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It sometimes happens that I am asked a question which I am uncomfortable answering for a variety of reasons (it invades my privacy, the answer may hurt the person asking, it is painful for me to discuss, it would violate a confidence etc.). I may also not feel comfortable explaining why I don't want to answer.

I remember a colleague of mine introducing me to the Far Eastern concept of Mu (sometimes translated as "unask the question"), which seems to quite aptly capture what I'm looking for.

What is the most polite way of expressing this in English?

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Politicians say, "No comment". I sometimes say, "I take the fifth." (But of course that is understood only in certain circles.) –  GEdgar Sep 18 '11 at 16:39
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You could point your finger randomly away and ask, "Hey, is that Abraham Lincoln?" Then the person asking will hopefully forget what they had asked and you won't have to answer anything. –  RiMMER Sep 18 '11 at 17:27
    
Say Mu, and pray real hard that he will not come back with 'What is Mu'? this time. –  Kris Jan 20 at 14:13

10 Answers 10

Assuming you're willing to be clear that you don't wish to answer, I think the best response is probably "I'd prefer not to answer that". Anyone who asked you to explain why would in my opinion be incredibly rude; you'd be under no obligation to continue being polite if that happened.

Strictly speaking I agree with @Joseph's point below; the "most polite" form is probably "I'd rather not answer". This question reflects my belief that rather is more associated with casual speech and informality than prefer. So arguably it's more non-aggressive/acquiescent/polite. But I'd go for prefer - it's "firmer" to me, while still being polite.

If you don't even want to be so forthcoming as to actually admit that you don't want to answer, just ignore the question and start talking about something else. Sometimes people genuinely don't recognise what you mean by this, so they may ask you again. But if you repeat this "evasive tactic" and they ask a second time, you can safely assume they're being rude - so again, you're under no obligation to continue being polite. Depending on context, either tell them to "F**k off", or say something explicitly firm like "I'm sorry, but I think I've made it clear I don't want to answer that".

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based on personal opinion alone, I think "I'd rather not answer that question" has a little less likelihood to be perceived as impolite. Also, the tone of voice when answering in this manner is very important and could sway the entire mood. –  Joseph Marikle Sep 18 '11 at 19:53
    
@Joseph: Not just your opinion. I agree rather seems to have a little more hesitancy/informality, and can thus be seen as more "polite". I was probably distracted by thinking ahead to my next sentence. IMHO prefer isn't actually impolite, and the slight edge of formality makes it a firmer statement. Which OP may need. Anyway, I'll edit the answer a bit to reflect the point - we know at least two of us think that dinstinction can be made between rather and prefer. –  FumbleFingers Sep 18 '11 at 20:41
    
Someone who asked you to explain why you'd prefer not to answer might or might not be being rude, it depends entirely on the context. If the context is one where it was a reasonable question and not a personal subject then it might be reasonable for them to ask why you don't want to answer - especially if it seems that your role gives you a responsibility to answer that kind of question. –  bdsl Apr 16 '12 at 23:35
    
@bdsl: Well, yes, context is everything. But the only contexts where I can see further questioning as not rude are those where the word "ask" has a somewhat different meaning. A judge, for example, might ask (read, require) a witness to expand on "I'd prefer not to answer". But we're not in court here. –  FumbleFingers Apr 16 '12 at 23:42
    
@FumbleFingers A reasonable expectation to explain a choice not to answer goes a lot wider than courts. For instance answering questions of one sort or another is part of many people's jobs. –  bdsl Apr 17 '12 at 0:07

I'm not a Buddhist, but I think the answer "Mu" means something different than you intend. The answer "Mu" is along the lines of "is Schrodinger's cat dead or alive." "Mu" in that sense means "the answer is both yes and no". Not in the sense of "I don't know" but in the sense of "it is actually both at the same time."

However, the answer to your actual question is different. Your question is more about social graces than specific answers. Lets say for arguments' sake the question is the Bill Clinton classic: "Did you have sex with that woman?" There are a couple of approaches worth considering:

  • Change the subject, "thanks for asking, but I think you should really be asking about my welfare reform proposals..."

  • Go meta, which is to say, discuss the discussion rather than the contents: "that depends of the what the meaning of 'is' is."

  • Reply with a question: "Did you have sex with your wife last night?"

  • Cite other people's concerns, rather than your own: "I'd be happy to discuss that with you, but I don't feel it would be fair to Monica."

  • Go oblique: "We had cigars and brandy"

I imagine a few other ideas might be appropriate too.

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"A gentleman doesn't answer that question-- or ask it." –  Beta Sep 18 '11 at 23:39
    
@Beta: How polite. –  Daniel Sep 19 '11 at 0:09
    
Doesn’t “mu” mean “I reject the premise of the question”? I heard it cited as the correct one-word answer to the question “Do you still beat your wife?” –  Paul D. Waite Sep 19 '11 at 10:30
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In general it's considered polite to use words other people use and readily understand. Even after reading various "definitions" for this use of *Mu", I still wouldn't use it. There's a heavy overtone of superciliousness when using obscure pseudo-intellectual/philosophical terminology this way, so I would say it's effectively elitist, if not downright sneering and rude. –  FumbleFingers Sep 19 '11 at 13:15

My favorite is "One finds it difficult to say." My second favorite is along the lines of "You might very well think that. However, I couldn't possibly comment," per Francis Urquhart. That might not yield just the effect you want, but see below.

The phrase easiest to say and stick to is "No comment"; practice saying it and meaning it, and after saying it provide no further comment. An alternative is verbiage. One could develop a paragraph or even a sermon around "I couldn't possibly comment," with a few highly boring sentences mixed in as well. This approach is rather more polite than confronting the other party with facts they aren't comfortable with, and in any case that approach can lead to acrimony, which is never polite.

If you anticipate the problem beforehand, think of some topics to use for changing the subject when uncomfortable with the current one. Changing the subject can be subtle or unsubtle; it usually isn't regarded as impolite, although may be thought evasive.

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Urquhart's catchphrase doesn't apply at all to OP's context. He always uses it to mean "What you suggest is perfectly true, and I'm in a position to be certain of this, but I'm not going to explicitly confirm it to you (implicitly though, the answer is Yes)". –  FumbleFingers Sep 18 '11 at 17:17
    
No comment? Unless I was a reporter, I would find that a very strange answer to a question. –  UpTheCreek Sep 19 '11 at 9:15

If you want to be forthright, you can say, "I'd rather not say." If you want to be a little less blunt, you can say, "It's hard to say," which as ambiguous enough to allow a little freedom. In a more informal setting, "You never know..." is a good way to deflect a question.

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You can respond with another question. A good strategy that is often appropriate is to shame them with, "Why would you need to know something like that?

Or you can try the bureaucratic approach: "It's my/our policy not to respond to that type of question". This also works well when politely rebuffing telemarketers: "I'm sorry, we have a policy of not responding to telemarketing calls".

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Why waste politeness on telemarketers? –  James Anderson Sep 19 '11 at 8:18
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Some people, present company included, just cannot bring themselves to be rude. It just seems to bring one's self down to a level beneath that of the caller. –  Firstrock Sep 30 '11 at 21:32

'I hope you’ll understand that that is a question I would find it embarrassing / indiscreet / a breach of confidentiality / too personal to answer.’

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I think if OP is diffident about answering the qustion in the first place, he'd probably be diffident about admitting any of those reasons. –  FumbleFingers Sep 18 '11 at 17:12

A favourite method, is to postpone the question, so that the questioner has a hope of being answered in future, and thus will leave off asking you now, but may ask again in future, which you can then further postpone. So, maybe you could say, "I'd rather not answer that now, but perhaps next time." (Then walk of nonchalantly.)

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You may choose to ask me any question, but I will have the choice to answer it or not

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Study the techniques of the oilier politicians. "teflon" Tony Blair in particular was the master of not answering questions while appearing to do so. The main strategies are:

  • Reply with another question. "Why would you want to know that","Did you ask so-and-so this question?".
  • Re-Direct attention to a third party. "so-and-so would die of embarrassment if you asked them that.", "I heard so-and-so ...... ".
  • Bounce the question back to the person asking. "Interesting question. When did you yourself stop stealing candy?"
  • If all else fails go semantic! "When you say motherhood do you include adoptive parents?","Does your definition of motherhood include female cats? I hear they make very good parents."
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I always thought it was patently obvious that Blair wasn't answering the question. His main strategy was to talk about something tangentially related which he wanted to talk about. –  Peter Taylor Sep 19 '11 at 12:16

If the question is obviously rude and inappropriate, a blunt, "That's none of your business" would be appropriate. But you asked for a polite response, and even when people are rude to me, I always try to at least start out being polite.

A friend of mine who used to be a political lobbyist once said that when reporters asked her a question that she didn't want to answer, she simply answered the question that she wished they had asked instead. Like:

"Did you make a deal with Senator Jones?"

"This bill will benefit all Americans by reducing unemployment and spurring economic growth ..."

Depending on how adept you are at doing this, it may be obvious that you are avoiding the question or if you are good at it the person may not realize that you have not actually answered his question. In the latter case, problem solved. In the former case, he should get the message that you don't want to answer without you having to be blunt about it. If he doesn't care and presses the question, then I think he quickly forfeits his right to a polite answer. At that point I'd probably just make an excuse and end the conversation. Like:

"Are you and Sally having an affair?"

"Sally really has proven to be an excellent accountant, hasn't she? She's a real asset to this company."

"Yes, but I'm wondering if you two are sleeping together."

"Well, I have to get back to work. Let's chat more tomorrow." Walk away.

If the person actually follows you and demands, "Look, I really want to know about you and Sally."

"If I was having an affair with Sally, it would be none of your business. Excuse me."

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