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In 2016 I moved 8,000 km from Canada to Ireland with my Irish husband and daughter.

It's coming up to Christmas and some people have asked me (including some newly found cousins) some seemingly innocent questions such as:

  1. Do you go home a lot?
  2. Do your parents come over here?
  3. Do you like it here?
  4. How do you about spending Christmas away from your family?
  5. you married a foreigner. That's... where are you going to live and... family?
  6. do you go back to your home country a lot?
  7. etc.

These questions make my skin crawl.

It says a lot about the person asking them. It says that they feel a lot of attachment to their 'home' or where they grew up. It says that they experience a lot of comfort and joy from their family of origins.

It says that we are different people who might not be able to relate and that the answers to some of the questions might come across as cold/callus to them.

Right. Here's what's going through my mind when they ask me those:

  1. If I went back to my mother's house she would scream at me about dishes and we would fight.
  2. Parents plural? My father hasn't come around to see me in over 20 years. Last time my mother came to visit she used my house as a hotel even though I was 2 weeks postpartum and was mean to me and would not help me in any way.
  3. I've already been living here for 3 YEARS. My son was born here.
  4. I already have my own children and family. Why would you ask someone that when they know that you have your own family?
  5. I have only every dated foreigners. I was not able to get a man from my own culture to date me in my entire life. Also, the area that I was living in is a majority-minority area.
  6. I don't like my home country or where I'm from.

Things to consider:

  1. I have a very non-traditional and complicated family history. I had an absentee father who kept me a secret from his family for 30+ years and my mother was a single mother who resented having to be a parent but wouldn't put me up for adoption either. She often took her resentment out on my grandfather and I.

    My maternal grandfather babysat me while my mother was at work but he was old and tired and was hiding some health problems from us (possibly a generational thing as well).

  2. I didn't enjoy growing up in my hometown. I was bullied at school and at home so I basically had a difficult childhood. Mostly my mother's fault. There were a lot of rough, burnt out on life single parents with dysfunctional families in my neighborhood (e.g. families where mom died and dad was an alcoholic who beat his son so his son bullied people at school; dad did drugs so mom was left poor on her own and vice versa)

  3. The only reason why I reached out to the paternal side of my family is because I had a massive falling out with my mother in 2018. They didn't even know that I existed because my father didn't ever mention me to them despite having met me as a child a few times.

  4. I don't like the direction that my homeland is going in culturally and politically. I've been personally hurt by these 'modern values'. They are not for me.

  5. I'm an introvert and career-oriented. I've always been kind of detached and wherever I put my bag down is home.

There's just a whole lot of drama, negative events, conflict, and turmoil here that maybe someone you don't know very well doesn't need to know or maybe it's not something I should have to explain to an acquaintance.

How can I explain this to people that I don't know very well without being off-putting?

  • Are any little white lie a possible way of dealing with this in your POV? – OldPadawan Dec 15 '19 at 21:35
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    Why do you feel the need to give an explanation to people you don't know very well? – Aaron F Dec 16 '19 at 13:26
  • @Aaron F well I guess because they are asking I feel like they feel sorry for me or something. – user1261710 Dec 16 '19 at 14:26
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    Hello network visitors! Please note that IPS is fairly strict about using comments as intended. Comments are only for clarifying and improving posts. Partial answers or general thoughts about the situation may be deleted without notice. If you'd like to write an answer, make sure to check out our posts on How do I write a good answer? and citation expectations first. Thanks! – Em C Dec 17 '19 at 15:42
134

These questions make my skin crawl.

That is very much a perception issue you have that may just need to get to grips with, as honestly, they are all perfectly normal conversational questions in Britain and Ireland. They aren't seemingly innocent. They are innocent.

It doesn't say anything about these people at all other than they are trying to have a conversation, and they are standard openers.

You don't need to give them long or complex answers. For example:

  1. No. Not really.
  2. No.
  3. Yes (well, you moved there so I'm guessing. You could even explain what you like if you want.)

etc...

Generally people in the UK and Ireland ask innocuous questions, about weather, sports, TV shows - they may be more interested in the answers once they know you better, but initially they are to avoid uncomfortable silences. You can decide how much information you give, or even turn it around and ask them about their country. If you just don't want to talk about a topic you don't need to explain anything - there is no etiquette requirement to do so.

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To start with I like all the points in Rory's answer. The people asking these questions are trying to make conversation with you and there is nothing wrong with what they have asked. Your skin crawling is quite an extreme reaction and it seems to me like a personal issue and I wouldn't know how to help with that.

The reason I am writing a new answer is because you've asked

"How can I explain this to people that I don't know very well without being off-putting?"

It sounds to me like they are trying to establish a friendly conversational grounds/relationship with you and I worry that cutting that short with a blatant NO might not help with this goal.

As someone who likes trying to make new friends but who is also very socially self conscious, I am always looking for signs that someone does not want to talk to me. If I had asked a friendly open ended question such as this and the other person responded with "no" and made no other attempt at conversation then I would read it as them being cold or not wanting to talk to me and I would take this as a hint and promptly leave them in peace.

This being said, Rory is still right that you do not at all have to give long or complicated answers. I just think that if you want to avoid sounding off putting then you need to give them SOMETHING.

A very common response that gives enough context for this kind of conversation but avoids any specific details is:

No/yes/not often, I am not that close with my family

I feel like this avoids the possibility of coming across as cold/off putting. You have given enough context to reveal your general motivation or reason for your answer. On hearing this I might feel that I know you a bit more and it would be part of establishing our future conversation/relationship.

There are plenty of alternatives too, the main point is I just think you need to say more than one word. Depending on how close you are to the person, you would naturally reveal more or fewer personal details. If you don't even want to reveal that you are not close to your family then that is fine. But to avoid the risk of sounding off-putting, I would then suggest asking about THEIR lives or changing the subject or giving a non-answer or something similar.

If you must signal to the other person that you are not comfortable talking about a subject, then make sure that it is not the only subject you talk about - otherwise, they may think that you are not comfortable talking. Period.

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First thing - Answering truly won't make you off-putting. There are different types of families and not single one of them is perfect. Giving a true will (or should) stop follow-up's with other questions. IMHO the answer should be strong enough that there is no doubt that you don't like to talk about this topic.

Do you go home a lot? - It's not a place I like and there are not many people I like to see there.

Do your parents come over here? - I don't like them enough to invite them.

Do you like it here? - Yes, that's why I live here.

How do you about spending Christmas away from your family? - But my family is here./ My FAMILY is here

you married a foreigner. That's... where are you going to live and... family? - As we are in Ireland it's him who married a foreigner. And we are family.

In general, to answer to any question like "do you go back to your home country a lot?" I would say "why would I? And asnwer to any reason you can think about is no".

As I live in very catholic country with very strong need to keep the family together I get such questions a lot. I stopped caring if blunt, maybe harsh, answers will make me look bad. If they ask about "family" I follow up with question "Do you mean gene donors or my family". OR if they ask about parents "I don't know that person well enough".

Yes, more often then not people are taken aback. But I figured out it's their problem not mine.

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Without indulging in too much stereotyping, the Irish are typically gregarious and want to talk, and they instinctively understand that most people's favourite topic of conversation is talking about themselves. So if they know nothing about you, they will naturally start asking the sort of personal questions that you don't want to answer.

One good way to deflect this is simple to give a short non-committal answer and ask them similar questions in return. Once they start swapping their own life stories, you can say nothing for a very long time without appearing to be anti-social.

What they don't want to hear is "the truth" about your past. Just be non-committal. A good answer to "do you go home a lot" is "well, I've been away for years now and I've lost touch with most of what is happening back there." The "correct" answer to "do you like it here" is obviously "yes" - or if you want to make a joke about it, "well, I've been here three years now so it's not all bad".

Ask questions yourself, to try and find some common ground for conversation which is not about your past and your family.

Passive resistance won't work. They will assume there is "something wrong" and attempt to find out what it is, and that is not where you want to conversation to go.

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    I think your last sentence bears emphasis. Acting like you are trying to hide something will just as soon cause additional attention as anything else. Giving confident (but high level, non-committal answers) will satisfy the small-talk urge. – dwizum Dec 17 '19 at 15:15
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The way I see it, you have 3 main ways to answer their questions based on your relationship with them (how much truth and personal info you want to tell them) and based on your personality (joker/super serious/shy/...):

  1. Truthful + comforting
  2. Dodging entirely with an obvious made up story
  3. Blunt(/unkind) so they don't ask it again, preferably followed up with different conversation starters.

The questions themselves are all innocuous conversation starters trying to find out if you're doing well. The issue seems to be that their "doing well" defaults to spending time with the family during the holidays which most people would agree with. Since you're coming from a rather harsh background, your "doing well" means something different. This also means that as long as you don't show you're doing well, those questions will keep on coming. The reasoning behind my suggested ways to respond is to make it easier for you when you answer those. Having a good response (or rather way of responding) ready means you don't need to fear the questions anymore.

Truthful + comforting

This way of responding is highly suggested to those closer to you. It requires that you are ok with telling them the truth (or at least the required parts of the truth to understand you).
You first explain that you are not happy to go back to your family at all followed by how it's actually an improvement for you.

I've never really gotten along with my parents and siblings, to the point where Christmas was something I feared rather than looked out for. Now that I moved here with my caring husband and lovely daughter things have changed for the better. I'm actually looking forward to seeing that look on my daughter's face when she's opening her presents!

Or to questions about seeing your family other than the holidays:

I'm so glad that my mother doesn't want to come visit me here. Don't get me wrong, my mom isn't a bad person, it's just that our personalities are too different. Whenever we're together in the same room it ended up in us fighting over the most trivial things. So this arrangement of not visiting each other has made us both far happier. It also means I don't need to compromise on who we have time to visit. I now have plenty of time to spend with my husband's family here which I enjoy way more!

Alternatively if you're really close (or want to be really close) to the person that asked the question you can go for the painful fully truthful background.

Ever since I've been a child my father was never there for me and my mother couldn't handle being a single parent. This means that most of my life I dreaded coming home after school and because inviting people over to our house wasn't an option, mom would scare them away, I had trouble making friends as well. At some point later on in my life I decided something had to change. That's when I found my Irish husband and things got way better since then. So no, I don't visit my family, nor do they visit us here either and I like it that way.

This may be somewhat awkward at first but by telling them the truth and showing them things are better this way for you they'll most likely understand.

Make up story

This is based on what my coworker does whenever we ask him personal questions. He makes up a highly exaggerated story that nobody would consider the truth but never really answers those questions. This works because you're still having a rather upbeat conversation with him each time yet also learn from experience that he's never going to give you an answer about those things.

Q: Do you go home a lot?
A: Oh no I wouldn't dare put my family in danger! You see my father was a spy for a secret agency hunting for really resourceful criminals. At some point though they found out that my father was after them so they started to look for us as a way to threaten my father and force him to resign. You and I both know that once those crooks knew who we were, we would never be safe there no matter what my father did from then on. Our only option thus was to pretend to be someone else entirely. The solution for me was to marry this lovely Irish man and start a complete life here in Ireland and never even talk ... about ... oh shit. Promise me you never talk about this to anyone! You have no idea what kind of danger you're going to put us in if those criminals ever get word of it. They have ears everywhere you know!

Then just pause for a moment, make sure it "clicked" with them that you weren't telling the truth. And then ask them how they're planning to spend the holidays so that they can't ask the same question again hoping for a different answer.

Blunt answer + redirect

Q: Do your parents come over here?
A: Thank god no! And please don't ask me about my parents again. My husband on the other hand is awesome, just the other day he ....

It's okay to show it when you really don't like talking about something or someone. The more someone tries to pry into that part after the more direct you should answer since they really can't seem to "take the hint". Try to start out friendly though, remember that they don't know it's a difficult topic for you the first time they meet you.

By following up with a different topic that you are comfortable talking about you show that you actually do want to chat with them, just not about your family.

This approach works best with people that you don't intend to be that close with, like coworkers for example. If they really don't get the hint that your parents (/family/...) is off topic you just walk away instead.

I already told you that I don't like talking about my parents yet you still keep trying to. This conversation is now over. << walks away >>

I've had plenty of coworkers walk away from the group when it got to topics they were uncomfortable with and then later on that same day happily answer to me when asking about something else instead. I should note though that I have not met anyone that really kept prying into someone after they made it clear something was off topic.

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4

Firstly:

It says that they feel a lot of attachment to their 'home' or where they grew up. It says that they experience a lot of comfort and joy from their family of origins.

Yes, that's more or less what Irish culture is like. Most Irish folk are proud to be Irish, for better or for worse, and family is a big deal in Ireland.

This may be at odds with your feelings about your country, but you have to remember that you are almost certainly in the minority. In both Ireland and Britain, patriotism/nationalism is still very strongly felt, even by people who like to criticise their country. (And if anyone genuinely didn't like Ireland, they'd probably head for another country at the earliest opportunity.)

I dare even suggest that perhaps part of the reason this upsets you so much is because you envy them to some degree - because they experience a postive feeling that you don't experience. Or at the very least perhaps you struggle to understand what it's like to love one's homeland, and that lack of comprehension frustrates you.

These questions make my skin crawl.

The locals aren't mindreaders, they don't expect that reaction because your situation is unusual. (It may not have been unusual where you used to live in Canada, but it's relatively uncommon in Ireland - not unheard of, but certainly unexpected.)

It would be counter-productive to begrudge them for not being able to predict that you will react unusually to what are completely ordinary questions (from their point of view).

I'm an introvert and career-oriented. I've always been kind of detached and wherever I put my bag down is home.

Consequently I suspect this will not be the last culture clash you face in Ireland. That's not to say there aren't Irish people with a similar disposition, but I expect most who are of that disposition have probably left Ireland for pastures new, much as you have.

How can I explain this to people that I don't know very well without being off-putting?

You give shallow answers and/or subtle hints that you do not wish them to pursue that line of questioning (with various degrees of 'subtle' until they get the hint). Passive resitance can be a very useful tool.

Here's some stock answers for those awkward questions:

Do you go home a lot?

"No, I prefer it here." (Pre-empts "Do you like it here?")

Do your parents come over here?

"No, I don't stay in touch with them. We don't really get along."

If the person asks "why", reply "I'd rather not talk about it. Why waste time dwelling on something so dour?"

Do you like it here?

"Yes, I like it so much this is my Nth year of living here."

How do you about spending Christmas away from your family?

"I don't see what you mean - I'm spending Christmas here with my husband and daughter."

If the person asks "what about your parents", go to "Do your parents come over here?".

you married a foreigner. That's...

"Is it that unusual? Leo Varadkar's father is/was Indian."

where are you going to live

"We already have a house."

and... family?

"I live here with my husband and my daughter."

If the person asks "what about your parents", go to "Do your parents come over here?".

do you go back to your home country a lot?

"No, Canada isn't as nice as Ireland."

(Note that all these questions give you a lot of insight into Irish culture and what the Irish consider important. I repeat: family is a big deal in Ireland.)

If people start trying to dig too much, fall back on "I'd rather not talk about it if you don't mind" or change the subject. (Note the importance of "if you don't mind". It adds an important degree of politeness that establishes a clear boundary. Any attempt to cross that boundary would be perceived as being incredibly rude.)


Importantly, resist the urge to lie. Pretending that your parents are both dead might seem like a good solution, but instead of halting the questions you'll probably just get a slew of new questions in their place - "When did they die?", "How did they die?", "What were they like?", "What were their names?" et cetera. You're much better off just passively resisting - it usually doesn't take much resistance before people realise you're being unresponsive and start looking for something else to talk about.

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As a native of Ireland, there are probably two important things here:

  1. These people have no idea about your family history.

  2. A lot (really a lot) of Irish people live outside of Ireland and coming 'home' for big holidays would be extremely common. These people are just trying to find a point of reference with which to start a conversation.

In general these people don't really care about what your answer is, they're just trying to find a way to start a conversation (we really like to talk). Just answer briefly, e.g.

We'll probably be staying here for Christmas, enjoying it with the kids.

And move on to the rest of the conversation.

It can come across as very nosy if you're not from here, but we're all kinda used to living in each other's pockets here (even if we don't all like it).

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    Hi and welcome to IPS! Please take a minute to read our citation expectations. Answers on IPS need to include some backup in the form of either personal experience or references - could you explain why you think this advice will work, have you used this approach in a similar situation before, or is this something you've seen recommended by someone else? You might find How do I write a good answer? helpful too. – Ælis Dec 20 '19 at 13:17
  • I guess the other problem is that they are not willing to listen to what I say. Like if I say "no, i don't miss it; I don't like it there", it doesn't seem to register in their head and they keep prying. – user1261710 Jan 14 at 12:38
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I can only respond to one part of your question, your unease about being asked about Canada, like when and how often you go there. In your explanation, you wrote this:

I don't like the direction that my homeland is going in culturally and politically.

I'm in a similar situation regarding my former home, East Germany. (In my case it is the rising anti foreigner and anti semitic sentiment.)


In this situation I found that honesty worked best for me. "I don't particular like my former home because of >political details<." is something most people can understand and even admire.

Sometimes people ask me what I think of >latest opinion poll over there<, half expecting me to defend it, because that's where I am from. I then generally remind them that I voluntarily live where I live now, and exactly for those reasons.

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It says a lot about the person asking them. It says that they feel a lot of attachment to their 'home' or where they grew up. It says that they experience a lot of comfort and joy from their family of origins.

Not really. Those are all standard questions to ask immigrants/expats, and I speak from more than a decade's experience. If anything, it says that they're not particularly imaginative, but then imaginative small talk with near-strangers is tricky.


  • Do you go home a lot?

You don't have to accept the narrative that home means where you grew up. If home for you means Ireland, say so. You can do so with humour ("Yes, I go home every night") or without, but either way you have an opportunity to steer the discussion.


  • Do your parents come over here?

This is easily brushed off: "Not often. It's a long way".


  • Do you like it here?
  • I've already been living here for 3 YEARS. My son was born here.

Three years isn't very long to have lived in a place. It can easily take two years to go through the various stages of culture shock. And I've known people who lived longer than that in places they didn't like for the sake of a partner or a job.

There's no reason to read anything into that question, and you can answer it with as much sincerity as you feel appropriate to the relationship you have with your interlocutor, although if they're local it might be wise to hold back on the things you don't like.


  • How do you [feel] about spending Christmas away from your family?
  • I already have my own children and family. Why would you ask someone that when they know that you have your own family?

Because you're from a culture where Christmas is traditionally spent with the extended family. It sounds to me as though you could truthfully reply something like "Christmas wasn't a big thing when I was growing up" and change the topic, perhaps to some aspect of the Irish Christmas celebrations which you enjoy or find surprising.


etc.

Being an immigrant is a hook that people will try to use to find a topic of conversation. It's (nearly) always safe to steer the conversation away from yourself by saying something positive about your host country or by expressing interest in differences. When there's a bit of trust, you can talk about negative impressions and things which you struggled or are struggling to adapt to. Either way, the focus shifts from your personal background to broader cultural and geographical differences.

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  • Christmas in Ireland is almost identical to Christmas in Canada. With Canada's very low birth rate there won't be much in the way of 'extended' family in the next coming generation. Also, due to Canada's large size many people live hours and hours away from any extended family so it's only certain people who will have access to these extended relatives. – user1261710 Dec 18 '19 at 20:20
  • @user1261710, the "you" in that sentence is the "you" of the question "Why would you ask someone that?", not the OP. – Peter Taylor Dec 18 '19 at 21:34

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