How the British handle difficult questions

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In every culture, there are questions and topics that are taboo. They are considered too personal or indiscreet, and people feel embarrassed or even offended when asked about them. Handling difficult questions about taboo subjects can be really tricky and each culture deals with them differently. Not all cultures have the same taboos. When making small talk, an international colleague might innocently ask you about your salary, family, health or age without realising that these questions could make you feel uncomfortable. How do you deal with these difficult questions without further embarrassment? What do you say to make sure your colleague doesn’t lose face?

How the Brits do it

There are 3 main strategies that the British use when it comes to handling difficult questions. They use these strategies so they can prevent negative consequences like socially awkward situations and damaged business relationships. By using these phrases and strategies the British can avoid difficult questions rather than feeling embarrassed by talking about a topic that makes them feel uncomfortable. What’s more, they can do it in a way that doesn’t offend the person who showed interest in them by asking the question.

Strategy 1: Try to gain time to think about how to respond

Phrases:

  • Let me think…
  • That’s an interesting / difficult question.
  • Can we talk about that another time / later?

 Strategy 2: Try to change the subject

 Phrases:

  • Look at the time – I don’t want to be late for my meeting / lunch / train.
  • Actually I’d like to ask you a question about (something completely different) if you don’t mind…

 Strategy 3: Try to gently show that I’m uncomfortable with the question

 Phrases:

  • I don’t really know how to answer that.
  • I’m afraid it’s a long story.

Are you looking for cultural insights?

During the next few months, we’ll be publishing more articles on doing business in different countries. Do you have specific questions about how to deal with international colleagues or partners? Or, have you gained cultural insights through your work in different countries? Use the comments box below to let us know your thoughts.

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6 replies
  1. Will
    Will says:

    Hi Beth and Gerhard. I enjoyed reading your tricky question and reply – it got me thinking about the difference in levels of directness between German and British culture.

    I’ve noticed in particular that British people are often quite reluctant to mention their age, whereas for many German people it’s not usually a problem. Obviously it’s a matter of personal choice whether you reveal your age, but in my opinion, if asked about one’s age, there are two suitable replies for avoiding a direct answer:
    1. In my culture that’s a very direct question, but in yours is it not?
    2. I’m actually 21 (can’t you see?!)

    Indeed the first answer can be used as a reply to many different questions. The second one is useful if you feel that a bit of light-hearted humour would be appreciated by others.

    Gerhard: Which questions do you think German people consider difficult that others do not?

    Regards

    Will

    • Beth Hampel
      Beth Hampel says:

      Hi Will,

      That’s a really good specific example. I like option 1 as a response because it deflects the question without shutting the conversation down. What a coincidence that you posted this on my birthday too… another year older and all the more reason to avoid discussing my age 😉

      Best,
      Beth

  2. Beth Hampel
    Beth Hampel says:

    Hi Gerhard,
    I can see where you’re coming from, thanks for making that point. Your suggestion is less ambiguous and more direct – saying outright that the question bothers you. I especially like the way you’ve used modifiers like ‘rather’ and ‘really’. These help to soften the point. My feeling is that the person who asked the ‘taboo’ question wouldn’t be offended if you responded in this way.

    I hope you’re satisfied with my response to your ‘tricky question’!

  3. Gerhard
    Gerhard says:

    Hi Beth,
    many thanks for this article.
    For a non-native speaker like me an answer like “I don’t really know how to answer that” sounds like “I’m not able to answer it, because I have no idea.” That confusion happens rather often, I think.
    How about such an answer: “Oh, this is a rather tricky question. I don’t really know how what to say!”.

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