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Recently, I was in a conversation with family members, siblings, in laws, etc. We are all Americans, and all of the same generation.

Someone asked, "What would you do if so-and-so (a family member) dies? (This person is young but has a condition that may be terminal.)

I reacted viscerally and said, "I don't want to go there." The other person accused me of being dismissive. (He wanted to know my probable reaction to a real contingency.)

Under different circumstances, I would agree. But when the question is literally one of life or death, I feel that it was reasonable for me "not to go there."

How could I have dodged such a question more smoothly, without being seen as dismissive by the other party?

  • I think that a question based on this situation would be a good one for the stack, but as written is off-topic. We cannot address this kind of question here. If you have a specific goal you'd like to achieve in a situation like this one, editing it into the question will likely bring the question on-topic pretty easily. – Upper_Case Feb 18 '19 at 18:09
  • @Upper_Case: I edited the post by adding a new last question. – Tom Au Feb 18 '19 at 18:11
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    Since your question is asking about the social norms of the interaction you had, I think it would help answerers to know what culture you are in, and also the relation between you and your family member (for instance, the way I'd respond if my grandmother asked me is probably different than if it were a cousin) – Rainbacon Feb 18 '19 at 18:13
  • @Rainbacon: I added that we are Americans and that we were all of the same generation. – Tom Au Feb 18 '19 at 18:16
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    As Upper_Case pointed out, asking if your actions (or others actions) were right or wrong in a situation isn't a good fit for this stack, and may be closed. You may want to remove those parts and focus on how you could tactfully dodge the question. – Rainbacon Feb 18 '19 at 18:25
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It's completely reasonable to "not want to go there" when it's something awful that might happen but hopefully won't. In this case probably the person who asked you has been thinking about this possibility, is quite worried or stressed about it, and wanted to discuss it. If that's true, saying something like "I've tried not to think about it. What do you think?" would work. It would give the other person a chance to open up and discuss their concerns. You wouldn't have to contribute to the conversation other than being a sympathetic listener.

I haven't been in this exact situation, but after discussions with a family member my wife remarked later how good it was that I was willing to just listen for an extended period while my family member put forth her worries and concerns. Letting someone talk through their issues can be very useful.

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    I've just edited the question a bit. Your answer still stands well, but could you perhaps add a sentence or two on how this isn't dismissive (it's quite obvious to me in this case, but having the explanation black on white always helps set a good example for other answers), and also another sentence or two to explain if/when this has worked for you? – Tinkeringbell Feb 18 '19 at 19:04
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In this case, I would try a more tactful approach when saying you don't want to go there. Maybe:

I'm sorry, but I don't wish to discuss this.

Alternatively:

I don't know, and I prefer not to think along those lines.

A comment (thanks Nico) pointed out another sentence to follow would also help these come across more tactfully such as:

and I prefer not to think along those lines, because it makes me too sad

TLDR: A simple acknowledgement would hopefully be enough. People cope differently and you just need to respect the other side.

The first is essentially the same as your initial visceral response, but if you at least put in an "I'm sorry" that seems to go a long way, at least in my experience. I'm from the Midwest (American) and there's a lot of jokes to be had about either us or Canadians throwing "I'm sorry"s everywhere, but when it comes down to it, those do matter in more serious conversations. I'm making a minor assumption here that you also would've preferred a way out of that conversation route entirely (not just dodging the question) and this would slightly more tactfully display that you would probably leave the conversation if it continues.

The second is a bit of conjecture on my part. I'm normally on the other side of this coin, but I'm willing to assume based on your original reaction that you do NOT have any idea how you would feel and are avoiding thinking along those lines. This second response may not be as tactful, but I'm guessing its probably truthful, at least to a degree. While blunter, this does answer the person's question (although maybe not to their liking) and shows that you don't plan on working out how you feel at that moment. Which is completely understandable and now falls on the rest of the group to respect that decision or not.

Life and death are not easy topics for most people. Every culture, family, person deals with this differently. There's no shame or dismissiveness (if that's a word) in not answering, but a minor acknowledgement would hopefully have been enough to prevent any extra tensions. I don't know if this qualifies, but everyone copes in different ways. Some people plan for every possibility, some prefer to wait and not mire themselves in worry. Unfortunately, it seems in this case you and the person who was asking have opposing mechanisms and there was bound to be some friction. Respect for the other position is the best you can do.

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  • Thanks for the edit! I see those yellow call out boxes everywhere but had no idea how to set them up in my answer – Red Mage Feb 18 '19 at 20:20
  • It should be displayed as " in the edit box and say "quote" when hovering over it with your mouse. ( yellow box ) Alternatively I would suggest that it may be a good idea to add some kind of "explanation" why you don't want to touch those subjects. They don't need to be fully fledged out but something along the lines of an one sentence explanation like "and I prefer not to think along those lines, because it makes me too sad" or "and I prefer not to think along those lines, since I think we can't really say how we will react without it happening." should make accepting easier for most people. – Nico Feb 19 '19 at 6:29
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    @RedMage You can practice in the Formatting Sandbox: You can create quotes by adding a > in front of your text. – Tinkeringbell Feb 19 '19 at 8:46
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I don't want to go there.

What you did here is stop the conversation dead in its tracks. While that was your intention, did you consider what was supposed to happen after you stopped it?

Think from your conversational partner's point of view. You've clearly protested the conversation they wanted to have. How should they respond to that?

  • Should they ask the same question in a softer manner?
  • Do they need to acknowledge that you didn't want to answer?
  • Did they offend you and are you waiting for an apology?
  • ...

Whatever option they choose, it's always awkward. And the reason it's awkward is because you didn't offer an alternative way out. The only way to keep the conversation flowing is to acknowledge what you said, but any response to that will be of a dramatically different tone than the conversation they were trying to have.

There are ways to make it less awkward. In all cases, a key part of this is to not respond viscerally (as you said). The other party wasn't trying to corner or offend you, they most likely asked what they consider to be an innocent hypothetical question.

Firstly, you can provide enough information that the other party knows your stance and thus doesn't need to awkwardly guess at how they should continue the conversation.

I haven't really thought about it and I'd rather not. We'll cross that bridge if and when we get to it.

Based on the answer you gave, the other party now knows to not continue on the topic, but they now also know that they don't need to particularly respond to your response (you're not upset with them).

Don't try to sound short or annoyed because that again halts the conversation. If you notice a pause, you can change the topic yourself in order to save them from the awkwardness of not knowing how to respond.

Secondly, you can try to avoid the direct question by checking to see if the other party is actually trying to find out something innocent that you don't mind answering:

Why are you asking?

Either they clarify that they actually want to ask the question they were asking (at which point you refer to the previous suggestion), or they clarify that they wanted to ask about something else that doesn't bother you.

It also has the added benefit of getting them to re-evaluate their question, in case there were actually being inappropriate.

Thirdly, although this might not apply to this particular situation (due to the life and death nature of it), you can deflect with humor. Do keep in mind that this only works in the right kind of setting, but it can work well in the right setting.

I've reconsidered and am not adding examples of humorous deflections as the subject matter is sensitive to you and tone of voice doesn't quite carry in a written format anyway.

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  • This was my brother in law. My sister (his wife) stepped in and said something like, "Tom doesn't want to deal with this issue. And this time, he shouldn't have to." – Tom Au Feb 21 '19 at 21:03

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