The holidays are here, good cheer abounds, friends and family members gather around the table to celebrate, and then suddenly your status-conscious cousin looks at you and blurts, "Hey, how much are they paying junior partners at your firm these days? I'll bet you're making some bank, eh?" Or it could be Grandma with genuine concern in her eyes, asking, "When are you going to get a real job so you can afford your own place?" Or your out-of-town college buddy who peppers conversation with questions about how much you spent on your new home, what the appliances in your kitchen cost, and what kind of credit score you're sporting these days.
Questions about money and personal finances can fluster even the most quick-witted conversationalist, so we consulted with etiquette expert Jodi RR Smith of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting about the best way to handle intrusive and downright uncomfortable financial questions with grace.
First, it's important not to take these types of questions personally. "What I've learned over time is what people say or ask about money is more of a reflection of who they are than a reflection on you," Smith said. That is, a question from your cousin about how you can afford your Tesla Model 3 may be because he's status-oriented, and Grandma's question about your career goals probably comes from a place of caring. "It's why it's important not to assume ill will," Smith added.
Of course, some questions are downright snarky, in which case Smith said it's best not to rise to the bait or react. "If they wanted to upset you, they'll see it doesn't work and move on."
Smith's other tips to surviving those uncomfortable money questions that tend to be asked around the holidays?
- Practice Preemptive Etiquette. It's like the Girl Scouts motto: Be Prepared. If you're going to a Christmas Eve dinner and you know your uncle will be there, armed and ready to grill you about your job, your salary, and how you can afford to live in a certain town, it'll pay to have your answers ready for him. "This takes you from reacting and saying something you might regret," said Smith, "to being the actor, in control of the situation. You know these questions are going to come, they're not unusual, so be ready with a sound bite."
- Deflect and Redirect. Politicians and pundits are masters of deflection and redirection, and these are skills you, too, can develop. The cousin who starts grilling you about your job and salary? Instead of stumbling over a response or informing him it's none of his business, you could respond with, "Well, the job market right now for attorneys is interesting, which reminds me...I was reading an article in The Wall Street Journal last week about the hottest jobs for recent college grads, and it made me wish I'd taken a class in artificial intelligence or alternative energy development. I read this really interesting book about the future of AI... ." Smith thinks this is a terrific way to avoid a scene. "It gets the conversation away from a topic that leads to nosy questions you don't want to answer," she said. Keep in mind that most people love to talk about themselves, too, so you can smoothly shift the conversation away from your personal finances by asking your inquisitor what they're working on at work or for a book recommendation for the holidays.
- Answer a question with a question. "There's no rule that you have to answer a question if it's asked," said Smith. If you're flummoxed by the question or feel that it's way over the line, you can always respond with something like, "Why do you ask? Are you interested in buying some jewelry, because I know a great guy you could call..." Or you can also answer with, "That's a really interesting question," and follow with a long pause. Sometimes the person realizes they've stepped over a boundary and will quickly change the subject for you...or on the other hand, it could give you some additional information that'll help you direct the conversation away from a thorny topic.
Smith agreed that that holidays can be a tough time for family and friends even without the nosy money questions. "There's a lot of baggage and history with these gatherings, and sometimes they're uncomfortable because of that," she said. "You can avoid a game of 'The Price is Right' just by being ready for the questions."