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This year is my husband's 10-year high school reunion, and some schoolmates emailed him about catching up — separately from the reunion. He's grappling with deciding whether:

  • to go to the reunion

  • to meet up separately with some of these schoolmates, like at a restaurant.

On one hand, he wants to see them and reconnect. I think he shall — he has no friends except me!

On the other hand, I get why he's grappling. Society, at least in Canada, finds his job very shameful and disrespected — it's listed in this Reddit post and we'd rather not say which.

I came across a The New Yorker article that feels similar. In our case, my husband is like Benatar, and his high school classmates like the reporter.

After finishing “The Human Predicament,” I wrote to Benatar to ask if we could meet. He readily agreed, then, after reading a few of my other pieces, followed up with a note. “I see that you aim to portray the person you interview, in addition to his or her work,” he wrote:

One pertinent fact about me is that I am a very private person who would be mortified to be written about in the kind of detail I’ve seen in the other interviews. I would thus decline to answer questions I would find too personal. (I would be similarly uncomfortable with a photograph of me being used.) I understand entirely if you would rather not proceed with the interview under these circumstances. If, however, you would be happy to conduct an interview that recognized this aspect of me, I would be delighted.

Undoubtedly, Benatar is a private person by nature. But his anonymity also serves a purpose: it prevents readers from psychologizing him and attributing his views to depression, trauma, or some other aspect of his personality. He wants his arguments to be confronted in themselves. “Sometimes people ask, ‘Do you have children?’ ” he told me later. (He speaks calmly and evenly, in a South African accent.) “And I say, ‘I don’t see why that’s relevant. If I do, I’m a hypocrite—but my arguments could still be right.’ ” When he told me that he’s had anti-natalist views since he was “very young,” I asked how young. “A child,” he said, after a pause. He smiled uncomfortably. This was exactly the kind of personal question he preferred not to answer.

Thus I drafted the forewarning beneath that's obviously based on Benatar's, and recommended my husband to use it when he emails his schoolmates back, so that they can change their minds now if they don't want to meet, or be prepared for my husband's secretiveness if they still want to meet.

I'd be happy to meet, but please note that I am a very private person who would be mortified to discuss subjects that ordinary people would discuss, like careers or education or finances. I would thus decline to answer questions I would find too personal. I would be similarly uncomfortable with a photograph of me being used, or being photographed. I understand entirely if you would rather not proceed with meeting under these circumstances. If, however, you would be happy to meet that recognized this aspect of me, I would be delighted.

But my husband finds this forewarning too kooky, unsociable, and unfriendly.

So, how could my husband forewarn a schoolmate that he will refuse to answer personal questions while not seeming like he is unsociable and unfriendly?

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    Is there a need to forewarn? I would think it would be simpler just to not answer questions I don't want to answer. – Rory Alsop Jul 4 at 15:51
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    @RoryAlsop Isn't it offbeat not to tell people your job? I see you're from Scotland, but in Canada, "What do you do for a living?" is such a common question. – Pamela Lee Jul 5 at 2:48
  • I added an answer that doesn't frame challenge because I feel like that was missing here, but I do think the approach of not warning at all has merit. – Meg Jul 5 at 15:48
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    Looking at the list of jobs from the Reddit link, I see that most of them fall under the category of blue collar jobs or unskilled labor. While I understand that many people don't respect people with those jobs, I don't believe that should be the case, and I don't think your husband should be ashamed of his job if he is happy with it. Do you think your husband would have any desire to talk about his job openly in an effort to change people's minds? People are less likely to look down on his job if he doesn't act ashamed of it. – David K Jul 8 at 12:41
  • @DavidK "Do you think your husband would have any desire to talk about his job openly in an effort to change people's minds?" - I don't know...Trying to explain to every snob will weary him... – Pamela Lee Jul 12 at 4:45
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The script used by Benatar for the interview worked because this was a professional meeting, and Benatar was setting the parameters of that interview. Using such a script with people you're meeting to enjoy their company does seem cold and distant.

Be it his job, or his picture being taken, or other personal questions he prefers not to answer, he can do that in the moment. The best way to do that is :

  1. State a swift refusal or offer a vague answer.

"Oh, my work is boring, but it pays the bills."

"I don't like my picture being taken, please don't."

Say this in a neutral, polite manner. If you appear nervous, or defensive, or do a big show about not talking about a certain subject, it will seem suspicious. At the least, it will make people around you uncomfortable. If you're treating this as a normal, boring thing, it shouldn't pique people's curiosity too much.

  1. Change the subject completely

After refusing to give an answer or giving a vague one, people might press a little more. The best way to avoid that is to get them to talk about something else. You could turn the subject back to them, but then it gives them the opportunity to ask you the same question when they're done. I would try to change the subject entirely, and either to a subject the others are very interested in (distracting them) or offer something else personal you'd like to share.


Writing all this out, it seems weird and unnatural, but people do it all the time. The scripts are a bit stilted here, but in real life it can go quite smoothly. Here's something that happened recently when someone asked about my father who passed away (and I didn't want to talk about it) :

A : "How are you doing ? I heard about your father."

Me : "I'm doing fine, trying to stay busy. I went to the movies yesterday, it was nice. Have you seen the latest Avengers ?"

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You can always evade the question; I say "oh, software stuff." Because there are people about who would react strongly if I say "ballistic software for military rockets." I do this every time non-colleagues ask me what I do. I have a few in-laws who are extremely political and I can imagine the kerfuffle if they knew...

You gave no details about the job you don't want to talk about so I would suggest something like; "Oh, just pen-pushing, data-management, customer management, office stuff, report-writing, site-management for buildings." James Bond would say, "Just a civil servant, bit of foreign liaison work."

Make it true but very boring. Give a vague answer and immediately ask the other guy the same question. Ditto kids; "boy and girl, both in school, tell me about yours". The whole point of these meetings is to discuss exactly this stuff.

Because when it gets down to it, they really want to talk about themselves... :-)

If he says he doesn't want to talk about x then they will think of nothing else and discuss it behind his back. Think about the "Streisand Effect" (link): If you try to forbid people from talking about something, or paying attention to it, or taking photographs of it, they will just do it even more.

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Although I understand the desire to avoid having to confront uncomfortable questions in the moment, that kind of formal forewarning is very likely to backfire. It immediately raises questions like "what is he hiding?" that might actually encourage more questioning. It also makes the sender seem quite eccentric, which is rather charming when you're a successful writer who doesn't want his personal information published to thousands of strangers, but fairly unsocial and off-putting when it comes to a personal conversation with someone who already knew you in high school. The use of 'ordinary people' to refer to those other than the writer specifically comes across as grandiose and mildly insulting.

A forewarning without those drawbacks would be something a lot less formal and detailed, and one that avoids separating the writer from 'ordinary people', instead appealing to friendship/shared history, and briefly expressing the desire for privacy.

For example, "You probably remember that I am a pretty private person, so I would prefer not to talk about my personal life or have my photo taken when we meet up." Follow up with some niceties about how he would love to rekindle old friendships and maybe make a nod to nostalgia by bringing up something he and the childhood friend used to enjoy together (favorite movie/band/sport/club that they both liked in high school, for example).

He should write it in his own 'voice'-- with the same level of formality that he would use in any other email with the friend in question. In my experience an overly formal tone in personal emails can sometimes be interpreted as cold or even rude, regardless of the writer's intent. After a few misunderstandings in my own life I have started to use a more casual style in emails, which I really feel has helped me set the right tone for friendly communications.

His best bet during the meetup when things inevitably drift to semi-personal questions is to keep his friends talking about their own lives. Fortunately, many people love to do so, and will easily accept his redirections. "Not much, what about you?" and "Oh, nothing exciting. You?" will keep things going for a good long while. Alternately, he can identify some things he DOES want to talk about: sports, films, the good ol' highschool days, current events, whatever, and change the subject liberally when things veer in too personal a direction. I have used this strategy to pretty good effect, although for a different reason (wanting to talk less in general, rather than avoiding specific topics).

If a point blank question is asked, he can either refuse directly with something along the lines of "That's personal, but [insert preferred topic]" or self deprecatingly with something like "I don't really like to talk about myself."

Finally, he should keep in mind that asking people about their family, schooling and career are so normal that it's likely that his old friends won't consider these personal questions at all-- they are among the most basic small talk. It is not likely that you can circumvent decades of social norms with even the most perfectly crafted forewarning imaginable. He should be prepared to deal with a couple change-of-subjects or refusals even if the friends are trying to respect his privacy. People will likely still ask questions out of habit.

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