to anyone lest they be offended! Woe is me!”

                3. Jamie*

                  Who said anything about not being able to say “anything that doesn’t relate to work.”

                  In a perfect world some of us would like to take the topic of unsolicited comments about our bodies off the table.

                  How do you extrapolate that to not being able to say anything non work related ever? Talk about movies, or lawn care, or sports, or weather, or current events, or any of the other billion topics which aren’t personally invasive are still very much on the table.

                  I fail to see how asking people to discuss weight loss only if the person brings it up first (and there are no shortage of people who will discuss their weight loss happily and forever) catapults us into some horrific neutral zone where we’re hauled off by the secret police if we chat.

                  And people who are genuinely close friends should know what is and isn’t welcome conversation so basically all people are asking is that these unsolicited comments are not being made to people you don’t know well.

                  Is that really so limiting? It doesn’t seem like it would be much of a conversational loss to anyone unless you spend a lot of time making these kinds of comments.

                4. Joey*

                  All body comments are off limits? I do it. Although I say things like “you look sharp” when I know someone has an interview for a promotion or “Did you get a haircut? It looks good” or “nice tan. Did you go to the beach?” or “Kenny, you been hittin the gym? You’re getting some guns.” But, I agree that its really easy to stick your foot in your mouth so I stick to what I feel are safe comments.

                5. Meg*

                  What?? You know that women don’t just decide randomly whether a man is creepy or not, right? There is no secret cabal of women laying down holy decrees that state “BCW must be considered A Creep.” We decide you’re creepy if you’re, you know, being creepy. Such as making inappropriate comments about a woman’s weight.

                6. Amy*

                  The standard I use is “would I say the same thing to a person I’m not attracted to?” If you’re straight, have you ever told a man “you look really nice today?” I doubt it. You might say something like, “that’s a cool haircut,” or “I like your tie,” but I seriously doubt you would make an appraising comment about the overall attractiveness of someone outside of the group you’d consider dating/sleeping with. And that’s where I draw the line for appropriateness at work.

              2. KellyK*

                I agree. There’s nothing inherent about “You look nice” that implies that you’re commenting on their *body.* It could be their body, clothes, jewelry, smile, or any combination of the above.

                I generally feel like things are open for compliments only if they’re things the other person deliberately chose and things that aren’t overly personal. Complimenting body size ignores the hell out of both of those. Clothes, hairstyles, new vehicles, purses, shoes…all fair game. Body size, complexion, specific body parts…not so much.

                1. Del*

                  A great rule of thumb I’ve heard for compliments is “Compliment what people do, not what they are.” Clothing/accessories choices are something that people deliberately make — so complimenting someone on her great wardrobe is a compliment to something she’s done, ie picked out awesome clothing. Complimenting someone for having a great body, absent specific knowledge that they’ve made an effort to look like that, compliments what they are- thin, curvy, whatever.

            2. Colette*

              There’s a difference between saying “you look nice today” and commenting on body changes “man, you’ve lost weight!”. (Maybe they’ve lost weight because they have a medical issue, or they’re going through a divorce, or because they’re living off leftovers from the break room.) Maybe losing weight wasn’t intended, but is just a reminder of the other thing they’re dealing with. Not everyone wants to lose weight, no matter what size they are.

              And depending on who says it and what tone they use, “you look nice today” could also be sketchy. A comment like that from a friendly colleague is different than from someone who leers at you every time you walk by their desk.

              1. AnotherAlison*

                Sometimes I don’t like the “you look nice today” comment just because I feel like I must look like hell all the other days.

                1. LMW*

                  Ha. The other day I was out with my boyfriend and he said I looked cute…then immediately backpedaled and said “Not that you don’t look cute all the time. You always look cute. You’re just exceptionally cute today.” Which made me wonder who he had accidentally insulted on a previous occasion (because my only response was “Oh. Thanks. New sunglasses!”)

                2. Jamie*

                  Yeah – my husband stays away from those kind of comments because he’s finally learned it’s assumed he finds me cute all the time – that’s the rule!

                3. Meg*

                  Haha sometimes if I want to be a pain, I pull that with my parents. My mom will notice a new shirt and tell me I look pretty, and I’ll always turn around and say “What? Because I look ugly every other day?”

                  This comment makes me sound like a terrible person, but I swear, it’s been a long-running joke.

                4. LJL*

                  That’s I generally say “you look exceptionally nice today” or something specific like “that’s a great color for you” or “those shoes/that dress/that shirt look really nice.”

              2. EE*

                “Not everyone wants to lose weight, no matter what size they are.”

                I’ll chime in to add that tall people of a healthy weight do not want to be referred to as ‘tiny’ or ‘little’. It’s irritating, it’s incorrect, and it shows that you have a bizarre focus on weight to the point where it blots out other physical features.

                1. Windchime*

                  Nor do tall people want to be called “big” when what they really are is “tall”. I hate it when someone smugly says, “Well, you’re a big girl”, especially when there is no way in God’s green earth they could fit into any article of my clothing. I’m tall. Don’t say “big” if you mean “tall”, because they are Different Words ™.

                2. Julie*

                  And if someone happens to be tall and on the big side, she already knows it and doesn’t need to be told.

                3. Ellie H.*

                  And, just because you think that something is a positive descriptor doesn’t mean the person you are applying it to will think it is. When I was like 13 or 14, a friend of my mom’s once said “Oh! You have such lovely big feet! What are you – a size 10? That’s wonderful!” (I’m 8 1/2 – 9. I used to be really self conscious about perceiving my feet as too big, although now I feel like they’re the perfect size.) I was mortified even though she intended it as a compliment.

                4. Melissa*

                  Hell, *nobody* – tall or short, skinny or slim – wants to be called “tiny” or “little”. Those words are for children or mini cupcakes or birdhouses. Not fully grown adults. I don’t care if you think I’m tiny, but keep it to yourself.

            3. QualityControlFreak*

              I like to compliment people, but I generally stick to comments like, “Wow – that blouse is really your color! You look great!” or “I like the way you’re wearing your hair today.”

              That said, I would only comment if (a) I knew the person and (b) the statement was true.

            4. fposte*

              But the ways aren’t equal, so it’s fine with not having it both ways. People aren’t deprived by not having their bodies admired at work, so it’s not like you’re doing them a disservice by not doing so. Some people may enjoy getting spontaneous massages at work, too, but we don’t worry about how much we’re depriving those people by keeping our hands to ourselves, because we know that that’s freaky as all get out to most people in a workplace.

          2. Katie the Fed*

            “It perpetuates the notion that other people’s bodies are there for you to appraise and comment on. They aren’t.”

            Exactly. My body is not your business.

        2. Del*

          “But I mean it well!” is not really an excuse for saying something inappropriate or bothersome. And a lot of women are really, really tired of being appraised first and foremost for their looks.

            1. A Bug!*

              People who genuinely mean well don’t require their interactions to be taken only on their own terms.

              It’s primarily the people who care more about being perceived as meaning well who disparage the recipient of a poorly-received compliment for not appreciating it.

        3. Meg*

          No. That is not how it works. First of all, women’s bodies are not objects that exist for the approval of men. Secondly, I have never EVER known a woman who has gotten mad because someone complimented her haircut. Ever. Women get mad because they are tired of constantly being objectified, tired of being told that their looks are of utmost importance.

          And weight is just an awkward topic that is too closely tied to health/fitness/self-esteem issues, so it’s really not fair to compare it to getting a compliment on your hair.

        4. Anonymous*

          You want to compliment someone? Say hey you did a fantastic job on the new webpage, it’s really user friendly and intuitive.

          WHY OH WHY do you want to compliment my hair?! Who cares?

            1. BCW*

              See thats kind of my point. My co-worker who I work with very closely was borderline offended when she came in and I didn’t mention her hair cut. So to me, that is commenting on someone’s physical appearance, in the workplace, and I’d find it harmless. So you seem to care if someone comments on your hair, but Meg would get angry.

              1. Ash*

                It’s almost as if women are actually people who are completely different from one another and shouldn’t be stereotyped or categorized. Weird!

                1. BCW*

                  Wow, condescending much? I’m not stereotyping or categorizing anyone. In fact, I’m doing the opposite. I’m saying how difficult things can be because of the fact that women are so different, so while some may be offended that I don’t comment on their new haircut, others might be.

                2. Jamie*

                  No reasonable woman will be offended that a co-worker doesn’t comment on their haircut. Husband or partner, sure – they have to notice…but a co-worker? Reasonable women don’t need compliments on their appearance from co-workers.

                  Some may be flattered by your comment, some may find it irrelevant and wonder why you think they care what you think of their looks…but no one needs it.

                  And if someone is offended that their co-workers don’t notice their haircut (or comment) then they are trying to get decidedly non-work ego needs met in their workplace.

                  FTR I don’t think there is anything offensive personally about “nice haircut” said in an off hand manner, but I also think you are placing too much importance on your compliments and overestimating how much people with whom you have a casual work relationship care what you think of their looks.

                3. Heather*

                  Yeah, if someone gets offended that a coworker doesn’t notice her haircut then she’s got issues. I don’t think basing your behavior around other women on her reaction is necessary.

                4. Anonymous*

                  But if the woman has cut her hair because of chemo, you’re now out of line, based on the conversation that’s been going on.

                  Yeah: don’t say anything about anybody’s looks. Ever.

                5. A Bug!*

                  Not quite, and BCW got close to it a bit earlier. It’s not that you can never ever comment on a person’s looks. It’s that you shouldn’t comment on a person’s looks without having enough specific knowledge of that individual person to be confident that it will be received in the spirit it’s intended.

                  So BCW’s coworker who got mad at him when he failed to compliment her hair? Well, now he knows she likes her coworkers to compliment her on her hair, and he can do so in the future until she communicates otherwise.

                  It’s not an unusual thought process to adopt; most people are taught something similar as children when dealing with animals. Who hasn’t learned that you don’t approach a dog unless its owner has told you it’s okay, no matter how friendly or harmless it looks?

                  People, of course, are not dogs, and people are their own owners, but I’m not looking to make that comparison anyway. The point I’m looking to draw here is that it’s not beyond people’s cognitive abilities to learn that what is fine for one person in one context is not automatically fine for all people in all contexts, or even most people in most contexts. Each person in each context must be approached individually.

                6. Loose Seal*

                  @A Bug: But really, the co-worker was in the wrong there. BCW can’t be held accountable for not knowing she wanted to be complimented. He doesn’t have to compliment her in the future, either.

                  No one should be relying on their co-workers to boost their self-esteem via compliments.

                7. Melissa*

                  Anon @ 11:57 – Yes, you have potentially offended someone. What is the problem with withholding compliments on people’s looks unless you know them well enough to know that it won’t offend them? You’re at work. There are literally thousands of other things you can compliment someone on. If you are in doubt, just hold your tongue or choose something else to say.

                  I don’t understand why people are getting upset about this…does it really infringe in people’s personal identities that much to not compliment people in potentially offensive ways at work? I LOVE to give compliments to people because I enjoy making people feel good, but I also realize that a misplaced thought (even if well-intentioned) can have the *opposite* effect. I’d rather leave a person in a neutral state than potentially devastate them for the day.

              2. A Bug!*

                That’s not quite what I meant to imply, so I apologize for the lack of clarity.

                I wasn’t trying to suggest that the coworker was “right” to behave the way she did. All I was saying was that, now that BCW is aware of her preferences, he can choose to compliment her or not in the future. And whenever any other people say or do something that communicates a receptiveness for appearance-based comments, that he can likewise use that information in choosing to compliment them.

                What he shouldn’t do is start treating all people as if they have the same preferences as this one coworker, without any specific knowledge of the individual people in question.

                I was just trying to explain why “Hey, don’t assume people welcome comments about their bodies” doesn’t have to translate into “Never comment on people’s bodies ever”. (Not very well, though, apparently. Can I chalk it up to Friday?)

                1. A Bug!*

                  Friday afternoon, indeed. The above comment was intended in reply to Loose Seal’s at July 19, 2013, 1:55 pm.

      2. Natalie*

        If you think someone looks lovely, why not just say that with no reference to weight?

      3. Jamie*

        Telling someone they look nice is one thing – it’s vague.

        Commenting on someone’s body is what’s rude. It’s rude to tell someone they are gaining weight and it’s just as rude to tell someone you noticed they’ve lost weight.

        When you tell someone they look good because they’ve lost weight you are telling them you’ve appraised their body and approve of the changes. That’s rude.

        Plastic surgery can make someone look better too (if done properly) but if someone didn’t mention their facelift or nose job I certainly wouldn’t compliment them on how they look great now that they aren’t so wrinkled or now that their nose is smaller.

        People who are losing weight on purpose and want to talk about it do – believe me – and there is nothing wrong with talking about it to people who bring it up. That is a mutually agreed on topic, then. But that doesn’t make it okay to open the conversation to people who aren’t bringing it up. If someone doesn’t invite you to discuss their body then don’t. So it’s a strawman argument to say that soon we won’t be able to say anything at all. If you want to discuss weight loss you will never be at a loss for people who will share…it’s just not your place to discuss other people’s bodies without their consent.

        1. Joey*

          I’m not disagreeing, but I bet most people mean it in a congratulatory way when they comment on a weight loss. I know what you mean, though. When I wear my glasses my co workers tell me I look “smart.” I don’t take offense, but I joke about it.

          1. Jamie*

            Absolutely I believe people mean well – and I didn’t mean to go off on a diatribe about it. I just feel compelled to point out that not everyone likes it – when this comes up.

            But the vast majority of people are trying to be nice, so if I were trying to be nice I’d want to know if it was actually hurtful to some people.

            1. KellyK*

              But the vast majority of people are trying to be nice, so if I were trying to be nice I’d want to know if it was actually hurtful to some people.

              Exactly! I find it so bizarre when people get annoyed with others pointing out that their compliments aren’t actually complimentary. If you want to be nice, make friends, and make things more pleasant for those around you, why would you *not* want to know that you’re inadvertently stepping on toes?

          2. Katie the Fed*

            I have no doubt they mean it well.

            But it would be better to stick to a vague “you look nice” or say nothing. Some people are self conscious. Others just don’t want their bodies commented on.

      4. Katie the Fed*

        No, I’m sorry, but I’m going to disagree with you here.

        It’s one thing if it’s coming from friends, people who know that I’ve been working at it, and who have shared my struggles.

        But there is no reason for a perfect stranger to be commenting on it. None whatsoever. All it does is tell me they noticed I was fat before. If you’re not close enough to me to know my boyfriend’s name or where I grew up, you’re not close enough to be discussing my body.

        1. jennie*

          Exactly Katie. This kind of “compliment” may be well intended but the subtext is that the recipient looked bad before and now they’ve improved.

      5. RLS*

        I must kindly disagree with the purposeful weight loss thing. I used to be morbidly obese and have lost nearly half of my original weight. When I started losing weight, it wasn’t actually deliberate; I was just feeling better about myself and taking care of my body, and I learned that I liked it, and so I kept going with it.

        Last year, for the first time ever in my weight loss journey, I shared a before-after photo with friends on facebook–I was proud of my work (after several years) and thought it’d be nice to share it with others. I will never do it again. Comments like “Damn, girl!” or “You melted!” or, the worst: “That doesn’t even look like you/it must be photoshopped/you’re unrecognizable!” were actually very hurtful. I did it for my health and personal interests; not to look good in a bikini (which I still don’t wear!).

        While it’s common to promote fatphobic culture by shaming women and men for not being the Ideal Size, and to glorify jealousy of weight loss, it is actually very inappropriate etiquette. No one knows that person’s story or journey–and with such an image-conscious society (in the US), it just baits self-deprecation and objectifying each other.

        Honestly, if you see someone who has lost weight, the only thing you should say is: “You look great!” and let the other person discuss details if they choose to.

        1. Katie the Fed*

          I don’t want to sound patronizing, but I think you’re awesome :)

          Congratulations on getting healthier!

        2. Anonymous*

          So much agreed.

          I was overweight for a long time. Then, rather quickly, I lost a fair bit of weight. Did I look better? Absolutely.

          But the reason I lost weight was that I got kicked out of my home, and was trying to live on $500-700 a month. Groceries were the LAST thing I bought, so I spent that time (about 6 months) living mostly on rice and whatever canned vegetables/beans were on sale when I found them. I was massively unhealthy when that ordeal ended, and having people congratulate me for essentially starving in poverty was absolutely horrible.

        3. LMW*

          I get a lot of Facebook fitness ads and shares and this objectification is a huge problem. So many of those pictures are not about fitness and health– they are just pure objectification. (Slightly off topic, but I noticed about five different ads that were practically Maxim/Playboy type pics this morning on Facebook and it really irritated me.)

        4. Pussyfooter*

          Honestly, if you see someone who has lost weight, the only thing you should say is: “You look great!” and let the other person discuss details if they choose to.

          This is helpful advice. I like it.

        5. Julie*

          Honestly, if you see someone who has lost weight, the only thing you should say is: “You look great!” and let the other person discuss details if they choose to.

          I do this now because I realized that telling people they looked great because of lost weight just didn’t feel like an OK thing to stay. It does seem to be saying that the person looked like crap before.

      6. Del*

        You don’t have a way of determining what is on-purpose weight loss versus involuntary, though, unless the person specifically tells you “Oh yes, I’m trying to lose weight!” Once they have said that, then congratulating them on successfully working toward their goal isn’t such a bad thing.

        But congratulating someone for the result of a serious illness (which can include eating disorders), or being too poor to feed themselves properly… no, you don’t want to go there. Rather than trample all over them and then defend yourself by saying you didn’t know, it’s better to not say anything about it or, if they’re willing to share, actually find out what’s going on before you go throwing value judgments all over the place. (And yes, a positive value judgment is still a value judgment.)

      7. KellyK*

        Honestly, the fact that we always assume that on-purpose weight loss is always a good thing is a problem in and of itself. Sure, losing weight can be associated with healthy behaviors and it reduces your risk of certain illnesses. (Though if you dropped from the “overweight” to the “normal” category, your projected lifespan actually just got slightly shorter.)

        Remember that for all you know when you say “Way to go on the weight loss!” you’re giving someone with anorexia or bulimia encouragement that’s extremely counterproductive to their actual health.

        That’s even setting aside the fact that unless someone mentions their weight loss efforts, assuming that it’s deliberate is just that, an assumption.

      8. Melissa*

        Why do you have to comment at all, though? If people want weight loss tips, they can search the Internet or borrow books from the library, or ask people they are friends with who have lost weight. Curiosity isn’t an acceptable reason to be rude. People’s bodies don’t exist for us to comment on.

        If someone is close to me, then the comments on how you look are great, but with coworkers it’s sometimes just weird.

    4. EngineerGirl*

      Losing weight is hardly a private thing because everyone can see it. Just saying….

      You may not like the comments but it isn’t like they went through your medical records.

      1. KellyK*

        But that doesn’t mean it merits comment or isn’t personal. Lots of things are visible that it’s not necessarily polite to comment on.

        1. Jamie*

          Case in point – I have breasts. If I were to get a breast reduction would that be fair game? After all they are clearly visible.

          Hell even a new good bra can make you look amazing and like you lost ten lbs. Still not the kind of thing people should be commenting on at work.

          1. KellyK*

            No, they definitely shouldn’t.

            Unless you’re *not* wearing a bra, and they’re the unlucky soul who has to try to tactfully bring up that that’s not appropriate.

      2. Jamie*

        You can see acne too, but would it be nice to compliment someone with whom you have a casual relationship because they aren’t as broken out as they were a couple of weeks ago?

        Do you feel you have the right to comment on anything as long as it’s obvious? I personally would be uncomfortable working with people who didn’t have a social filter and and felt they didn’t need to respect other people’s boundaries.

        1. KellyK*

          That’s a really good example! I think if someone at work said, “Wow, your acne’s really clearing up, what’s your secret?” to me, I would be absolutely *floored* by that level of rudeness, no matter how nicely they might mean it.

          And it’s probably less common, but that can touch on other sensitive topics too. For example, someone who’s been struggling with infertility finally throws in the towel and goes on birth control and/or Accutane, the last thing she’s going to want to hear is what wonderful things her inability to have a baby has done for her complexion.

          1. anon for this*

            That’s me right now. Throwing in the towel on ever getting pregnant has meant lots of changes in my body and mood since I’m not on all these hormones any more. Any mentions of the changes are especially painful. People have no way of knowing, but I wish they just wouldn’t comment.

          2. Julie*

            I agree! If there’s something you wouldn’t call attention to for someone else (or hope that other people don’t call attention to on you) – like being overweight or having skin problems – then don’t call attention to it when it’s gone. The social convention of ignoring things that are likely to embarrass or humiliate people is a good one. When I lost a lot of weight, most people said that I looked great, and that felt great. But some people (who, I’m sure weren’t trying to be mean) said I must have lost a lot of weight or that I looked so much better now, and that made me feel almost as humiliated as if the person had said, “wow, you really needed to lose some weight – you were really too fat, and it wasn’t attractive at all.” I’m sure that sounds extreme to some people, but it really made me feel bad when I got those kinds of “compliments.” And my weight fluctuates, so I think about those comments when my weight is on an upswing – now I know (unfortunately) what some people think about how I look when I’m heavier, and that’s just not helpful when I already feel bad enough about it.

            1. LJL*

              Yeah. Acne and hair and general physical characteristics. I’m perfecting the wooden smile and practicing trying to change the topic quickly. It’s been an interesting challenge.

      3. Heather*

        Everyone can see it if someone has a giant birthmark across their face, too, but that doesn’t mean it’s open season for them to comment on it.

  6. Lily in NYC*

    I’ll keep it short and sweet: you are being a bit over-sensitive about this. Trust me, no one really cares that much and they are just trying to be polite and make conversation. Personally, I would be pissed if I showed up with a cane one day and no one asked me if I was ok.

    1. kasey*

      I thought along this line too. Most are likely trying to be friendly, some actually, you know, care and a few are , no doubt, are just nosey. Because people at work are still … people. I suspect if you said “hurt my foot, boring story…” to a few chatty & friendly types that would set the tone for the office- and do the lifting for you, so to speak.
      I wonder if not one person asked about the cane after five weeks if AAM would get a letter like, “So, I am in my mid-20s and have a painful foot condition that requires the assistance of a cane. Not one of the troglodytes at my office has ever expressed concern or asked me about it. What gives?”

      1. LW*

        Not from me! I’d be sitting at my desk going “Thank God no one has felt the need to bring it up! Letting me go about my job with no fuss has really made this a lot easier on me.”

  7. Anonymous*

    Many years ago, a relative of mine was in a car accident that left both her hands in casts. It was a sore topic, as her husband had been at fault in the accident, it was costing them a ton of money, and she didn’t want to talk about it.

    I took her shopping one day at the mall, as she couldn’t drive and needed to get some errands done. It was back in the day when it was still common to write a check to pay, and I was helping her by writing out the check and she would scrawl her signature.

    Every. single. clerk had to exclaim and question and comment, and relative was getting tired of it. Finally I was resorting to telling everyone that she had been caught in a stampede of circus elephants.

    It was an effective conversation stopper, but it might be perceived as rude.

  8. Jamie*

    just saying, “I hurt my foot” over and over feels like unwarranted oversharing.

    Really? I can see how it can become tiresome to repeat yourself all the time, but that hardly seems like a personal enough response to resent the intrusion.

    And there would absolutely positively be people who would be terribly hurt if they started using a cane and no one inquired after their well being. It’s an obvious injury on a not private part of your body. It isn’t as if someone noticed a co-worker going to the bathroom more often and asked, with faux concern, “you poor dear, is it a UTI or hemorrhoids?”

    I would have thought “I hurt my foot” the best answer to give. To infer that it’s none of their business makes it unnecessarily mysterious and will get people wondering what weird and possible prurient activity you were engaged in when you got injured.

    You could always combine the cane with a cloak…call it a walking stick and tell people you’re just really into dressing like Lucius Malfoy.

    1. LW*

      I expanded on this a bit below, but the specific questions that have gotten my back up have all been variations on “What did you do?” rather than “Are you okay?” I’m okay with people being concerned for my well-being, I certainly wouldn’t be offended by that, but being asked specifically what I did to cause the problem seems very different, at least to me.

      1. TheBurg*

        Well, people ARE curious (and I *don’t* think this equals nosy, necessarily). To me “what did you do?” is meant the same way as “what happened?” They’re probably not meaning to make it sound as if your injury is YOUR fault. I think that (just from your letter/comments) you’re maybe a little more private about it than some people might be, and maybe if it were your coworker in this position they’d WANT people to comment/ask about it because it shows concern. I think if you can pull off a polite, “I’d rather not talk about it,” that should shut things down — because after all, even if they’re being polite or caring or concerned, it is YOUR body and YOUR issue; you don’t have to discuss it with them if you don’t want to and I think most people would respect that.

      2. Anonymous*

        They are just giving you an opportunity to tell your tale. If you wanted to tell, and they didn’t ask, you would be terribly hurt.

        If you don’t want to (and I’m with you on this, I never share), then just don’t tell them anything. Change the subject, tell an outrageous tall tale, or just say you don’t want to talk about it. It isn’t a big deal, and as others have pointed out, they don’t care about your answer nearly as much as you think they do. So stop worrying and start getting better!

      3. SAF*

        “being asked specifically what I did to cause the problem seems very different”

        Nobody is saying that you caused it. It’s just a figure of speech.

        What did you do?
        Got run over by a book cart at the library.

        What did you do?
        Tripped on a cat/dog/

        Really, it means more “what happened?” than “how did you cause this bad thing to happen?”

        1. IronMaiden*

          I have to disagree. If it was jsut “what did you do?” it would be a figure of speech. When they tack on “to yourself” it becomes accusatory and irksome.

          I was assaulted at work and off work/suitable duties for a long time. I ended up telling people quite pointedly that I had done nothing to myself, I had been assaulted. It was tiresome but nearly everyone asked the “what did you do to yourself” question in a nudge-nudge-wink-wink sort of way that deserved both barrells.

    2. anon*

      You can just say “I’d rather not talk about it” or “I prefer not to discuss my personal health issues” if you really want your foot injury to remain a mystery. Nobody is owed an explanation.

  9. Liz in the City*

    Maybe it’s because I have a condition that may one day necessitate the use of a cane for me to walk (hopefully not — keep chugging along, medical science), but I wonder if AAM’s response would change if the OP’s condition was due to a long-term medical condition rather than a short-term one — and the disclosure of such a medical condition could jeopardize his/her employment or the way the OP was viewed around the office (my specific condition, for example, can have cognitive repercussions — don’t really want that getting out in the rumor mill). What if the cane was needed for long-term/permanent use rather that just a relatively short 5-week stint? Is it ever really appropriate to discuss someone’s medical equipment?

    1. Colette*

      The thing is, using a cane is not invisible. You can explain a little (“hurt my foot”, “broke a tiny bone”, “weird tendon issue, can’t wait until I can go back to soccer”, “sprained it again”), but it’s not like no one will know that you’re suddenly using a cane. This is one of those things that looks worse than it is if you treat it like it’s a huge secret.

      (“Hey, what’s up with Wakeen’s foot? He snapped at me when I asked it he was OK.”)

      1. AnotherAlison*

        Sure it’s not invisible, but if the OP’s answer was “I have MS” not “I have a raging case of plantar fasciitis” then it’s inappropriate to ask because someone in their 20s absolutely could have MS and could find it difficult to cope with, esp. at first.

        1. AnotherAlison*

          I guess I should say if the OP’s answer *could be*.

          If you don’t know if the answer could be a bad thing vs. a good or neutral thing, don’t ask!

        2. TheBurg*

          So if you don’t know, don’t ask? I have to disagree here. The person with the injury has the right to say they’d rather not talk about it, but really ANY question about someone’s well-being could have a less-than-pleasant answer and not knowing would shut down a lot of friendly/concerned comments or questions on things that many people might actually *want* to have the chance to talk about.

          1. AnotherAlison*

            But couldn’t someone who was dying to talk about it just as easily launch into their story from a,”How are you doing today?” rather than a specific, injury-related question.

            I freely admit I am a don’t ask-don’t tell type as related to WTH is wrong with someone. I won’t even ask about a baby due date unless you tell me you are pregnant.

        3. Colette*

          Well, yes, I agree it could be something serious, but responding to concern doesn’t mean the OP needs to share any sort of medical information she’s not ready to share. As others have said, she could make up a story or just say “yeah, it’s a pain”, etc. If the OP treats it like a big secret, people are more likely to think it’s a big deal than if she prepares some low-key response.

          If one of my coworkers came to work with a cane/cast/etc., I’d probably mention it – albeit probably in a “bad weekend?” sort of way. Similarly, if I came to work with something noticeably different, I would expect that I’d get concerned questions.

          1. AnotherAlison*

            I definitely get what you’re saying. I guess what bothers me is that the asker is being intrusive (obviously only mildly intrusive, but still intrusive) and I’m the injured one and now I have to be the jerk or liar, *if* I don’t want to talk about it. The nosy person should be the one who feels rude, but my wasp-y self feels guilty for not indulging your every question! (Kind of like how kristinyc mentioned below being mortified by asking the guy about his limp when he actually had a prosthetic.)

            1. Colette*

              Yeah, I see what you’re saying, too, and I can’t really put my finger on why I think this is different than asking if someone is pregnant or going through cancer treatment. Mostly I think it’s because the majority of the time, someone in their 20s who shows up with a cast/cane/brace will likely be someone who had a minor accident/mishap and not someone struggling with a serious illness (although a serious illness is always a possibility).

              I agree the OP shouldn’t have to answer questions if she doesn’t want to, but at the same time, I’d kind of think it was weird if no one said anything.

              From a practical point of view, though, I think it’s best for the OP to come up with something low-key but either true or flippant (“I didn’t think I was stomping loudly enough”) rather than resisting talking about it.

              1. Jessa*

                I think part of the issue is the “what’d you DO?” usually comes out in this snarky pre-teen tone that is like (put on valley girl bubble gum popping stereotype here) “what on EARTH did YOU do to yourself NOW?” (as in it’s your fault totally and you messed yourself up didn’t you?) in a whingey blamey tone. Even if it’s not MEANT that way it’s how it often comes across.

                “You okay? Need any help?” in a neutral tone, comes over better even on the steen millionth time the person in question is asked.

                1. Colette*

                  Totally agree those are better questions to ask – and I realized as well that I’ve been commenting based on the assumption that the person asking the question is someone the OP knows, not someone they happened to run into on the street. There’s no reason or excuse for asking questions like that of strangers, although people do, of course.

        4. Liz in the City*

          Are you Dr. House? Good job on the diagnosis! ;)

          It’s still my fear that I’ll be (relatively) young and need a cane or something one day and can’t just shrug it off as a short-term PITA. *hope not*

    2. Joey*

      There’s no right answer. Some people like talk about it if you look interested/uncomfortable while others want you to pretend you don’t notice anything different. I’ve run into both. I try to take my cues from the person.

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      My answer wouldn’t change — it’s still up to you if you share it with people, but if you choose not to, it’s reasonable to say something vague and just be friendly about it.

  10. BCW*

    Yeah, I think this is an example of someone being over sensitive. If I came in one day with a cast, or a walking boot, or crutches I’m sure everyone would ask what happened. Its a normal reaction. Again, you don’t have to go into details about your medical condition, but to be offended because people show concern? Come on, are we that bad as a society where showing a bit of concern for a fellow employee is now seen as too intrusive? Just make up a lie. Tell the person with the biggest mouth that you sprained your ankle playing tennis/rollerblading/whatever.

    1. IronMaiden*

      The issue isn’t that people are showing concern, it’s the continual arch “what did you do to yourself?” Like the OP states, there is an implication that s/he did something foolish, which can wear very thin after being asked not too many times.

  11. LW*

    Thank you for the perspective! The ‘assuming an amusing story’ aspect is something I hadn’t thought of, and that’s very helpful for letting me feel less resentful of the ‘what did you do’ phrasing, and for understanding why I’m getting variations on that more often than a simple ‘are you ok?’

    1. LW*

      Also, for a bit of clarification, I’ve been fine with the people asking if I’m okay — “Are you all right?” can be met with “Yeah, this is nothing serious,” or any variation on detail I care to give, but “What did you do?” carries a lot of different implications, at least to my hearing, as well as actually sounding a lot less concerned/caring. It’s been coming off to me more like ‘Give me the dirt!’ or something, as well as having the implication that this is something I actively did to myself, instead of just being a consequence of having a human body that breaks down a bit sometimes.

      And yes, I’m being kind of over-sensitive. Like I stated in the letter, I’m extremely self-conscious about the cane, and the circumstances of the issue are ones that have left me feeling really touchy about it.

      1. Nerdling*

        That’s why I try to save, “What did you DO?!” for people I know well. It gets old to have to explain things over and over and over, even when the savers mean well

        I think you should start making crap up.

        Attacked by ninjas
        Slipped on a banana peel
        Tried to leap a tall building in a single bound but failed miserably
        Got served
        Fell down an open manhole
        Pirate fight

        1. Pussyfooter*

          Aren’t “attacked by ninjas” and “pirate fight” potentially the same story ;)

          1. Chinook*

            I would think that ninjas keep their attacks on land while pirates prefer to attack on water. Unless, of course, they are pirate ninjas or ninja pirates.

        2. LJL*

          Combining could be fun…”slipped on a banana peel while being attacked by ninjas during a pirate fight next to an open manhole…” :-)

    2. Katie the Fed*

      Last time I was on crutches it was because I fell in a hole walking at night. A hole. THAT was an amusing story :)

      1. ExceptionToTheRule*

        I slipped in the mud once and fell face first on a stick (nose & eye specifically). Nothing like stitches in your upper & lower eyelids.

    3. Ellie H.*

      The reason people say “What did you do?” is because given that you (presumably) externally look young and healthy, they are assuming that you broke your foot rock climbing or mountain biking or something exciting that you will enjoy talking about. People would not have an interested reaction if you were an older person for whom use of a cane would be less surprising.

      I completely understand why this bothers you so much – I have just skimmed the comments but I haven’t seen anyone else touch on this issue – but my impression is that it bothers you because the cane is due to a condition that is worrisome, ongoing and that you hope will be resolved quickly, but people are acting like it is an acute injury that followed some logical consequence and doesn’t have much emotional significance. “What did you do?” really does make sense as a question if it were because of a rock climbing injury or something.

      It’s incredibly irritating when people act like some health problem is your fault, which people definitely do do sometimes – but it’s less irritating when it’s some freak accident. “What did you do” is just a casual way to ask what happened when you assume something is a minor accident and not a medical condition that is upsetting. I really don’t think you’re being oversensitive, but I also think that your coworkers aren’t necessarily as thoughtless as it comes off.

  12. TBoT*

    I had this exact situation after an injury that caused me to be on crutches for many weeks. The event that caused the injury was, frankly, embarrassing, and I didn’t really want to talk about it. The work questions dried up pretty quickly, since my office isn’t that big and word spread. But, I got constant questions from random strangers. At the grocery store, on public transportation, in elevators … it was annoying.

    It was especially annoying since random strangers frequently asked me “What happened to your leg?” but many, many times random strangers just watched while I struggled to open doors, pick up something I’d dropped, etc.

    I got to the point where I wanted to say, “What happened to your manners?” but I never did.

    1. Jazzy Red*

      Yeah, everyone needs to step up their manners and assist people when they’re clearly struggling to open the dam door. Or at least not yell at them in the parking lot because they’re walking slowly and you want the parking place they’re in front of.

      1. Jamie*

        Yes! And you don’t need to know what happened to help out someone who is struggling or to be patient with someone who isn’t moving as quickly as you’d like.

  13. Jen in RO*

    I can understand you’re getting annoyed, but most of them, if not all, are genuinely concerned. I burnt my arm pretty bad in a very silly way (I spilled hot wax on myself while trying to depilate) and I had to wear a very obvious bandage. It was pretty embarrassing (mostly because I did not want to point out to my coworkers that I had hairy arms!), but I just told them either the short version (a lie: that I scalded myself with water) or the long version (the truth), depending on the person and my relationship with them. I would have found it weird if no one asked – I had a big obvious bandage with some very red skin showing from underneath. Most of them were really sorry for me and I even got some good advice out of it.

    1. Jamie*

      Ouch! Hope you’re okay – that sounds brutal.

      And the beauty of having work friends is being able to tell them the funny long versions. I knew someone once who broke their leg doing laundry…that got retold over and over.

      And just this week (and I confess this at the risk of being sued by Alison for appropriation) I was limping on my way to the ladies room and I didn’t see someone behind me. He asked what was wrong and I didn’t want to tell him the truth (kidney infections suck!) so I said I fell off a curb and hurt my foot.

      1. Jen in RO*

        *mildly disgusting things ahead, you’ve been warned*
        It gets better… 2 days after the burn, when my hand was basically one big blister (4×2 inches or so), I was taking out the trash… and I managed to close the lid of the trashcan on my hand and ripped a layer of the damaged skin right off. The burn itself probably won’t leave a long lasting mark, but the trashcan lid will! I found the whole thing amusing, really (after the first 2 hours when it hurt like a bitch), but it’s not exactly the kind of story you tell to people you barely know. (Unless I’m online and talking to AAM readers!)

        This happened in August last year and it’s still very (pink skin, smallish scar), but people don’t ask anything anymore.

        (I would definitely not share a kidney infection/UTI/yeast infection story with anyone but my closest coworkers! A couple of years ago I had a bad UTI and I had to stay home for a week with high fever – I told people I had a cold.)

        1. Jamie*

          No, actual laundry. As I recall some spilled detergent and slick linoleum and an unforgiving washer were involved.

          The other would have made for a much more interesting story.

          1. Chinook*

            “an unforgiving washer”

            And that is why I tell people not to yell at machines like copiers (and, I guess, washers) – they remember all the mean things that you say to them and then trip you when you least expect it.

            Though, personally, I like to blame a twisted ankle on snow snakes – snow coloured creatures that slither under a thin layer of snow that are most commonly found on ski hills and are known to leap up from nowhere and cause the msot experienced skier to fall face first. Yup, snow snakes are very sneaky. ;)

        2. KJ*

          Good heavens, I would hope no one would break their leg “doing laundry!” That would involve some pretty fancy acrobatics!

      2. ChristineSW*

        I knew someone once who broke their leg doing laundry…

        Wow…now I don’t feel so bad that I’ve sprained my ankle (back in high school) doing very normal things, including dancing in front of the TV to MTV music videos….. yeah, I was a bit cuckoo back then! ;)

  14. Marina*

    It may depend on the office environment. At my current office, if someone wasn’t willing to tell the full story of an obvious injury, possibly complete with dramatic reinactments and maybe a movie deal in the works, everyone would be very concerned and assume that either they were going to die or it was an extremely embarrassing infectious illness. The best/only way to stop the gossip would be to provide a short, boring story, probably about 20 times, until the next office drama came along. At other offices, which perhaps might have more of a focus on professional attitudes, no one would mention an injury at all. Most places are probably somewhere in between Sounds like OP would prefer the second, but it’s really not personal, it’s just an office culture issue. The OP might want to think about how their coworkers have responded to other coworker’s injuries or visible issues in the past, to put this reaction in a bit of context and better predict when the questions will die down.

  15. Laura*

    I experienced something similar a couple of years ago when I went through a period of un/misdiagnosed pain that included making it difficult for me to walk. I found that a cheery “Oh, just having trouble getting around today, thanks for asking!” generally sent people on their way quickly and without further inquiry, even when I was doing my best Tim Conway “Old Man” shuffle. (FTR, I was generally not at all cheery on the inside — I’m painfully shy and very private and really just wanted people to leave me the hell alone and let me go get my job done — but it served to move them along without any hint of rudeness.) Anyone who followed up by asking what was wrong got, “Oh, it’s just boring stuff — we’re working on getting it all sorted out.” If they kept pushing after *that* they got a rather clipped, “I’d really rather not talk about it. I’m trying to focus on other things.”

    Good luck, and I hope you get it all sorted and pain-free soon!

  16. Jess*

    When I broke my hand, strangers would approach me to ask about my splint. At work, the grocery store, everywhere. Totally awkward for a massive introvert like me. Sometimes I would respond with the story (which wasn’t far fetched) and I don’t think they believed me.

    People are weird. Allison is right on with her response. I am in a similar situation now and when people get really nosy and pushy I say “Why is it important for you to know that?” It’s my best shut down line for those who step over the line.

    1. Angelina Retta*

      I use that ‘why do you need to know?’ line. They never have a good answer.

  17. J.B.*

    It is frustrating, even when you know people mean well, to have them ask about what you consider personal information. I have been living this. Probably best to have some vague “hopefully recovering soon” answer.

  18. Brton3*

    I also had a similar situation. I had a minor but pretty long-lasting illness that caused some skin issues and other dermatological problems. It was really surprising how free people felt to ask me invasive questions about my health.

  19. kristinyc*

    This is medium related – this morning I was walking into the office behind a co-worker who I’ve worked with closely for a year. I noticed he was limping, and I asked if he had hurt his foot, and he told me that he actually had a fake leg.

    I was completely mortified and told him I felt like a huge jerk for commenting on it, and his awesome response (with intense eye contact) was “Why? You didn’t cut my leg off.”

    Definitely shut me up. :)

    Lesson: Don’t comment on people’s physical attributes. At all.

    1. Jamie*

      Apropos of nothing, but when you said it was medium related I got excited and was expecting a story about someone who contacts the dead.

      I believe Kristin owes us a story featuring a work anecdote from beyond the grave. :)

      1. kristinyc*

        I work for a company that just launched a collaboration with Ghostly International…. that’s about as close as I can get. :)

    2. Heather*

      See, now that is a great example of BOTH of you handling it well! You apologized, he didn’t take it personally (and was funny), done, over.

      Now may I suggest you hold a workplace seance so Jamie isn’t disappointed? Make sure it’s mandatory and held after work hours so we can get a good AAM story out of it too

    3. Jazzy Red*

      I once had a temp job at a new company, and no one saw fit to tell me that one of the guys had a hook for his left hand. I’m sure some surprise showed on my face when we were introduced, but everyone acted like nothing happened.

      1. Chinook*

        I think prosthetics become so normal to those around you that they become just another descriptor like hair colour. DH tells the story of sitting in a class where the instructor was talking about how military planes drop bombs. He then said, “of course, none of you know what it looks like when it happents.” Everybody turned to one of their classmates who had started snickering and then pulled up his pant legs, knocked on the prosthetics and said, “you might say I saw it a little too closely.” The instructor started to stammer and get flustered but everybody else in the class just laughed because buddy was the same as them but with fake legs.

  20. LMW*

    When I was in my mid-20s, I threw out my back just by getting out of my car to walk into the building. I could tell I tweaked it as I was shutting the car door, and within an hour I was in so much pain I couldn’t stand up or walk upright…and I was stuck that way for about three weeks with no relief. It was awful and embarrassing. I mean, what relatively fit 25 year old throws out their back? But I’ll admit, it was funny.
    “What did you do to yourself?”
    “I got out of the car on Tuesday. Haven’t been right since.”

    1. AnotherAlison*

      Lol. Totally hear you no that one!

      I fell down the stairs when I was about 13 and threw my back out. Within a day, my nerves were affected such that I felt like I constantly had to pee but couldn’t, but I was too embarrassed to tell my parents what had happened so I just walked around all stiff and tense. NO ONE ASKED ME WHAT WAS WRONG!!! Maybe that’s why I’m so anti-nosy people. . .clearly how I was raised.

      (After about 3 days, I finally spoke up and they took me to the chiro. Immediately better. Doh.)

      1. IronMaiden*

        If you just walked around all stiff and tense they probably thought it was some sort of teen angst. :)

    2. JP*

      Yikes, that sounds awful! I have to admit I misread it as “I twerked it as I was shutting the car door” and was like, well, if you’re twerking it while getting in and out of cars, you’re probably going to hurt yourself at some point.

    3. Jamie*

      I was fit and 25 when I threw out my back for the first time – bending over to pick up a shoe. I heard a sickening pop and I was on the floor until my husband got home.

      With the back it’s never something awesome like you did it lifting a car off of a pinned child, or scaling a mountain to rescue hikers. It’s always something stupid like bending over, twisting wrong…when you think if the intricacies of the spine it’s a wonder any one is functional at all.

    4. Rana*

      Heh. When I was in my early thirties, I tweaked my shoulders somehow stretching and was more-or-less paralyzed by painful muscle spasms for a day or so.

      I mean, what the hell, body?! I was just stretching! You know, that thing you do every morning!

    5. Kelly L.*

      I’ve got a ton of those kinds of stories.

      “Kelly, what’d you do to your finger?”
      “I cut it on lettuce.”

      I mean, how? I did it and I still don’t know how.

      1. Colette*

        “Oh, my thumb? Slipped crossing a waterfall.”
        “My foot? Don’t know, it just started hurting when I woke up.”
        “Tripped on a line on the pavement. I don’t know either.”
        “Slipped on the ice, gave myself a concussion & hurt my wrist.”
        “Fell off a horse and landed on a fence.”
        “I was carving a pumpkin and the knife slipped.”
        “Walked into a wall.”

        I can relate.

      2. Rana*

        A friend of mine just posted today about cutting himself on a pickle, so I believe you!

    6. LJL*

      last summer (during a hellish heat wave and power outage), I threw my back out by turning to face my sweetie. When his co-worker, a huge joker, saw me in obvious pain and asked what was wrong, I said “I did a dumb thing. I turned to talk to him and threw my back out.” Co-worker’s response: “I have saved myself countless pain by not talking to him.” :-) That made me giggle when little else could.

  21. Bonnie*

    This may not work for the OP because he/she doesn’t want to draw any attention at all. But when I got Bell’s Palsy a few years ago, I sent out an email to the entire company explaining that I had Bell’s Palsy, that I didn’t want anyone to be upset by my face, that I was fine and would continue to be at wok every day. I got three reactions, some people raced to my office to see what I looked liked (and pronounced me not that bad), some emailed me condolences and stories of people who fully recovered, and the rest of them were free not to comment when they saw me. It kept me from having to explain the situation multiple times and I think eliminated the gossip of people talking to each other about me instead of to me.

    1. Chinook*

      Did you know that former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien has Bell’s Palsy and had it while he was in office? You are in good company.

      1. Ellie H.*

        Also, actor Alexis Denisof (most recently starring in Much Ado About Nothing, and famous for Angel, Buffy and How I Met Your Mother etc. etc.) had it. He had it the first season he was on Angel and they wrote all his scenes to only show one side of his face.

  22. Colette*

    This is not health-related, but I recently got engaged and I am similarly fielding many unwanted inquiries (both at work and from friends) about my wedding planning process, which I absolutely do not want to talk about with anybody right now. Just thinking about it makes me feel stressed, plus I feel like it’s my private business and not open for discussion with the world. I have been responding to people with very vague answers like “oh, I haven’t done too much planning yet”, because in truth I have not and have no clue what I’m doing. I just find it fascinating how many people seem to think it’s OK to ask about it and even offer all kinds of unwanted advice. I have to remind myself that they are happy for me and are trying to be nice by sounding interested. They just don’t realize that my heart feels squeezed in a vice whenever I am asked about it!

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think this is another where people are expressing warmth toward you. They don’t really care that much about your planning; they’re just expressing warm feelings toward you and something good happening in your life.

      1. Jamie*

        I agree – most people are just happy for simple answer – “everything is going fine” is more than enough. It’s just a way to acknowledge something major in their life and they are excited for you.

        I love hearing that people are getting married and I love hearing people are going to have a baby. It doesn’t mean I’d ever ask or even want to know private details…it just makes me all “awww” and once they announce letting them know I’m happy for them.

        However, there are the crazy wedding groupies who do want details, no matter whose wedding it is…could be a stranger…these are the people who live for listening to mp3s of wedding bands for fun and have a million ideas for centerpieces they are dying to share. They are rare, but if you run into one just keep your head down and don’t make eye contact.

        Everyone else is just being polite.

    2. Colette*

      Hi, other Colette!

      (Also, I think questions about that are weird, although it’s another instance where people are just excited for you. I’m not a wedding person, though.)

    3. Rana*

      You have my sympathies. When we were planning our wedding, people kept asking me if I was “excited” about it. While I was looking forward to the actual event, and the marriage itself, planning a wedding sucks tremendously. I knew that they meant well, but part of me kept thinking that they must be insane for thinking that things like comparing hotel rates and calculating how many chairs to rent were something to be thrilled about.

      1. kristinyc*

        Ohhh boy. Here comes some unwanted advice/information ;)] Yeah, as soon as you get a ring on your finger, it’s all people want to talk about. I absolutely hated wedding planning, and didn’t want to talk about it with my friends and family (unless they were offering to help and I could delegate things to them…), let alone co-workers.

        Just come up with a few catch phrases:

        “Oh, it’s going great! Thanks for asking!”

        “I had no idea how expensive [chairs/flowers/favors etc] are!!!”

        “I’m officially an export on table cloth textiles!”

        And after the wedding, when people asked how it went, my favorite response was:

        1. Ellie H.*

          I absolutely love that “It worked!” That’s so funny – I would definitely use that if/when I ever get married and have an opportunity to do so.

      2. Tiff*

        I had a similar experience once I got engaged, but really at the time I was excited and happy to talk about it. The only thing that was driving me crazy when people asked was that I was NOWHERE on my planning for awhile. Then 2 magical things happened to take the focus completely off the wedding: I got pregnant (with twins) and we ended up eloping. Problem solved? Haha.

          1. Heather*

            It probably also saved her the “when are you going to give her a brother or sister?” interrogations, too :)

      3. Carrie*

        AGREE, wedding planning sucked. I hated being asked about it at work every day for 6 months. It was always “So are you excited about your wedding?” or “How’s wedding planning going?” To be honest I was somewhat miserable and didn’t want to talk about it. I came up with some canned answers in an attempt to be as jovial as I could. But I felt like my colleagues suddenly saw me as a completely one-dimensional being with nothing going on in her life except a wedding.

    4. Marina*

      The BEST way to deal with that: “Oh, I’m not sure yet. What did you do?” Then they spend the next 20 minutes talking about themselves and totally forget that they asked you a question in the first place. Granted, you have to listen to them talk about themselves for 20 minutes, but it really does get them off your back.

    5. Jen in RO*

      Well I guess it depends on how close the coworkers are… but one of mine is getting married and she talks about her planning all the time – she would be offended if we didn’t ask how it’s going!

    6. TheSnarkyB*

      Colette, I don’t know if this will help you at all, but I tend to be a very snarky b and my responses work pretty well. When I meet a new large group of people (generally women), and everyone’s talking about their significant others or for some reason, they’re talking about mine. Me and my sig-o have a very silly and loving and combative relationship, so when other women get all coo-ey about “omg he’s so cute and he seems so nice!” I go, “haha nope he’s an asshole, but i love him. Glad he makes a good impression!”
      People are turned off enough and confused at my (genuinely) cheerful tone, that they assume (correctly) that they don’t understand our dynamic and don’t ask about him any more so we can go back to our intellectual conversations.

  23. A teacher*

    You need to work in a physical therapy clinic or as an athletic trainer, seriously those of us that deal or have dealt with tons of really weird injuries could care less. Take the reverse of your situation and have random people that find out you work with orthopedic injuries and then want to share every detail of their injury with you and then ask loads of questions about how to “fix it.” I’m not your doctor, PT, or athletic trainer so it isn’t up to me how it’s fixed.

    That said, its probably just people trying to not ignore the change you’ve had, not that it makes it okay but ignoring the figurative elephant in the room isn’t something we seem to do well. Others are probably trying to relate, we do that a lot too. Reading the comments on weight loss was interesting, I’m down 50 from last Thanksgiving and its annoying when people want to tell me how much I shouldn’t keep losing. Some like to relate with stories about their weight loss. I guess it’s just easier to listen jan to take offense.

  24. Cruella Da Boss*

    Sounds like your coworkers are just trying to be friendly and show some concern. It must be horrible.

    I’m a fan of the comedic response: Look around nervously, ask “Can you keep a secret?” then lean in really close and whisper “I hurt my foot jumping to conclusions” Wink, walk away

  25. Coelura*

    I used a cane from the time I was in my mid-teens until my late 30s (medical marvels changed the need!). I would get a lot of questions about my cane & I typically responded that “Oh, I just think it looks cool. Its a fashion accessory.” Simply because I did NOT want to discuss my medical condition & all of its implications. People usually accepted that answer and might have thought I was a bit strange but strange within acceptable limits. The questions dropped substantially after I got a really nice & custom cane. People seemed to assume that it was a fashion accessory after that. Gotta love House of Canes! :)

  26. An HR Person*

    In response to intrusive questions about an injury, someone I used to date would say, “Oh, this? It’s an old football injury. I fell out of the bleachers cheering on the home team.”

    The response was usually enough to distract the person with laughter and then he’d move on.

    So, I agree with everyone who says just give a funny or bizarre answer.

  27. Elizabeth Brown*

    I think it’s rude to comment on someone’s appearance–these are people that the OP doesn’t know, not friends or close coworkers.

    Option 1: Pretending you didn’t hear: “I’m good, thanks! How are you?” while continuing to walk. Make them have to decide whether to repeat the question–many won’t.
    Option 2: Flipping the question back: “Why do you want to know?” You are genuinely confused, not in a mean way, about why they care. Pause like you are expecting an answer.

    1. BCW*

      Wow, if someone I had a fairly good working relationship came into work with crutches, and I asked “What happened?” and they either ignored me or said “Why do you want to know” I’d think they were the rude ones. That just seems to be an extreme reaction to a fairly normal question to someone you see 5 days a week.

      1. Anonymous*

        But why DO you want to know? Or rather, why do you feel entitled to them actually telling you?

  28. Christine*

    I feel your pain, OP! Last summer I had to wear crutches for a couple months. Near the end I would sometimes use one crutch, sometimes two, or go without for a while depending on how it was feeling. And I got questioned on it EVERY DAY at the office. Multiple times a day. I know people were trying to be nice, but it drove me up the wall – I was already having a tough time with it, since I couldn’t hike or run all summer, and hated having to get help with the simplest tasks. So having to answer questions about it was just rubbing salt in the wound.

    My strategy near the end was just to smile and give an unenthusiastic “ha” when someone made a comment or question, and then change the subject right away. I hope both the questions and the foot pain stop for you soon!

  29. Mary*

    A family friend was diagnosed at a young age with Multiple Sclerosis. She would walk with a cane and leg brace and people would ask what happened. She would reply I have MS. They would get very quiet. From then on I never ask anyone, who has a leg brace, cane, etc. what happened.

  30. Susan*

    So, I kind of feel like this question as well as many of the responses indicate that we’re getting overly sensitive as a society. OP, try not to read too much into these remarks and realize people have good intentions. Someone compliments you on weight loss? Again, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and stop being offended. (Not even going to start on Merry Christmas vs Happy Holidays, but you get the idea.) Take their words at face value, and let it go.

  31. EM*

    You could just say you have a stress fracture. Easy & boring.

    I do think you are being a bit oversensitive.

    A couple of years ago I hair-line fractured my ankle. I was at the gym and my foot got caught in the elliptical machine between the pedal and the base of the machine. I was watching House Hunters on HGTV while I was working out and wasn’t paying attention. Anyway, the pedals were still going around with some force and my ankle went CRUNCH.

    I almost passed out. Needless to say, I showed up for work the next day in a brace and hobbling around. As soon as I walked in the door, my co-workers were all, “OMG WHAT HAPPENED?!!”

    I don’t think they were trying to be intrusive, lol.

  32. Owl*

    To piggyback on the comment asking if Alison’s response would change if the OP had a chronic illness, I’m someone with a chronic illness that has been in the OP’s shoes. The long of the short of it is that I have a rare genetic disorder that effects my joints. My version (every body is different) necessitates the use of a wrist brace on one or both of my wrists, sometimes for a part of a day, sometimes for weeks. I also bruise really easily and I have balance issues as well. I tend to have a good humor about it if I’m not in a ton of pain.

    That said, after a period of seeing me on and off with wrist braces, finger splints, etc, a lot of people (former close friends included), have said “what did you do?” or “again?”, sounding exactly like I was a naughty kid. They’ve seen me with the braces, without, and with them again, so obviously I have “hurt myself” again. I usually reply “same old stuff”, and move on, or at least try to. I have been told that I need to stop hurting myself in response, because yes, I intentionally pull my shoulder out of socket on a daily basis (hah). I think what the OP said is right, though, in that I get increasingly unhappy with wearing my wrist braces in front of people because of this reaction. It feels like this is something I intentionally did to myself, especially with the responses I get, leading to a lot of shame.

    So OP, I totally get it. My sister, who uses a cane and sometimes a wheelchair, does too. At work, I usually answer “arthritis”, when asked. After a while my coworkers ignore my wrist brace, and we all move on (for the most part, until it reappears again). I advise to do what Alison says, and to definitely have fun backup story. My favorite from a TV show (Sue Thomas F.B.Eye) was “running with the bulls in Pamplona”. Hope all goes well.

    1. Jen in RO*

      Do they know that you have an illness? This sounds like EDS to me and I would stop commenting if I knew it. But if I didn’t… it would look like you’re extremely clumsy. People can’t read minds unfortunately. I know that you don’t want to share your medical history with strangers, but really, it’s normal for them to wonder what happened to you.

      1. Owl*

        I do have EDS! And I have a coworker with EDS too! I talk about it now (in the beginning I didn’t because of the previous reactions, almost all from high school/college/church friends I have known for years, and some from college professors). I often feel like a broken record saying “I have Ehlers Danlos Syndrome and it makes my joints do wacky things and make me hurt a whole lot”. In my current work environment, I am pretty open about it, and my coworkers are accepting, and right now, really pretty amazing. I’m fine with people wondering what’s wrong, and really appreciate it, and appreciate it more when they don’t say “What did you do?” (unless it’s in a friendly, curious tone). I actually really love telling my strange subluxation/bruise stories (“I was reaching for some milk and my collarbone moved.” “But what happened?” “I dunno, my collarbone wanted an adventure?”).

        Also, this:

        1. AnonintheUK*

          I also have EDS. My worst was trying on a dress in my department store, when my collarbone moved and I got stuck.

  33. Pussyfooter*

    Dear OP,
    I use the phrases you describe when asking people about *obvious* physical pains. It’s my way of trying to keep the question lighthearted and pleasant for the hurt person. (I do wonder if people find it unfriendly if I *don’t* ask…waiting on hundreds of customers per day, it seems to be an individual preference for each.)

    Kind, calm bluntness is ok with me. If someone responds with a an “oh, I’m tired of having to think about it,” that’s fine with me. Message received: this person isn’t helped by my asking, but by my not asking.

    Maybe thinking about their questions as I think about “Ma’am” would help you feel more comfortable. I didn’t grow up in a place where ma’am is used regularly, but now young people call me that when they’re trying to be nice. I feel weird for a second, then say some simple, nice thing back and get on with my day. It’s not their fault they were raised differently; they don’t mean any harm.

    That maneuvering around with a sore foot thing gets old. Hope you feel well soon.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Nicely said, PF.
      There’s all kinds of people out there. Of the two extremes I would rather work with people who ask too much or too often than work with people who said “Too bad/how sad. Get to work.”

      The core problem here is that we cannot pass out scripts or manuals for correct behavior with each individual. And it’s true, we can worry about what the motivation is for the questions.

      From my own experiences- I have found being sick and fending off questions is very tiring. There were days that I swore I felt sicker because of dwelling on the subject. And yeah, I did go to some negative places in my head. I framed things with the wrong context.

      Sometimes the questions are on the same level with “How are ya how’s the family?” People don’t actually expect a real answer. It is a form of acknowledgement. The same goes for a medical inquiry. I have found some non-answers that worked out for me.
      “Am doing a bit better today, thanks.”
      “This will be okay, it just needs some time.” (This one works out really good, because people do get scared that something might be VERY wrong. Some people are satisfied just to know it is being managed.)
      This one I love because it is truthful- “My time at work is my time out from this issue. You can help me by keeping my mind on other topics.” Most of life is mind over matter anyway so this is a great example of living that attitude.

      OP- one last tidbit- when someone else comes in with a newer injury, yours will become old news and they will turn and focus on that other person. I hope every aspect of this situation gets smaller/more manageable for you every day.

    2. Elise*

      I think that’s the best attitude OP. Assume they mean well, even when they say something that comes out bad.

      And obviously, Pussyfooter, now that you know that the phrases do not keep it lighthearted and pleasant I’m sure you will cease with showing your concern in that manner.

    3. Flynn*

      bsolutely! I do this too.

      From my side it’s:
      “Something has obviously happened, I wonder what? It’s probably not my business [if I don’t know them well], but if I don’t ask, it’ll be weird and rude. I feel awkward asking anything too personal, and they might not want to discuss how they feel anyway, or it might be a difficult story, so I’ll turn it into a bit of a joke and they can tell me whatever they want, and maybe I’ll find out, but I’ll have responded to their injury and they can discuss it if they want or just deflect. YES THAT PLAN IS AWESOME”.

      And that comes out as … “so, what did you do? Pick a fight with a bus? Or did that stapler finally take its revenge?”

    1. Flynn*

      My dad tried to use this one on us once (he came back from holiday with his hand covered in bandages). It was almost believable, as he’s been diving, but the bite was the wrong way round.

      Turned out he’d walked into a glass door holding a glass.

  34. Carrie*

    I don’t see this as wildly different from any annoying other question that you get asked by every single person in the office:

    -When I was planning my wedding, my coworkers asked me “How’s wedding planning going?” every day for six months.

    -When I get back from vacation, every single coworker asks, “How was your vacation?”

    -When I return from a sick day, every single coworker asks, “Are you feeling better?”

    -When I finish a big project, every single coworker asks, “Are you glad that project is finally over?”

    Yes, people with whom you have a cordial relationship will ask you whatever the most obvious questions is, just for the sake of conversation. It’s incredibly annoying, but I don’t think it’s rude. The 20th person shouldn’t be blamed for asking the same question as the first person, just because you’re irritated by that point. We live in one of the most private societies in the world, and shouldn’t get too annoyed at a little friendly prying – it could be so much worse!

    1. LMW*

      I actually think not saying these types of things/not asking is considered rude or unfriendly by many, if not most people. Kind of a damned it you do, damned if you don’t situation.

      1. Jazzy Red*

        No kidding! Most people (me included) just want to be friendly. It used to be considered polite to make minor chit-chat with co-workers.

        And really, how many people do you think are *that* interested in every detail of you life? They say something, you say something, they forget it.

        1. Jamie*

          Yeah – those aren’t even conversation – just require two word answers.

          Great, thanks!
          Excellent, thanks!
          Much, thanks!
          Sure am!

  35. Jen*

    I had a sudden illness recently and I’ve encountered lots of comments from people and my strategy is to try to hear the intent of the comment and respond to that because it’s so much nicer to assume people are well intentioned and just don’t know how to engage in this situation. So, 9 times out of 10 the response is a variation of “Thank you! I’m getting better/I’m excited to feel better soon/don’t worry about me I’m going to be fine.” This is because the intent is generally a combination of: “I’m so shocked to hear about this!” (because: you are so young/you seemed fine last time I saw you/you are still at work etc.) And, “I’m so sorry this is happening to you!” (because: it’s surprising/it’s maybe sad/I want people in my world to be healthy and happy etc.)

  36. Anonymous*

    I wear a compression sleeve and glove every day and constantly get questioned by strangers (coworkers and friends already know the story.) It’s a result of cancer surgery years ago, and until they perfect a lymph node transfer surgery I will be wearing these garments. People don’t seem to want to know the real story, I think they are hoping I say it’s carpal tunnel so they can get advice. Sometimes I just say “long story”or “old age,” and occasionally someone just won’t let it go. Ugh. The fun comes when young people think it’s cool (the glove is black and fingerless) and they ask where they can get one.

  37. ChristineSW*

    I get self-conscious very easily; if I had a cane or some other outward sign of injury or illness, I would almost rather someone ask me genuinely about it and/or offer to help hold a door or carry something. I’d still be embarrassed, certainly, but that’s better than worrying what people are thinking or even staring at me.

    As a general rule, though, I try not to be nosy about other people. Because of my vision, I sometimes appear as if I’m staring (I’m just trying to make sure I’m seeing something correctly), so I try to watch that. I know that sound counter to the previous paragraph, so I’ll stop here before I start confusing even myself. lol.

    P.S. Sorry, but I had to giggle at some of the stories above! Now I don’t feel so clumsy with all of my falls and accidents!

    1. ChristineSW*

      Ugh…where are my manners!?

      OP – I agree with everyone else. Just recognize that people are likely just showing concern. For those with the condescending tone (I would hate that too), a witty comeback might be helpful, or just say “I’d rather not talk about it”. Hope your foot is better soon!

  38. Anonymous*

    After saying “It’s a long story.” the OP could also add, “Thank you for asking.” That communicates that the OP recognizes they are concerned but still asserts a boundary that the OP doesn’t want to talk about it further.

  39. Paul Critchlow*

    Before going through everybody else’s comment, mine is “deal with it”, those people have past you for years, always looking for open communication, but finding nothing to trigger a conversation, here is a n opening, they may be genuinely concerned and sympathetic.

    How often do we get in a lift with 5 other people, and all wish somebody would say something. Everyone stares at the ground or at the numbers above the door.

    Say something someone, it is amazing to hear that sigh of relieve when somebody breaks the silence.

  40. Anon*

    Maybe I can help. I have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, so I get hurt kind of a lot. Here are my go-to answers to “what happened?”:

    “Bad luck.”
    “A stupid accident. It’s not interesting. How is your (something happening with that person)?”
    “It’s gross. You’re better off not knowing. How is your (something happening with that person)?” This only works if you’re ready to tell them the truth, and if the truth is gross, if they keep it up.

    Basically… Keep it short and change the subject to let them talk about their selves.

  41. want to remain unknown*

    Great answer, HOWEVER, I have one tiny comment.

    I have to agree with the guy who posted it: MANY employees ARE NOT genuinely concerned. The ones that are concerned would be his IMMEDIATE co workers and/or ones that he has some sort of regular contact with (which he admitted, some he does, many he doesn’t).

    Also, AAM may have overlooked something key: the writer said it’s predominately FEMALES asking him these evasive (also invasion of privacy questions). It’s as if “excuses” are are being made for their behavior.

    I’m a female and having been in the workforce for over 30 years and have had a few similar situations, my experience is that the FEMALES (whether front line, supervisors and even so called managers) are the ones that exhibit this type of behavior THE MOST…..not the males.

    Males tend to express their concern without asking evasive questions AND without being a broken, noisy record.

    Dude, you don’t owe any of these clowns anything.

    Therefore, it’s a LONG STORY is the polite way to shut them down–but to make excuses for their behavior is inexcusable and they ARE NOT truly concerned. They are TRULY NOISY, AND BUSY BODIES! :-). MYOB: Mind Your Own Business is fitting in this situation!

    1. ella*

      This is a pet peeve of mine, so I apologize, but none of your capslocking is necessary or helpful to the point you’re trying to make.

      Also, the word you’re looking for to characterize the nature of the questions is invasive, not evasive. Evasive would apply to the response the OP would like to give (since s/he does not want to tell the whole story of their condition).

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