May I Ask You a Personal Question?

personal question

By Yvonne Milosevic

What’s your salary? When are you planning to have kids? How much do you pay for rent? Have you ever gone to therapy? We consider questions like these sensitive—and quite possibly rude or inappropriate. But a trio of business school researchers has a different take on asking a personal question. In their paper The (Better than Expected) Consequences of Asking Sensitive Questions, they claim our reluctance is overblown. In reality, people don’t mind answering them as much as we imagine.

Keep in mind that the definition of “personal” question varies among cultures. Case in point: study co-author Einav Hart of George Mason University is from Israel. She says that unlike in the U.S., asking about your friend’s salary is not considered a touchy subject back home. The researchers also stress that what’s sensitive with a stranger may not seem too personal to a colleague or friend.

Nonetheless, across our studies, we find that people are very reluctant to ask sensitive questions. They assume that sensitive questions would make the other person feel uncomfortable and create a negative impression. —Einav Hart

“The sensitive questions that we’re looking to study should be questions that we’re actually interested in learning the answers to,” explains University of Utah’s Eric VanEpps. “We’re not prescribing that people ask any and all sensitive questions that come to mind, but rather that they ask questions that could be useful to them.”

How is a Personal Question Useful?

Imagine you’re moving to a new city and trying to determine whether the listed rent of an apartment you’re considering is fair. By asking a coworker how much they pay in rent, you can better determine if you’re getting a sweet deal—or about to get gouged. Consider a scenario where you’re getting promoted and going into a salary negotiation. Asking a colleague how much they earn can put you in a stronger negotiating position.

“If we were trying to get the same information in a more indirect manner, it can come across as really clumsy,” says VanEpps. “We think it’s better to ask directly. That’s going to get you the information you want and avoid some of these other interpersonal costs that you might create by trying to avoid sensitive questions.”

In these situations, acknowledging the awkwardness and then explaining the reason for the question removes a lot of the discomfort. When someone understands your intentions, it’s much easier for them to share the information you seek.

Get a Little Closer

Another prime reason for asking a personal question is to get to know someone better. It shows that we’re “other-focused,” says Wharton’s Maurice Schweitzer, noting that some types of sensitive questions can help build rapport or spark a meaningful conversation. 

“Asking sincere questions and talking about personal topics can strengthen relationships,” adds Hart. “But we often don’t ask them because we fear harming those very relationships.”

So, if you’re on the fence about asking someone a personal question, you probably should, says VanEpps.

“We’re finding again and again that people overestimate the relationship cost of asking sensitive questions,” he explains. “If you’re going back and forth on whether it’s worth it, we think this more accurate understanding of how people actually react would cause you to decide that it’s worth it most of the time.”