my coworkers keep trying to find out what my chronic illness is

A reader writes:

I’m 22, working my first job out of university while getting my MA in the evenings. Most of my coworkers are at least 20 years older than me — it’s rare to get a job like this right out of school, but I interned for them during my undergrad and they offered me a job after graduation. My coworkers tend to make a lot of comments about my age, personal appearance, etc. — comparing me (usually positively) to their own children, introducing me to guests as “our child prodigy,” etc. It’s all complimentary and I know that I stand out, so even though I find it annoying and think it undermines my professionalism, I let it go.

However, there’s one thing that I just can’t stand (pardon the pun). I have several chronic illnesses, including severe arthritis and a degenerative bone condition. As a result, I use a wheelchair for distances, although I can walk. I usually take public transit to work, and as a result am usually in my wheelchair. However, recently my partner has started working close to my job and she has a car. The distance from our apartment to the parking lot and from the street to my desk is short enough that I have been using my forearm crutches instead.

The first time my coworkers saw me walking with my crutches, they were all shocked and confused even though I had never claimed to be paralyzed. When they asked why I used my wheelchair at all if I could walk, I explained that I have several chronic illnesses and that my mobility was variable. Most let it go at that, but a couple of them –“Barb” and “Sandra,” who are the most frequent offenders with the “child prodigy” talk — asked for details I wasn’t comfortable giving at work.

Now, every time either of them is in a room with me, they ask increasingly invasive questions. Once, both of them were in our break room with me and Barb asked “is it terminal?” and I said no. She turned to Sandra and said, “Well, then it’s not MS, cross that one off the list.”

I think that Barb and Sandra are playing a kind of weird game of “20 questions” to figure out what is “wrong” with me. Others have been present when they talk to me about it, and nobody seems to think that its inappropriate. I mentioned it to my supervisor and she (a colleague of Barb and Sandra’s, they’re the same age and have all been working here since we opened) said that they were just showing that they care.

Am I off-base here? It seems wildly inappropriate, but I don’t have the formal or informal standing to shut it down.

No, you’re not off-base. It’s wildly inappropriate.

And it’s bizarre and gross that your manager told you they were “just showing they care.” Even if that were true — and it doesn’t quite seem that way — if you’re uncomfortable with it, she should take that as a sign that it needs to be shut down.

I know you said that you don’t feel like you have the standing to shut this down yourself, but you really do. This isn’t a work-related issue where you need to send things through a proper hierarchy; this is your private health information, and you’re entitled to tell Barb and Sandra to cut this out, regardless of your professional standing. Hell, you could be a temp who was there for a single day and you’d have standing to tell them to stop this. Your standing is that this is your personal, private information and they’re being incredibly out of line.

The next time Barb and/or Sandra do this, you could say any of the following:
* “Please stop asking me about my health. You’re making me very uncomfortable.”
* “Please stop asking me about my health. It’s not something I want to discuss at work, and your attempts to figure it out are really weird.” (You could replace “weird” with “invasive” or another adjective you prefer.)
* “It’s really weird that you’re doing this. Please stop.”
* “Wow, that’s incredibly rude. Please stop.”

You might feel awkward doing this since they’re older than you — but you shouldn’t. What they’re doing is way over the line of okay, they’re being openly rude, and you’re on very solid ground in telling them to cut it out. They’ve already ignored politer signals that you’re not up for discussing this, so at this point they need to hear a more direct “stop.”

And back to your worries about standing — if they take issue with this, it’s not going to be “how dare Jane tell us to stop when she’s so junior to us.” It’s going to be “wow, Jane is over-sensitive and we were just trying to show we care.” And that’s a reaction you could get at any professional level, even if you were the CEO. There’s really nothing about your age, your experience level, or your place in the office hierarchy that says you have to accommodate this, I promise. You do often have to take that kind of thing into consideration; this just isn’t one of those times.

That’s not to say that you don’t need to think about office politics at all. If Barb and/or Sandra are petty and vindictive and in a position to make your life at work difficult, you’d want to choose one of the softer responses on that list (like “Please stop asking me about my health; you’re making me very uncomfortable”) and probably stay away from “that’s incredibly rude.” But there are lots of ways to deliver this message clearly and directly; political considerations might influence the exact wording you choose, but they shouldn’t stop you from shutting it down at all.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 450 comments… read them below }

  1. ChumpwithaDegree*

    Just eww. You are entitled to your privacy on this. If it does not affect your ability to work, it is no one’s business.

    1. irene adler*

      Seems to be a theme today- interest in other people’s bathroom habits and medical conditions. Both are no one’s business.

      These people need to mind their own business.

      1. Bostonian*

        Unless someone poops in a pile of toilet paper on the floor (any bachelorette fans out there?) Then that’s fair game for comment!

        1. Media Monkey*

          not in the US so don’t get that show but, umm, what? Someone does that? on TV? why?

    2. LadyL*

      Honestly even if it does affect your ability to work it may not be anyone’s business, besides you and your boss. That’s why the law protects people who need accommodations.

      1. Specialk9*

        I have to say, OP, that I’m outraged on your behalf, and think poorly of their characters and their business savvy.

        It’s so weird that people see someone in a wheelchair or with long-term crutches and think ‘let’s harass THIS ONE about their legally protected age and disability’. Like, you know how that’s going to look in court or on tv, right? How about the Glassdoor review or industry rumor mill, about an employee in an actual wheelchair?! Because let’s be real, that’s an extra bad look.

        There are lots of invisible disabilities, I have one, and people mess that up all the time and I get it, it’s invisible. But a freaking wheelchair and crutches should be a really good hint that you’re in ADA territory. (I mean, duh, you’re in human empathy territory, but these people seem to lack that, so I’m sticking to the legal angle.) And you objected to the manager and they waved it away?! (Head between knees, dizzy with ire)

        It’s extra sucky that this glsssbowl behavior is *also* linked to a workplace that gave you a boost up into a prized role. I’ll bet it feels like you have to swallow the illegal ageism and disability harassment out of gratitude. But that’s not really how that works — none of us would be able to object to any illegal behavior like this if that were the deal. And it sounds like everyone agrees you’re killing it — so this was recognising talent and pouncing on it, not charity.

        1. Ego Chamber*

          I understand your points and I agree with your outrage, but there’s no illegal ageism here (the law only protects people over a certain age, not below it) and I don’t think it’s illegal for people to ask about other’s health status at work, it’s just really gross. If they were passing her over for assignments or penalizing her in performance reviews or something similar, that would be illegal, but these sound like coworkers who have no real impact on her work (other than what they’re doing to her mentally, which is super not cool).

          Again: Really gross, and I also have invisible disabilities so I get where you’re coming from, but the only person in this letter who’s at risk of violating the ADA is the manager, since they’re ignoring something that could meet the legal definition of a hostile work environment based on medical harassment if it goes on after LW directly tells the busybodies to knock it off, which she needs to do.

          On the plus side, I think once she makes it clear she doesn’t want to have these discussions, other coworkers will back her up. I don’t shut down uncomfortable conversations for other people because a lot of people are fine with questions I’m not fine with, but if I know someone doesn’t want to be in a conversation, I’ll shut that down because I don’t care a lot if other people think I’m being rude in defense of someone who really doesn’t want to talk about something.

        2. Emma the Strange*

          I’m willing to bet Barb and Sandra don’t think of their behavior as harassing or invasive. They probably think that being nosy is how you show empathy and concern for someone’s health, and that OP is just being weirdly cagey about it for some inexplicable reason. That this behavior might get them in trouble under the ADA probably has not even crossed their minds.

          That doesn’t make this ok, of course. Best case scenario, they will be appropriately mortified once OP makes clear to them how invasive their behavior is and knock it off. Worst case scenario, they’ll be offended that OP doesn’t appreciate just how much they care, and double down.

    1. Amber Rose*

      We all have exactly one month left. I would suggest finding more interesting things to talk about in that time.

      1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

        I am in awe of you both. I had nothing other than “OMG OMG OMG OMG is Barb human??? OMG OMG”

      2. SophieK*

        Fantastic! I was going to suggest OP develop her “are you bleeping kidding me” facial expression ASAP, and possibly deploy my patented pull the offenders into a meeting with the boss so she knows exactly what you said and how you said it, but this could work too.

        Couple of other ways to non verbally assert your dominance here OP are to look these ladies up and down and then look away disdainfully (straight outta the mean girl handbook) and move into their personal space whenever possible. This works like a charm, as they will automatically move and you will psychologically have the upper hand. Your age and size dont matter and they wont pick up on why they are suddenly uncomfortable.

        There’s a Mad TV sketch where a maniacal Seth Green is terrorizing people in his workplace by chasing them with his wheelchair and it’s glorious. You should be a little more subtle than this though. Lol

        1. Specialk9*

          I sincerely hope OP has started a log of these things.

          I think there has to be a reckoning, and it would be a lot easier to hand a manager a log of egregious comments (under separate headings: AGE and DISABILITY), and have them get the message without actually having to threaten to sue them. (Though OP, keep that possibility in your back pocket!)

          Because OP, these are really bad. I’m so sorry you’re dealing with this.

          Seriously, if you get nothing else from this, please know that. People from all over the world — from a huge range of industries, ages, salaries, physical capabilities, etc — we all agree that this is very much not ok. I’ll bet your friends and partner have said this, but it can be hard to know how much to weigh that from people who love you. We don’t even know your name, and are outraged on your behalf.

          1. Lila Lou*

            Seconding the log. If they don’t respond positively to Alison’s suggested phrases, you may want to go to your HR (although effectiveness of Uni HRs can vary wildly so maybe not) and/or you’ll want to go to your University’s Disability Services office. There is no part of their behavior that is acceptable. Disability Services can at least help you navigate the situation. I’m so sorry you’re dealing with this, OP!

    2. Kyrielle*

      “Is it terminal?”

      “My chronic illness? No. Your invasive questions? Quite possibly, if they continue.”

  2. JokeyJules*

    Op, your health is your business. Please feel empowered to kindly tell them to cut that out. As a fellow young professional, I know it can be a bit intimidating, especially with the “child prodigy” talk, but do know that you are to be considered the same colleague as everyone else.

    At the same time, and not to chime in on the “child prodigy” talk, great job on making great professional advancements right out of college!

    1. RandomusernamebecauseIwasboredwiththelastone*

      I’d also take the time to comment on the child prodigy references. While good intentioned, it’s demeaning for your coworkers and peers to refer to you as this.

      Barb: Oh look at what a great job OP did on this
      Sandra: That’s our child prodigy!
      You: No, not a child anymore, can’t really call myself a prodigy, just a coworker like everyone else.

      1. Swimming?*

        I’m also a younger (late 20s) professional in an office with mostly people decades older. I actually have a senior title, but that doesn’t stop people from immediately dismissing some of my statements. It’s a struggle.

      2. Tardigrade*

        Agreed. I think prying for health information totally overshadows this, but referring to OP as a child or otherwise highlighting his/her age so frequently is not OK either.

        1. Keyboard Cowboy*

          Definitely. It sounds like OP’s coworkers have never heard of discrimination lawsuits. Disabled status and age are two of a very short list of things you do not, ever, under any circumstances, ask about unless the information is offered to you. Jeez.

            1. Kj*

              Which is stupid. I had a boss who told me she didn’t like younger workers…when I was the youngest on her team. It was uncomfortable, even though we had a good relationship. If she had said she didn’t like older workers, HR would have had it out with her. But because the dislike was for younger workers, it was fine and dandy.

              1. sam*

                I think the theory behind the law only protecting older workers (besides the fact that it was written by lawmakers who tend to themselves be over 40 and as such, somewhat more concerned with their own cohort than anyone else!), was that while age discrimination can happen to anyone, at any age, it’s significantly more pernicious and harmful to older people

                – first, because firing older workers is often an attempt to avoid things like benefit vesting (and pensions in particular), and
                – second, because it is significantly harder for older workers to retrain/find new jobs.

                While younger workers are absolutely discriminated against (and may be protected by state law, even though not by federal law), they generally (although not always!) have a somewhat easier time finding new jobs and they don’t suffer the kind of loss of seniority vesting that older workers face*

                *Note – I think this was also more true at the time the law was written – people are simply less likely to stay in a job “for life” these days generally, whereas when the ADEA was written, it was more common, and at that time there was a real epidemic of older people getting fired and replaced by younger workers.

            2. Specialk9*

              That’s not quite right, but in the US it’s right, here, most likely. (Though employers likely don’t know that.)

              The Age Discrimination Act of 1975 prohibits discrimination on the basis of age in programs and activities *receiving federal financial assistance*. The Act, which applies to ALL ages, permits the use of certain age distinctions and factors other than age that meet the Act’s requirements. The Age Discrimination Act is enforced by the Civil Rights Center.

              The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) protects certain applicants and employees *40 years of age and older* from discrimination on the basis of age in hiring, promotion, discharge, compensation, or terms, conditions or privileges of employment. The ADEA is enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

              Section 188 of the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 (WIA) prohibits discrimination against applicants, employees and participants in *WIA Title I-financially assisted programs and activities, and programs that are part of the One-Stop system*, on the ground of age. In addition, WIA prohibits discrimination on the grounds of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, political affiliation or belief, and for beneficiaries only, citizenship or participation in a WIA Title I-financially assisted program or activity. Section 188 of WIA is enforced by the Civil Rights Center.

              1. Safetykats*

                This, and thank you. It’s true you can’t discriminate in hiring against an older worker simply because of age. But you also can’t discriminate against a younger worker (for example, preferentially giving paid overtime to older workers just because they need to worry about paying for kids’ college, while younger workers have “fewer financial obligations”).

      3. Project Manager*

        I received comments similar to this when I first started my job. It tapered off after a year or two. I would err on the let it go side and not make an issue unless it continues beyond a few years.

        That said, if you do see evidence that it’s impacting your ability to do your job with clients (which did happen to me once), a direct conversation might be needed. In my situation, as soon as my boss heard that a client was undermining me because of his comment about me being young (which the client then took as permission to disregard everything I was saying because young must mean I don’t know my head from my tail), he kept all future comments internal.

        1. Lance*

          Why tolerate it, though? If they don’t like being requested to stop making such comments, that’s a ‘them’ problem; there’s no reason someone should just have to sit and put up with it without saying anything at all.

          1. Clarice Fitzpatrick*

            I think it’s just an issue of picking and choosing your battles. LW is rightfully annoyed but if there’s a chance the comments will taper away with time, they’re generally positive, and aren’t directly impacting her work, it might not be worth it to push back, especially if she’s the newest worker. It sucks, but it just might not be a risk she’s willing to make and that’s reasonable. (Plus, now with the two coworkers being invasive and awful, it might be more efficient to just focus on the much more detrimental behavior.)

            1. grace*

              Yep. I think there’s a bigger fight to take on, and LW says she’s capable of letting it go. Focus your energy on this one, not one that will probably go away anyway without needing to make a big deal about it.

            2. Oxford Comma*

              I agree with this. You have to figure out where you want to spend your political capital, as well your time and mental/emotional energy. There are times where it’s worth it to do so. Times where you can make a judgment call that the problem will go away. And then there’s the “not a hill I want to die on” group of issues.

        2. Specialk9*

          You got comments asking if you if you were dying, and doing 20 questions to figure out why you were in a wheelchair? Or just the young questions? Because I STILL get the young comments (and I’m not), and laugh them off — but the disability questions have me pissed on OP’s behalf.

      4. Breadwinner Mom*

        The “child prodigy” references make me think that there are generational differences at play here. I can’t connect it specifically, obviously, since I don’t know Barb and Sandra. But the 20 questions style interrogation and sense of entitlement to information that is none of their business reminds me a lot of my mom’s frustrations when we elected not to announce our baby’s sex during my pregnancy. She suddenly decided that our choice not to burden our child with a ton of gendered expectations before he was even born was some kind of obnoxious millennial affectation (meanwhile literally for all of human history until the past few decades, people have not known babies’ sex in advance), and every conversation with her had some element of interrogation or trying to trick me into slipping up and telling her the sex. My guess is that OP works for a small business, that it’s in a pink-collar field, and that the reason she’s decades younger than her colleagues is that they are all friends who started the business together and this is their first foray into expanding with a new hire who doesn’t have a previous connection to their clique.

        I have no idea whether or how this is helpful, and I don’t have any advice, but I guess my bottom line is “uggghhhh, baby boomers, amirite?” with a side order of this definitely being a toxic workplace culture issue and not OP’s fault at all. Shut it down, OP!

        1. OP*

          You got it in one — it’s a small non-profit, fewer than 50 employees, and most of the people who work here are social workers and/or community organizers. I almost think that maybe that’s part of it — because so much of our work deals with issues that are objectively very personal (think immigration status, homelessness, mental health, etc.) that maybe decades of doing this work has eroded their sense of what most people consider to be private or appropriate topics of conversation.

          1. sap*

            OP, if I were you I’d also drop in a reference to “my disability” in your script. Explicitly pointing out that you’re part of a protected class might snap these nosy ladies into realizing what they’re doing is inappropriate on the level of asking a POC to explain what type of Mexican she is, or something.

            1. AKchic*

              I don’t know. By referencing “disability”, it gives them information, which isn’t generally the advice we’ve been giving. We’ve all been giving OP advice on how not to give these nosy coworkers information of any kind while still shutting them down (and out).

          2. Mad Baggins*

            It sounds like that is the case, and also they may be trying to slowly position themselves as your mentors/work moms/coworker besties. Once they guess your illness correctly, you’ll break down in tears, “I’m so glad someone finally understands!” and you’ll take all their recommendations for new supplements to try and how you should run your personal life according to their standards….nope nope NOPE! Not gonna happen!

          3. Nines*

            What…??? They’re social workers?? They should know WAY better than this! You don’t harass/bully people into disclosing private health information! Geez Louise. I’m so sorry.

        2. Michaela Westen*

          It feels like that to me too. It reminds me of adults when I was young, who thought they were entitled to disrespect me because I was young. It was very common.

      5. Specialk9*

        Yeah, ‘child prodigy’ actually doesn’t sound nice at all. Maaaaaybe it’s accidental, in which case calling it out nicely may work. “I’m sure you didn’t mean it this way, but when you call me a child prodigy, it’s actually not complimentary and undermines my professional reputation. Would you please not refer to me that way?”

  3. Susie Q*

    Your coworkers are terrible. I’m so sorry that you have to deal with this level of immaturity. I can understand their initial shock of not seeing you use a wheelchair for the first time but the vast majority of adults would keep questions to themselves unless you voluntarily shared information. I agree with everyone that Alison states in her advice to you. I would just repeatedly call them out (politely) on their bad behavior. Hopefully they will stop but this blog has taught me that some people have absolutely no clue about good manners and professionalism.

  4. Temperance*

    Have you tried point-blank asking these two exactly why they are asking you these questions? If they have nefarious purposes, that typically shuts them down because they don’t want to actually SAY that they’re trying to guess your chronic illnesses.

    1. Myrin*

      I second this. I suspect the delightful duo is just going to whine “Because we caaaaaare” but that gives you the wonderful opportunity to say that that’s very kind of them (ha! as if!) but that they’d best show their caring by not bringing it up all the time. Might not work, but it sounds like with these two, a lot of stuff won’t work, so you might as well give it a try!

      1. Matilda Jefferies*

        I was going to say the same. A deadpan “Why do you want to know?” then whatever they answer, you can respond with “Oh, okay,” and leave the room/ change the subject/ whatever.

        I would lay money that they will respond exactly as Myrin suggested, with some variation of “because we care!” Don’t worry if your “Oh, okay” isn’t actually a logical response to what they’ve said, because it doesn’t matter. You can continue with Myrin’s script for telling them to PFO at that point; or you can just say okay and end the conversation. Let the silence get suuuuuuper awkward – and it will – and hopefully they’ll get the point finally.

        1. Kat*

          “Oh, okay” may not be a logical response to what they’ve said, but it is a logical response in the conversation flow! You wanted to know why they were asking, they told you. Question answered!

          Them: *asks invasive question*
          You: Why do you want to know?
          Them: Because I want to show you I care!
          You: Oh, okay.

          1. nonegiven*

            Them: *asks invasive question*
            You: Why do you need to know?
            Them: Because I want to show you I care!
            You: I see.

    2. irene adler*

      I agree with this. You may have nailed their motive. Sick!

      Years ago (mid 1990’s) a coworker -Ken- got very sick. He was in and out of work. He kept management apprised of his illness-cancer. Had quite a battle with insurance covering all his treatments. Eventually he took medical disability. As he was a friend, I kept in touch with him. He had many other friends helping out too- house cleaning, tranportation to doc appointments, shopping, financial, etc.

      Meanwhile, the HR/CFO person at our work kept asking me what Ken “really” had. “Cancer,” I said.
      Her response: “No, no, that’s what he’s told everyone. But he’s receiving treatments for more than cancer. Now, tell me, what does he really have?”. She did this after every time I visited him.

      This made me very upset. AFAIK, he had cancer. A tumor in his foot that was inoperable. The docs did all kinds of treatments to get rid of it. This is what he told everyone. And, if I did know more info about Ken’s health, it is not my place to divulge such info to anyone.

      Well, Ken and the docs decided to end all treatments. Someone reported this to the HR/CFO lady. She relayed this info to me. And then, again, she asked me what he really had. “You see, Irene, there’s a bet in the office I need to settle. Some are betting that Ken has AIDS. So I need to know for sure what Ken has. I need to settle this bet.”

      I walked away.

      1. Xarcady*

        This was the HR person? Discussing an employee’s health? Betting on it?
        I’m speechless. This is so far over the line.

      2. SoCalHR*

        ugh – I can’t even on this… what a horrible representative of the HR profession (and humanity)!

      3. Catalin*

        What. What? WHAT? But really, WHAAAATTTTT???
        I’m pleased you had the grace to walk away, but I would have ‘accidentally’ loudly exclaimed disbelief at her sheer….someone give me the word.

      4. Jadelyn*

        Oh my god that’s horrifying. How heartless do you have to be to literally make bets on what serious medical condition your coworker “really” has, and then badger everyone about it so you can win your bet?

      5. LadyL*

        That is vile. Imagine being such a vile, disgusting, cruel person, not only doing those things but feeling absolutely no shame about telling Ken’s friends she’s in on this bet, like it’s funny. An actual human monster.

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          Seriously. This story made me audibly gasp. It is so craven and so heartless that it’s difficult for me to wrap my head around this kind of cruelty.

      6. Alton*

        Wow. That’s like, the exact opposite of what an HR person should be doing (not that anyone else would have a good excuse).

      7. Kathleen_A*

        Honestly, that makes me feel ashamed for my fellow humans – which is good because clearly anybody who participated in this bet *has* no shame. And that HR woman needs some sort of empathy infusion. What. A. Callous. B*tch (a word I almost never use, BTW).

        1. Christmas Carol*

          No, the callous HR B*itch need to be fired for not doing her job in shutting the whole discussion down, much less the bet.

        1. irene adler*

          Yeah. Awful. Who do I complain to about such ugly behavior?

          I still can’t believe it happened. The OP’s letter really brought back upsetting memories I thought I’d buried.
          I posted this to point out that folks like Barb and Sandra in the OP’s situation may be far uglier than just two people “speculating” because they “care”. They might even be after info to report to others overly interested in the OP’s medical situation. As the OP is being repeatedly subjected to queries, management needs to shut these two down. There’s no reason for them to continue asking questions.

          People can be such a$$holes; sometimes it takes certain events to discover this.

          1. College Career Counselor*

            TBF, everyone else at the DMV is probably already screaming in their heads. But what awful, invasive, mean-spirited, unrelentingly cruel behavior by the HR person at the former company.

      8. AKchic*

        I… I want to slap that woman. And anyone else in on the “bet”. How very dare they bet on such things.

        I am the type that public shaming is a weapon and very useful tool. Announce to everyone that there is a group of people taking bets that our dear friend and coworker is fighting for his life and some betches are actively questioning people to find out if he has AIDS instead because they have decided that cancer isn’t bad enough, that he is lying, and they think they can Scooby Doo their way into finding out and are taking bets on it. And you know names and for the right price will out them all to whomever pays you enough. Or for the right price from these individuals (remember, you’re announcing it to everyone), will keep their secret. All money going to Ken and his family, so get your wallets open. Details to be announced at the end of the month.

        See who comes to you and pays you which way. Revenge and public outings. And 100% tell the CEO, the board (if there is one) and anyone who pays to keep you quiet was in on the betting.

        Of course, I know this had to have happened a while back, and we can’t go back in time. I am truly sorry for your loss. Ken did *not* deserve to be speculated about like that.

        1. irene adler*

          Gee, wish I’d thought to do something like this. Thank you. I didn’t even think to consult an attorney to perhaps find out of the constant inquiries rose to the level of harassment. Couse, back then, I was too shy – and afraid of people in power- to even tell her to stop the repeated inquisitions.

          It really bothers me that people can be ugly like that. I never thought any one could get that low.

          FYI: the CEO and the board would more than likely have been in on the bet. This was a small company with the managers all very cozy with each other.

      9. Kalros, the mother of all thresher maws*

        Good lord. Kudos to you for walking away. I can’t imagine anyone would have blamed you if you’d had a meltdown at her.

        Ken had a good friend and confidante in you.

          1. Kalros, the mother of all thresher maws*

            Sorry for your loss. I know it never really gets easier to have lost someone like that.

      10. Kittymommy*

        What the absolute fuck???!!! You are a much better and more civilized person than I am, I think I might have decked her. These people had a bet about somebody having AIDS?? They are awful human beings.

        1. Kittymommy*

          Allison, apologies. I forgot about the no naughty words. My disgust got the best of me.

      11. Decima Dewey*

        “Oh, I can settle that bet for you. It’s completely inappropriate and utterly heartless to bet on such a thing. So the bet is off and you can begin writing up everyone who participated. Including yourself.”

      12. Turquoisecow*

        Oh god. That’s horrible. I would have just stared at her speechless and walked away, because I don’t have the slightest idea what to say to that.

        1. irene adler*

          That exactly sums up how I felt when she told me about the bet. I had no words…

      13. Michaela Westen*

        What an odd coincidence. I actually did have a coworker named Ken in the 90’s who later died of AIDS.
        As far as I know, no one was betting on his medical details. :p
        Very nice man, always had a joke to make me smile…

      14. ArtsNerd*

        Oh my god, I’m so sorry you had to deal with that. I can’t even imagine how hard that must have been. At all, but especially with the stigma and misconceptions around AIDS at that time, the subtext of that bet is … I’m very distressed by this.

    3. Kelsi*

      Normally I’d agree, but the whole “cross MS off the list” exchange says to me that they’re not the least bit concerned about their motives showing.

      1. Kivrin*

        Also, not that is matters at all to the horrible nature of this discussion, but MS is not terminal. It is possible to die from it, but most people do not.

        1. ArtsNerd*

          I audibly gasped when I got to that part. It’s just awful and wrong in *so many ways.*

    4. A.*

      Yes! I second this. I would either ask them why they were asking or I would tell them I am not going to answer their questions. Its hard to refuse to answer point blank questions. Its like we have been conditioned to answer direct questions. I’ve started to push back when people ask me invasive questions.

  5. ZSD*

    I’m sorry you have such invasive and inconsiderate co-workers, OP. Their behavior is just gross.
    Alison, could this one please go on the update list?

  6. Wannabe Disney Princess*

    Excuse me. My eyes just bugged out of my head.

    The telling each other which illnesses to cross of the list is gross and wrong. That crosses the line from “showing they care” to being obscenely rude and disrespectful. (And what, exactly, are they planning to do if they discover what you have? Install a banner that drops down when you walk in declaring what you have?)

    LW, you do have the standing to shut this down. Like Allison said, you know your office best so if they will make your life miserable choose a softer response. But you can absolutely shut this down. Don’t let their age, seniority or your relative newness to the working world make you feel this is inappropriate. It is absolutely appropriate to shut down two gossip mongers.

    1. Seriously?*

      Yes. Some questions can be actual concern, but the list means it is a game to them. That is inappropriate and the opposite of “caring”.

      1. bookish*

        Yes, the “list” thing is horrifying, I can’t believe they are so blatantly doing that. It’s very clear that they just want to satisfy their own preoccupation because they can’t handle someone with different mobility and need “answers” for it (even more than what they’ve already been given!) – I don’t see any need for them to know any more details about OP’s disability.

  7. I am who I am*

    There are so many things wrong with this, but the one I’m going to settle on is this:

    MS is not terminal. Studies indicate MS does correlate with a slightly shorter lifespan on average, but applying an average to an individual is meaningless, and the early deaths in those samples are usually from secondary issues, not the primary MS disease.

    1. Detective Amy Santiago*

      Clearly they are not West Wing fans if they don’t know that.

      OP – “inappropriate” might be a good fill in to Alison’s script. Because ‘f*cked up’ isn’t work appropriate language.

      1. Specialk9*

        I just saw a Grand Designs tv show about a guy with MS who decided to hand carve a cave house (well, significantly expanded an existing cave house). He actually spent about a week with a hammer and chisel, then got power tools. But they were still heavy, the work was grueling, and he had to haul a ton+ of rock out with shovel and wheelbarrow. WILD.

    2. BeckyBecky*

      Came here to say exactly this. I have MS and this really upset me. I imagine that if MS was what you had, it would have really upset you too.

      I think if they do figure out what you have, they’ll move on to “helpful” advice and news articles. And that will almost certainly annoy and upset you as well. Shut this down hard!

      1. Sabina*

        Yeah, stand by for the “helpful” shilling of essential oils and special diet shakes .

          1. SarahKay*

            Jadelyn, thank you for the link. That T-shirt is awesome and is definitely going to be a present for my sister, who also has to deal with those endless suggestions.

          2. hayling*

            Oh man I need this. Although it leaves off “go gluten-free”, that’s my favorite suggestion of late.

            1. Specialk9*

              My favorites: exercise and losing weight. Um, did you see the part where I can’t exercise? (Right right, but you should do it.)

              1. Jadelyn*

                Don’t you love how you’re magically supposed to be able to lose weight, to theoretically mitigate the effects of the disability that prevents you from exercising in the first place?

                My mom has had knee problems since before I was born, and now that’s she’s almost 60 with arthritis they’re getting really bad. She needs a knee replacement.

                The first surgeon they sent her to told her (very rudely) that she needed to lose at least 100lbs before he’d even consider surgery. Like…she can BARELY WALK most days! She had to move to a new apartment downstairs so that she wouldn’t have to climb stairs every day, she uses a cane and on bad days crutches, she eats very little because she can’t stand up for the kind of prolonged time that most food prep takes…what exactly do you suggest she do to lose weight?


        1. Kimberly*

          I get that for a skin disorder I have. I have found a dead pan “I’m under the care of some of the best doctors in the Houston Medical Community. I’ll stick with their advice.” Shuts down most people, but I’ve also been told I’m scary when I get to that point.

    3. Amber Rose*

      That bothered me too. My dad has had MS his whole life. He’s more or less pretty healthy. Hell, he doesn’t even own a wheelchair yet, still gets by with a cane/walker.

    4. ScienceMommy*

      I was coming here to say exactly that! How incredibly ignorant. MS is not at all a terminal disease, and more to the point, like many other diseases of it’s nature, it can effect people in many different ways/varying degrees. There are some people who have MS and you would never know it.

      OP, I’m sorry your coworkers are being so rude. Big hugs to you, from one person with a chronic illness to another!

    5. Third username*

      My mom has MS, and I was coming here to say this too. I’m sorry OP. I am infuriated for you. I’m afraid I would snap. It’s none of your business, and I don’t want to hear about it again.

    6. many bells down*

      Right, if we go by that, my congenital heart defect is “terminal” because I probably won’t live into my 90’s like most of the women in my family. I’ll probably poop out by 70 unless they invent a perfect artificial heart.

    7. I will kill people with this cricket bat*

      Thank you! This really upset me (among many things in the letter, which is just a whole pile of WTF)

    8. Kella*

      I think in general, this bad information points to a huge flaw in OP’s co-workers plan of making a list and narrowing down the options until they figure out what it is. Health is so complicated and nuanced and never functions within the narrow confines of the wikipedia article about that health issue in question. Plus, it sounds like they’re just operating with their off-hand popculture knowledge of various diseases which is even worse. I mean, they could’ve already considered arthritis but have decided “Oh no, you can’t get arthritis that young” or “arthritis wouldn’t cause her to use a wheel chair” or whatever ignorant idea they had ahead of time. So eventually, these co-workers widdle down their flawed list and settle on the only health issue they think can possibly explain it all and proceed to insist to everyone around them, maybe including OP, that that’s what she has. AGH.

      1. Junior Dev*

        I shut down my coworkers’ diet talk the other day with “you know, being alive has a 100% fatality rate.”

  8. LadyL*

    The number of able-bodied people who feel they have the right to pry into the particulars of why and how others are disabled is disgusting.

    And you know the prying won’t stop once they figure out the “mystery condition”. Next step is either denying that OP needs the accommodations (“Well my sister’s friend’s cousin has that and *he* certainly doesn’t need help walking!”), or suggesting “cures” and new doctors and treatment to the OP (“You really need to try going on Atkins, plus take two essential oil drops everyday, that cured my gout” type BS).

    These two need to be stopped, like yesterday.

    1. Spooky*

      My dad has nerve trouble with his back, and was told to light a purple candle. Bananacrackers.

      1. LadyL*

        But specifically a purple candle? Does the shade of purple matter, or is a dark purple equally as effective as a lavender one?

        1. Canarian*

          Based on having a lot of new agey interactions, the answer is probably whatever shade of purple is more attuned to the idea of “healing” in your own mind is the best choice. Although tbh I think blue is a more popular color for ~healing energy~.

      2. ScienceLady*

        Mmm, yes, purpley healing. I’d love to know which color candles are bound by the Hippocratic oath of “Do No Harm” and which are waxy-hued harbingers of injury.

      3. Xarcady*

        Along these lines, my nephew has been an incomplete quadriplegic since birth, due to orthopedic issues with his spine.

        When he was five (he looked about three years old though), and we were waiting for his parents in a hospital lobby where he was trying out his new power wheelchair, a woman came up to him and out of the blue announced, “You need to pray to Jesus to be healed! Pray to Jesus and show Him you love Him and He will heal you! Prrraaaayyy to Jesus!”

        While I was gathering my wits and trying to think of something, anything to say to get her to go away or at least stop talking, dear Nephew smiled up at her. “It’s selfish to pray for something for yourself. But I can pray for you, if you want.”

        That shut her up.

        1. Jadelyn*

          Oh. My. God.

          From the mouths of babes! I hope you got that kid some ice cream on the way home, lol.

        2. pleaset*

          ““It’s selfish to pray for something for yourself. But I can pray for you, if you want.”

          Best comeback EVER.

        3. Specialk9*

          That 5 year old is who I’d like to grow up to be. To come up with something so perfect in the moment, in such a distressing moment. Wow.

      4. Torrance*

        My spiritual path assigns colours and such to certain things– I actually light specifically coloured candles depending on the situation. It’s not honestly all that different than asking a specific saint for intercession. (For chronic pain, it looks like St. Lidwina is the go-to.) It’s simply a way to focus spiritual energy. :)

        (I’m not saying that the person who made the suggestion had any right whatsoever to suggest medical or spiritual treatments to your father, obviously, just wanted to add a bit of context.)

        1. Michaela Westen*

          I use color-coding in my work. Blue is my boss’ favorite color. I use it a lot to help him stay ok.

      5. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

        I had a herniated disc in my back last fall/winter, horrible nerve pain, could not function unless on pain-relieving substances. A casual friend told me (repeatedly) to buy and read a book by Dr. John Sarno. I looked it up and it seemed to be about how our back pain is really an expression of repressed anger, and that we need to find what exactly is upsetting us in our unconscious and then resolve that issue, and bingo, no pain! I’d hurt my back out while pulling up the carpet and sanding down the floors in my living room, and then injured it more when I lifted a cast-iron pan out of the oven, but hey, repressed anger. I sent him my MRI results and he hasn’t talked to me since.

          1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

            Hahaha! I actually love those floors now, because I’d invested so much in them. Literally busted my back to refinish those floors!

        1. Teapot Engineer*

          Dr. Sarno’s book is great if you have localized back pain which may or may not be due to a disc bulge or herniated disc. The book did wonders for me, but I did not have nerve pain going down my leg or loss of bladder function. I do agree the book goes into some wishy washy theories, but on the whole it helped me out.

          1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

            Ah, I see, glad to hear it helped you! I totally had the pain going way down my leg, which started all of a sudden, so I knew it was not something in my unconscious.

            The book that ended up helping me is Treat Your Own Back (not pushing it on anyone, but just throwing it out in case anyone needs it), in addition to professional physical therapy, of course.

        2. Specialk9*

          So they cared enough to keep recommending something to help, but then cut you off as a friend when it didn’t help. People are so weird.

          1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

            I don’t think he necessarily cut me off, I think he was just “oh this is awkward, I don’t know what to say next”… He is a very casual friend anyway. He’d pushed the book on me several times, I’d say “no thanks, I’m good” and then he’d bring it up again, so I see how it was awkward for him later.

    2. sunny-dee*

      Honestly, not to project, it’s not necessarily “able bodied” people who pry (though curiosity is a human trait). To put this delicately — women of a certain age tend to lose a lot of boundaries when talking about health matters. I’ve heard middle-aged women give wildly inappropriate details about menopause and bowel movements and medicine side effects. Some people (straight up calling out my own sex here) look at health topics as an entertaining game and not something which could or should be private.

      1. fposte*

        I think the same happens with pregnancy and new parents–it’s just a shared experience of a physical change or new experience. For that matter, it also happens a lot when people adopt new diets or workout routines (see also Crossfit).

      2. LadyL*

        I haven’t had as much experience with that, but I trust you it’s a thing.

        I think the fact that the questioning seems to have started in earnest only *after* they found out that OP didn’t always need a wheelchair is what makes me think that the nosy coworkers want to know so they can determine whether OP is really “sick” or not, either by outright questioning the nature of OP’s disability, or by suggesting that OP isn’t being proactive about treatment.

        1. Lumen*

          I thought the SAME THING. Also the “so it’s not terminal” conversation snippet made my skin crawl. What, so you don’t have to treat someone with respect or consideration unless you, in your infinite wisdom, think they’re dying?

      3. NotReallyKarenWalker*

        Agreed. I’m a woman of child-bearing age who recently got married. The amount of ridiculously intrusive questions about our plans to reproduce is astounding, and it’s generally women of a certain age. If they’re not quizzing me on our plans, they’re oversharing gruesome stories about childbirth that make me want to run screaming. These are all women who are polite to the extreme in most matters, but start *thinking* about health and reproduction, and they literally have no boundaries. I’ve started politely but very firmly changing the subject when it comes up:

        Them: “So…. It’s been almost a year! Any plans for children?
        “Yes, it’s eight months! Unrelated, did you see the email from boss this morning?”

        Them: “Oh, if you’re thinking of having kids at your age, ::insert traumatic birthing reference here::”
        Me: “Oh, that sounds awful. Incidentally, I was in your neighborhood last weekend, have you ever been to that taco spot?”

        No one is entitled to know that our reproductive plans are not falling into line. For those offenders who keep pushing, speculating or who try to turn it into a lunchtime roundtable discussion (Are you having difficulty? Do you want the name of a specialist?) I flagrantly change the subject or extricate myself from the conversation. I’ve come to the conclusion that I can’t stop people from speculating, but I can certainly control my participation in the conversation.

        1. Detective Amy Santiago*

          Them: “Are you planning on kids?”
          You: “What’s your favorite sexual position?”
          Them: “… what?”
          You: “Well, you’re asking about my sex life, so I figured it was a fair topic.”

          1. Lumen*

            I used this sort of thing when I was married. People shut up real fast (and probably gossiped to each other about how rude I was, but NO1CURR).

          2. AKchic*

            This is what I do. For some reason, people love to tell me I either need to try for a girl (I have birthed four boys, who are between the ages of 18 and 9; no, I do not need to “try” for a girl); or I “need to finally tie off and stop for good”. Um… I can’t afford to “tie off for good”. When I was able to afford it, the doctors wouldn’t let me (I was “too young” and “you might want a girl” or “but your husband may want another” – yeah, each of my husbands had more of a say than I did in my own reproductive health).
            I’ve been perimenopausal since I was 28. My husband and I are in agreement that we aren’t wanting more kids (we’re both mid-30s).

            When people bring up more kids for me, I happily start asking them invasive questions. Positions, opening up their marriage for extra partners, what their favorite accessories/toys are, if they need any tips or tricks since they are more focused on my sex life than their own…

            1. Specialk9*

              That’s awful. I can’t even believe that doctors wouldn’t “allow” you to get elective surgery, but to do it because your husband’s wishes outweighed your own?! That’s monstrous. The #MeToo movement has been building steam for so very long, with casual sexism like that.

              I love your approach though to prying!

              1. AKchic*

                My younger sister is 31 and just had kid 5. They even say SHE is too young (in KY) to be sterilized. She was told to never have children because of the risks involved with her diabetes. One child was born with a heart defect, one with an arm/hand deformity, the newest one may be deaf (last I heard – I don’t speak to her for personal reasons).

                It is ridiculous that women aren’t allowed to decide their own reproductive fates.

          3. Elizabeth West*

            I do this to a female relative when she asks inappropriate questions. I ask the the same thing and when she declines to answer, I say, “If you wouldn’t tell, why should I?”
            One day this will backfire, I’m sure.

            1. There All Is Aching*

              “Oh, well there was that time with the trapeze and the Medieval Times jesters” …

            2. Specialk9*

              One time I made the mistake of asking a new couple acquaintance how they met. “Well it started when we had a 1-night stand and then I went to call my husband, and he got mad because he didn’t know I was married, and didn’t talk to me for a long time, but I mean it was a green card marriage anyway, so …”

              I have never known if they were tweaking me (with the truth, none of that was made up) because I was so obviously sheltered and naive, or genuinely thought that was normal conversation with a teenager they just met?

        2. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

          My coworkers did the same to me right after I got married, back when the dinosaurs roamed the earth. They started asking pretty much the moment we were officially married. Not proud of it, I just caved and had a kid. (We’d been planning on it, but workplace pressure certainly helped speed our planning along.) Then I started getting questions about a second kid! So we had another. After that, I don’t remember if I got any questions, because, after dealing with two small children that are fairly close in age, even a people-pleaser like me runs out of… things???… to give about what their coworkers and neighbors expect of them in terms of family planning.

          1. LadyL*

            Michelle Buteau does a good bit about this on 2 Dope Queens.

            Basically her point is people can never just be happy for you in the present, if you’re dating it’s “when are you going to get married,” if you’re married it’s “when are you having kids,” and if you have a kid it’s “when are you having another?” Her joke is to come back at them with questions about their funeral plans and when they balk just be like, “I thought we were planning for the future”.

            (It’s much funnier when she does it, obviously)

            1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

              I like it, I like it. And she does have a good point about people never being happy for you in the present. Why do they even care so much? I’m happy for everyone in their present, as long as they’re content with it too.

        3. kristinyc*

          Related: 7 women in my office are currently pregnant (!). The other (usually older) women keep saying things to the handful of us who are not pregnant like “OOOH! Don’t drink the water on the 10th floor! LOL!”

          They’ve said it to me – a 34 year old woman, who is married, who has regularly talked about wanting to have kids soon. Comments about pregnancy plans are so invasive, and can be really hurtful if you’re TTC and it’s taking longer than expected.

          So, in summary: Dear everyone – don’t ask women about their fertility plans, and don’t make comments about pregnancy. If they want to talk about it with you, they will. You don’t know if they recently miscarried or had a fight with their spouse about when to start trying, have decided they don’t want to, or if they are having complications with trying.

      4. (Different) Rebecca, PhD*

        I’ve had the opposite experiences; men will straight up ask why I’m using a cane.

        1. Specialk9*

          Have you ever read Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series? The lead character, Cordelia, a brainy combat veteran who ended up on a backwards planet, buys a cane that becomes a sword with the push of a button, for a fellow soldier who was injured in combat. It sounds like you need one of those for when people ask questions like that.

          1. (Different) Rebecca, PhD*

            I’ve considered it, but I travel a lot and the TSA gets “cranky” about hidden weapons.

      5. MLB*

        It’s not really an age thing, it’s a gossipy busy body thing. There are plenty of these types of people at work places of all ages and genders. Some people just have no boundaries.

        1. socrescentfresh*

          This. And the dangerous part is when gossipy busy-body-ness is tolerated for so long that it becomes normalized within an office, and even people who wouldn’t normally ask invasive questions start thinking it’s OK to do so, or at least OK not to call out people who do.

    3. Rae*

      You’re right. The dismissal and “cures” are sure to come. The things I’ve been suggested for a joint issue are ridiculous. Did you know getting more sun will cure anything? /sarcasm

      1. LadyL*

        It’s all a subtle way to say, “You’re not *really* disabled, just try harder and you won’t have to be such a burden on us”.

        And the thing is, lots of people who do this don’t even realize that’s what they’re doing, because our society is so hell bent on production that it’s become ingrained in us subconsciously to question the value of people who aren’t producing. Or at least’s that my lukewarm take on it.

        1. Lumen*

          “it’s become ingrained in us subconsciously to question the value of people who aren’t producing”

          *stands up and applauds*

        2. Michaela Westen*

          I think sometimes it can be from a desire to help. Suggestions like “this worked for me/someone I know” probably are.
          I used to do this until I realized it was disrespectful and ignorant – I know some, but not all, about what might help.

        3. Specialk9*

          I’ve posted the link before, but the first transgender rabbi wrote an article about how much more isolating and soul-corroding it was to become chronically ill, than to be not only transgender but a highly visible groundbreaking figure.

          “Approximately 0.6 percent of American adults identify as transgender, just under 0.2 percent of the world population is Jewish, and 100 percent of us will get sick, yet it is being chronically sick that makes me feel like an outsider. That’s how much our society fears and rejects the core human experience of being ill, of having a body that gets sick, that ages, that is not controllable.

          I went from doctor to doctor looking for answers, but overnight I had gone from being a trusted rabbi and chaplain (who works with seriously ill and dying people on hospital medical teams) to a “hysterical” chronically ill person.”

        1. Code Monkey, the SQL*

          The signature I’ve seen floating around is “Have you tried putting a yoga on it?”

      2. Bow Ties Are Cool*

        I’ve been told to do yoga. With my stiff and painful joints. Because that wouldn’t be torture or anything.

        I’ve also been told that:
        I don’t really need mobility aids, I must be using them for sympathy/attention
        A chiropractor can cure me
        I just need to get my chakras aligned (wut?)
        The Mediterranean Diet cures inflammation
        I’m sick because of GMOs
        Going vegan cures everything

        Hadn’t heard the sun thing, though.

        1. Toads, Beetles, Bats*

          Bow Ties Are Cool, don’t forget magic fruit oils. I had a major medical issue once, and a colleague WOULD NOT stop telling me to drink grapefruit oil and spray it in the shower. (??)

        2. many bells down*

          My dad was repeatedly told that his excruciating back pain would go away if he just exercised and lost some weight. He said “I can’t exercise, it’s far too painful. Like, a 9 or 10.” Doctor was all “no no just push through it you’ll see.”

          He finally got a new doctor and … it was multiple myeloma causing hairline bone fractures.

          1. irene adler*

            Wow. I am so sorry about your Pop’s diagnosis.

            Hate those “lose weight and get some exercise” docs. I ask for my co-pay to be returned when that’s the only advice I’m given.

            1. HermioneMe*

              I had a friend who had to use a wheelchair (due to extreme pain) that I took to a pain doctor. After he read ALL of her medical diagnosis (of which there was an encyclopedia of), all he did was look at her with disgust and he said ‘JUST GET UP AND WALK.’ We immediately left, right after she told him – that’s why I’m here to see YOU – to get some PAIN RELIEF so I CAN “get up and walk.” He was the rudest doctor I’ve ever seen.

          2. Specialk9*

            Yup I’ve been there.

            “I really think it’s X”
            “Nope, I’m 100% sure it’s not X. Just lose weight.”
            “Oh, ok, but, I mean, it really does seem like X.”

            It was totally X.

        3. AKchic*


          Every time I get told a chiropractor will “cure” my pain, I look the idiot in the eye and say “sure, I won’t be in pain, because I’ll be dead” and I hold their gaze. My RBF works to my advantage. My spine *is* that bad. I can’t go to a chiropractor. Any good one will send me away once they’ve seen my imaging.

          As I tell anyone who thinks they can armchair cure me – you aren’t on my care team. You aren’t a qualified specialist and you aren’t MY qualified specialist. Until you are, your opinions are ish and I didn’t ask for them, I don’t want them, and I don’t give a flying frak about them. Your opinion is so low, it needs a ladder to be able to reach the ground to tie it’s shoe.

          1. Kat in VA*

            Somehow we’re in a society that conflates morality with suffering. I’ve had 12 surgeries – 5 orthopedic, and of those 5…3 were neck fusions…of which 1 did not take and is causing me more issues. (Fuse one section, the sections above and below let go because of the additional stress)

            I hear one more idiot tell me to do yoga or exercise more, I’m gonna smack them.

            Worse are the ones who get high and mighty because I take a low dose of somewhat mild opioids so I can function (no, not oxy or anything). JUST PUSH THOUGH IT. Even though those opioids make the difference between being able to work, cook, be a wife and a mom, have a somewhat normal life…it’s better for me to be laid up in bed on a heating pad, contemplating ending it all. Get high? I wish.

            I’m in chronic, unceasing, constant pain from muscles being flayed like a turkey, bones sawed apart (and OFF), and strung back together with titanium rods, plates, and screws. A chiropractor will do nothing but put me in a hospital, physical therapists have told me I’m screwed, I’ve done more stretching than a freakin’ ballerina, meditation, massage, can’t have any implantables because of scar tissue and surgery damage…my only option is yet another even more involved surgery and based on past history, that’s not likely to work either. Neurosurgeons (plural) have advised me to hold off as long as I can with medication. I’ll take THEIR word for it, kthxbainow?

            But get me some Young Living oils and a positive outlook and that’ll cure eeeeeverything? /enormous eye roll

      3. Can't Sit Still*

        What about long distance reiki? It’s the perfect modality for someone with pain! /s

        Someone actually said that to me and I was not polite in response. At least long distance reiki isn’t actually harmful, except to your wallet.

    4. RandomusernamebecauseIwasboredwiththelastone*

      I don’t think this phenomenon is something that is unique to able-bodied people.

      1. SometimesALurker*

        No, but it is pretty endemic to able-bodied people. There’s a lot of societal B.S. out there that says that people’s disabilities are everyone’s business. We ableds are a lot less likely to have our internal B.S.ometer calibrated by personal experience, so we often, as a group, take in that mentality and perpetuate it.

        1. RandomusernamebecauseIwasboredwiththelastone*

          I disagree, I think like anything else, running up against the wingnuts of a group colors perception that most people in the group act like that.

          As you can see by the comments here the overwhelming majority thinks that these two individuals are way out of line. I really haven’t and don’t expect to see a single post coming out in defense of the situation described.

          1. SometimesALurker*

            The people described in the post are definitely on the extreme end, but that doesn’t mean these attitudes aren’t far too common. On behalf of my fellow able-bodied people, please don’t let us off the hook that easily.

            The commenters here are not necessarily a typical sample of people in general, because we all think a lot about how people do and should treat one another in the workplace.

          2. LadyL*

            These nosy coworkers are not abnormal, wingnuts, or extreme. They are actually the moderate cousins of the man running for office that posted to his Facebook page that disabled people don’t deserve government support and if they starve because they can’t work that’s just too bad. Or the other candidates who are smart enough not to say that stuff out loud but are still cutting social services. Or the many, many people who feel entitled to question and judge people using reserved parking spaces in public if they don’t appear disabled enough. Or the people who complain that designing buildings to be accessible is too much work.

            These people are sadly incredibly common, and the fact that Ask A Manager doesn’t attract them is more of a testament to what a great moderator Allison is than proof that ableism is uncommon.

            1. Clarice Fitzpatrick*

              Yeah, I mean, I think almost anyone who’s used a mobility aid for a chronic condition/disability has a story of someone going up to them and questioning if they “”””really”””” need it because they saw them standing “just fine” for 20 seconds/switch from wheelchair to cane/just “””don’t look””” disabled. The worst but very common cases are when people get harassed for using accessible accommodations like parking spaces and transit seating because they’re sooooooo many assumptions about what disability is supposed to look like and it’s the duty of complete randos to rectify perceived misuse.

              And just from an pragmatic perspective, able bodied people are more likely to fall into this. I certainly don’t understand the experience of needing a wheelchair, if I hadn’t read about the perspectives of disabled people being interrogated, I probably would make a lot of judgmental assumptions of what a wheelchair user should look like out of ignorance.

          3. Kella*

            As a disabled person, I can tell you that able-bodied people are much more likely to pull stunts like this than disabled or chronically ill people are and that the two coworkers in the OP are not the exception.

            When I worked as a cashier, I had to wear braces on my wrists and elbows. I had at least 10-20 people a day asking me what they were for, assuming I used them for carpal tunnel and being confused that there was literally any other physical issue that would require braces, asking me invasive questions about whether they helped or not in such a way that made it clear that they just wanted me to tell them that yes they helped and I was cured, and if I told them what my disability was, asking me when I was going to get better, recommending treatments, telling me I shouldn’t be working as a cashier if I had that disability, etc. It was constant, and every disabled person has dozens of stories of this kind of thing happening wherever they go.

            It’s also been my experience that able-bodied people think they would never do anything so insensitive as whatever clearly ableist behavior is being examined, but actually they have done stuff like that, plenty of times, and not realized it was ableist or insensitive because they aren’t exposed to that reality often enough. It’s a pretty normal thing to not be aware of the problems that someone else faces, if you’ve never experienced them. So, it’s pretty normal to put your foot in your mouth about something you are less knowledgeable about.

            1. Junior Dev*

              > telling me I shouldn’t be working as a cashier if I had that disability

              Are they offering you a better job? Ugh, how annoying, it’s not like having a disability removes your need to earn a living.

      2. LadyL*

        That’s a good point. Just as women are capable of being misogynist, disabled people are surely capable of being ableist.

    5. Tardigrade*

      Or you could tell them “no” for everything they speculate about, even if they manage to guess correctly. Of course I think OP should get them to stop and not play it out this way, but these people don’t deserve having their tasteless curiosities sated.

      1. Geillis D*

        It’s almost like the disabled Rumplestiltskin. “You’ll never… ever… guess my disability!!”

        “Is it MS?”

        “Maybe… NF?”

        “How about IDGAF syndrome?”
        “That’s a no”.

        “So WHAT IS IT???”
        “None of your business”.

        (j/k. I have a weird sense of humour).

    6. Fiennes*

      Were I the OP, I’d be tempted to feign epic levels of new-age cures. “I’m so glad you guys really care! That means I can put these huge healing crystals on your desks, right? And you’re willing to hum at the ideal moments of planetary alignment? Don’t worry, I’ll signal you exactly when you need to start.”

      Not really. But it’s amusing to think about it, and that level of busybodying deserves a 10 lb crystal on the desk.

  9. Canarian*

    Oh god “cross that one off the list” made my blood boil after the slow blood-simmer of the rest of the letter. I’m nosy, but these women are just off the charts.

    I agree with Alison, you ALWAYS have the standing to shut down inappropriate personal comments like this. Even taking politics into consideration, only the unhealthiest office (which you probably would be trying to get out of anyway) would punish you for taking a stand here.

    Also, since most of your coworkers just stopped asking questions after the initial surprise of seeing you out of your wheelchair, I would optimistically assume they are reasonable and not assholes like Barb and Sandra. You said no one seems to think it’s inappropriate, but they might have been waiting to see your response to avoid jumping in and trying to white-knight for you. If you make it clear either privately to other coworkers, or directly to Barb and Sandra in front of others, that you’re uncomfortable with this line of questioning, you might gain some active allies who help you shut those two down.

    1. Myrin*

      I was going to suggest your second paragraph myself. OP, you know your coworkers best so we might be off-base here in our assumption that you do have allies at your place of work, but if we aren’t: is there anyone you get a long with particularly well? Anyone who has some seniority or is well-respected or just no-nonsense who you can talk to about this? I’d personally not hesitate at all and gladly jump to the aid of someone in your situation and I feel like united forces can affect the Barbs and Sandras of the world really strongly.

      1. Wysteria*

        +100 to all this! Sometimes the most obnoxious social choices get the most airtime not because they’re popular, but because they’re, well, obnoxious. It’s very likely that your colleagues would not be fans of this intrusive behavior.

        Also, if you’re hesitant to push back, I can’t envision how Barb or Sandra would explain their annoyance that you asked them to please stop asking invasive questions. There’s no logical and reasonable way they could frame it as “THE NERVE!” that wouldn’t paint them as nosy instigators.

        We’ve got your back, OP!

    2. PassivelyAggressive*

      Yeah if I were the OP I would have sweet-as-sugar asked if they wanted me to look over their list to save them time to see how they reacted to being confronted by their own ridiculousness. If they had the balls to actually produce a list I would wad it up and throw it in the garbage, smiling.

  10. Otterbaby*

    Wow, how disrespectful. I’m sorry you’re dealing with that. I would venture a guess that if they did finally diagnose any of your illnesses, they’d begin giving unwanted advice and remedies to you as well. Some people just have no social boundaries.

  11. BlueWolf*

    I’m not a lawyer, but could this possibly rise to the level of harassment based on a disability (if that’s how the OP would classify it)? Even if the coworkers supposedly “are just showing they care”, if the comments are pervasive enough to be causing discomfort to the OP, could the OP possibly make a complaint? Obviously it would be best to try to shut it down with Alison’s examples first before escalating as I assume most people would stop after being told explicitly that the comments/questions are inappropriate, but as we’ve seen on this site, some people can be particularly obtuse.

    1. essEss*

      I went to the EEOC website about disability harassment and this falls squarely into the definition about pervasive comments and harassment to the point of making the OP uncomfortable. I used code tags to post the link but my post didn’t show up so I think it’s stuck in moderation.

    2. Anon attorney*

      It would be harassment in my jurisdiction (, I am not in the USA). If they won’t cut it out, your organization needs to make them or risk being on the business end of your constructive dismissal claim.

  12. chica*

    I find the “child prodigy” thing icky and undermining! I know OP said she lets it go, but since she is addressing the health stuff and it’s likely to get a little awkward around those 2 for a while anyway, it might be worth shutting that down at the same time. “I know you mean it as a compliment, but I find being introduced as a child prodigy embarrassing. Can you please stop?” That makes it about OPs embarrassment and asks a favor. And while I’d personally love to see those harpies called out on their inappropriate behavior, this approach might get better results.

    1. Lumen*

      I’m glad to see someone mention this problem as well. The OP sort of moved past it in the letter, but I think it was included because they believe it is contributing to the issue of prying busybodies. But it can be its own issue, too. I’ve been there, and it can be very frustrating to be treated so differently based on your age or appearance, especially when people think “it’s a compliment”.

      OP, I think chica’s script is pretty good. If they insist that they mean well (or whatever version of “your feelings are wrong because My Feelings” they choose), you can always add something like “I understand that, but it makes me feel disrespected and not taken seriously by my colleagues. So again, I really would like to stop being called a ‘child’ in the workplace.”

    2. Manager-at-Large*

      if Barb or Sandra does something good you can say “huzzah for the old biddy – bless her heart”

  13. Isobel*

    That conversation made me gasp!

    How spectacularly rude. I am so sorry you’ve had to deal with this.

  14. Amber Rose*

    That’s horrible. (And although it’s off topic, MS isn’t necessarily terminal, wtf.)

    Use these scripts at first, but if they still don’t get the hint maybe take the simple flat “wow” approach after a while. Just say “wow” in your driest tone (with strong undercurrents of “I can’t believe you’re still saying that”) and stare silently until they leave or apologize.

    They’ll probably avoid you or consider you unfriendly, but you know what? You don’t need to be their friends. You don’t need to get along well with rude jerks. You just need to be able to work with them, which you can do even if you aren’t on best terms.

    1. Lumen*

      +1 to the ‘WTF’ about their thoughts on MS.

      I seriously wonder if Barb or Sandra have ever known anyone with a chronic condition of any kind. I also wonder what on earth their terrible search histories look like. What are they typing?

      “how to make YOUNG!!!! coworker tell us why she neds (sic) wheelchair”

  15. AlexandrinaVictoria*

    OMGGGGGGGGGGGGGGG!!!!!!! So sorry you are going through this. If a firm stop doesn’t shut the busy bodies down, go to your supervisor again and tell them THEY need to give a firm stop. And if THAT doesn’t work, go to HR, if you have one. This is wildly inappropriate, and may even be illegal! Perhaps some of our legal experts could weigh in. But…..HIPAA? Or does that only work with healthcare stuff?

    1. Ms Mad Scientist*

      HIPAA only applies to “covered entitites” -usually healthcare orgs (but also websites that store PHI, as I learned recently). An individual asking to disclose health information doesn’t fall under HIPAA.

      It’s still rude and invasive.

  16. Former Retail Manager*

    While I think you’d be completely justified in using any of Alison’s responses, I think most of them come off a bit harsh. Considering that this sounds like a great gig that isn’t easy to come by and these folks have been around for a long time and presumably will continue to be your co-workers for a long time to come, if it were me, I’d try a softer delivery that still directly addresses their comments. Perhaps “You’ve asked me about this a few times now, and I appreciate your concern, but it’s under control, I feel great, and I really don’t want to discuss the specifics of it. Thanks so much for understanding.” If the comments continue on beyond that, I’d then use one of Alison’s responses.

    1. Detective Amy Santiago*

      OP has every right to come off harsh given the level of inappropriateness her coworkers are displaying.

      1. Seriously?*

        She has every right to, but from her letter it sounds like she doesn’t want to. It isn’t wrong to try softer language first if she prefers, just as it wouldn’t be wrong for her to snap at them to stop prying into her health.

      2. animaniactoo*

        She has every right to. Having every right to, however, may not get her the result she wants.

        It’s worth it to take a step back from what you have a *right* to do, and look at what you *want* to have happen and what is the best possible way to achieve that. Particularly when you have more than one goal in mind. In the end you may sacrifice one goal for the other if it becomes clear that both are not going to happen, and the only option becomes one at the expense of the other. But there’s a lot to be gained by at least trying for both (or more) as a start. Just be clear about which one is your priority and how you will go about sacrificing the other(s) if you need to.

        1. Mike C.*

          The way people assess risk around here always surprises me. This is clearly bad, indefensible behavior, there aren’t going to be “consequences” from management or anything like that for dealing with this stuff. If they continue to act poorly, it’s pretty clear discrimination based on a protected class.

          The OP will be fine if she chooses to address these issues directly.

          1. Canarian*

            You talk as though you’ve never worked with anyone petty or vindictive. There’s a difference between formal consequences from management and just making your life miserable because of the way interpersonal relationships in offices work.

            The LW specifically said they don’t have any “formal or informal standing to shut it down.” That sounds like they’re not only junior professionally to Barb and Sandra, but also don’t have the social standing in the office Barb and Sandra do. If they have the choice between addressing it directly and being bullied indefinitely afterwards, or being more gentle than they’d prefer and saving some grace with Barb and Sandra to make their day-to-day work life easier, those are reasonable factors to take into consideration when they’re deciding what words to use.

            1. Detective Amy Santiago*

              The point that some of us are trying to make (or at least I am) is that you don’t need to have “standing” to shut down someone’s invasive comments about your health.

              1. Canarian*

                I totally agree – I only mentioned that part of the letter because it’s an indicator that Barb and Sandra might have some political clout that would make the tone of the response something LW could consider.

            2. Mike C.*

              I’ve certainly dealt with people how are petty and vindictive. It’s not the end of the world. And regardless of what the OP believed when they wrote their letter, they were incorrect. They do have the standing to have their privacy respected.

              1. Canarian*

                I totally agree – I only mentioned that part of the letter because it’s an indicator that Barb and Sandra might have some political clout that would make the tone of the response something LW could consider.

    2. Mike C.*

      These aren’t harsh at all. Sometimes people need a verbal slap in the face to correct their bad behaviors and the scripts provided don’t even come close to that.

      1. LQ*

        I mean…if you are calling it a slap in the face…that’s harsh. You can say it’s justified, but a slap in the face is harsh. I don’t get how you can say not harsh and call it a slap in the face…

        1. Delphine*

          Because “harsh” implies the response is unnecessarily severe. If a persons need a verbal slap in the face to correct themselves and you give it to them, your response isn’t unnecessary, it’s justified and appropriate for the situation.

        2. Reading Comprehension*

          Finish reading the post: and the scripts provided don’t even come close to that.

      2. Detective Amy Santiago*

        Agreed. Softening the language doesn’t get the point across that they are the ones who are wrong. It makes it sound like something is wrong with the OP.

        1. animaniactoo*

          There’s ways to straddle that line – there’s not something wrong with OP. It’s just OP’s preference. If they’re not willing to respect OP’s preference, THAT becomes the issue and there is something wrong with them, period, dead stop, I don’t care if you agree that I shouldn’t be sensitive about this, it is not YOURS TO DECIDE.

          I would argue the latter all day and night. The former? Well, do I care more that they understand that they are in the wrong, or that they stop asking me about this? While using language that is, to me, neutral, self-affirmative, and not indicative of something wrong with me? If they come away from it thinking that I’m sensitive about it but shut up about it, then fine. Because that’s a win as far as I’m concerned with co-workers who have more social and political clout than I do. Is it my best outcome? No. But given that my best outcome is likely unachievable – at least without a massive dug-in effort that I have no guarantees will succeed and is more effort than I want to put in to making this stop – it’s an acceptable one in my book.

          That decision might be different for someone else. I’m looking at which battle I want to pick and how long I want to be fighting it AND what the likely impression will be of me during and at the end of it. This is where I land when looking at those factors.

          1. Detective Amy Santiago*

            Your distinction makes a lot of sense. The OP just needs to make the comments/questions stop.

    3. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

      The fact that they will be OP’s coworkers for a long time is all the more reason for OP to be assertive with them. Otherwise they will continue pushing her around. No worries, she will not burn any workplace bridges by firmly asserting her boundaries. It’s not like she’s being advised to punch Barb in the face or something (which is something I’m itching to do right now, not that I ever would).

      1. Michaela Westen*

        “No worries, she will not burn any workplace bridges by firmly asserting her boundaries.”
        We don’t know that. Never underestimate how petty, selfish and vindictive people can be.
        Since OP is there, s/he is the only one who can determine how assertive s/he can be without antagonizing these jerks.

    4. CM*

      I was thinking the same thing — first try a soft response. I’d probably say something like, “I know you’re just asking out of concern, but I feel uncomfortable talking about my medical issues at work. Could we talk about things other than my health? Like [insert jokey/light topic here, like ‘the latest Avengers movie’].”

      Then if they keep asking, you could use a more firm, “I don’t want to talk about my medical issues,” and escalate if needed to the suggested responses like, “I find it really intrusive that you keep asking.”

      1. Plague of frogs*

        They’re playing “Is she going to die” bingo. They’ve blown way past the point where soft responses are appropriate or useful.

  17. Bow Ties Are Cool*

    Ugh, this is horrible. I am older than you, but young enough that my irregular use of a cane raises eyebrows. And every time I have to use it at the office, I recall how fortunate I am to work with the people I do. The closest anyone has ever gotten to asking me why I use it is a sympathetic “Bad day, huh?” when I hobble on by. Oh, and once in winter a new person who had never seen me use it asked if I had fallen on the ice.


    Seriously, your coworkers are way out of line. They know you have a chronic condition that requires mobility aids, and they really ought to be satisfied with that. Curiosity is natural, but being intrusive is a choice. They need to swallow that curiosity down with their morning coffee and get back to work.

    1. Triumphant Fox*

      I’m also pretty upset that they were fine with her in a wheelchair, but now that there’s some ambiguity, it’s like they have the right to pry. Like, wheelchair = clear category (apparently paralyzed!) but a range of mobility aids needs to be explained.

      1. many bells down*

        Yeah, really. There’s a volunteer at the museum that uses a motorized wheelchair, and if she showed up on crutches one day I’d certainly be very surprised, but it still wouldn’t be *any of my damn business*.

        1. Michaela Westen*

          I might be so surprised I’d blurt something out like “Wow, you’re not in your wheelchair!”
          And then I would shut up and accept whatever response they gave me.

    2. Alton*

      “Curiosity is natural, but being intrusive is a choice.”

      More people need to realize this! There’s nothing wrong with being curious as long as you don’t obsess over it, but that doesn’t mean you have to satisfy that curiosity by asking intrusive questions. So many people seem to feel that being curious is a good excuse, or that they’re entitled answers if they just “want to learn.”

      1. BlueWolf*

        Exactly. I might be curious about what’s going on, but I would NEVER ask them about it.

      2. JustaTech*

        Yes this! I am incredibly curious (I’m a scientist, so I’ve got an outlet), but I learned a long, long time ago that there are a lot of things where I will just have to stay curious and not get answers.

        My curiosity does not entitle me to anything.

        (I had a lab manager who was also very curious, but when she asked a personal question she would end it with “I’m just nosy, you don’t have to tell me” and she was always 100% OK with “I don’t want to tell you.”)

    3. Hapless Bureaucrat*

      I’m not sure it’s just curiosity here, intrusive or not.

      Most of my coworkers have taken my cue to be low-key on my cane days but I have a few who insist on trying to “help.” It seems to come from a place of genuine liking for me but expressed through a lens of… performative allyship? Like they want to make sure everyone knows how Cool With It they are.
      I guess if you have that mindset it could be hard to perform publicly if you don’t know the medical condition? And could even seem like OP doesn’t trust you to be supportive if they won’t share. Especially if you already feel maternal and think there’s this bond and then find out that the OP didn’t even tell you they could walk(ish)?! They need to know so they can prove that they care! (Probably by sending magazine articles on vaguely-related conditions and recommending apple cider vinegar.)
      Which is all fairly icky, and obviously way more about them than OP, but it’s harder to shut down than mere curiosity. It becomes more of a subconscious power struggle and shutting them down may require some repetition.

      1. boo bot*

        Yeah, this seems skin-crawlingly possible. This level of intrusiveness has at least one more layer. I feel like plain old curiosity usually backs off eventually and finds something else to meddle with (curiosity is easily distracted, after all – there’s so much to be curious about!)

  18. Future Homesteader*

    Bleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeech. Props to you, OP, for not giving a Liz Lemon eye-roll and telling them to shut up. I have nothing constructive to add except my voice to the chorus of people assuring you that this is *beyond* obnoxious on many different levels, and that you absolutely can tell them to kindly buzz off, in whatever terms feel most comfortable to you.

  19. Master Bean Counter*

    “And I also don’t have legionnaire’s disease. Now can we stop playing 20 questions about something that is so personal?”

  20. Sara without an H*

    Hello, OP — Yes, yes, yes, you have standing to shut this down, politely, but firmly. And you should definitely stop sharing any personal information at all with your co-workers.

    You may want to keep some documentation about their interactions with you. (Nothing elaborate, just a Google document that you can access at work, but doesn’t live on your employer’s server.) Your co-workers may not do stuff that meets the legal threshold for harassment, but if you think they’ll become pissy and difficult, it won’t hurt to have some documentation. (You don’t say whether your firm is big enough to have an HR professional, but it never hurts to have a record.)

    And lastly…I would like to slap your supervisor.

  21. Magenta Sky*

    “They were just showing that they care.”

    Yeah, they are, but they don’t care about *you*. They care about *themselves*, and their invasive nosiness.

    The only answer they deserve to any non-work related question is “I’m not going to discuss that with you, no matter how many times you ask.” Over and over and over, word for word, until they get the message. (They’ll complain to your boss about that, I expect. How she reacts will tell you a great deal about her. If her response is anything other than blowing them off the way she did you, she’s taking side.)

    Ultimately, though, they’re not the problem, your boss is. There’s no excuse for blowing you off, rather than shutting it down, even if that means going to *their* boss.

    1. Cheesehead*

      Yeah, if you get another “They were just showing they care” comment, I’d point blank ask them, “About who? Themselves and their need to gossip about my health? Because these constantly intrusive questions about my private health matters don’t really show a lot of care for ME. If they really cared, they would respect my need for some kind of privacy.”

  22. Thursday Next*

    Wow. Just wow. OP, I’m sorry you’re dealing with this, and that you find yourself in a position where you’re doubting your standing to address such an egregious and ongoing invasion of your privacy. As always, Alison’s scripts are great–may I suggest (because unfortunately, I doubt they will stop after one request) that you come up with an escalating series of responses?

    First time: “Please stop asking me about my health; you’re making me uncomfortable.”
    Second time: “As I’ve told you before, these questions are really invasive. I really need them to stop.”
    Third time: “I’m confused that you haven’t understood my previous responses to your comments about my health. You need to stop these comments, immediately.”

    And after the first time, I think it’d be okay to go to your supervisor and lay things out perhaps more directly than you may have done previously. “The staff seems to have a guessing game going about my health conditions, and it’s wildly inappropriate and needs to stop.”

    Good luck, OP. Please let us know how it goes.

  23. RJ the Newbie*

    OP, what horribly nosy people you work with! I can relate. In my previous position, I had a coworker with a chronic disease and a terrible trio who kept trying to figure out what she had. She eventually told me for the simple reason that I never once tried to intrude on her privacy.

  24. Kat B.*

    This is awful. Firstly, using any of the suggestions above are definitely the high road. You should totally be a responsible adult and use those and not keep reading. HOWEVER, if you A) don’t think they’ll respond to an appeal to civility and/or privacy, or B) don’t feel like engaging them on this level (since they’ve violated all kinds of levels of decency), and depending on how good your deadpan delivery is, you could totally default to giving them utterly nonsensical, ridiculous answers. “Is it terminal?” “No, but there’s a 62% chance that I’ll turn into a pumpkin over the next six years.” OR “It tends to result in dramatic, apocalyptic spontaneous combustion” OR “Basically I’m metamorphosing into a mutant superhero” OR “No, but it makes me deathly allergic to rude questions. Do we have an epi-pen in the first aid kit?” You get the idea.

    1. Jennifer Thneed*

      This is actually really good. Interesting-sounding nonsense responses can make a point very effectively.


  25. Enter_the_Dragonfly*

    Good grief! OP, I have nothing to add except confirmation that it really is aweful and you are NOT being over-sensitive. In fact, I’m bowled over by how patient you’ve been.

    Past experience and the level of social ignorance these 2 are displaying makes me think you’re going to have to be very blunt over a sustained period of time to make an impact, especially with your manager being unwilling to back you up. I hope I’m wrong, best of luck.

    P. S. As a fellow spoonie, it sucks that you have to waste some of yours on these people.

  26. Ruth (UK)*

    “When they asked why I used my wheelchair at all if I could walk,”

    It always baffles (and annoys) me how people seem to think someone doesn’t ‘need’ a wheelchair (or other form of mobility) aid if they have -any- ability to walk -any- distance. And yet these same people presumably understand it in another scenario:

    I realise this isn’t a perfect analogy, but if a person can understand why a person might have a pushchair for their child (even though their child has learned to walk!) because sometimes the distance is too great, or the day too long, or the speed to fast, then surely they understand that being able to walk sometimes/some distances doesn’t mean being able to walk all the time / long distances, and should therefore be able to see why a wheelchair might be necessary for people who are not completely unable to walk all the time.

    1. Thursday Next*

      You would think so, but unfortunately, that’s not how many people seem to think. It’s baffling, because really there’s so much in between “can walk all the time, any distance, any condition” and “can’t walk at all.”

      FWIW, I have seen people get judgmental about children in strollers who seem “too old” for them. They don’t know anything about the child they’re so blithely judging!

    2. SoCalHR*

      The push chair (or stroller, for us Americans) is a great analogy, Ruth. Not that OP should have to explain that to adults.

    3. many bells down*

      My dad had to use a wheelchair toward the end of his life because he’d get dizzy and fall a lot. There wasn’t anything wrong with his legs, it was his balance and low BP that were the problems.

    4. SarahTheEntwife*


      I don’t drive, and end up getting the inverse of this sort of confusion. “You walked?! But you live 5 miles from here!” People are apparently supposed to be able to walk up to about a mile at a time. More than that (unless you’re doing it as a sport) is weird, less than that while still being able to walk at all is weird and possibly dishonest in some way.

    5. CM*

      I think this part is similar to having any kind of visible “difference” (race, sexuality, etc.): sometimes you end up choosing between educating people and shutting down the annoying comments, and it often depends on your relationship with the person and your general level of frustration with how or how often you are asked.

      1. CM*

        By which I mean the OP could say, “It may seem confusing to sometimes see me in a wheelchair and sometimes not, but it’s actually common for people to have different levels of mobility at different times. If I’m having a good day or just going a short distance, I may not need the wheelchair,” which would invite a conversation in which the coworkers might learn something. Or, the OP could just shut it down by saying she doesn’t want to discuss medical issues, which would be equally valid.

      2. CM*

        Sorry, responding to my own comment again — I see from OP’s followup below that she’s already tried the “education” approach. And yet OP is still being asked if she’s “terminal.” So we’re dealing with some extreme boundary-crossers here.

    1. SometimesALurker*

      For those not in the know, that’s a commentariat in-joke from a previous letter!
      (I felt the need to gloss because this is a subject that’s so intense for many people, not at all as a criticism of your making the joke. I lol’d.)

      1. Asperger Hare*

        I’m really glad you said that, because it struck me as a bizarre, cruel thing to say. I’m glad there’s context.

        1. Jennifer Thneed*

          Well, the person who originally used the phrase was rather self-centered and not a little cruel with it, so, yeah. Appropriate reaction.

      2. Ruth (UK)*

        I actually did a double take when I read the comment, but now that it’s been mentioned, I remember the letter this comment references.

  27. Archivies*

    I have a chronic medial issue. When people ask I just nicely reply “Because of the subject matter you may not want to know what is.”

    1. Canarian*

      Has this ever backfired on you? I feel like based on the level of nosiness OP is dealing with, Barb and Sandra might lean in closer and say “oh, no, we definitely want to know.”

      I keep reasonable boundaries around coworker and casual acquaintance, but I love hearing in torrid detail about other people’s TMI health issues, and some people love sharing them. If I were at a party among mutual friends and someone said “oh, because of the subject matter you probably don’t want to hear,” I’d immediately dismiss that as a legitimate concern for my own squeamishness and assure them I do in fact want to hear about every detail of their colonoscopy/episiotomy/pilonidal cyst surgery/Crohn’s/cyclical vomiting syndrome/etc.

      1. EmKay*

        … why do you feel the need to know all the “torrid details” of other people’s health issues? What does that stem from?

        1. Canarian*

          I don’t feel the need, it’s just something I enjoy if it’s being offered. I’m not sure what it “stems from,” just like I’m not sure what my liking pizza or disliking the beach stems from. But I can assure you there are dozens of us who like hearing about weird body stuff.

          1. SarahTheEntwife*

            Yeah, I’m the same way. I’d never ask, especially someone I didn’t know well, but I love hearing about weird medical stuff.

          2. ElspethGC*

            Yeah, same. I’d never be invasive about it, but I am interested in all the myriad of ways in which the human body can be screwy, and hearing about them is more interesting and usually more enlightening than reading about it online.

            My friend with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome doesn’t mind me asking if her dislocated shoulder was a serious accident or mostly due to EDS, or if those weird jewellery splints that I saw on the internet actually work. My friend who openly told me that her unusually short height is due to Turner’s Syndrome is completely okay with chatting about her hormone treatments and discussing the varying ways in which our chromosomes can be weird. A friend who was talking about how she used to compulsively pick at her acne looked pleasantly surprised when I asked if it was anything like dermatillomania and proceeded to talk about how she went about developing coping mechanisms and stopping the mania.

            If you’re not invasive and completely stop asking if someone is uncomfortable, and are open and willing to learn from what they’re telling you, I find that a lot of people are happy to have someone to vent to who isn’t judgemental and doesn’t start offering quack cures.

          3. Elspeth McGillicuddy*

            Yeah, also same, though I do have a limit in grossness factor. The way things work is always interesting, especially with complex biological processes gone wrong.

            Come to think about it, I would enjoy knowing more about Crohn’s and somebody’s individual experience thereof, if the descriptions were more factual and less graphic.

      2. Archives*

        No it has not back fired. Usually people say never mind I do not want to know. Also when I say it, I make a disgusting face to make them realize it’s more than they want to know.

  28. Catalin*

    If you’re comfortable using dry humor, perhaps try this:
    Them: Well, is it Osgood-Schlaughter?
    You: (Look them in the eye and very calmly say): Actually, it turns out I’m a one-eyed one-horned flying purple people eater.
    Them (Asks again ten minutes later)
    You: As I said, one-eyed, one-horned flying purple people eater. (or bit by radioactive snake/slug/possum, or something equally preposterous.)

    They are being preposterous, maybe buying in to the ridiculous will help stop the madness.

    1. Nonnon*

      “I am a mermaid. The sea witch split my tail in two so I could walk on land, but it feels like I am walking on knives. Using crutches helps.”

      Alternatively, “The government asked me to keep it classified.”

  29. Junebug*

    I’m also someone who uses mobility aids and am young. Coworkers definitely feel entitled to know what is “wrong” with me or pick up my cane when I’m seated or move it “out of the way.” Not an excuse, but a big part of the issue is that people typically don’t have much experience with people who have diabilities and companies rarely provide training to provide coworkers with etiquette and to stop unintended ableism like they do with sexism and racism. My typical response to people at work is to say it was a “bear attack” and just walk away, leaving no time for questions. Some believe the stupid answer, others realise they shouldn’t have asked the question in the first place.

      1. Junebug*

        I’ve had people twirl it like a baton. Its hard when its your supervisors…. When they try and move it I usually ask for a deposit in the form of their shoes, so they’ll bring it back. Once again, lightbulb, they shouldnt be moving my cane bc its ridiculous

        1. (Different) Rebecca, PhD*

          Mine has a skull for the handle, so the curiosity is understandable, but hands freakin’ off!

          Also, it is inconvenient, top heavy, and because it’s hard to prop up/doesn’t hang on things, I tend to lay it across my table or desk, so yeah, I get that it can be in the way or temptingly ‘out there’ but noooooo touchiiiiiing.

          1. Junebug*

            Mine has a bunny head with the ears as a handle. I have a tripod base so it can lean against things. But people just don’t think before they speak or act…

          2. SarahKay*

            If it helps, I sometimes need a walking stick and I have a strip of the soft side of velcro round the stick, and a bit of the hook side of velcro on the edge of my desk. The hook side is just in comfy reach of my arm, but far enough away that it’s not catching on my clothes, or putting the stick too close to me. It means I can lean my stick upright against my desk without it falling over all the time. I think of it as my walking stick docking-station.
            You may not want to deface your cane, of course, (skull for a handle sounds fabulous) and it doesn’t help other than at your desk, but it’s definitely been a good fix for me.

            1. (Different) Rebecca, PhD*

              Velcro and I don’t get along, due to my tendency to snag it on every single piece of clothing I own. Even the fuzzy side, because the edges are often snag-y. Plus I wear ring braces, which get extra super tangled in things…

              Thank you for the thought, though!

          3. General Ginger*

            Ahh, you have a functional cane with a cool handle? A family member has recently begun to rely on a cane, and really wants a cool one that’s still an actual cane, not just a novelty item. Would you mind saying where you got yours?

            1. Junebug*

              I got mine online at – hopefully I’m not violating the posting rules. They have a ton.

      1. MsAlex*

        I often jokingly tell friends to come up with a fun story involving ninjas, even for common ailments.
        “How did you break your arm?”
        “Ninjas. ” And then wind up a wild story from there. The wilder the better.

    1. Taterpig*

      I like the bear attack. When I returned to work after being inpatient in a psych ward, lots of people asked me where I had been. I told them I was at space camp. If they pressed me, I said “OK, it was magic camp.”

  30. animaniactoo*

    For a softer tone, I would go with “Hey, can you please leave this alone? I have it under control and I really prefer not to discuss my condition.” or even if you go with Alison’s wording, change from “you’re” making me uncomfortable to “it’s” making me uncomfortable. Even though they are the person bringing it up, it does not help friendly/civil request stuff to word it as the other person’s action on the first request, rather than the inanimate topic of conversation.

  31. DaffyDuck*

    “I don’t want to talk about it.” is a perfectly acceptable response. If you can turn around and leave the room right away bonus points. Repeat as needed. Do not respond in any way to their 20 questions mentality as it only makes their “game” more fun. If they continue to ask please take it to your supervisor and let her know they will not stop questioning you after you have told them you won’t talk about it (this is really important). This gives your supervisor another chance to shut it down (although she should have done it the first time around, she may correct her error now).

    1. Clorinda*

      “I don’t want to talk about it” is the only effective response. If you answer the yes or no questions with yes or no, eventually they will win their game of 20 questions, because that’s how 20 questions works–especially if it’s infinite questions plus checking off symptoms on WebMD.
      Do. Not. Play.

      1. Jennifer Thneed*

        Fun thought. OP could say, “Well, that’s 20 questions and I win!” and then leave the room.

        If they try again: “Oh no, we played 20 questions already this week. Game is over now!”

    2. AKchic*

      “I do not discuss it with people outside of my close inner circle and I certainly don’t discuss personal health matters at work. I appreciate your curiosity and I’ll thank you not to bring it up again.”

      It is polite, it is to the point and it can shut it down. It says the following: you’re not close to me so you have no right to ask, let alone expect me to tell you. You’re asking about personal information (at work!) and personal, protected medical information (at work!). You’re being nosy, not caring. And it also says “I don’t want to hear you ask me about it again”.

  32. Important Moi*

    Is it appropriate to just say “that’s a very personal question, I don’t think we have the type of relationship that you should be comfortable asking that.”

    I say this because I’ve found that my co-workers ask very personal things and I wonder if I should point out we have professional relationship and not a personal one.

    I dislike fake intimacy and intrusiveness masked as”concern.”

    1. Knotty Ferret*

      I’d use “Oh! that’s a very personal question, I don’t think we have the type of relationship that I would be comfortable answering that.”
      Acting completely surprised they asked, and then stating clearly you’re not comfortable with it, should make it clear you’re not OK with that line of questioning. Telling them they should be uncomfortable just makes most people defensive, in my experience.

      1. AKchic*

        Let them be defensive. They are being rude and they shouldn’t be so comfortable asking such personal questions, let alone playing a game of guessing what she has. Let them feel shame for their behavior.

        1. Jennifer Thneed*

          People who feel defensive don’t mostly feel shame. They’re pushing down the shame so they don’t have to feel it. Instead they can be aggrieved because they were attacked. (They must have been attacked, because they had to defend themselves, right?)

  33. Lady Phoenix*

    Don’t be surprised when you tell them to knock it off, they’ll be whiny babies about it:
    “But we’re just worried about you”
    “We’re only curious”
    “We’re just trying to get to know you”
    “You don’t have to get grouchy/touchy/b1tchy/sensitive”
    “You’re so secretive”

    Whatever else they say except, “Sorry we will stop asking”. Your reply should be, “It doesn’t matter. Please stop asking me. You’re making me uncomfortable.”

    1. Tuxedo Cat*

      I agree with this. I don’t have any chronic health issues, but I’ve experienced this level of nosiness re. being adopted. And people are hyper defensive when you ask them why they want to know or tell them to stop, even though they’re being super rude and potentially hurtful.

      The letter writer isn’t the wrong at all. People like this don’t care and aren’t going to do anything helpful if/when they know. The OP might even be met with even more rude/invasive questions if they share what the health issue is.

  34. SLR*

    There was another advice column I read eons ago who recommended responding to invasive & inappropriate questions with “Why do you ask?” or even “Why do you need to know?” It turns it right back onto the questioner & in this case it could force them to say ‘well I’m a nosy busy-body’ (not that they’d actually say that, but maybe they’d realize it?) I’m sorry you’re going through this OP, these people are jerks!

    1. SoCalHR*

      I think the “why do you need to know?” is more pointed and in most cases more appropriate. The “why do you ask?” seems a little to placating to the nosy party.

    2. Marthooh*

      Mmmmmmnnnnnhhh, I think these people would have an answer. They need to know because they care, because what if there’s a fire and they have to help the OP get out of the building, because what if OP suddenly loses consciousness and they have to call an ambulance and tell the ETs what’s wrong, because it might be an illness that someone else they know has, because they want their church group to pray for OP and God might send the wrong cure if they’re not specific enough, because etcetera ad infinitum.

      I mean, it’s an excellent response in many cases, but probably not this one.

      1. Let's Talk About Splett*

        Yeah, my boss likes to say, “What’s the question behind the question?” instead of, “Why are you asking?”

        1. nnn*

          I like that! “What’s the question behind the question?”

          And it would also be useful if the person is really awkwardly asking or working up to asking a legitimate or well-intentioned question (or a question that they innocently/ignorantly believe is legitimate or well-intentioned).

          (Not that I can think of a legitimate question for OP’s situation, but there are other situations that might play out this way.)

      2. SLR*

        I think OP could easily come back to them trying to say ‘we ask because we care’ with ‘if you cared you’d have listened to me when I already asked you to stop asking about my health.’

      3. Hapless Bureaucrat*

        Yes agreed.
        Asking might get that out in the open. Then the response to that is to address the “but I want to help” of it with “if there’s a safety issue or way you can help I will ask. Right now, the most caring and helpful thing you can do is to drop it.”

      4. AKchic*

        “If there’s an emergency, we need to know so we can tell first responders!”

        I’ve fielded this excuse before. Here’s what I tell them:
        My details are on file with HR in case of emergency. My emergency information is stored in my phone and first responders can access it. My emergency contacts are easily reachable. *You* are not my emergency contacts, my medical/care team, nor are you HR with access to my file. You are not “Need To Know”, therefore you have not been apprised as such. If I wanted you to know my Personal Medical Information, you would already know it. Your curiosity is noted, but not necessary or welcome.

  35. Kate 2*

    OP when I first started working, as a shy and timid person, it was hard to remember that I was an equal to my coworkers. They didn’t have any standing to correct the way I did things I knew for a fact were correct, or to punish me. They weren’t my parents, my teachers, or my boss.

    The way I got used to this was to remind myself that we had all crossed the magical barrier of years into “Adult”. That was the category we all were in and it didn’t really matter that some of them had 30 years on me. I had been chosen for this job and trained and did things just as well as they all did. And as a matter of fact I got promoted over some of them in just a year.

    I have had a lot of older people try to “parent” me, from coworkers to total strangers. I guess in part because I am extremely short and baby-faced and partially because some people will always be concern-troll busy bodies, and it makes them feel powerful to give lots of unwanted advice, etc. Smiling and quietly but firmly not answering (not saying no, just not answering) and redirecting has helped me there. For example you could say “As I’m 25 I’m not much of a child prodigy” or something like that. It’s hard for anyone to object when you are smiling and not saying something mean, but doing it quietly and with a serious and firm tone makes it clear you don’t like the phrase. Of course you can just ask, but I come from a workplace where some people froth at the mouth with rage (figuratively) at EVER being corrected about anything.

    Another thing I had to deal with, that as a younger person with older than you people might be something you have encountered is a derision for your opinions. I have had this happen to me when I was 15 and 23 and even now at 28 it still happens. Some people think being older automatically makes them wiser, which is SO untrue. Especially when they disagree with the younger person they are talking to. Fully half of all the older people I have disagreed with in political discussions have literally told me “You are young and inexperienced, you’ll agree with me when you are older.” FUNNY that magical time has NEVER come despite decades passing since some of these conversations. It’s bizarre to me that they say this when I have been arguing with history, facts, etc, and they have been stating only opinions. Actually now that I think of it that might have been *why* they said it, to shut down a discussion they are losing with a stupid and untrue sort of personal attack. Anyway the quiet, serious and firm thing works here too.

    TL;DR OP working with older people can really stink when they don’t treat you like an adult. Remind yourself that you are an adult now too, and their equal. If they say something you don’t like, push back firmly, quietly, with a smile. They can’t really complain that you were angry or mean when you do it that way.

    1. Jennifer Thneed*

      > Another thing I had to deal with […] derision for your opinions

      I was 28 years old, with a young face and a mouthful of braces, and a name that is very very popular with women 10 years younger than I am. And I worked a counter job, so: public facing. And customers just assumed I was 18, which automatically meant I didn’t know what I was talking about. It was extremely frustrating.

      (There was a silver lining: when I met kids who had just gotten braces and they were shy, mumbling and not smiling, I would chat them up about braces. I’d point out that I had them too, and smile AS BIG as I could. And keep smiling while talking. I just wanted those poor kids to feel okay about their teeth. Some of them grinned back at me.)

  36. S Stout*

    My thought: find a better job when you can. (I know, there are reasons why this is a good job for now. BUT!) Your supervisor is friends with Barb and Sandra. It’s unlikely she will support you. I find the “child prodigy” remarks insulting, maybe even worse than trying to figure out your medical info because it is demeaning and infantilizing. (Why can’t people just say, wow, she’s good!?)

    Long term, if these people stay there, this is not a good job for you. Get some experience and rocket your way to something better. (For the record, I’d respond to any questions/comments about my medical condition with “Wow – that’s intrusive.” I wouldn’t say “rude,” I’d say intrusive, but that’s me.)

    1. Data Miner*

      I thought this too. You should be respected for your work and contributions, not ostracized by your age. If your coworkers and/or managers don’t start respecting you for your abilities in 6-12mo, this is not a place that you will excel.

    2. Tableau Wizard*

      I have an objection to the “find a better job” option when someone hasn’t even attempted to change the situation. Every job is going to have something frustrating, and this OP is unfortunately not going to be immune to nosy coworkers in future jobs.

      PLUS, Barb and Sandra will never learn that their behavior is inappropriate if no one tells them. They’ve never known different but they need to be educated about how what they’re doing isn’t okay.

      So I’d say that the first step is to take Alison’s excellent advice. Give it a shot. If they are even more terrible in their response to her pushing back, then maybe consider if this is the right environment long term. But it’s unreasonable to run away from every situation without first trying to address it.

      1. Thursday Next*

        I don’t think it’s OP’s responsibility to educate them. However, I agree wholeheartedly with your first paragraph, especially since this seems like an excellent job in many respects.

      2. LQ*

        I appreciate the answer isn’t always “find a new job”. That can be hard, unreasonable, or have other consequences. Every job has something less than glorious about it. So getting better at handling these situations has a lot of value and is often the right thing to do. And if the answer is always find a new job then you have a harder time telling what is really full of bees and what is just sort of yeah this sucks, but there are ways to try to manage it that may improve the situation have you tried them.

    3. MicroManagered*

      I have to disagree. There will always be jerks at every job and you shouldn’t plan your life around them–with exceptions made for truly abusive or toxic workplaces, of course. I think the situation is pretty bad, but I also think OP can and should shut this down herself, and will likely grow more from learning to do that than by moving on to another job.

  37. LesleyK*

    I believe I’ve said this before, I have severe psoriasis and am constantly asked “what did you DO to yourself? What is that?” I usually reply “it’s leprosy and it’s contagious”. They don’t ask again

    1. Sack of Benevolent Trash Marsupials*

      Haha, I have super visible keratosis pilaris that looks like a rash/chicken pox and have also said leprosy. The look on the asker’s face for the split second before they work out that I’m not serious is truly priceless.

      1. ElspethGC*

        Fellow KP-haver! I commented just after you, but I’ve had a bunch of people tell me I have heat rash for the ones on my arms. The ones on my legs tend to get me advice on how to avoid getting razor burn, which… How bad do you think razor burn gets, that I have it ankle-to-hip?!

    2. ElspethGC*

      My keratosis pilaris isn’t as noticeable as psoriasis, and surprisingly common (about 1/3 of teens, although most grow out of it and I haven’t) and certainly not as stigmatised by society, but a weird number of people have taken it upon themselves to educate me about sun safety and avoiding heat rash.

      “It’s not heat rash.”
      “No, it is, my grandmother’s dog’s aunt had it once, you need to cover up-” *starts touching/stroking/poking my arms*
      “It is NOT heat rash, it’s a skin condition, I have it 24/7/365. Stop touching me.”
      “But it looks like heat rash and it’s summer-”
      “It’s. Not. Heat. Rash.”

      Seriously, folks. Stop it. Stop commenting on people’s bodies, and certainly stop *touching* people’s bodies.

  38. AKchic*

    Ugh. Just ugh. And let me add for the record, Your Honor – UGH.

    You have every right to shut this down yourself. Anytime, every time, whenever, wherever this happens. You owe nobody your life story, or any part of your life story, medical or not. Visible or not. You are not a character in a book or movie and you do not exist so people can write fanfiction about you. You do not come complete with a character sheet as a writing prompt.

    With my own medical information, I got very good at saying “I appreciate your curiosity, but my *private* medical information is none of your concern. I am here and capable of doing my job. If you have any concerns on that score, please take it up with HR.”
    It says quite plainly that I don’t believe they are doing this out of care or concern, but out of nosiness, and that my medical information *IS* personal and they don’t have a right to know, so I’m not giving them any information, and that if they have any valid questions or concerns, they need to talk to HR and not my boss, because HR can actually field the legal landmines of “releasing medical information when they aren’t supposed to” better than my boss (who may be a contemporary like yours is and may give out more information than you would like) and will probably shut them down with “that isn’t your business, go back to work and quit trying to open yourself and the company up to lawsuits” kind of admonishment.

    I can tell you, in the 14 years I have had my spinal injury (I’m pretty open about my condition because yes, there are times it *can* affect other people quite suddenly, especially if one of my extremities goes numb and I drop something randomly) only one person has ever gone to HR, and it was to actually ask if they could get me help in moving boxes that I shouldn’t have been lifting in the first place (which I’d been begging for help, but I had been ignored). That second person’s request actually helped me out, so I’m glad for that interference.
    The nosy ones never bothered to go to HR because they didn’t want to be shut down completely and be noticed by HR.

    1. Guitar Hero*

      > I don’t believe they are doing this out of care or concern, but out of nosiness

      I absolutely agree. Nobody pries like that out of care. Care sounds like “Can I give you a ride home so you don’t have to walk on crutches in the rain to the bus stop?”

      Nosiness sounds like Barb and Sandra.

  39. Needs Moar Coffee*

    OP, from one chronically ill professional to another, I am so, so sorry that your co-workers are acting in this terrible, horrible, no-good way. We as a society don’t really have scripts for appropriately discussing with chronic illnesses and disabilities like yours, but that’s in no way an excuse for their incredibly rude behaviour. You have this internet-stranger’s blessing to shut this down in whatever way makes sense for you. Good luck!

  40. Emily S.*

    LW/OP: Just want to say, I’m so sorry your colleagues are being incredibly rude. I hope you’re able to use Alison’s script(s) to resolve this situation.

    And by the way, please send us an update later on, and let us know how it works out!

  41. Lady Ariel Ponyweather*

    Ewww, these people are disgusting. I’m sorry you’re having to put up with this. If they genuinely cared, they’d respect your boundaries! You are right – this is all very inappropriate and disrespectful. You also absolutely have the right to shut this down. It’s awful that there’s no one willing to back you up. Honestly, I’d be willing to come in and give these people a talking-to on your behalf – they were obviously very badly raised if this is how they choose to behave!

    But more than that, isn’t this crossing the line into harassment? You’ve asked people repeatedly to stop and they haven’t. I don’t know whether that’s an avenue you can pursue to get them to stop (although you shouldn’t have to). I’m shocked, although I shouldn’t be, that your boss isn’t shutting this down. Hope this works out for you, it’s very unfair.

  42. Data Miner*

    “She turned to Sandra and said, “Well, then it’s not MS, cross that one off the list.””

    Awww helllllllz no! I don’t care how old you are or whatever other differences you may have with your coworkers, this is unprofessional and you do not need to put up with it.

  43. Jady*

    OP: I applaud you for your patience and tolerance. But you don’t have to put up with this.

    If I were in your shoes, the moment I heard that “cross it off the list”, my own reaction would have been immediate and filled with words not appropriate for the work environment, with no regrets or apologies about it.

    I don’t necessarily recommend that approach, of course. But there are reasons stuff like HIPAA (US) exists, because medical details are extremely private and personal and Not. Their. Business.

    I’m sorry you’ve had to deal with that.

  44. Lumen*

    I am horrified that your coworkers asked you if you were “terminal”. It made me think of the update we just received from the woman whose boss offered her a kidney: she mentioned that some of the comments on AAM mentioned her possible death, and how insensitive that was.

    You do not have to smile tolerantly while your coworkers make quips about their ‘list’ of conditions you might have, including ones that could lead to your death. That is not ‘showing they care’. That is about their curiosity. Their expectation that you should satisfy their curiosity is about their ego. And frankly, their curiosity borders on the morbid, if they’re quizzing you about terminal illnesses.

    Showing their ‘care’ would be treating you with respect and making themselves available if you need assistance, whether or not you decide to share anything about your health status with them. If they can’t ‘care’ about you in a way that leaves you feeling better than you did before, it isn’t caring.

    I am sorry you work with people who are treating you like this. It’s terrible, and you should absolutely push back. This is your body. You aren’t being ‘coy’ or ‘rude’ by protecting your privacy.

    1. Myrin*

      Right? I mean, what if OP’s illness was indeed terminal? Would she fistpump because of getting it right and then go on to try and find out more? The nerve!

  45. Mimmy*

    I wonder if maybe you could actually educate Barb and Sandra that many people who use a wheelchair can actually walk in certain instances – it depends on the distance (as in your case) or on that day’s pain level. I have many friends with physical disabilities, and have seen first hand the variability in how each person gets around.

    However, the fact that they’re apparently trying to guess your condition–which is so incredibly inappropriate–means that they will not take too kindly to being educated.

    I wonder also if this could be considered “creating a hostile work environment”?

    Ugh….this is precisely why I’ve been itching to develop disability awareness programs. Just too many misconceptions.

    1. Mimmy*

      Oyy that post doesn’t flow very well…sorry about that.

      Definitely try to shut down the behavior first – that is the main priority here. But I still think that, while you don’t want to go into specifics, you could assure them that you are dealing with it / have it under control / etc., and that many people with physical disabilities and chronic illness will have days that are better than others, and now that your walking distance is shorter, you don’t need to rely on your wheelchair as much.

      If, after you’ve tried to shut down the behavior with no luck, then I would consider speaking with your supervisor or even HR. I don’t know if it really does rise to the level of “hostile work environment”, it definitely makes being at work very uncomfortable, and you shouldn’t have to deal with that.

      1. OP*

        I have done this, more or less — I’ve been disabled since I was 3 years old, I’m very good at patiently saying “People use wheelchairs for a lot of reasons, I am not paralyzed but how much I can walk varies by the day, which is true for a lot of people.”
        That’s more or less what I said when I walked in on my crutches for the first time and got a few questions / double takes. Nobody else has brought it up again. I have disclosed more information to another coworker who also deals with severe arthritis — she’s in her seventies, so our experiences are different, but she has been really sweet about offering me rides home, etc. I still haven’t spoken with her about my other disabilities as they are pretty complicated and I’m not super interested in explaining my genetic situation to people I don’t know.
        I guess that was rambling, but all I mean is that I have used my normal “disabled person scripts” on everyone, including Barb and Sandra, and it just isn’t working with them.

  46. Cathy*

    I would be so tempted to say “Well, I know that old people really love to talk about their health problems, but this is not work appropriate. Please leave me out of your little disease guessing game. I assure you that I know what my diagnosis is and I do not care to discuss my private health information with my colleagues. Please do not bring it up again.” That said, I do empathize. I have a disability that means that sometimes I need to use a wheelchair when I push myself too much and I get so much unwanted attention when I do.

    1. Sarah*

      Or if you wanted to be passive on that front you could also smile and say “You all are just like my Grandma and her friends at the nursing home always going on about health issues, but I guess at your age you really have to worry about that. Don’t worry you can’t catch it what I have at your age.” Laugh tell them they are so cute and walk away.

  47. just because things should work a certain way doesn't mean they do*

    I worked at a place like this once. Didn’t matter that it was totally inappropriate to ask questions like this. Didn’t matter how respectfully you asked them to mind their own business – it became a reflection on you instead. Didn’t matter if you went to the HR woman who insisted she wasn’t really HR but more of a business manager and therefore couldn’t do anything, including suggesting whom you should go to instead. Guess what? I don’t work there anymore.

  48. HannahS*

    One thing that .might help it feel less awkward is immediately taking control of the conversation and moving it elsewhere, without waiting for them to respond to what you’ve said. Like this:

    Them: So you’re back in a wheelchair? Are you worse?

    You: Oh, no, I don’t want to talk about my health at work. Business as usual! What are you working on this morning?

    Asking them a question forces the conversation forward, not giving them a chance to sputter about how much they “care” about you.

    Keep on keeping on, fellow young person with a chronic illness!

  49. Lizabeth*

    A crisp cold “not of your business” comes to mind (but that’s me…) OR a very icy steely stare and silence.

  50. nnn*

    The “just showing they care” sets you up neatly for “If you care, you’ll stop prying.” (Or a more gentle “If you really do care, the kindest thing you can do is let me do my job without having to run a gauntlet of personal questions.”)

  51. V*

    In the *mumblemumble* years since I’ve been working, I’ve learned that people have greatly differing boundaries with regard to their personal health information, even more so once you start working in health care (and particularly so with those of us that deal with bodily tissues/fluids and the like). As a coworker, if you volunteer this information to me you may want to be prepared for sympathy, empathy, or well-meaning questions, intended to hear your anecdotal evidence so that I can learn more about it. If you’re going to tell me about your Crohn’s death farts (and yes, this discussion has happened in one particular workplace experience that I’ve had), I’m probably going to assume that you’re open to discussing Crohn’s and any questions I may have.

    The thing is, though, you’re not obligated to answer. You’re never obligated to volunteer the information whatsoever, and I am not entitled to any of it – I live by the notion that if anyone ever wants me to know anything personal, they will share it with me. I don’t get to ask. That your coworkers feel entitled to know that information, OP, is infuriating, and I sympathize with you on this. Alison gave great advice above.

  52. FlyWeight*

    This is one of only a handful of letters in AAM history that made me scream “WHAT?!?!?” to the empty room i’m sitting in. Good god, both of these ladies are nosy, thoughtless bats. I hope you are able to stand up to them in a way that is comfortable for you and tells them to piss right off. Please update us if you can!

  53. essEss*

    After you’ve told them to stop asking a couple times, go back to the manager and state that if it continues you will file a hostile work environment claim. Constant nagging and questioning you about your condition to the point that it makes you uncomfortable falls under the legal definition. The following is from the EEOC website
    “Disability Discrimination & Harassment
    It is illegal to harass an applicant or employee because he has a disability, had a disability in the past, or is believed to have a physical or mental impairment that is not transitory (lasting or expected to last six months or less) and minor (even if he does not have such an impairment).
    Harassment can include, for example, offensive remarks about a person’s disability. Although the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that aren’t very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment”

    1. Gotham Bus Company*

      Does the law require giving formal notice before filing an official claim? I’m tempted to say that OP should simply file the claim and let Barb and Sandra find out about it from the investigator.

      1. essEss*

        I don’t think it’s legally required, but sometimes employers don’t realize the seriousness of the issue until you put into actionable legal terms. When the employer simply thought of it as a “tell them to quit bugging me” tattling situation the employer just blew it off. If you make sure they know it falls under actual legal EEOC harassment, there’s a much greater chance that they will step in and get it stopped right away then you don’t have to go through all the legal grief of filing the claim.

  54. Tangerina Warbleworth*

    Yo, fellow person. I also have a chronic illness. What has always worked for me is the calm but firm question: “Why is this important to you?” Look her right in the eye when you say it, keeping looking at her while you wait for a response, and do not talk again until you get a response. That’s been enough, in my experience, but if you do get the rude, “but I’m JUST trying to HELP,” you can nicely respond that if you need help, you will request it, but otherwise, it is not their business.

  55. Raina*

    OP: “Why do you ask?”
    “Oh, well we are wondering if we can help’
    OP: “It isn’t your concern,” with a smile …

    They are being really awful.

    1. SLR*

      I really like this! I also think a variation could be: OP: “Why do you ask?”
      “Oh, well we are wondering if we can help’
      OP: “It would help if you dropped this,” with a smile …

  56. Sins & Needles*

    I have had sucess with”That’s private,”delivered matter-of-factly, repeated every time. Every. Time. It makes it boring for the questioner to keep asking. There is no reward for them.

  57. an infinite number of monkeys*

    I’ve been surprised to learn, as I’ve gotten older, that you can deliver a pretty harsh message without giving offense or causing a scene if you use a warm, self-assured tone, a smile or a laugh, and eye contact. It throws people off-balance. They can’t get mad at you because you’re obviously being very pleasant, but the message (in my experience anyway) does seem to get through.

    I feel so bad for the OP. Defending boundaries never came naturally to me – heck, in my early 20s, I had no idea I was even allowed to have any – and it pisses me off to no end to see hateful people take advantage of the OP’s gentleness and concern for keeping the workplace harmonious. Barb and Sandra really suck.

  58. animaniactoo*

    Another approach for the next question – scrunch up your face and look very taken aback and/or slightly bewildered “Are you… actually playing 20 questions trying to guess what my condition is?” with an utterly confused and dismayed tone of voice.

    and then lead into “Please stop. It’s making me really uncomfortable. I just don’t want to talk about my condition and I’d like you to respect that.”

  59. MicroManagered*

    I know it’s such an AAM-cliche to say “I don’t usually get angry about letters,” but… I don’t usually get angry about letters but this one really grinds my gears.

    Some people are just nibby-noos that can’t stand the idea that something is None of Their Business. I think AAM’s advice about choosing your response based on work politics is solid… but I really hope you get to use the harsher ones on these jerks!

    Also, I was reminded of this passage from Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People”:

    Mrs. Freeman had a special fondness for the details of secret infections, hidden
    deformities, assaults upon children. Of diseases, she preferred the lingering or
    incurable. Hulga had heard Mrs. Hopewell give her the details of the hunting accident,
    how the leg had been literally blasted off, how she had never lost consciousness. Mrs.
    Freeman could listen to it any time as if it had happened an hour ago.

  60. Jennifer*

    This is reminding me of the BBC “Ouch” podcast (made for and by disabled English folks) and they used to periodically play a game called “Vegetable, Vegetable or Vegetable” in which they attempted to blind guess a person’s disability. Totally done as a joke and consenting by all parties, though.

  61. Rebecca*

    Another fellow chronic illness person here– only semi-visible, in my case. If you want to provide yourself with some entertainment, a good response to personal questions is “When do you need to know?”/ “How soon do you need to know?” I got that from the Miss Manners column, and the flustered looks and answers I’ve gotten by saying that are BEYOND hilarious. Plus they usually shut up afterwards.

      1. Rebecca*

        Not exactly. The most common thing is that they look like a deer in headlights and stammer, “Uh, um, well, I don’t NEED to know…. I just…um…” Then I look at them with a pleasant smile until I’m satisfied that they are truly uncomfortable. Then I say “Oh, ok then,” and go about my business.

        1. Xarcady*

          One of the key things in delivering this type of message is that you have to get comfortable with the fact that other people will be uncomfortable. I think a lot of us are brought up to consider other people’s comfort before our own.

          But in cases like this, it is the other person who is creating the uncomfortable situation. Any discomfort they feel is of their own making.

          It might be helpful to role play some of these responses to get used to that feeling, before deploying them in real life.

        2. Michaela Westen*

          This sounds familiar – I think I’ve done this with non-medical intrusions. I think I said “why do you need to know?” and got the exact response you describe.
          It must have been a long time ago because I don’t remember the details.

    1. LCL*

      This is great! I am stealing this one for the next time I need an all purpose smart alec answer.

  62. nancy*

    Another approach I like, if you’re still learning to give short decisive responses like Allison’s and set boundaries, is to respond with a question yourself – “Why would you ask me that?” “Why do you keep bringing this up?”

    One thing I encounter a lot, as a younger person working around older people, is this dynamic where they start hammering me with questions and demanding justifications when I set a boundary. My goal is to get comfortable with cutting that off and that’s something I’m working toward, but in the interim I find it can be helpful to proactively make sure I’M the one asking the questions/demanding the justifications. When the tables are turned it’s more likely that they’ll willingly end the conversation, because of course they won’t have a good answer to “Why are you still doing this?” after I’ve told them it bothers me/won’t work/isn’t appropriate/etc.

    1. Michaela Westen*

      This attitude you describe is very oppressive to young people and adds hugely to the general disrespect in our (American) culture.
      If only it wasn’t like this… my whole life would be different…

    2. Wandering Scot*

      Which—as a person old enough to fit into that category—perplexes me. Don’t they remember having it done to them? I certainly do.

      Silence is another option, after the second or third polite refusal. Not acknowledging the question at all, or any follow up question, or any comment or speculation. Most people don’t have the nerve to call you out for being rude by not answering their rude question.

  63. Michaela Westen*

    “Please stop asking me about my health. It’s not something I want to discuss at work, and your attempts to figure it out are really *disrespectful*.”
    This is just about as disrespectful as anything can get. They’re treating you like a puzzle to be solved, not a person!

  64. Book Page*

    While I was reading this thread I had a coworker ask similarly invasive (questions about my food intolerances that I share with his son). I’ve learned that if I voice it as a “no big deal” thing with nonanswers, people leave me alone. I am fairly open about my rare disorder because it has so many weird impacts, but I rarely give real info out. “Yeah, it’s a rare genetic disorder that does weird stuff. But that’s life.”

    Also… wheelchair related concern trolls are the worst. After witnessing my sibling deal with them, I just want to scream every time I hear about people doing this.

    *gentle fistbump of solidarity to OP from another chronically ill young person*

  65. EB*

    Just to highlight how inappropriate this is– I’m not particularly proud of this but I have definitely gone home and done some googling just to see what comes up around whatever symptoms my coworkers will sometimes talk about (and with the occasional “vague-booking” friend). It’s really just out of curiosity and boredom and I do absolutely nothing with the information. I don’t talk about it with anyone else at work and definitely would NEVER say something to the person directly– that’s just a huge red line.

    In my opinion, OP, you are entitled to respond however you want to that nonsense.

    1. Michaela Westen*

      You’re a medical geek like me. :) Fascinating, isn’t it?
      As EB says, there are other ways for people to exercise their interest in medical stuff that don’t disrespect anyone! Especially with google now, we didn’t have that when I was young.

  66. Katelyn*

    “Oh, we’re playing 20 Questions? I’ll give you a hint. It’s a mineral. Bizmuth. As in ‘mind your own bizmuth’.”

  67. Manager Mary*

    Me personally? I’d enlist the help of the sane people in the office, assuming any exist. I definitely support the idea that you shut down any questions or weirdness with “that’s a rude question,” “I don’t discuss my private medical issues at work,” etc. BUT I would also use my lunch time, coffee breaks, etc. to snag a small, sympathetic crowd & turn them against Barb & Sandra. You’re new, you’re young, you’re chronically ill. Put on your saddest, most confused, disbelieving face. Ask with a tone of genuine confusion, “Jane, Fergus, can I ask you something? Barb and Sandra have been playing this really hateful game of 20 questions to figure out what’s [air quotes] ‘wrong’ with me because I don’t like to talk about my private medical issues at work. I’m the new kid on the block here, so I was just wondering… have they always been the sort to walk around kicking puppies for fun, or are they actually nice people deep down inside?”

    The thing is, you probably do have a few Nosey Nelly coworkers who are wondering about your medical issues. But with this method, you present as fact that a) medical stuff = private; b) people who engage in the ’20 questions’ game are crappy, and c) everyone but Barb & Sandra are on your side about this. And when Jane and Fergus are looking at your sad, perplexed face, unless they’re actual monsters, they’re going to stamp down whatever curiosity they had (if they had it) and join Team OP. The idea is that if Barb is in the kitchen nuking her lunch and she’s all “hey Fergus, any leads on what’s up with OP?” Even if Fergus had initially been interested, instead of gossiping and tossing in a “I was thinking a bad case of boneitis,” he’ll be like “Barb, I gotta tell you, it’s weird that you’re obsessed with OP’s medical stuff. Let it go.” Because now instead of getting a mass email from HR that says “mind ya bidness,” he’s made a personal connection with you about the issue.

    I hope that Barb & Sandra are shut down immediately by people who have sanity and compassion, and I wish you the best with your medical conditions. <3

    1. Gotham Bus Company*

      This definitely seems worth trying. Then, if it doesn’t work, OP can still go to HR and/or EEOC.

  68. Sugarplum*

    As an “older worker,” probably also at least 20 years older than you, I am cringing and appalled. Please know we are not all like this. Anyone old enough to be in the workforce should know better than to say things like that.

  69. Rabbit Gal*

    From my experience, people think that disabled people aren’t allowed any right to privacy. I have a condition that forces me to have to wear compression stockings and binders. Most people recognize them as medical hose or assume I’m wearing tights. Not one guy I worked with. One day he randomly asked during my shift if they were a medical think. I affirmed that. He replied, “Oh, I thought they might have been a kink.”
    I was ready to throttle him.

    1. Important Moi*

      It it had a been a kink, how would the conversation have continued?

      I think this is hilarious, but understand and respect how you weren’t amused.

  70. Not a good idea*

    I don’t know if this approach is feasible in reality, but, along the lines of fantasy responses:
    “Most people only share that level of private medical information with their families, or with their intimate partners. You’re not related to me so….” awkward pause, eyes widen, incredulous tone…. “oh my god, are you hitting on me?” …back away slowly… “wow that’s so inappropriate and even if you weren’t x years older/wrong gender …” sputter as if lost for words, look around the room as if to get supporting witnesses, with disbelief…. “did you hear what she just asked me? I can’t even…” then flee the room.

  71. Gotham Bus Company*

    If they truly “cared” at all about you, they would have stopped asking about your illnesses at the same time everyone else did. The fact that they haven’t stopped proves that they DON’T actually care, and you should feel free to tell them that in so many words.

    You should also visit HR to report this as harassment and “creating a hostile work environment” based on disability. If they use the “because we care” defense, remind them that they have already demonstrated that they don’t care.

  72. Not a Mere Device*

    I have a probably impractical silly suggestion, the next time they ask:

    (1) Pick a nonexistent disease, and say something like “OK, I suppose I have to tell you, but you have to promise not to ask for any more details… It’s Twonk’s disease” or “I have bromidrosis.” (Twonk’s disease is an old and obscure science fiction fandom reference, and bromidrosis [which I may be misspelling] is from a Frank Zappa song.) Then refuse to budge from that: “I told you, it’s Twonk’s disease. We agreed not to discuss it any further, and I keep my promises.”

  73. Bibliovore*

    OP I really feel for you. I have a chronic illness and us one cuff crutch, sometimes a scooter, sometimes a cane and sometimes nothing (if I am on steady ground and not going to be doing much walking or standing)
    Just this week a total stranger in a cafe said “what’s wrong with you?” and I, without missing a beat asked, ” are you a doctor?” I felt so rude but then as I thought about it, who but a doctor has any reason to ask me a medical question.

    1. The New Wanderer*

      And not even any doctor, just your own personal doctor!

      I have a friend who was mingling with a group of med students at a bar one night. One decided to show off his supposed pre-doctor expertise and grilled her on a very mild characteristic. He just wouldn’t take any hint short of yelling STFU to stop with the personal questions about something she clearly didn’t want to talk about. I only caught the aftermath or I would have been the one doing the yelling.

      1. Bibliovore*

        Well, since I have a rare condition that is often misdiagnosed, I am actually willing to casually talk to doctors so that they don’t have to mr. google when someone like me shows up in the emergency room. It does get tiring.

      1. MsAlex*

        I mean, your response wasn’t rude. The initial question from the other person was rude.

  74. LadyCop*

    ” Others have been present when they talk to me about it, and nobody seems to think that its inappropriate. ”

    Just to note…as a long time reader of this blog, I think it’s safe to say that others very likely do think it’s inappropriate, they just don’t feel comfortable speaking up, or know what to say in the moment (because polite society has trained most of us to think it’s “rude” to speak up about awkward or sensitive things).

    I have a mild limp (that comes and goes) from an Army injury and that gets me 20 questions all the time…I can only imagine the OP has a significantly larger amount of prodding since some people get so fascinated (curious?) about wheelchairs, crutches, oxygen tanks, etc…

  75. Greg M.*

    ugh I hate stuff like this. I’ve dealt with it on a very small scale. It makes me feel like I’m being studied and metaphorically dissected.

  76. Safetykats*

    Is there any kind of HR organization where you work? Because if there is, you need to talk to them. You tried to get your supervisor to shut this down and she didn’t; it’s therefore time to elevate the issue. HR should talk to your supervisor and your coworkers and explain that asking personal health questions is an inappropriate way to show they care, and may actually be creating a hostile workplace. It’s also good for you to clearly let them know you find their questions invasive and inappropriate, and that it is your right to keep your confidential medical information to yourself. But someone above you in the organization should be doing a better job of looking out for your rights.

  77. Kimberly*

    People should butt out unless asked. I had a coworker who asked for advice about dealing with Houston Heat and Humidity and Atopic Dermatitis after her son was diagnosed. My advice was to run and get a 2nd opinion from a dermatologist (kid’s pediatrician diagnosed him). It is hard to describe without getting graphic but his rash was wrong. For one thing, it started on his torso and moved out. Atopic generally starts on the hands, feet, and sometimes face and moves inward. The school RN and a science teacher who also was an RN agreed something was off, and helped her find a 2nd opinion doctor. Turned out his grandmother was giving him a kids multivitamin with extra vitamin C and he was allergic to something in that.

    Another acquaintance was complaining about people endangering her kid, who has a contact allergy to peanuts. I told her stop calling it a food allergy because people think that means you have to eat it – instead call it a potentially deadly skin contact allergy to peanuts in any form. (I didn’t add that it was nice that she now believed in allergies. When we first met in University – she was all your just trying to get attention allergies are mind over matter. Another girl suffering from cedar fever nearly clocked her one) She later told me that worked.

    A coworker’s son was going to get his wisdom teeth out and a bunch of idiots were telling him horror stories. I took him aside and explained they all had the surgery after the teeth were formed and erupting. From what his mom had said to me he was getting them out as buds, because the x-rays after getting his braces off showed there was no room. I had the same procedure around the same age and was at dance camp the next day. (I couldn’t do the dances full out due to being on painkillers, but I felt fine. (When confronted about deliberately scaring a 16 yo kid about his surgery – people whined that hearing horror stories was part of getting your wisdom teeth out. I think they lost more wisdom that their stupid teeth.)

  78. Good, Cheap, or Soon. Pick Two.*

    As much as I would love to tell you that this gets better… you’re going to probably deal with some variation of coworkers over the years. I’m really sorry, I wish it were otherwise. Trust me, the urge to force choke does still occur on occasion. I say this as someone who was diagnosed with a genetic condition shortly before she entered the workforce. The cause of my disability is not easily recognized (and the condition is very rare, so Sherlock and House be at it for a while), something that invites curiosity. As much as I love the idea of a short, to the point “oh hell no!” script or pointing out how rude it is to ask? Unfortunately, these almost always backfire with this kind of coworker. They see it as being defensive and it seems to translate to “well, that means it must be really good dirt.” I don’t know why, I hate it, but it’s true. After one instance that caused a strong desire to want to beat my head against a wall for five minutes straight, I actually talked to a therapist to develop a set of scripts to deal with this kind of workplace. One is for the “we’re just worried about you… now give up all the details of your medical history, dating life, and let us check your teeth while we’re at it.” The other is for the “oh, that’s just how they are” coworkers.

    When delivering the script to Barb and Sandra, one of the important details is to make direct, almost aggressive, eye contact. Part of what you’re doing is reminding them that they’re not allowed to treat you like a puzzle or less than human. Then, in a very calm, slightly parental tone (one that establishes that you can’t believe that you have to explain this to two grown adults who should know better), you take them through the following.

    “Barb, Sandra, I understand that this is a new experience for you. You aren’t used to interacting with someone who has a disability. That being said, having a guessing game about my disability is incredibly inappropriate. It sends the message that you consider me less than a person. I understand that you may not mean it that way but that is the message it sends.”

    This will bring objections, denials, etc. Simply walk away. Let them stew. Then, you go to the coworkers who brushed you off. It helps to start with the attitude of someone who is kind of amazed you have to go over this.

    “When we talked about Barb and Sandra’s actions, I wasn’t clear. I understand you think this is how Barb and Sandra care. I understand this might be new to you. That being said, they’re actions aren’t acceptable. I am not a puzzle to be solved, I’m a person. Someone with a disability can feel dehumanized in a lot of ways and small slips like that are the start of it.”

    1. Catwoman*


      This is great advice, but I’m sorry it had to come out of crappy experiences with thoughtless people.

  79. Cat owner*

    This is SO CRAZY. It doesn’t take a lot of familiarity with disabled people to realize that some people use wheelchairs for many reasons other than a total inability to walk, and a lot of them depend on the severity of the problem day to day. And why is “OP can’t walk” a topic to be left alone but “OP can only walk short distances” a total mystery?!

    SO MANY people use wheelchairs in conjunction with walkers or crutches!

    And also, if OP was an elderly woman, no one would blink or press. No one asks my grandmother what’s wrong with her when we walk to a restaurant with her in a wheelchair and then she gets up to switch to a chair.

  80. Flash Bristow*

    I’m visibly disabled. When people ask “what’s wrong with you”, depending on my mood I say one of the following:

    Wrong? Oh there’s nothing wrong, I’m having a lovely day! How are you doing?

    Oh, are we swapping medical histories? OK – you first!

    Er, sorry but how is that any of your business?

    OP, I hope some of those will help you. Season to taste, obviously.

  81. Beancounter in Texas*

    In the Southern US, when people are rude, we like to kill them with kindness.

    When asked again, perhaps you could try in a sweet voice, “Oh, you’re so kind to care! But don’t worry – I have everything managed just fine.” And leave.

    But they suck and are apparently clueless to boundaries about personal information.

  82. Barbara Latham*

    The “child prodigy” comment was cute and complimentary the first time. Old and rude after that. Generally when someone inquires about your illness or disability, it’s out of genuine concern. But based on the comments and questions these women are bothering you with, they are just immature, catty and jealous. Explain gently that your health is a painful subject for you. If it happens again, repeat the same short statement.

  83. Been There, Done That*

    I’m totally shocked. This is beyond totally rude and nosey but I’m sorry to say I’ve encountered people in workplaces who are this way and have no concept of how Out Of Line they are. It would be nice to be able to tell somebody like that to just “Shut up!” (but unfortunately that would bite yourself on the behind).

  84. AvalonAngel*

    I’ve had MS for over twenty years…and those two clearly know nothing about MS! The majority of MS patients have the remitting/relapsing course of the disease, and it does not significantly alter their life expectancy. Calling it “terminal” just isn’t true for most patients.

  85. rarehardships*

    About four or five years ago, I was hired to do a temp. job at a warehouse that puts together/sells poly (whatever it’s called) shelving for stores and other things on the east coast. I did tell the coworkers/ and one or two people who were sort of both a “coworker” and someone who looks over my work, that I had a mild memory loss (I also have other things like major depression, anxiety, learning difficulties and as they could see, my prescription glasses) Anyway, even with all of this at the time, I was able to do a lot of simple things like package things (I briefly worked at another warehouse, packaging cell phones with no problems so I figured I wouldnt have any, or not much with this short term job) and even put certain kinds of shelving systems together etc. I did it correctly the first day, but the second day (I was there for two days. I was offered just to do one day, but they wanted me to come back the second day) I messed up on the shelves (gluing certain pieces together to create a certain type of shelf used in stores like GNC I believe.) Anyway, I messed up and forgot how to do them but I (thought) I did them correctly. I do remember a young 20 year old woman with braids look at what I was doing and act as though I was doing fine. She stood across from me at the same time the whole time. Then this one 23 year old woman (she looked that old and told me randomly she just graduated college as some kind of teacher… maybe elementary school?and was going to start her career in another state.) Anyway, so she looked at my work and realized I messed up with the gluing and the five I did. The woman with the braids either forgot or just didn’t say anything that she technically looked at my work and gave a positive nod or what have you…. and instead of admitting she did think I did it correctly and made a mistake… she gives me this look like I’m the “crazy” one. What an unprofessional thing to do. The other woman who noticed I made mistakes with the gluing, laughed when I told a guy who worked with us that I had memory loss and did fine with the same thing yesterday. Also, about agism. The young teacher made fun of my age (I was in my early 30s at the time) and when I mentioned that I was a bit older when they were talking about how they graduated in H.S. just a handful of years earlier, she laughed and said something like “Yeah!! She is!” The weird thing is, if you met the 20 something teacher, you’d look at her and talk to her and think she’s probably a very nice person with a good head on her shoulders. She seemed like she was and probably is 90% (I’m serious) but if a person has an invisible disability like mild memory loss, learning difficulty), she’ll laugh at your situation and then look uncomfortable. I’m talking about my personal experience though. She and this one young man were also ageist. What is wrong with being in your 30s?? The funny thing is this lady’s mother and 35 year old sister worked there too, at the same time so why was it okay that they were older doing some of the same work?? Another thing, She told me she was Hispanic (her mother and sister were and spoke Spanish most of the time) but this lady spoke with a clear English-American accent. I also have an ethnic look like her and I also have a clear English-American accent yet she told me after I spoke briefly to her) that she “thought” I was Spanish. Well, she also spoke English (no foreign accent with it) and was Hispanic, so why was it weird to her that I spoke Clear English like her and looked Brown like her?? She seemed very ignorant for someone who graduated college and was on her way to teach children. On the second day that this happened, (again, I was only meant to be there for at most, two days) I stayed just long enough for these people to stop from giving me uncomfortable looks… but after about 30 minutes, I pretended to go on a lunch break (they didn’t have any specific rules on when to eat lunch since I was a temp etc.) and just clocked out and left. I know someone will probably write me on here and tell me I should have devulged all* of my disabilities to these coworkers since (by accident) they did get in the way of putting a handful of shelves together. I just wanted to tell them One* of them since I figured they’d really make me feel bad if they knew I had multiple health issues that weren’t visible. Oh well, I know this is an old story of mine but I never really told anyone except one or two close family members. I’ve always felt bad about it.

    Here’s another two stories that I’ve experienced that I’ve always felt bad about. When I was 30 (in 2011) I went Social Services to see if I could get help for my mental health for job help, and to see if I qualify for disability (I probably do and I (know) I need to get help with that and/or help via social services etc. but I’ve had negative experiences which made me so uncomfortable, I literally gave up.) I live with my father and have multiple close family members with serious mental health problems (some of which were diagnosed, like my full sister who my parents had to give up for adoption in the 70s, was diagnosed with schizo-affective disorder at 35.) Her adoption father was a judge so he was able to get her the proper help) Anyway, so social services told me to contact some phone number and the lady on the line told me another number to call. I end up making an appointment with a woman who supposdedly helps disabled people find employment. All she tells me is I need “any kind of proof of my depression) (I have memory issues and other health issues but didn’t have proof since I cant afford to see a doctor and dont know how to find a “free” one… and the “free” ones’ I’ve met can only help so much… like free or very cheap eye exams or free /cheap papsmear etc. Not everything a person needs from a doctor (that I’m aware of) is free so I just stay home. Anyway, back to the lady who helps people with disabilities. I had forgotten to mention my learning disabilities. She was nicer when I told her about my LD (for three years) but not that kind. She said”WEll, how did you graduate high school then??” I got bad grades and rarely ever got As , bs or Cs. Then she mocks my depression but saying “Pfft! Depression!” Um… what? The only proof I had at the time was an old antidepression bottle with my full name and my doctors name etc. She never mentioned I needed to show her paper work. She literally said bring “whatever proof I had” period. She hit her head on her desk. I have serious disabilities and was in special ed. I dont have a proper “advocate” and was pretty much on my own. My father was in his mid 60s and was old school. He drove me there but was unwilling to go with me inside. He really should have been with me to keep this woman from acting as difficult as she did. Oh well. I apologize for venting. Anyway, so she told me that people take antidepressants for lots of reasons and not just for depression. Then when I told her I had a boyfriend who had recently passed from some serious health issues he had since he was a child, she did seem a bit sympathetic there so I appreciated it… but she was said in random rude tone “Did you live with him?” but she said rudely and it was clear she didn’t like the idea of my having a boyfriend to live with. Why not? My mother lives with my father and all of my female family members and relatives have husbands for the most part, or some significant other. If she were a medical doctor, I’d say she had a terrible “bed side manner” She was really nasty toward me and made me super uncomfortable. It was weird that she wasn’t at least professionl and mildly compassionate with people with invisible disabilities. She also made me feel bad about myself because of my serious employment issues. I can’t multitask to save my life and cant* drive a car (my disabilities get in the way of driving.) I can only do one thing (like stocking shelves for example) through out the day and it has to be with in five miles from the house I live in. She looks at my resume and hits her head on her desk again and laughs really hard this time. Even though I cant afford to see a pyschologist (now and at that time) I’m pretty sure I have a serious disorder(s) (although so far I was just diagnosed with Major Depression and Anxeity) and I do have learning disabilities. But my dad has told me he doesn’t know how to help me plus he has prostate cancer (end stage I believe) He doesn’t like to talk about it. Anyway, that lady made me feel extremely bad about myself. She has no idea what it’s like to have a serious mental illness and learning issues. I could tell she thinks mental illness (depression specifically is “no big deal” to her and it’s not a good enough excuse to have the problems I have.) I read recently that depression can cause brain damage and memory loss. I was just stunned at how cold hearted she was to me. She had the nerve to “fix” the bad interview by saying before I left that I had a nice out fit on. Really? Her being a deranged unprofessional to someone with invisiable disabilities, was not going to be forgotten with a quick smile and lame compliment. Anyway, I just wish I could find someone who can relate to me and tell me that they had a social worker (or whoever) who didn’t believe them and laughed at them. That woman should have been fired but I didn’t video tape the incidient like people do these days and hate confrontations. Luckily she’s probably retired because I could tell she was around my mothers age at the time.

    Another situation that has always bothered me was when I was at this bar (I rarely drink but I was in my 20s and didn’t own a car so there was only so many places to go.) I go with my mother (who I admit has undiagnosed disorder (bipolar symptoms and learning issues,) but she seemed fine before we get there. I order one beer and so does she. This guy shows up (I eventually meet him again because coincidently he was connected via work through someone I started a serious relationhip with one or two years later…) So this guy comes in with his friend. It’s the beginning of happy hour. Few people are there and this guy (“Steve”) comes up to my mom and starts harrassing her, even trying to kiss her. He then starts asking her about me. I’m sitting right next to her but he doesn’t say anything to me directly…. instead he asks my mom private questions about myself like my employment. I will say I was unemployed at the time, obviously due to various disabilities. I did work like less than a year earlier at a Walmart but left due to not handing the multitasking and two threats to be possibly let go in the future plus violent coworker. Anyway so she doesn’t answer his questions and then he starts yelling at me to “get a job!” When he doesnt even know about my mental illness or what have you and my learning disabilities. My mother and I didn’t say anything to him and also my mother has the same mental health issues and was unemployed at the time but he never asked her the same personal questions. We look different and she looks much older obviously but was in her 50s. Just seemed ignorant and prejudiced too. I don’t know. I know this article about totally different invisible disabilities and a different sitaution but I thought I could go ahead and talk about my crazy experiences with people who didn’t either believe me or laughed etc. Sometimes I genuinely wish I could trade my mental health issues for someone with a “good head on their shoulders” and uses a cane, wheel chair etc. Not to say their disabilities aren’t serious. I want to add randomly that I don’t* have any kids, don’t do drugs, and have rarely drank alcohol. I just keep to myself.

Comments are closed.