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How the British handle difficult questions

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


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

 Strategy 2: Try to change the subject


  • 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


  • 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.

Click for more information about our intercultural seminars or the IAP.

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