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I recently got a tattoo of a semicolon on my wrist. If you haven't heard of semicolon tattoos here is a link to a website that explains it better than I could. The TL;DR is

A semicolon is used when an author could’ve chosen to end their sentence, but chose not to. The author is you, and the sentence is your life

Basically it is a reminder to not commit suicide.

So, it's a bit of a personal meaning, which I am fine discussing, but it's also a little intense to spring on someone from an innocent question about my tattoo.

What is the best way to handle questions from friends and coworkers? The conversations usually start something like

Them: Is that a tattoo? What is it of?
Me: A semicolon.
Them: What? Why?

My closest friends know about my struggle with depression, but many of my acquaintances don't, and none of my coworkers do. I work in a fairly professional setting as an Engineer.

It appears that I wasn't super clear as to how I ideally would want the discussion to go. @Taegost articulated my goals better than I could in this answer:

It sounds to me like you want to be open about it, but to start off the conversation on a light note, trying to keep it from being awkward while still allowing the conversation to progress naturally.

My goal here is to be open and talk about it/my story/mental health as a whole without sucking people into a pretty dark rabbit hole from an innocent question

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    The question has been edited with information from the OP that addresses many of the concerns in the comments, which have now been deleted. The OP seems to be looking for a gentle way to start a conversation, not a way to obfuscate what the tattoo means entirely. Please remember to write your answers in the answer section, not as a comment. – Catija Nov 8 '17 at 16:07
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    It's worth noting that semicolon tattoos are also used by colon cancer survivors, to say "I lost half my colon but I'm still alive and kicking." – arp Nov 8 '17 at 17:14
  • I just don't see how you can coax people into signaling how deep they want to go without first disclosing that there is more depth they are allowed to inquire about while also not seeming coy or tedious. It seems like you have to be the one to make that call. – BlackThorn Nov 8 '17 at 22:55
  • Tell them it was supposed to be an exclamation point but the artist misspelled it. – Ceph Nov 9 '17 at 14:32

12 Answers 12

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I had a colleague (she then became a friend) who had a tattoo with a personal meaning... and that's precisely what she told people.

Yep, it's a semicolon.

What? Why?

Well, I like the symbol aesthetically, and it has a personal meaning to me.

(My friend later privately explained that it was some kind of message to her deceased father, so I guess it's roughly the same level of something not secret but that you can't lightly drop in conversation).

Most people will accept that and change the subject, as I did. If they insist, politely repeat it's personal and change the subject yourself. And at this point if someone keeps insisting, they're jerks and I really don't think you can do anything about it - except ignoring them.

Good luck with everything!

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    This is a very good answer. Telling someone that something has personal meaning to you, without revealing that meaning, should be enough for that person to infer you don't want to tell them. – SQB Nov 7 '17 at 13:19
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    It's not clear that the OP does NOT want to tell them. – Beanluc Nov 7 '17 at 19:55
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    @SQB I wasn't the most clear in my question, but my goal isn't to avoid talking about it. Rather my goal is to be able to have conversations about it where I allow the other person to choose how deep they want to go. I think this answer is good, as if I say it right they can choose to push further if they want to. – noob42 Nov 8 '17 at 3:59
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    @Beanluc and OP: Good point, this answer can also be the start to a deeper conversation if they ask more (but gives them the opportunity to change subject if they were only asking to have a light conversation, which is now clear it will not be), and if you are willing to share. I know I have personal items that I would still discuss with colleagues if they're respectful and nice, but not with everyone - not because it's secret, but because I just don't want to share it with them. – Kerkyra Nov 8 '17 at 9:52
  • @Beanluc My reading is that the asker generally doesn't want to tell people right now, so this answer seems fine. In particular, the asker can use the "personal meaning" explanation until a time when it is appropriate to explain in more detail. – David Richerby Nov 8 '17 at 13:52
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That's a pretty good reason to get a tattoo, but like any tattoo you don't really have to explain it to everyone.

Most of my tattoos are equally meaningful to me, but I rarely give people the full context. Sometimes it works to just tell people what the symbol is:

It's just a semicolon.

If that's not enough, you can go slightly deeper without letting on too much:

It's just a semicolon, they can be used between two closely related independent statements. Sort of a way of marking the transition between one part of life to the next while reminding myself that the two parts are still connected.

Or if you prefer you can always deflect with humor:

It's just a semicolon, they can be used between two closely related independent statements. Like "You sure are nosy semicolon you should mind your own business."

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    The last suggestion comes across as a bit of a hostile joke to me, accusing the other person of having done something wrong. Maybe something more like "the specific reasons are personal, semicolon, I'd rather not explain much more about it." would work better? – Cascabel Nov 7 '17 at 15:15
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    The magnitude of that statement is still pretty harsh though. – Pysis Nov 7 '17 at 15:45
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    It also helps to just not use words that will make any reasonable person feel, at the very least, chastised. If your goal is to deflect with humor, I would really suggest something that comes across as friendly humor, not humor masking anger or offense. – Cascabel Nov 7 '17 at 15:47
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    "As a protest against languages like Python that don't terminate their statements properly;" – Rupert Morrish Nov 7 '17 at 23:08
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    @noob42 The wording of the joke response is completely optional, I just tend to have a have a somewhat cynical/dark sense of humor. – apaul Nov 8 '17 at 4:14
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You could answer it without specifically relating it to yourself or your own experiences.

“It’s a symbol to raise awareness about depression.”

Or

“It’s a symbol used to show support for people suffering from depression or taking their own lives.”

That doesn’t specifically say anything about you but answers the (I’m sure innocent) question from the other party.

:-)

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    "Oh, interesting. Is it for someone in specific?" – Hans Janssen Nov 7 '17 at 13:29
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    @Geliormth there is still no reason to say who. “Yes” for instance. If the follow up is “who” then you can still respond “I’d rather not say”. Still not awkward. :-) – Fogmeister Nov 7 '17 at 13:44
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    @Geliormth "Someone dear to me whose privacy I have to respect" – Deolater Nov 7 '17 at 20:59
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    I like this one. By not talking about it in direct reference to my own struggles it makes the conversation a lot less intense while still being honest and worthwhile. – noob42 Nov 8 '17 at 4:03
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There are some really good answers here, and I wanted to add my thoughts which are along a similar vein.

It sounds to me like you want to be open about it, but to start off the conversation on a light note, trying to keep it from being awkward while still allowing the conversation to progress naturally.

I would respond to the question with something along the following lines:

It is a symbol to help raise awareness and create discussion about mental health issues

This helps by doing the following:

  1. It explains the meaning in a clear, concise manner
  2. It gives an explanation in a neutral tone that shouldn't evoke a negative response from most people
  3. It leaves the conversation open for them to continue (or not) as they see fit

If they're comfortable continuing the conversation and learning more, they'll ask, and you can get into the more intense stuff, and if they aren't, you'll usually get a "Wow, that's really cool. Good for you!"

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I think you chose a tattoo, that has a deeper meaning (which is not obvious at first glance) -> that's, of course, raising interest or questions in others, so don't be mad at them.

In my opinion, your answer depends on the purpose of the tattoo:

  • to make a statement to others (if it's exposed and easily visible, it can be seen by others as a statement) or
  • as a reminder for yourself (a memory, a life experience)

So I think your answer should match its purpose. If you did get the tattoo solely for yourself, just say so.

I wanted a tattoo that reminds me to stay positive/learn from the past/... while also looking delicate/small/beautiful/... So I got this semi-colon as a symbol for that.

Your answer would differ if you wanted to make a statement, but I think, that's not true in your case. (correct me, if I'm wrong)

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    You are right, I'm not trying to make a statement. Its a reminder to myself. Thanks! – noob42 Nov 8 '17 at 4:04
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    I was thinking the same. When people ask about tattoos they usually like the answer that it's a reminder to be a better yourself. – Daniel Nov 9 '17 at 15:23
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I do not see a reason not to say why, but you don't have to go into personal details up front. I would suggest:

Unfortunately I have bad days once in a while, and this is to remind me that they are followed by good days too.

This gives the basic reason, and allows you to go into more detail if asked. Stigmatism is a real problem when mentally ill, and the small steps in making it visible without the drama are important.

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Just my two cents. When they ask you:

What? Why?

You could respond with something like:

Because there are people I care about that struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts. A semicolon tattoo is a way to show support and understanding for people facing these issues.

This shows that it is a personal subject for you without directly referring to yourself as facing these issues. It also helps raise awareness with other people, whereas some of the other answers provided simply avoid the topic.

Once you've demonstrated that this a personal subject, hopefully people will be sensitive enough to not pry into details, but if they do, just tell them that that information is private.

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If you want to discuss it with people, do so. If not, then you can make a joke such as "it gives me pause" which will deflect people who you don't wish to share such personal information with.

I deal with the same issues myself, so I can relate. I am also aware of how many people will lecture you to "just get over it" and "suicide is just a selfish act". Deflection, such as what I recommended above may be the best course of action for people you don't know well, or you fear may start to lecture you.

Good luck to you. You are not alone.

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I wanted to chip in my thoughts on this. There are several layers of meaning to the tattoo, and you could happily reply to the quizzical colleague or friend with either of them that best suits your relationship with that individual.

You might simply opt for something along the lines of:

I just liked the look of a semi-colon, one of grammar's least appreciated symbols.

That might be appropriate for someone you don't know too well. Or alternatively for someone your perhaps closer to you might opt for simply stating that:

I am an advocate of supporting mental health awareness and the semi-colon represents my willingness to support the cause.

This simply tells the person asking that you are passionate about a cause but doesn't give away that perhaps the semi-colon has a deeper meaning to yourself.

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    Did you deliberately write "grammers" instead of "grammar's"? Two mistakes in that one particular word is rather ironic, but I'm not sure whether it's a deliberate joke or just an unfortunate mistake. – AndyT Nov 7 '17 at 16:05
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    The problem here is that if I said to you it was intended as a little ironic trick who would believe me. ;) – Digitalsa1nt Nov 7 '17 at 16:07
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When you are talking to someone who you are not comfortable sharing this personal information with, you could try deflecting this with:

I just like programming.

If you actually do like programming this doesn't even have to be a lie. When I first saw this that is what I thought about it. A less specific alternative could be:

I just think it looks cool and geeky.

Of course whether you could say this without sounding out of character depends a lot on your personality, but something along these may be an option.

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You can explain its general meaning without being totally specific:

It's like the way a semicolon separates the major parts of a sentence. It serves as a reminder of a significant time of my life and a symbol of my ability to carry on after it.

If they probe further, you can always follow up with:

My life before the semicolon is a part of my past - the semicolon itself is a reminder to leave it there and move on from it.

  • OP's depression is not necessarily a thing of the past. – Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Nov 8 '17 at 15:20
  • True enough, but my understanding of the semicolon is that it usually references a specific incident where the wearer chose to carry on. That doesn't mean the OP is no longer depressed, or even that they won't have similar battles in future, but it's not lying to say that the specific event which led to the tattoo is now in their past. If OP needs a way to move the conversation on while sending the message "this is as much as I want to discuss this right now", some variation of the above could be a good way to go. – timbstoke Nov 8 '17 at 17:04
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Your quote is: "A semicolon is used when an author could’ve chosen to end their sentence, but chose not to. The author is you, and the sentence is your life. "

Change it to: "A semicolon is in the middle of a sentence, but the sentence goes on. " It tells the person the principle of what this tattoo is about, without the deeper and dark meaning (someone could have chosen to end their life but didn't). Many will have their question answered or will not want to dig further. But with the right person, you have the choice to get deeper.

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