In most cases, questions are a good thing. They show that you're actively engaged and interested in a conversation or experience.
But, as with anything, there's a line here. If you've ever been prompted with an overly personal or probing question that made your voice catch in your throat, you already know that there's a pretty big difference between being inquisitive and irritating. And, unfortunately, it’s a line that’s all too easy to cross.
So, how can you tell when you’re teetering on that edge between interested and plain ol’ impolite? Well, if you find yourself guilty of one of these four things, that’s a solid indicator that you need to keep your inquiring mind in check.
1. You’re Asking Questions You Already Know the Answer To
A few years ago, I had a closed door meeting with my boss about a minor mistake I had made on a project (hey, just because I write career advice for a living doesn’t mean I’m perfect, alright?).
Although the meeting was private, word quickly spread like wildfire—as it so often does in workplaces. Soon after I walked away from that conversation, our office’s resident gossip approached my desk with a subtle smirk on her face. “Hey, what happened in your meeting?” she asked all doe-eyed and innocent, despite the fact that she already knew everything about it.
Does that anecdote make you clench your fists and grit your teeth? I’m willing to bet that’s because you’ve experienced an encounter with someone just like this.
When you boil it down, asking questions you already know the answer to (particularly when it relates to something negative) is really just a passive aggressive attempt to make someone feel bad. And, believe me, attempting to disguise your pettiness as genuine curiosity really only adds insult to injury.
2. You’re Using Accusatory Language
There’s a big difference between a question like, “Why the heck would you ever include Jason on that email thread?” and, “Hey, can you explain why you included the accounting department on that email?”
The first one sounds aggressive and critical, while the second makes it clear that you’re sincerely looking for an answer to a question.
As with anything, you need to pay extra attention to both your tone and word choice when asking questions of the people you work with to avoid sounding overly snappy or severe. Remember, you’re posing a question, not doling out criticism.
Muse Editor-in-Chief Adrian Granzella Larssen offers a great tip for catching yourself in these moments: If you could seamlessly end a question or statement with “You idiot!” without it sounding strange, you’re probably better off rephrasing things to sound a little gentler.
3. You’re Sticking Your Nose Where it Doesn’t Belong
We all know those people who tend to wiggle their way into every single conversation. They like to always be in the loop and in the know. Their desire to stay informed is somewhat admirable. But, in practice, it’s really just annoying.
If you look at the very definition of the word “curious,” it means “eager to learn or know.” However, I think we should amend that definition just a little bit to something along the lines of, “eager to learn or know about something that pertains to you.”
Honestly, if there’s nothing to be gained by seeking clarification on an issue, you’ll likely only come off as passive aggressive or nosy at best. So, before jumping right in to prompt for further details, take a moment to consider whether or not this is something you even need to know about. You might be surprised at how many times you’re truly better off keeping your lips zipped.
4. You’re Qualifying Your Questions
Think of the last time someone started a sentence with, “This really isn’t any of my business, but…” Chances are, you immediately held your breath and prepared yourself for that inevitable question—one that was either totally irrelevant or far too personal.
Spoiler alert: If you feel the need to preface your questions with qualifiers like these, you’re probably asking something you shouldn’t be. If you can’t get right to the nitty gritty of your inquiry without a wordy windup, then you should likely think twice about even asking that question in the first place.
We can all be a little nosy at times—it’s human nature. But, there’s a definite line between being curious and being downright rude.
If you recognize any of the above telltale signs in yourself, it’s time to keep yourself in check and adjust your approach.
Photo of people talking courtesy of Hero Images/Getty Images.
Kat is a Midwest-based freelance writer, covering topics related to careers, productivity, and the freelance life. In addition to The Muse, she's a contributor all over the web and dishes out research-backed advice for places like Atlassian, Trello, Toggl, Wrike, The Everygirl, FlexJobs, and more. She's also an Employment Advisor at a local college, and loves helping students prepare to thrive in careers (and lives!) they love. When she manages to escape from behind her computer screen, she's usually babying her two rescue mutts or continuing her search for the perfect taco. Say hi on Twitter @kat_boogaard or check out her website.More from this Author