Carolyn Hax: Advice

Carolyn Hax: What’s the line between interest and nosy?

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: My mom finds it uncaring that I don’t make personal inquiries of the details of people’s lives when I chat with them. For instance, after telling her I saw an old friend, she'll ask questions about their life, job, etc. I find that type of conversation nosy, and let people volunteer such information. I will ask, “How are you?” like anyone else, but I don’t say, “How’s your parent/child/spouse/pet/job/health issues?” I talk to people about “stuff,” and personal anecdotes may or may not be a part of any conversation.


Assuming you are over 18:

“Mom, you had your chance to raise me, and you did a bang-up job if I do say so myself. Now I’d appreciate it if you stopped trying to touch up your work.”

That’s not the question you asked, but it’s the one I wanted to answer.

As for your approach to questions, I suggest sticking to your “How are you?” ways unless you’re sure you’re talking to someone like your mom. Nothing wrong with adjusting to your audience. The important thing is that you’re showing an interest in others.

Re: Nosiness: I’m horrible at answering “How are you?” I say, “Um … fine!” But if someone says, “How’s your mom’s new practice?” I think “Awesome! I know how to answer this!” I welcome such questions but there’s a line between that and “How’s that rash down there?”


You can also show interest without getting personal: “You have such great taste in books – what have you been reading lately?”

Re: Nosiness: I don’t know. I briefly dated a guy like this who rarely asked me questions. When I asked about it, he said, “I figure if you want me to know something, you’re going to tell me yourself.” While he didn’t mean to, he DID come off uninterested. Yes I could rattle off my life story, but some interest on his part would be welcome, and I never saw that interest beyond a nod of the head. There was no healthy back-and-forth there.

Anonymous 2

The middle is taking shape, between “How’s the rash? and a silently nodding head.

Re: Nosiness: I don’t feel comfortable blathering on about the details of my life if the person I’m talking to has only expressed a cursory interest – i.e., they haven’t asked ANY follow up questions. There are also a ton of complaints out there about people who won’t shut up about themselves.

So I think there is a fine line here between being nosy and being uninterested. You have to admit, “How are you?” is a question a lot of people throw out there without really wanting a true answer.

Anonymous 3

Your answer is in your question: follow-ups. Start with a query that’s safely general or arm’s-length, then prompt people – gently – on whatever topic they volunteer in response.

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