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Content warning: Self-harm

Due to some issues I had a few years ago with self harming (related to mental health issues which I no longer have - hurrah!), I'm left with a lot of awkward scars on my forearm. They're visible whenever I'm not wearing long sleeves.

I don't mind my scars being visible. They often are, in my day to day life. I also don't mind talking about them, but it's a discussion I prefer to have in an appropriate environment, on a one-to-one basis. There are various obvious reasons for that. People rarely ask about them.

However, there has been more than one occasion where, in a big group setting, somebody has been particularly vocal about them. Recently, at a party, somebody loudly asked "What are those marks on your forearm?", before turning a deep shade of red and looking mortified. The room promptly went silent, I made some sort of awkward joke, and conversations resumed again. It was awkward, to say the least.

I don't blame people for asking at all, and I accept that it's a possibility in these situations if I'm not going to commit to wearing long sleeves to every party I ever go to. I do accept that this is a solution to the problem, but it's not one that I want to abide by.

Is there a good way to deal with a scenario like the above, should it arise?

I'm looking for a way to ease the tension, and also make it clear that I don't think the person who's asked the question has done anything wrong. Ideally, I'd like the outcome to change. Last time this happened, I made some sort of odd joke (which didn't really make sense), and then one of my more confident friends loudly resumed his conversation and things carried on. What I'm hoping for is a way to quickly answer the question without coming off as upset or embarrassed, and without looking like I'm upset/annoyed with the person who asked the question initially.

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    Please don’t write answers in comments. It bypasses our quality measures by not having voting (both up and down) available on comments, as well as having other problems detailed on meta. Comments are for clarifying and improving the question; please don’t use them for other purposes. – user58 Mar 14 '18 at 9:39
  • First of all I commend you on moving forward; it takes great strength, courage and will to do that. Second is there is no getting around the fact people don't understand just how inconsiderate this is. Wearing long sleeves is certainly the easiest way and in some cases maybe the only way (I know of cases where paramedics have dismissed someone in need because of the scars on their arms). I can offer you this glimmer of hope though (this and the commending you is what my comment is for): the scars should fade in time. Other than that humour deflects a lot as you discovered. – Pryftan Mar 15 '18 at 21:33
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Recently, at a party, somebody loudly asked "What are those marks on your forearm?", before turning a deep shade of red and looking mortified. The room promptly went silent, I made some sort of awkward joke, and conversations resumed again. It was awkward, to say the least.

Yes that surely was awkward. In such situations I like to deflect the question with humor, just like you did. You say you made an awkward joke and the conversations resumed again.

Important fact about that scenario: the conversations resumed. The awkwardness came from the fact that Bob (the one who asked you that question) asked you such a personal question in a public setting, and not from you deflecting it. In fact it was awkward way before you even got the chance to deal with the situation.

Usually, people are decent enough to realize that a question like Bob's is inappropriate and an honest answer is not needed. Deflecting that question with any kind of humor is perfectly fine and may even help swinging the mood back from awkward to funny.

Again: it's not your fault that the situation got awkward; it is Bob's fault. Deflecting the Q with humor helps to eliminate the awkwardness.

So what I'm saying is this: you did fine! I think you could even reduce a bit of the awkwardness by preparing a humorous deflection beforehand. This way, you have a witty response immediately at hand, and you don't seem embarrassed, ashamed, upset, or annoyed.

Here are two examples of a humorous response:

Bob: "What are those marks on your forearm?"
You: "I'm trying to drink less, so I'm counting my drinks tonight."

Bob: "What are those marks on your forearm?"
You: "I was a tiger in a past life, the stripes just came with"

the second example was suggested by @Anoplexian. They state that this response will make Bob feel inappropriate for asking. I disagree; I think because it is so funny, it removes the awkward tension in the room and lets Bob off the hook (Bob just asked a very inappropriate question). Also, Bob is already embarrassed for asking that!

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – HDE 226868 Mar 14 '18 at 13:26
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I'd challenge one premise here: asking loudly in a group "what's with your arms?" is a poor social skill. That question should be asked quietly, in a one-on-one situation where you can answer in a way that you deem appropriate.

But your question isn't about teaching some boor better social skills, it's about how you respond to it. I assume that you don't want to give your life's story in that situation. I know I wouldn't.

Your basic assumption - that humor will ease tension - is correct.

I'd suggest saying "It's a long story" and acting like you're bored talking about it. That won't make others uncomfortable and shows that you don't care to respond right now. Otherwise, making a joke about it is also an appropriate response - something like "Shh! The lizardmen will hear you" or "It was a weird night in Tijuana - never again will I buy cheap tequila" or "That 'learn plastic surgery at home' kit was not worth $10.99" or something similarly absurd will most likely break the chain of thought going on. I'd suggest having a couple of responses so it's not always the same.

I do appreciate your approach to this - it's obvious you don't want to embarrass anyone while still deflecting.

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    "Shh! The lizardmen will hear you" This surely lends itself more to a Dr Who reference to The Silence? Looking past the person asking the question, raising your hand as if to make another mark, saying 'I'm counting The Si...', then do a double blink and ' Sorry... what was I saying?' – Spagirl Mar 13 '18 at 13:40
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    I assume it would be a poor social skill IF the person asking the question noticed that those were self-inflicted scarifications. Which, obviously, isn't the case. You can't teach that, and you definitely can't judge someone for asking that. The real boor here may not be the one asking the question. Good answer nonetheless if we skip that first part. – BlindSp0t Mar 13 '18 at 14:03
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    "long story" is the classic, non confrontational way of saying "none of your business" – user8282 Mar 13 '18 at 14:06
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    @BlindSp0t I disagree that the asker has to recognize the scars were self-inflicted for their asking to be inappropriate. Asking about scars, deformities, physical impairments, missing limbs, etc in a group of people is typically a bad social move regardless. – Bryan Krause Mar 13 '18 at 20:15
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    @BlindSp0t That story is made better by your username. – Beska Mar 14 '18 at 18:15
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Firstly, congratulations on your victory over self harming. I know it's not easy and can be a struggle.

Based on experience, the person who publicly asked the question made it awkward for the group.

"...somebody loudly asked "What are those marks on your forearm?", before turning a deep shade of red and looking mortified."

This person immediately knew they asked an awkward and personal question.

"The room promptly went silent..."

Everyone was waiting on your reaction in order to follow your lead. Some were possibly thinking how rude it was to ask or some wondered if you're ok. Mental health is still an issue that not many people are comfortable talking about. Some don't know how to handle those issues or others want to be sensitive and look to you on how to proceed.

Regardless of how you diffuse the situation, people may still react awkwardly if they're not aware that your self harming is over. Nobody is entitled to your private life and you seem pretty upfront so you could try honesty.

After your joke (since that seems to work well), you could follow up with a variation of:

Don't feel awkward about asking. It's a situation I've conquered and no longer an issue I battle with.

Don't worry about it. It's in the past and I'm much happier now.

You seem embarrassed for asking about my mental health. As you can see, it's in the past and I'm doing well.

This quickly addresses how to make the person not feel bad for asking, acknowledges that you're doing well, and possibly ease more tension that silently questions your mental health.

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I have several large noticeable scars on my arms, not from the result of self harm but from operations. I don't even notice having them, but I find people are awkward towards me about them. They seem afraid that if they point them out to me I'll be offended or get upset. It couldn't be further from the truth really, while I'm not proud of them I'm not exactly upset by them either. They're part of me, a medal if you will from a time where I had some accidents which closed a part of my life down but opened new avenues.

Be proud of your scars, they make you who you are. You had your bad times, you've come through them, but like all life events they make a mark on you either physically or mentally.

What I do is that I own the situation. I matter of factly tell them what happened and what how they ended up on me. It gives you ownership of the scars it gives you ownership of the conversation. I would think that if you did this people wouldn't think less of you or become awkward. Joking about it lessens the importance of them to you, and to the person asking the question.

  • I definitely don't know that this would work for everyone, but it's certainly a valid answer for some people, so +1. – Beska Mar 14 '18 at 18:16
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    @Beska I'm of the belief that you shouldn't be a prisoner to things you can't change. If you let them dictate what you can and can't do, how you feel etc, then you will have no quality of life. I know some won't think like this or do what I've suggested, but even if they tried it once I'm sure they'd see an improvement. – mickburkejnr Mar 15 '18 at 9:05
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This can be a tough situation, and it is your personal matter. You can choose what to reveal or not to reveal anything at all. So it is best to deflect questions about self-harm with a polite response that you don't want to talk about it and change the topic immediately.

In my opinion, it was fine that you deflected the question with a joke and try to do the same, but still you can try something like following if you want.

Your response could be like,

It's a long story, and now might not be a good time to tell. Did you read that [insert book name] (or did you hear about [can be any news or anything])

or

I'd appreciate it if we don't talk about that. [change the topic here]

If they accept what you said, then it's good. Though, as @avazula said, this might lead to an awkward silence, or people might end up pitying you, but declination and the change of topic will divert the conversation, so that won't happen.

However, this approach might not work with the people who still want to know and are insisting you to tell. In that case, tell a brief story about it. Don't go into the details.

It happened when I was upset (or depressed), but I am doing a lot better now.

Try to change the subject after that.

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    According to my own experience, answering with such sincerity could lead to an awkward silence, or even people pitying you. As @baldPrussian stated, I think it's a very rude behavior to ask about sth that obvious. I wouldn't do them the favor of talking about something belonging to an harmful past, plus the OP could find himself embarassed and in difficulty to change the subject. – avazula Mar 13 '18 at 14:00
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    @avazula I agree. Normally, no one will ask further once declined. That's why the second approach is for those who still asks about the scars even after declined by the OP. – A J Mar 13 '18 at 14:09
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People are seldom aware of crossing boundaries.
I think that humor is a wonderful defuse a situation, but not always appropriate for the setting that you are in, more solemn occasions, during business meeting, or when you just don't want to joke about it.

A few other ways:

  • Just Smile and Nod It is not rude to just smile and nod then go right back the discussion that was at hand. Your non-verbal response is an answer.

  • One Word Answer example: um-hum or thank you.
    Each of these are just slightly out of social context to allow that person to save face avoiding any humiliation or embarrassment on anyone.

Then return to the previous discussion, your non-verbal or one word response is an answer.

If you have a chance to speak to them privately and gently take the time to tell them how the innocent question made you feel. This can be done politely it will not stop your awkward moment, but it may prevent many others from the uncomfortable situation.

I know you meant no offense by asking an innocent question in public, however, it is deeply private to me. Thank you so much for understanding.

Remember, You always have the right to not answer questions in public or private.

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    It's not an innocent question though. – Harper Mar 13 '18 at 22:14
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    Nor did the OP say it was deeply private 'I also don't mind talking about them, but it's a discussion I prefer to have in an appropriate environment, on a one-to-one basis', it isn't a taboo topic, but there are taboo settings. – Spagirl Mar 14 '18 at 11:01
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Like others, I think you have been on the right track to use humour, and it is very generous-spirited of you to want to avoid making the person who asks feel awkward or as though they've committed a huge faux-pas.

Since you have said that you don't mind talking about it, its just that the setting has to be appropriate, perhaps the thing to do is to communicate that in a short, matter of fact way. There are any number of shorthand methods you might find to do that, from the very straightforward:

Hey, hit me up when I'm not in a crowd and I'll fill you in.

which lets anyone else who can hear know that you don't mind talking to the person about it, only that the time isn't quite right. It even faintly suggests that most people know and you just don't want to bore them with hearing about it again.

to the slightly cryptic:

Spoilers...

Which in the UK at least would be very readily understood as a 'now isn't the time' kind of response, but might put more of the onus on you to seek them out later to explain.

  • Any feedback on that downvote? – Spagirl Mar 13 '18 at 18:01
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    A possible downside to the “not in a crowd” idea is that some the crowd may take that as an invitation to them as well. – WGroleau Mar 13 '18 at 19:37
  • @WGroleau I don't quite follow. The OP would issue the invitation to the one person who spoke, in the hearing of the larger group. How would anyone interpret that as an invite to a group briefing? However, if that did happen, it would be a case of rinse and repeat. 'Sorry Bob, we still seem to have an audience, I'll catch you when I'm free.' – Spagirl Mar 14 '18 at 11:08
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    I didn't say they would interpret it as a "group briefing." (Although, peope are unpredictable.) OP might say it to the person that asked, but if a dozen people hear it, chances are some of them will also come asking. – WGroleau Mar 14 '18 at 13:07
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    @WGroleau if they come asking in one-on-one situations, from what the OP has said that isn't a problem. Hs concern is that he doesn't like to address it other than one-on-one. So I thank you for your input, but I don't think I'll make any changes for now. – Spagirl Mar 14 '18 at 16:22
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I don't think making jokes is a good response. What's funny about mental illness that tricks your mind into thinking that permanently damaging your own body is a good/acceptable choice to make?

As you're not opposed to talking about your scars in the right situation, if you wanted something that's still rather light but acknowledges the seriousness of your past mental illness, something like this could be an option:

They're scars from my past, when my mind was at war with itself.

Obviously not everyone who has gone through a mental illness would describe it in this way, but a short sentence starting with something like "they're scars from my past" and then giving how you would characterise your mental past health would I think meet the balance between diffusing an awkward exchange while remaining honest and unashamed.

While it may be awkward, there's nothing inherently inappropriate with asking about scars, and I think a response like this shows more respect to the asker than a joking response. You could also think of it as a small moment of normalising talking about mental health issues; part of normalising mental health as a topic of conversation includes that it's okay to have very short conversations about it, not just Deep & Meaningfuls. And from their reaction you could gauge whether a deeper conversation might be appropriate at another time.

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    I'm down-voting this, because what I specified in the question about the sort of solution that I was hoping for, and this answer does not take that into account. – Matt Mar 14 '18 at 18:49
  • @Matt You said that you want to ease the tension without looking embarrassed or annoyed. I think this is a great way to do that. So how does it not fit what you wrote? – curiousdannii Mar 15 '18 at 1:34
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    @curiousdannii but it's a discussion I prefer to have in an appropriate environment, on a one-to-one basis, also How to politely deflect questions (deflect, not answer) – Kaspar Scherrer Mar 15 '18 at 10:21
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    @Cashbee But OP also asks "What I'm hoping for is a way to quickly answer the question without coming off as upset or embarrassed" - I think this is a good option. It's a simple, non embarrassing way to answer, and through it you could gauge their reaction to see whether it might be something to discuss later one on one. – curiousdannii Mar 15 '18 at 11:01
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    Also, from a purely subjective point of view, the sentence "They're scars from my past, when my mind was at war with itself." would seem to me to be rather dramatic. I don't characterize my issues as "my mind being at war with itself". That's a caricature of what mental health problems are, not to mention what they're like to face. – Matt Mar 15 '18 at 12:22
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I would go like,

"Oh come on man, all the beautiful assets that I have, you found the least interesting one. How do you do it?

Two things happened here:

  • You are deflecting their attention away from the scars and towards the nature of the question itself.
  • You are also passively expressing that you are not interested in discussing it.

If they insist,

  • "Well you are doing it again, let me tell you how a cat fell in love with my eyes" (Or whatever random stuff that comes into your mind).

Most guys would stop at this moment unless he really wants to pick you on for a brat war. This is in most case uncomfortable for everyone, someone likely starts on another topic.

If they are persistent, you can't do much other than to excuse yourself for a "quick visit to the washroom" or "gonna take another drink, be right back".

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    You're also making it really personal and vindictive. Also, I think this draws further attention to it, rather than deflecting attention, particularly because it seems like a response out of insecurity. – Andrew Mar 13 '18 at 14:48
  • @Andrew The question itself was very personal. I wouldn't think this as something that came out of insecurity rather OP would be expressing let's move on, I don't like it directly but passively (well!). – Sathyam Mar 13 '18 at 14:52
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    @Andrew You either ask a personal question or you don't. You don't get to decide that it isn't going to be taken personally just because you want the 'intentionally' personal question to fill in for more appropriate smalltalk. To the other person, you're intentionally personal question is personal, no matter you're intent. – user61524 Mar 14 '18 at 6:24
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    OP explicitly said he doesn't want to imply the questioner did anything wrong. – WGroleau Mar 14 '18 at 13:09
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    @Andrew A person certainly can <i>not</i> take a personal question personally. However you cannot intentionally ask one because you want a more interesting conversation with the assumption that the person will not take it personally (unless its a good friend and that really doesn't fit the situation this is intended to answer). A personal question is personal, that's why its called such. – user61524 Mar 15 '18 at 19:00

protected by Community Mar 14 '18 at 17:46

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