Even if you’re not an especially shy or guarded person, there are a lot of reasons why you might find yourself in a withholding place from time to time. You could be in a personally low or tenuous spot with work, your relationship, or life in general. You might just hate talking about yourself (hi), or you might have reasons that are less temperamental and more practical. In some situations, for instance, it’s not always professionally prudent to be chatty (even if others are encouraging it), or you might be feeling avoidant simply because you’re not sure you’re in a position to speak on one subject or another.
And sometimes, you just want to lock even your most benign secrets into a panic room so deep and dark that even Jodie Foster couldn’t find them. This doesn’t mean you can’t talk to people, though. You just have to learn to do it a little differently.
Get people talking about themselves instead
The best defense is a good offense, and the most simple and straightforward rule here is this: ask questions. People will love you for this. If a conversation is a battleground (and for our purposes, it is), then the question is the slash, lunge, and stab that will keep unwanted advances at bay.
For one thing, your fellow gabber gets to talk about themselves, which nearly everyone loves (everyone except for you, that is). Second, you’ll come off as an incredible conversationalist—even if you’re not—because all people will remember (even abstractly) is that you were deeply interested in them. The questions can be about literally anything within reason. At a party with strangers? Ask them about their work. At work? Ask your coworker about their weekend. At weekend brunch? Ask your friend about the party they went to the other night. There’s always things to ask about, and once you get the ball rolling, you can really flex with the follow-up questions.
Follow-ups ensure that the conversation never drops, and it’s always good to have a few on hand—no matter how banal they might seem. Things like, “How long have you been doing that?” or “When did you start doing that?” or even a simple “No way, really?” These questions also serve to validate the person you’re speaking with, as they indicates a level of extreme fascination, seemingly ignited by the incredible strength of previous replies.
Some more general conversational tips are good to keep in mind here, too. Look for common ground where you can, and when in doubt, shower your companion with compliments. This isn’t an interview and you don’t want to make it feel like one, especially if this is a case where you’re being avoidant with someone who knows you well enough to know when you’re being a weirdo. Set a good tone and keep it there, even as you maneuver your way out of sharing.
But…what if someone DOES ask me a question?
In spite of your best efforts, it is pretty likely that at some point someone will ask you a question about you—perhaps the very question you really don’t want to answer. (“How’s the job hunt going?” “Dating anyone interesting?”) And this is actually a good thing! If you’re insistent that no one ever lobs an inquiry back, you’ll seem very weird. Don’t do this. Instead, here’s where the power of deflection really come into play.
You have a few options. Depending on the circumstance, you might find that it’s possible to simply not answer. While abrupt avoidance or literally bolting are of course options, they aren’t terribly subtle or easy to maneuver without coming off like a psycho. Instead, try inserting a follow-up to whatever subject you were just talking about. Let’s call this “The Double-Down Reversal” because it sounds cool as hell. This exercise is actually much easier than it sounds and you can even point out exactly what you’re doing: “Wait, before we switch subjects, I want to hear more about [insert topic].” Voila, you’re back in control.
Alternatively, you can answer the question without actually answering the question. “How’s work?” “Oh it’s fine, though I’ve gotta say, all the train issues have been killlllling meeee lately—WTF, MTA!”
“What’s going on with you and Dave?” “Not a lot to report! Though we did just see mother!—please let me spoil it for you.”
“Are you happy?” “Hey, you know who seems really happy? Chrissy Teigen. Do you follow her on Twitter?”
As you can see, broad topics like the news and pop culture are your friends here. (“By the way, what did you think of Stranger Things? Thank God it’s coming back!”) So are stories. If you can tie a funny story (that’s not really about you) into your reply and then use it as a launching point for the next topic, you’ll never have to disclose anything ever again.
On occasion, someone might really pry you for information or even catch onto your slick, avoidant ways. If you can’t shake ‘em, it’s usually a good idea to offer up just enough that they feel like they got something—either a bit of the information they were after, or the fulfillment of doing their due-diligence as a conversationalist:
“I heard some serious drama went down in the Tuesday meeting???” “Oh, there’s always someone who is feeling dramatic about something. There’s honestly more drama happening between me and my cat at any given moment. In fact, let me show you a photo.”
If you feel truly stuck and don’t want to talk, though, you can excuse yourself and promise to return. But if you can answer without compromising whatever it is you want to protect, do it as vaguely and quickly as possible, and then get back to asking questions. Because you know, people love it when you do that.
Unless you’re talking to another cagey person. Then I can’t help you.