8 "Polite" Questions That Are Actually Offensive, Etiquette Experts Say
If you're asking these questions, you're overstepping.
Asking thoughtful questions is a key part of how we communicate and get to know one another. Yet when we're on a fact-finding mission, it's easy to veer into topics that can make people uncomfortable or come off as offensive.
"There are a multitude of questions that are seemingly polite yet are actually quite gauche," says Jodi RR Smith, founder of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting. "Part of the confusion is that people do not necessarily understand how close they are to someone else."
Smith explains that while it may be perfectly acceptable to ask your spouse, significant other, family member, or close friend a more touchy or intimate question, that same exchange may be inappropriate with a neighbor, acquaintance, or colleague. "Generally, the topic of money or anyone's body should be saved for only your nearest and dearest…and even then, think twice before asking!" she says.
Wondering which particular questions you should steer clear of in conversation? Read on to learn eight "polite" questions that are actually offensive, according to etiquette experts.
When are you getting married?
Many people view marriage as the bedrock of society and assume that if someone hasn't married yet they eventually will. However, asking about whether an individual or couple intends to get married is "invasive and really none of your business," says Jules Hirst, founder of Etiquette Consulting.
If you're speaking to a dating couple, it may also put them on the spot by making them defend or explain their relationship. Whether they are skeptical of the institution of marriage, don't feel ready for the commitment, are having problems in the relationship, or want to meet certain financial goals before marriage, you're wading into some very personal territory by asking.
"Marriage may not be for everyone so don't try to put the couple in this box," Hirst tells Best Life.
When are you two having kids?
This question is inappropriate for many of the same reasons that it's ill-advised to ask about marriage. However, it also comes with some additional pitfalls that people should be aware of.
As an outsider, you have no idea where someone might be on their family planning journey. You may be speaking with someone who's experiencing fertility issues, has experienced miscarriage, doesn't feel financially or emotionally prepared for parenthood, or any number of other deeply personal complications. If they haven't shared these things with you already, asking will feel like prying.
"Kids are also not for everyone so don't pressure the couple into this," says Hirst.
Why are you still single?
You may genuinely just be curious—this person is a catch, as far as you're concerned! But asking why someone is still single is like asking them to identify their greatest flaw. It casts the single life as a symbol of failure and attempts to diagnose what's gone wrong.
Instead, accepting a person's lifestyle without feeling the need to dissect it may eventually make them more comfortable opening up to you.
Hirst adds that many people view the single life as ideal" "Finding a partner isn't easy and some people prefer to be single."
How much did that cost?
Money remains a sensitive topic, sometimes even among close friends and family members. If someone hasn't volunteered how much something costs them, it's best not to ask the question and risk coming off as rude. "Finances and costs are taboo topics," says Hirst.
How much do you make?
Similarly, asking about someone's income is another question that you shouldn't ask unless it's directly relevant to you.
"Your spouse just landed a huge new promotion. After the congratulations, you may ask about the salary increase," says Smith. "Your colleague at work just landed a huge new promotion. After the congratulations, you should not ask about the raise."
How old are you?
This question may seem innocuous—it's one of the most basic biographical facts of your life, after all. However, we happen to live in an extremely youth-focused society, which means that some people are uncomfortable sharing their age for fear of being perceived differently.
"Age is a sensitive topic that should be avoided," says Hirst. Instead of looking for a number, which will put that person in a box, you can learn more by asking related questions. For instance, you can ask how long they've been working in their field, or find out what era of music most deeply resonates with them.
Are you sick?
You may think that this question demonstrates concern for the other person, which would normally be considered polite. However, asking pretty much any question about a person's appearance comes off as rude, judgmental, and critical, Hirst says. Unless someone has obvious symptoms of sickness (coughing, sneezing, etc.), asking whether they're sick based on their tired or under-the-weather appearance can be deeply hurtful and insulting.
Many women report being asked this question on days when they are perfectly healthy, but not wearing their usual makeup. Steering clear of assumptions can help you avoid hurting someone's feelings or making them feel self-conscious.
RELATED: 17 Things Polite People Never Do.
Do you want a drink?
Whether or not a person drinks alcohol is a deeply personal choice. That decision may come down to a range of factors, including their values, health, personal history with alcohol, and more.
Because alcohol is such a prominent fixture in social settings, many people instinctively single out anyone who's not drinking with the group. Hirst says that while you may simply be curious about the person's reasoning, it's likely to make them uncomfortable: "Not everyone drinks and the question puts unnecessary pressure on the person for their choice."
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