It has happened to all of us: having people ask questions, intentionally or unintentionally, that makes us feel uncomfortable.
Have you always been like that?
Were you born that way?
Why are you wearing this?
Aren’t these shorts too short?
Are you feeling comfortable in this?
Do you think you look prettier like that?
Why do you wear makeup in the lab/gym/house/grocery store/any place under the sun?
Shouldn’t you go for a bigger size?
Are you going out without a bra?
How many hours did you study?
Isn’t your research boring?
How many hours do you spend in the lab? (followed by “oh, how do you manage with so few?”)
Are you planning on working as a _insert field_? I heard markets are tight for you.
Are you happy in your relationship? (followed by “ah, I didn’t expect this answer”)
The list (and people’s creativity) is endless, and the common outcome of all these ostensibly innocent questions is that they make us feel uncomfortable, self-doubt, lose our confidence, enter a dark mindset where we fixate on the factor this question touched and going round and round in a black hole of misery. Whose fault is that? Well, basically ours, for allowing this to happen. Don’t get me wrong, I do not blame you for wearing a “lipstick too bright for the lab” and inviting questions, I blame you for allowing the question (and the person behind it) to put you down. It has happened to me, it has happened to you, it will happen again. We should not let this behavior put us down, we should throw it back where it came from. To the person asking the question.
Let’s backtrack for a moment, shall we? Realistically speaking, there is no lab police going around and checking what you wear (as long as the health & safety rules are being followed), there is no beach police going around checking on who is wearing makeup and who should wear what swimsuit, there are no guidelines on how many hours you should study or be in the lab –past the probable 8h per day (unless your university or advisor has such guidelines, in which case I would advise you to change university/advisor). So, where are all these questions coming from? They are coming from the minds of those asking, based on their perception of how things should be, their incompetency to work faster/better/glamorously, their lack of body acceptance, in a word, their issues! These questions have nothing to do with you. They might be masked under the umbrella of “I care about you/I want to give you advice/you are my friend/someone malevolent might say…”. Well, these people don’t really care about you, give you advice or protect you from malevolent people when they ask you questions which make you feel bad. In any case, the point of this article is not to psychoanalyze why some people ask such questions (and potentially enjoy it!), the point is to learn some things we can answer, protect ourselves, and potentially reveal the intentions.
Number one answer: “What is wrong with XXX?”, where XXX can be “my lipstick, my working hours, my clothes…”. Answering a question with a question which requires the person to express their already formed answer is a great way of putting them on the spot. They will have to either shut the interrogation down “no, nothing is wrong, I just _insert excuse_”, or provide their “honest” and definitely unwanted opinion on how you should be/behave. Plus, you are giving the benefit of the doubt, in case their argument is correct and you are doing something wrong. In both cases, they won’t expect such a response back. If they choose the road where they share their views on how you should/should not be, you can keep asking them to explain every single one of these arguments. Eventually they will get tired and you will have not entered an apologetic, defensive mode.
Number 2 answer: “Why are you asking me that/Why would you say that?” A direct question put the person asking you the uncomfortable question on the spot again, where you question their intentions. You should not expect a quick/articulate answer here, more like “erm, no, it’s not what you think, I was just…”. They might take a moment to think how their question sounded, what you might be thinking since you did not get upset or defensive (as usually expected). Again, you diverted their question and diffused the underlying discomfort by changing the subject, from “you” to “them”.
Number 3 answer: Use sarcasm. It might be difficult if you have not sarcasm in your nature (thankfully, I was blessed), but you can try it and see if it works for you. For example, answering to the question “Why are you wearing makeup to the gym?” with an answer based on sarcasm could go like that: “oh, I did not know I would be interviewed today, I would have tried harder”, or “that’s a very interesting question, is there a dropdown list of answers or shall I take five minutes to compose my own?”, or even “oh, I was not supposed to come to the gym, I was on my way to _insert glamorous place_ but I needed to quickly do some abs”.
Number 4 answer: The silent stare. Shut the question down completely, by just staring at the person and not answering anything. Just look at them with a calm face, until they crack. They will crack. They are probably so invested in you answering something that they will not be able to deal with the awkward silence. They might try to redeem the question/intention by diverting to something else, or paying you a compliment, they might even leave! Win-win situation!
Number 5 answer: Answer politely yet firmly that you don’t want to talk about it. If you declare you intention not to entertain them with an answer and they keep on poking you, especially in presence of other people, then that makes them look bad. You should not be pressed or expected to provide answers/details for your personal choices if you do not want to, and that is not negotiable.
There are probably other ways to deal with such people and their questions, but from personal experience I have found that turning the spotlight on them, refusing to provide an answer, or not answering are some easy, practicable ways, which can have the required result. There is no need to internalize someone else’s problem, once they throw us a ball, we can just throw it back at them.
Written by Eleni Routoula
Linkedin: Eleni Routoula