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I've seen this answer, where the person says that one might present oneself poorly if they hide their personal lives from their co-workers.

In-spite of that, I believe that revealing information about one's family can create prejudices in co-workers minds. This, apart from people wanting to form gang's/groups where the accept or reject people based on their country of origin or the language they speak, and basically create office politics.

Be it something serious like office politics or something minor like a prejudice or a coloured opinion because they know something about your personal life, these are the questions I have:

  1. If a person wants to be known to their colleagues on the basis of their professional skills and manners, and not on the basis of their personal life, then is it appropriate to politely decline to answer personal questions? (so are you married? How many kids do you have? What Did your Dad work as? What did you do during the weekend? How old are you?)

  2. If one could politely decline (while on probation or as a confirmed employee), how would one do so?

  3. Will declining to answer such questions really seriously hurt professional relationship building between colleagues? Any negative or positive side-effects it might have? Aren't we better off focussing on our jobs? If we do get along with colleagues well, then wouldn't outside-office-hours be ok for personal questions and socializing?

  4. Does declining, have a different effect/repercussion in a startup, mid-size company and large size company?

UPDATE1: This does not mean that the person wouldn't want to talk to colleagues at all. It's about wanting to be with them and talk about technology and what's happening around the world (and trying to be diplomatic and politically correct all the while), but not giving out info about one's personal life and family. Not because there's anything to hide, but in order to prevent certain prejudiced opinions or uncomfortable follow-up questions.

UPDATE2: Ok, so it's more advisable to give a vague answer or deflect it rather than explicitly decline from speaking about it. I'll say that's an art that needs to be practiced, but well worth it, because this art also helps in deflecting/defusing conflict situations. Thanks everyone! :-)

Someone else asked the same question, and got a totally different, positive response from everyone: Avoiding personal questions
Including a How to fend off nosy co-workers link from Lilienthal.

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    @Nav What country are you working in and is it a multicultural workplace? The answer here may be very culturally dependent. – Myles Dec 21 '15 at 17:07
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    In my experience, as long as you make polite interested noises when people enthuse about their activities and interests and family, most of them will barely notice if you give noncommital answers about yours. "Oh, you know; the weekend was fine. Caught up on grocery shopping. How was yours? Oh, really? Nice! Hey, I'll have to keep that in mind someday; thanks." – keshlam Dec 21 '15 at 23:51
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    You are almost certainly overthinking this entire situation. Your colleagues are asking these questions out of courtesy and politeness, maybe even an effort on their part to help you fit into your new role. I doubt they're going to form a coup behind your back based on what you say. Your clinical approach to workplace relationships is strange at best. Why not be a bit more... human? – Pequod Dec 23 '15 at 9:29
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    Update 2 would strike me as downright strange. There's a huge difference between deflecting normal small-talk with vague, noncommital answers, and having "please don't ask me anything about my private life" as an opening gambit. If anything, you are arousing more curiosity in your co-workers - and if they can't talk to you about yourself, they will gossip about what they imagine might be going on. – Julia Hayward Dec 23 '15 at 10:01
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    Your question makes me think "what's wrong with this person?" and obvious non-answers will do the same thing for the people asking them. People don't care about your personal life, they're a) showing an interest (and forming friendships) b) Making sure you're not gonna be trouble in their social circle. – Prinsig Dec 29 '15 at 16:22
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Yes, there is a wisdom in segregating your home life from your work life because what you do on your own time is your own business.

Yes, most people exhibit some prejudices towards others when they perceive another to be different, for whatever reason.

That said, there are questions that can be difficult to answer or evade without constructing a defensive wall that makes one appear at least a little prickly.

Humor can work to deflect, but it doesn't work for everyone. Also, some people don't pick up on the subtle fact that when an impolite or impertinent question is asked, a humorous, snarky, sarcastic, or satirical answer generally means that one is crossing a boundary that they should not return to.

Q: How many kids do you have?

A: I'm not allowed to discuss it.

Q: What did your Dad work as?

A: Her Majesty doesn't allow him to discuss his time in service.

Q: What did you do during the weekend?

A: Nothing illegal or kinky.

Q: How old are you?

A: Are we talking cumulatively throughout all of my known lifetimes? Wow, I know it's over 4,000 of King Henry's years, but I stopped keeping track a long time ago.

With some questions, such as "Are you married?", if one wears a wedding band in a culture where wedding bands are common, then it's something of an obvious answer to the question. If you say "No", then the person may persist with, "So why do you wear a ring?"

I recall one Manager at a previous employer who wore a wedding band. There were pictures in his office that appeared to be his wife and two grown daughters. A few months into the job, someone said to me in passing that his wife had passed away a few years back, from cancer I think. I later learned that they had been very close, and that my Manager was extremely shaken and affected by the loss of his wife. It was an excellent teachable moment for me that it's a bad idea to delve into a coworker's private life because you never know what you will find. One could ask what seems like an innocent question, but instead it opens up a chapter of pain in the other person's life.

Going back even more years, I had a coworker who was something of a dim bulb when it came to workplace relationships. I remember her asking our other officemate about politics, and the other officemate responded that she does not discuss politics at work. Later the dim bulb persisted with me about our officemate's response, and I was unable to convince her to respect our officemate's decision and let it go.

Most people will understand a gentle deflection of personal questions, but some will not. Most people will still treat you with respect and professionalism in the workplace even if you deflect or decline to answer personal questions, but some will not.

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"I believe that revealing information about one's family can create prejudices in co-workers minds"

I am pretty sure that politely declining to answer fairly innocent social questions may create even more prejudice... In the co-worker's minds now you either look like you've something to hide, or more likely that you just have a strange attitude and people will find you difficult to warm to.

If, however, you don't want to answer such questions, what I would think is that people are asking you simply because they want to have a conversation. So you could give a minimal answer and then either change the subject or turn it back on them, get them talking about themselves, which I think they will be just as happy with as asking you questions about yourself.

  • +1 for highlighting the social aspects of this question. As the general rule, people aren't asking these types of questions because they actually care about your personal life (or will even remember your answers for the most part) they're asking because because they have a biological almost-obligation to check that you're okay before accepting you into their social group. – Prinsig Dec 29 '15 at 16:17
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I am answering based on American culture. Other cultures may have different standards, which yield different answers.

No. This sort of general socialization is expected, and by refusing to share anything you will be ostracizing yourself from your coworkers. Since a tiny portion of jobs require working in isolation, you will be hindering your work life. It will not matter the size of the company or the person you refuse, except that smaller, or more family oriented companies may have a higher expectation of sharing here compared to larger companies.

  • I couldn't disagree more. Personal life is personal life and it is completely inappropriate to expect your coworker to be your friend and to have personal conversation with you. People who bring their unprofessional assumptions and judgments into the workplace are the problem. – user2989297 Dec 22 '15 at 20:29
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    @user2989297 - there's a difference between keeping your personal life personal (not sharing your personal problems, or what sort of bedplay your wife likes) and being unfriendly. If you do not share anything, you will be perceived as a weirdo or as someone with extreme trust issues. – Telastyn Dec 22 '15 at 20:56
  • Just a gentle reminder to please keep it professional and polite. – Jane S Dec 22 '15 at 23:04
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    This really depends on how you decline to share. For example, let's suppose you're married and don't want to talk about your partner. If someone asks and you respond with something like "I prefer not to talk about that," that response is probably what will actually be taken as cold or "weird". However, there are countless ways to avoid topics you don't want to go into. As implied by this answer, one strategy is to have at your disposal topics which you are willing to talk about, e.g. music, arts, sports or other general things which don't directly involve your personal life. – Brandin Dec 23 '15 at 9:48
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    @brandin - I agree, but the question seems to imply that the OP wants to completely segregate their personal life from their professional one. There is no way that will go well (in American culture). – Telastyn Dec 23 '15 at 14:07
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It would be viewed as antisocial at best. Answering generic questions is usually expected, there is no need to go in to detail, just curtail the conversation. Not volunteering personal information is fine and that is what many people do.

So if someone asked me if I was married I would say 'Yes', but I wouldn't say 'Yep', and start pulling out my wallet to show pictures of the wif and kids. It's just small talk. If they show an unhealthy interest in my wife (which has happened) that's a whole other issue.

But in my opinion it's best to answer politely enough and then move the conversation back on to work, normal people quite quickly grasp that you're not going to volunteer more info. They talking for the conversation, not so much the subject, so they're happy enough to move to another topic.

  • Another thing that could also help is just ask them the same question back. A lot of people are just asking you a question so they can get that out of the way and talk about themselves. Take full advantage of this. – Amy Blankenship Dec 22 '15 at 19:02
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    I like this answer, refusing to answer would be an awkward conversation killer or suggest you are hiding something. Worse case this turns into gossip and you've got the opposite result. Be vague and deflect if you don't want to go down that path, its paranoid to assume its anything more than small talk most of the time. – MattP Dec 26 '15 at 20:35
  • +1 because I like this answer. That said, answering with just 'Yes' can come across as a bit short (and almost rude). I suspect this is culture-dependant though. – Prinsig Dec 29 '15 at 16:27
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You say

... information about one's family can create prejudices in co-workers minds ...

Even if your family structure does not conform to societal norms, you still may be better off giving extremely vague answers rather than issuing a flat refusal to discuss the topic.

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    Very true. And deliberately refusing that information will also create prejudices - ones not based on reality, either. – Julia Hayward Dec 23 '15 at 10:03
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You have two main issues the way I see it.

  1. If upper management asks you a question like "Are you married?" Sure you can not answer but you better make a quick joke of it. If you just decline you are the weirdo from Maria's group and we aren't promoting the weirdo. I would tend to think most people would handle this situation poorly so I doubt it would work out for you.

  2. If you are going to have this attitude it has to be all or nothing. If you have a few coworkers that you confide in but have an "f-off" attitude with everyone else I cannot see this working out well for you.

Can you decline? Sure. Will it effect how people think about you? Yes. When you are working with people you want them to trust you with responsibilities and work. By your actions you are showing them that you do not trust them - this may work with the tech autistics but not with many other groups.

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