How Personal Can You Keep Your Personal Life?

Binocular Smile, originally uploaded to Flickr by cobalt123.How do you fend off questions from nosy coworkers — particularly when it’s a “plus one” business event and you’re by yourself? Reader R, moving to a new city, doesn’t want to feel like she’s under a microscope at an upcoming picnic:

I’m relocating & starting my first professorship at a university. The faculty are having a picnic in honor of the new members (myself and one other person) before the semester begins. This is also a “family & signifcant others” event and therein lies the problem: I’m single & moving out of state. Translation: I won’t know anyone or be able to invite anyone. Not to sound shallow, but I don’t want to field questions about my personal life (i.e dating, engaged, etc) because it is really no one’s business. But with children & spouses/so’s running around, I feel as though it is inevitable. Age, too, plays a factor. I am by far the youngest faculty member…

Congrats on your new professorship and the new city — it sounds like an adventure! I think you’re right to expect some curiosity about your personal life, but I think that’s par for the course for any smaller office. I think the bigger (and more impersonal) the office is, the more you can stay private — but even then, the more you become “known” (particularly when you start supervising people), the more people become curious about the basic facts of our personal life.  So while I can understand not wanting to get into the deeper details of your personal life, you may be heading into the office with the slightly wrong attitude. It isn’t an interrogation — people just want a simple answer, and I think will find it weirder if you decline to answer than if you answer briefly. Some sample scripts for you:

  • Why didn’t you bring anyone to the picnic? “I just moved to town and am still making friends here.” or “I wanted to focus on meeting all of my new colleagues!”
  •  Are you dating anyone? This seems to be the crux of your worries, but I would look at it more as “people may just want to set me up.” Now, if you aren’t seeing anyone, and you just moved to a new city, let them set you up! It may be a love match, it may be a new friend, but at least you’ll get out and about and see the town more. If, however, set-ups seem like the absolute worst thing on the planet to you, then just come up with a line you’re comfortable with.  (A suggestion: “I’m just enjoying some “me” time between relationships.”) If, whether you’re seeing someone or not, you end up talking to someone who really does seem to be digging for information, just smile and say, “Oh, it’s complicated, I don’t want to bore you with it. Tell me more about your specialty / this delicious pie / your screaming 2-year-old / that tree over there.”

Maybe I’m crazy, but I think that while there may be some Nosy Nellies, in general most people just have normal questions upon meeting someone new in their circles.  (Here’s an older article from etiquette expert Peggy Post on how to deal with a truly nosy Nelly.)

Readers, what do you think — how personal do you keep your personal life?  Has that changed as you’ve gotten older?

(Pictured: Binocular Smile, originally uploaded to Flickr by cobalt123.)


  1. I was a little surprised by that second bullet. While I can see a co-worker mentioning someone as a potential date after working somewhere for awhile, I really doubt that brand new co-workers are going to start scheming about their single friends if they find out you’re currently single. And the tone of the “you should be happy to be set up!” seems unusual for this site to me — the OP seemed fretful of how to deal with the office politics of not having an easy answer to the SO question, not the substance of whether she has one…

    To deflect further conversation along those lines if someone asks “oh what about you, are you married?” I’d probably say something like “no, single, which is why I could pick up and move for this great opportunity – I’m really excited to get to know town! What are your favorite XYZ – beach spots / restaurants / parks/ running trails…”

    • Also, a new person at a work event may not be wanting to get into discussions on sexuality, and the set-up attempts might out a person earlier than he or she feels comfortable. That is super personal and complicates new-people questions. New city, new job, sometimes it’s all we can do to address one thing at a time.

      Having a one-sentence answer prepared should work for most people, though. “I’m single” should satisfy casual questioners that are just making small talk (yes, relationship status qualifies as small talk for a LOT of people). If they want to talk about your dating life or try to set you up, “I think I’m going to take some time to settle into new job/new city a bit before jumping into dating,” should shut down the conversation gently. And of course, end the statement in a question so they can tell you something about themselves that they want to talk about, or ask advice on places to check out in the new city, or something (even if you’re not all that interested, it deflects the convo from you). If the person is being truly nosey, Kat’s advice above is perfect.

      But if you’re in the South, all bets are off. Because MANY southern people like to grill you about your relationship status/fix you up and think that it is perfectly fine / the right way to get to know you / they are entitled to ask you these questions. I say this having grown up there and experienced it myself. I send you hugs, and wish you patience, a big city, and much Teflon attire. But as above, just ask the other person a ton of questions. If they must talk about relationships and dating, you can usually get them onto a conversation about when they were dating, or how they met their SO, or their friend’s/neighbor’s/cousin’s/screaming 2 y-o’s personal drama.

  2. I agree that coworkers shouldn’t dig into your personal life (I won’t friend anyone on Facebook that I work with, nor do I accept their friendship requests for that reason) the question comes off as defensive. You aren’t expected to give your new coworkers your dating history, but people are inevitably curious about people they spend their days with. Coming up with a standard answer is fine, but I don’ t think common curiosity is rude or inappropriate. Half the time people ask questions like that, they really are just trying to get to know you a little better. You can easily steer the convo towards your hobby/research area/life passion of choice.

    • Did it feel weird, not to accept their friend requests? Did you ever address it with them or just not mention it? I’m friends with a bunch of co-workers and it can indeed be weird, but the horse is out of the barn. I’m just curious how other people handle it.

      • When I decline a coworker friend request, I send them a message saying I prefer to network on LinkedIn. It’s never been a problem.

  3. If OP doesn’t want to even answer the question, it doesn’t really sound like she wants set ups.

  4. I agree with you that in most cases, people aren’t trying to be nosy, but simply want to know you better. I had a co-worker years ago who was extremely polite and professional but would never say anything (anything!) about her personal life. It wasn’t like I really cared what she did over the weekend or whatever; I was just trying to connect.

    Having said that, over the years I have cut back on how much personal sharing I do with co-workers. I am still more open than not, but I realize that these are not my friends – they are my colleagues.

  5. I HATE small talk and nosy people, but you kind of have to do it in order to network, make connections, etc. I’ve really found that asking/talking about personal details actually opens people up and gets them talking. This is the single thing I learned from reading Penelope Trunk’s blog (…), people like stories and the idea that you are a little vulnerable (not Penelope-vulnerable…) and that you are ok with them being vulnerable. Of course, not everyone is like that and I’m happy to leave well enough alone if someone isn’t taking the bait. But I’ve been surprised at how much cooperation and openness I’ve been able to get just from asking politely about personal details or sharing something about myself (that I’d thought through in advance – literally, I think to myself, “that story about my mom and that thing would be great to share”).

    The key is to think about this ahead of time (like you are) and have some quips ready. It seems unfair to those of us that like to stay private, but it really does have benefits.

  6. I don’t think people will find it too unusual if you’re the youngest faculty member. I mean, folks are getting married/having kids a lot later these days.

    You’re going to have to talk about whether or not you’re dating anyone — that’s a given. If you don’t want to talk about it at all, I’d suggest not going. But how much you end up talking about your dating life is up to you. Truly, just deflect the question and say, “Oh, no, I’m not dating anyone right now, but I just moved here and am looking forward to diving into my work and meeting new friends/colleagues.”

    If you’re defensive/short about it, your colleagues are not going to get a good impression of you. They’ll probably think you’re rude or standoffish or have something to hide.

    • Diana Barry :


    • Sydney Bristow :

      That is excellent phrasing. A casual honest response is the way to go followed by questions. I think it’s natural. If someone asks if you’re married, have kids, dating, etc then I’d answer the question like this and then ask them the same question. If they ask you then I think they’d be happy to answer as well and then you start to know each other a little bit.

      I wouldn’t like it if someone was super nosy and asked more personal questions that made it seem like they wanted a rundown of my exes, or something like troubles conceiving, etc but I wouldn’t go I to an event expecting people to be like that. If someone is then you’d have to come up with a strategy going forward but I wouldn’t worry about it yet.

  7. I think being so defensive and secretive about your personal life can come off a little weird. As in — what are you hiding? Something creepy?

    I always ask those kinds of questions to just get to know someone from a different context than their work. It is nice to feel like you know someone — including who their spouse is, if they have kids, and what they like to do outside the office. There’s more to life (and people) than work! It’s hard to make a connection with someone without getting personal on some level.

    I can understand not wanting to get the grand inquisition like you can sometimes get from family/friends/ strangers. (Do you have a boyfriend? Why are you single? Do you want to have kids? When are you going to have kids? Aren’t a little old to not be settled down?) But an “Oh I just moved so I’m getting to know people in the city” or “Nope, no relationship right now. Maybe some day soon” would be appropriate.

  8. Charlotte York :

    I moved as a single never-married no-children thirty-something to a place where that is pratically an alternative lifestyle. I was asked at a similar event where my husband was. I looked around and asked “Where IS he?!?”

    • Haha! That’s amazing!

    • I think it is the same here when you are over 25 and have a law degree. Once I gradueated, everyone wanted to know when I was getting MARRIED. I said as soon as I find the right guy who is abel to support our life style and raise our children. Now that a few year’s go by, peeople are asking the same question, but my answer has remeained the same. To bad that this guy has NOT apeared for me. All the men do NOT want to marry me and have me raise our children. They want to have sex, but that is it. That is NOT what I want. I will of course have sex with my HUSBAND as long as children are IN THE PICTURE. Alan said he wanted kid’s but he never wanted to marry me. FOOEY on him because I just had sex with him. That is NOT what I wanted, partucularley b/c he was an alcholholc. FOOEY on Drunk’s!

    • Charlotte York,

      How did you make friends? Were they older or younger? I made a similar move and still experience culture shock from time to time.

    • Haha, good answer! Are you in academics? I teach at a small college in the rural South, and at 30 I feel like a beebee wife. Plenty of my coworkers in their 30s and 40s are unmarried. I figured that was common in academics.

  9. Another Annon :

    Work parties with SO are such a nightmare for me. I dread my company Christmas party when I don’t have a date. Last two times when I attended alone, I felt so awkward as almost the only single person around when everyone else has some one of their “own” to talk/walk around with. We did not have assigned seating, every one moves from table to table or stands around pub table with food/drinks. But everyone seemed so involved with their date, I felt like a third wheel trying to make conversation with my own team members. Ugh, I left after an hour as I was absolutely not enjoying myself and was asked several times if I came with someone. I was secretly so glad and relieved when Christmas party was canceled last year. I can handle going to weddings solo, travelling by myself, but being alone around co-workers I see everyday at such SO events is mortifying.

  10. My take from this article is that faculty at a university may be interested in your personal life not to set you up, but for other reasons:

    • Charlotte York :

      That’s interesting. Do you think it is the same for graduate schools (particularly law)? Not for the GlamLaw (courtship + 2 years in a firm) types of professorships, but for semi-retiring from practice in a city with several law schools w/in a short drive.

      Maybe this is a different question since it’s not looking at a lifetime of working your way up, but a 15-year platteau.

      I always thought I would love to teach (although I have no stomach for politics, so perhaps not).

      • It’s not likely for someone to get a tenure-track position teaching law after semi-retiring from 15+ years of practice, so the article’s probably not that pertinent. You may well be able to adjunct at that point, though, depending on your field and demand, although the baby penalty will be different in that context.

  11. anonymama :

    Echoing everyone else, I think you also have to realize people may just be asking in order to make small talk, and often a polite brush-off and change of subject/new topic of interest will be pretty effective (oh, no, not seeing anyone right now, but I am really looking forward to trying the local cuisine/finding a new gym/exploring x local attraction, do you have any recommendations?) You can talk about some personal things (where you are from/went to school/worked previously) without talking about really personal things. Pick a few slightly personal topics, so people can feel like they are getting to know you, but that you are still comfortable talking about, and steer conversations toward those.

    • Anonymous :

      Completely agree with this being small talk! Lots of people like to talk about themselves, their family, etc. and it helps them open up to you. I don’t have kids but regularly ask coworkers about their kids because they seem excited to talk about them. Not to be mean, but I honestly don’t care about your child’s soccer game but I don’t mind talking about it for a few minutes if it’s something you’re happy about. If not kids I’ll ask about their SO/dog/whatever. It’s more about the conversation than actually wanting to hear about your dating life.

  12. I think the key is to have a friendly tone and project comfort with yourself (even if you don’t feel totally comfortable), and you can get away with saying as little as you want about your personal life. Having been single until I was 40, and having been to many of these get-to-know-you events, I can say from experience that my responses in my late 30’s that made no apologies about my I married state (“no, I’m not married, how about you?” delivered with a pleasant tone and smile) were accepted without further ado, whereas my uncomfortable late ’20s response (uncomfortable pause, “no, I’n not married,” uncomfortable pause, feeling like everyone thinks I’m a loser, looking away) made others uncomfortable. In your situation, I can imagine myself saying “no, I’m not married, and fortunately I’m not even dating anyone right now, which made it so much easier to move here. Have you lived here long?– people will pick up on your tone and move on from there.

  13. I think that being one of two new people at a “meet the new faculty” picnic in OP’s honor will always lead to some get to know you questions, but I don’t see what the big deal is – it’s normal to come alone if you just moved to town (but I often go to things alone, so maybe this is outside OP’s comfort zone?). To the extent that there’s any “grilling,” it’s probably just your coworkers trying to get to know you and be friendly. If OP’s uncomfortable talking about herself, she should deflect by asking about the town, her colleagues and their families. Most people will happily talk about themselves.

    On a related note, what do you guys think about situations where the SO exists but doesn’t accompany you to social events? Thinking about this question made me realize that my SO generally doesn’t come with me to work events like this and I am wondering if that is perceived as weird. From my standpoint, he’d be bored to tears and I would just rather focus on whatever I am there to do as opposed to even for a second thinking, is he enjoying himself, seeming aloof, bored, etc…. This works for us, and as I’m the more extroverted one of the two of us, I go to his work social events with him frequently (I tend to have fun when out of my element, he doesn’t), but am wondering if our arrangement is coming off as odd? No one specifically says anything, but I do get the occasional comment like, “I hope we get to meet him one day finally!”

    • Charlotte York :

      I find that now that I am married (with children, driving a minivan), I am often solo at events. Not at the spouse-SO-socializing type of events (weddings, etc.) or life events (funerals), but at much of the in-between (reunions, extended trips to take small children to visit distant relatives, etc.). When we do get a sitter, we do things usually as just the two of us.

      I think it would be odder for us without the naptime / early bedtime / one is sick at home issues that come with children (i.e., if it were more of a choice on his part or on my part when he gets to go out).

    • If people want to think something of it, they will–nothing you can do. I think your current attitude is great, i.e. you two just have different tastes for this stuff, especially since well-meaning colleagues will usually take the cue. I’m more like your SO in my relationship, often begging off group events and perhaps raising questions as to why. I just try to hope people understand introversion (as opposed to not caring or being too cool) as the reason for differing habits in this regard.

    • My relationship with my husband is very similar, AIMS. I think it might be common among couples where one is an introvert non-lawyer and one is an extrovert-lawyer (recognizing that lawyer social functions can be miserable for non-lawyers to attend). My husband will come to the major events (holiday party, sponsored dinners, etc), but he knows that I’ll often have more fun without him when it’s a purely social event and I don’t have to worry about him having fun, looking bored, etc.

      TL;DR: If it’s weird or odd, then I’m in the same situation.

    • Alaskalaw :

      My SO (a non-lawyer) and I have kind of the same thing. He doesn’t go to many of my events but if I think it’s important I make a showing of him (i.e. Big Big Boss will be there, etc) he’ll show up and look all supportive and such like. I will do the same for him. We both work in government and have different last names so what’s fun is when we are both invited professionally to the same sort-of social event (like a business luncheon) and people try to introduce us to each other.

      • Thanks ladies. I guess it is what it is and if people think it’s odd, not much I can do about it. It tends to work for us (even though he is a fellow lawyer and so doesn’t have that excuse to sit out law-related functions) and I feel like I shouldn’t make him and myself miserable just to be a bit more “normal” in others’ eyes. But glad to see I am not alone in having such an arrangement!

        • Anonymous :

          You can always say SO is busy with their own work. Nowadays, I think people expect and respect that relationships are not centered around one person’s work, with the other person being available to “support” them on demand – no more housewives who couldn’t possibly have any bigger commitment than the husband’s holiday party. It is normal to have two demanding jobs and for one person not to be able to attend the social functions of the other person’s job. I wouldn’t worry abnout it.

  14. Asking if you have kids when you’re at a family event isn’t being nosy. Nosy is my mom insisting that she “has a right to know” (her exact words) what her cousin’s wife’s medical condition is. We happened to see our cousin and his wife and the wife looked a little tired. My mom asked her aunt (the cousin’s mother) and my great-aunt said that the wife had had a battery of tests at Mass General but they hadn’t gotten the results yet (query whether it was my aunt’s place to share that, but whatever). This touched off a rant by my mom about how no one told her cousin’s wife was having tests done and how could no one have told her. (My mom is not especially close with either cousin or his wife — the whole family lives in the same part of Massachusetts and they see each other maybe every other month. So not like she and cousin’s wife are besties.) She also was upset earlier this year that I had not shared with her all the nitty-gritty details of my brother-in-law’s mental health treatments. Because she has a right to know about her family. Now that’s nosy.

    • I’d agree with the initial point. Asking if you have an SO/kids isn’t nosy. Ask why not, is.

      If you’re new in town, I guess I’d be open to connecting with people at work. No, you don’t have to pour out your whole life story because someone asks, but have something to share about yourself. If you don’t want to do follow up, then change the subject and ask about your interrogator. Appeal to their knowledge about the area.

      • “Asking if you have an SO/kids isn’t nosy. Ask why not, is.” Yes. Yes yes yes. This is a great way to put it!

  15. I would not be comfortable accepting a date set-up from colleagues when I was brand new. Whether it worked out or not, I’d feel like my personal life and work life could intersect in unwelcome ways as a result–again, because I barely knew the go-between at the beginning and had not yet even gotten my bearings in the new job. There’s also the possibility of being set up with someone of the wrong gender. Um.

    • That would be awkward! I had the same thought that getting set up before you know your colleagues well and have a chance to build a relationship with them sounds like it could be problematic. For example, what if you end up getting set up with someone’s younger brother, then having to explain why you’re not interested in going out with him again!

  16. anon prof :

    I have several thoughts on this based on being in academia for more years than I care to count:
    1) Many of your colleagues have probably already discussed your relationship status–not because they are nosy but because they were concerned about whether you would accept the offer, whether you would need help finding a job for an SO, and so on. So they may not ask at all.
    2) Your colleagues’ biggest concern may be that you find an SO elsewhere and leave. The two-body problem is a big concern for academics. They may hope you meet someone who is tied to the area so that you are unlikely to leave.
    3) Be very nice to the spouses, be they husbands or wives. You don’t want to get lumped together with the faculty wives all the time, but try hard to reach out to them. Don’t assume that they don’t have careers, and don’t drop them like a hot potato if they don’t.
    4) Relax and have fun! Almost everyone has a vested interest in you succeeding and being happy and productive at the college or university.

    • Also an academic here. I agree with anon prof. My experience has been that faculty pretty much know each other’s relationship status, but don’t ask anyone in these ways. I would be shocked if any of my colleagues asked these questions of a new colleague. A few years ago a newly hired colleague asked me — at an opening the year party– whether I had children, and I realized that no one in my academic world had asked me that question in many years. So don’t expect people to ask or interfere. PS: I teach in a big city, with many younger and more liberal people. It may differ in other parts of the country, and with generations.

  17. TO Lawyer :

    Not in academia but in a small firm where I’m the only single lawyer and people ask me lots of questions about my personal life. I keep the information accurate but brief i.e. yes I’m dating someone but I won’t give you all the details or no i’m not seeing anyone right now but no more details than yet.

    And yes some of the more senior lawyers get overexcited and try to set me up with any single young male lawyer we come across but I find if I just keep the answers brief, they don’t feel like I’m hiding anything but I’m not uncomfortable giving out more information than I’d like.

  18. dating in the workplace question:

    last week i hooked up with someone in my office (he’s a few levels above me, but in a different department which I never work with though we often see each other at work functions). there had been some prior flirting, but last week we both got pretty inebriated and well, one thing led to another. he emailed the next morning to say that was fun and to make sure that i got home okay. we exchanged a few more emails, but i stopped responding after a few because i wasn’t sure what i wanted to happen. if i do want something to happen, 1) is there any chance he’s actually interested and 2) what should i do? i’ve never been good at the follow up and am not really sure how the workplace dynamic affects this (especially since he’s senior to me).

    • Eek! This isn’t really my area of expertise (because what I would probably actually do in your shoes is awkwardly avoid this person forever more, change jobs, leave town and eventually change my name), but try re-posting on the coffee break thread for more responses.

      My non-crazy answers to your questions are (1) it’s hard to say; and (2) if you didn’t work together, I would suggest you invite him to get coffee or something else casual and try to feel things out from there. It’s okay to admit your uncertainty — it is likely that he is as uncertain as you are at this point. Since you do work together… I am not sure what you should do, but talking to each other honestly would probably be a good starting point.

  19. Etiquette question: I have a co-worker who I used to regularly get lunch and/or drinks with. Over the past few months, she has cancelled several of our lunches or drinks, more or less at the last minute. On a couple of those occasions, I had declined other plans or otherwise worked my schedule around thinking I had plans with her. I have tried to be gracious and accommodating but after the last one, decided that I would no longer go out of my way to schedule these “dates” – usually it was me who picked a day, picked a place, did the inviting, etc. So, no hard feelings, I know everyone is busy and I didn’t want to put her in a position where for whatever reason she no longer wanted to do this, but couldn’t think of a way to graciously extract herself or decline.

    However, whenever I see her, she says things like “when are we doing drinks?” or “let’s put something on the calendar for next week!” I have tried to respond in ways that put the onus back on her, for example, “Yes, definitely – just give me a time and place!” or even, “Yeah, I know you’ve been busy, so let me know what evening would be best for you.” She never follows up with any specifics, but the next time I see her, she is asking the same questions and saying guilt-trippy things like “I never see you anymore!”

    So my question is, should I just stay my course and continue to ignore her efforts to get me to schedule something? Maybe she’s just saying these things to make conversation? (I’m from the South, transplant to LA – “we should get drinks soon” seems to substitute for “great to see you” around here.) Tell her why I’m not inclined to make plans? I don’t want to counter her rudeness with MORE rudeness, but I also don’t like feeling like someone doesn’t really value my time.

    • I had a friend who was just like this! “Let’s get together,” and then when I said, “Great, email me with some days that are good for you,” I’d never hear from her again… until she cornered me and asked if I was mad at her! Whatever, some people are just flaky. Just keep assuring her that you’d love to see her and she should just let you know where and when. My approach to the attempted guilt trip is to pretend you don’t even notice it.

      • yes, just ignore her. she’s not your best friend. don’t waste time on people who blow you off. that means ‘hi’ in her world probably.

      • Flaky here... :

        This. I am this person. It is a problem; I know. For what it is worth, it is not that I don’t care about seeing my friends; it is that I am terrible about making plans. I always think “I’ll call him/her tomorrow” “I will check my calendar and propose lunch for next week as soon as I get back to my desk” but then something comes up and I totally forget. I even add calendar reminders to plan things with friends, but then I forget the reminders if at that moment I was doing something else that couldn’t be postponed or interrupted. I get into the routine of the day, and days pass by without me noticing. Often months pass and I haven’t called / seen any of my friends. It is not about blowing off one person, it is that I live in my little world.
        Of course you shouldn’t feel any obligation to make new plans yourself, but also don’t assume that the person is blowing you off on purpose. I wouldn’t take it personally. This friend probably genuinely wants to see you when she runs into you.

    • I was way too accommodating for way too long with friends like this. I have found that these friends are less likely to cancel if they propose the date/time/place, so I do what others suggested and always throw it back to them when they suggest getting together. But really, I would rather focus my energy on other friendships.

  20. Academia can be quite a different sort of workplace, in that the lines between work and personal life are often very blurred. People who are hired on the tenure track have been chosen because the current faculty think they will be a good fit, which encompasses their research/teaching, but also a good fit for the overall feel of collegiality. The current faculty want to get to know you because they want you to be happy there and to want to stay. The questions might be small talk, but they also help people figure out what kinds of things you like and who you might click with (just in a friendly way). At my college faculty generally all get along, but there are groups who have different interests, like hiking, or brewing beer, or sci-fi shows, etc. if I find out you like those things, I’m steering you in that direction.

    Most of our back to school events are family/significant-other friendly because that’s valued at my college. No one cares if you’re single or don’t have children (true for many of the younger faculty members), but a lot of the partners and children know each other and appreciate being included. Being family-friendly is a often a good sign, even if it’s not directly applicable to you. For us, that focus also carries over to a very generous and inclusive parental leave policy.

    Whether you’re at a smaller college or not, I’d recommend a book called Good Start: A Guidebook for New Faculty in Liberal Arts Colleges. It’s full of insight about navigating the relationship part of a professorship, which we aren’t always taught in grad school.

  21. I have voice the lone contrary opinion here. As someone who is mid-thirties and single (never been married, no kids), I find these relationship questions invasive and judgmental. That may have more to do with my level of uncomfortableness with my current situation, but certainly there are others (say, someone who is in the process of divorcing, someone who recently discovered that her husband was cheating on her, someone who has recently discovered that she will not be able to have kids) who might be uncomfortable about certain “standard” questions based on whatever their current circumstances are. Honestly, I find the question of my relationship status as invasive as asking a married person how healthy her marriage is. Which I would never presume to do, as that is incredibly personal. I find it much safer to stick to neutral topics (weather, hobbies, neighborhoods within the city, tv shows, books, movies and so on) initially. I have a friend who just got married, and inevitably, the question of kids comes whenever we are meeting new people. She is unable to have children and I have watched her become quite uncomfortable when being asked. She has not yet fully come to terms with what this means for the course of the rest of her life. Hardly a casual conversation topic. For those of you who are lucky enough to have found your partner and be married, or lucky enough to have children, these might seem like casual questions. But they don’t necessarily read that way to those of us who are still trying to figure things out. I feel sympathy for Reader R. I think the best suggestion is to be clear with something like “No, I didn’t bring anyone to the picnic,” but “I see your two children are here,” or something along those lines to change the topic of conversation immediately and still talk in an open manner. But I do think it is important to acknowledge the level of judgement here. Up thread, someone who was married worried about not bringing her husband to events because he didn’t like to come, and whether or not that would reflect negatively on their relationship, and ultimately on her. There is definite judgement going on here when it comes to these relationship questions.

    • 100% agree. Was thinking same. I used to be more open- as someone in midde of divorce just after having a child, shocker to me, struggling and everything changing financially etc. with huge implications for my life and I’m exhausted, it is NO ONE’s business except my boss when he needs to be informed when I need time off etc. It is painful and personal. I utterly ignore it with the people I manage, and they know better mostly than to ask. Though I know they speculate. In other conversations at work, I punt or say vague things. I realize people are just trying to be nice, but good heavens there are sooo many reasons people might not take it lightly or want to share. Better questions: How are you? What do you like to do on the weekends? Any travel plans? Are you from this area? Etc. Also sorry kat, I thought your answers sound rather scripted and overly business- cheery fake.
      ONe time, a sweet employee of mine wanted to make a baby card thingy for me (she is a crafty engineer) and gently asked whether she should put the father on. Um, hell no! I said though: let’s just do the baby, she’s the cute one! It is not that hard to be friendly and evasive… except when caught of guard. I’m getting pretty good at it. You aren’t wearing a ring, they know you aren’t married. If you are dating, seriously that is not their business, at ALL. what- yes I got laid last week? GIve me a break. You don’t need to explain yourself for being alone- it’s an f-ing business event. WHen I was married, he hardly ever came to that stuff. I have riskily brought a current partner to some lately, figured what the hell: they can make their assumptions and if we don’t work out, they probably won’t remember, or I just don’t care. People called him husband, it was someone else’s spouse so I didn’t correct it. Whatever. Say/do what’s best for you!

    • While I think you may be right in many settings, academic is kind of a special case here, at least in my experience. It is 100% routine for people to move to entirely new cities/small towns for a job, and to spend the rest of their career in that new place. In these circumstances, curiosity about a new colleague’s personal life is almost certainly just an interest in helping them to fit in to their new surroundings and help them make a life in this new place.

      Also, I teach at a college with about 150 faculty. We live in a town of less than 10,000 people, including our students. Faculty plus administrators plus their families make up a BIG proportion of our small town. As a result, there’s a lot of out-of-work socializing going on as well – someone who keeps their personal and work lives wholly separate would have a tough time finding a community here, I think. Sometimes people are just looking for new friends!

  22. Engineer in Biotech :

    I’m single and getting asked about my dating/marital status is not common for me at work (liberal state, straight environment). I’m not comfortable being out as I haven’t fully accepted it. When co-workers mention their SOs, I listen, but I’ve never felt pressured to contribute my experiences to the conversation. I know that may be frustrating, but it just doesn’t seem like an appropriate moment to add ‘oh, i think i’m gay’ I do have co-workers who try to get me to open up almost by oversharing their stories. I appreciate their efforts. For the most part, most become disinterested. Basically, I understand the whole it’s-none-of-their-business mentality and I think they do too. For whatever your reasons are for not wanting to share your personal life at work, your colleagues will get that vibe from you. I’m wondering if anyone has a co-worker like me? do you have any advice for someone like myself?

    • Guinness Girl :

      Have you thought about talking over the idea of whether or not you are gay/straight with a therapist? There are some great ones who are conversant in LGBTQ issues and can help you sort out your thoughts/feelings, give you some resources, etc. (including how to talk to colleagues about your relationship status, whether you’re ready to come out or not). Google around and find one – you can just do a session or two and see if you like his/her manner/style. Life’s too short, you know?

  23. saacnmama :

    I’ve moved to a new town as a single professor, and the question about dating someone very often led to the questioner trying to come up with ideas of where I could meet someone, or who they could set me up with. I learned to reply by saying something along the lines of “I’m too busy for that” or “Not right now, thanks”, with a friendly smile. And then I’d make a comment about where we were–tasty miniquiches, or such a nice location, or whatnot.

  24. I don’t think that asking whether a new coworker is married constitutes “nosiness.”

  25. anon in-house :

    I would NEVER allow coworkers to set me up on a date! Whether I am new kid on the block or been working somewhere for eons. That’s just terrible advice in my opinion.

  26. I really appreciate the thoughtful input on this subject :)

  27. It’s funny I came across this, because I am usually tight lipped at work about my personal life. I’ve been at my present job for two years now, and I”m under a TON of stress at home. I’ve learned the hard way that people just don’t want to hear too much about it (and I could go on and on about it). And it’s my family members being out of work too. So coworkers may ask me what did I do this weekend, and while everyone is talking about outings, for me the truth is I don’t really go anywhere cause I can’t afford it (and I’m largely anti-social anyway and spend time reading and writing at home and that’s REALLY hard to explain to people as a fun thing to do ALL weekend). So avoid those uncomfortable looks people give when you even approach subjects like money at work, I’ve started using white lies like “oh I’m meeting a friend this weekend” or “going to a neighbors house for a barbeque/picnic/whatever” or something along those lines.

    My advice is that if you don’t want to talk about your personal life, a generic white lie will work. It may not be the best thing to do but it always works for me.