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#729 Shutting Down Nosey Strangers

Dear Captain,

I recently became the very happy owner of a large, visually striking tattoo on a visible part of my body. This has been a hugely positive experience for me and I am happy to display my art to other people, the occasional attention and questions don’t bother me at all — except for one response that I didn’t anticipate.

About once or twice a month, someone will ask me “but what does it mean” or a variation on this, and keep digging at me until I offer up something suitably personal. My problem is that a) these otherwise well-meaning people really pressure me for a detailed answer, asking and re-asking their question repeatedly even though I am visibly uncomfortable with their interrogation and give them multiple non-answers, and b) there is indeed a personal meaning behind my tattoo, but I have less than zero interest in sharing it with random strangers or new acquaintances.

I’ve been trying to come up with a simple deflection that is not also a total fabrication but nothing has worked so far. When I say “I don’t really talk about that stuff with strangers” or “that’s a pretty personal question” people seem to just get more intrigued and pressure me even harder. I suspect some of this is because people having been conditioned by reality TV shows like “LA Ink” to think that ‘tattoo!’ = “deeply intimate personal story the tattooed person is delighted to share with an audience” but I am not interested in sharing details of my internal emotional life with strangers. At this point I don’t really care what the ‘audience’ motivations are, I just want a simple way to shut them down that doesn’t sound like an invitation to keep asking the same damn question in fourteen different ways until I snap at them.

I don’t think these people are hitting on me or being deliberately invasive, but I do think they’re not respecting my attempts to not answer. It’s like their brain short-circuits when they see a tattoo (I really believe these are otherwise polite, boundary-respecting people). Also I’m still taken aback every time this happens and not so great at thinking on my feet in the moment — it’s only been six months and it’s not like this problem is going to go away anytime soon.

Is there something I can say or do to shut this down and move on to more appropriate, less intimately-personal questions? I have no problem with the fact that my body art is going to draw attention, I knew that going in and it’s fine, but it seems like there’s 5% of people who lose all sense of appropriateness when they see my newly-decorated arm. Maybe I should just start lying???

Thank you!

– Not Cut Out For Reality Television

Dear Not Cut Out,

Goat Lady here. I have visible tattoos of my own, plus visible disabilities, which means I have won some kind of Nosey Stranger freakin lottery.

As you have noticed, asserting that something is personal just makes people push harder, or possibly follow you around for five minutes trying to convince you that they’re not a bad person for asking after you’ve shut them down. Goat Lady shares your lack of amusement.

The easy way out is to lie, alas. Answering “what does your tattoo mean?” with “I just thought it was pretty.” can be effective as long as you can project an air of total boredom. Coming up with something more flamboyant may be slightly more fun, though.

If you want to remain scrupulously honest, I’ve had luck with “I don’t discuss that with strangers.” Occasionally it needs following up with, “I told you I don’t talk about that. Your questions are getting rude. Stop it.” But obviously being that confrontational is going to require a lot more emotional energy than a lie, and sometimes the situation isn’t appropriate for the rough waters that can come with returning the awkward to sender so very blatantly.

Really all you can do is engage in the standard conversational tactic of “present boring answer, offer a subject change” and hope it works. Following up “I don’t really talk about it” or “I got it because it’s pretty” with “do you have any tattoos?” can be more effective than bringing up the weather, as the 5% of people who try to push your boundaries are often self-absorbed enough that redirecting to talking about themselves will work handily.

But if you just want to get out of there and go on with your day, you totally have my permission to lie about your tattoo in order to make people go away.

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369 comments
  1. AthenaC said:

    “The ghost of Queen Elizabeth II came to me and described to me in exquisite detail the exact tattoo I should get.”

    Stranger: “…. She’s still alive.”

    You: “(shocked) She is?!! Someone should tell her!!”

    Or you could come up with a bland lie, as Goat Lady suggests; probably much easier that way.

    • Sorry, that blank comment was meant to be ‘applauding wildly’. I put it in triangular brackets and it disappeared.

      • CJ said:

        I’ve had a few comments disappear tonight also. One of them had triangular brackets, which I removed. When I try to repost, the system seems to recognize that I’ve attempted to post a duplicate (minus the brackets). Not sure what is happening. Usually my comments post right away.

        • winter said:

          What you post in triangular brackets will be interpreted as HTML. The system then goes “but I don’t recognize that html term” and dismisses it. As html instructions aren’t printed, only the result, your result is “blank”. If you want a bracket without that problem, you can try “& lt;” for the “smaller than” bracket and “& gt;” for “greater than” (you have to eliminate the space I left and the quotation marks). What’s printed behind/between those will not be interpreted as html instructions.

      • Adrian said:

        I assumed that the ghost of Queen Elizabeth II had stolen the comment.

    • Tia said:

      Oo, oo, or you could say one of the following “It means I wanted a tattoo.” or “You know, I don’t know. It just appeared one day. Freaky, huh?”

      • AthenaC said:

        “Freaky, huh?”

        LOL! I love it!

    • Jack V said:

      Oh, that’s beautiful.

  2. ashbet said:

    Oh, man. Goat Lady, I feel you on the combo-punch of “visibly tattooed” and “visibly disabled” — I get to alternate between “What happened to you/what’s wrong with you?” and “Is that tattoo real?” *facepalm*

    For whatever reason, my very colorful and ornamental backpiece (the visible portions include peacock-feather wings) is often interpreted as not being “real” — I’ve had random strangers at the mall ask me if I’m wearing BODY PAINT. Because, yes, the average person gets themselves elaborately body-painted, then puts on clothes and walks around running errands.

    I’ve had a bunch of people ask me what it MEANS, and some of it is personal and some isn’t (there is a bunch of personal symbology involved, which I can share if I want to, but I can also just shrug and say “It’s based on some of my art.”)

    LW, if you designed the tattoo yourself, you might try saying that — and, if not, you might say “It’s based on a piece of art that I liked.” (Even if that was a piece of art that you commissioned for the tattoo artist to draw for you, it’s still true!)

    I can completely understand your frustration in not wanting to explain a very personal story in order to “justify” your ink. And I agree that people are being rude as hell when they refuse to acknowledge your attempts to change the subject.

    Looking forward to seeing what other people come up with as a response, because I still struggle with this one sometimes, too — and don’t even get me started on people who want to TOUCH without permission, ugh!

    • “What’s wrong with you?” is a question so ripe for sarcastic answer. It’s a pity that the people asking it are usually totally clueless about just HOW inappropriate a question it is. I used to get it a lot when I carried a cane, along with “What did you do to yourself?”

      • ashbet said:

        “What did you do to yourself” is the WORST — it’s saying that not only do you have to justify yourself for existing with a disability, but it’s ALSO apparently YOUR FAULT for being disabled!! *grinds teeth*

        (Other candidates for getting slapped with a fish: “You’re too young to need to use a wheelchair!” Yeah, TELL me about it. I’m thrilled to bits about developing mobility impairments in my 30’s, thanks for bringing up a sore point! I’ve been known to very drily say “I think so, too.”)

        *Jedi hugs/fistbumps*

        • Element_Girl said:

          I’ve gotten that a couple of times regarding my visible burn scars. My current response is to dissolve in a puddle of tears, but I’m working on that. It’s all very fresh

          • Annafel said:

            Oh that is rough. I’m sorry you were burned and that people are intrusive about it. Jedi hugs if you’d like them.

          • Tangent warning:
            I’m sorry that happened to you, and as a fellow burn survivor with visible scars, I offer you jedi hugs if you want them. My burns happened decades ago & I just recently starting going to groups for burn survivors, so it’s almost like I’m starting from zero. There are some online groups as well. It can be great to hear from other burn survivors how they deal with nosey strangers (and sometimes it can be really not helpful)

        • slythwolf said:

          I have an invisible disability that involves my joints being generally terrible, and my knees in particular have not been helped by my decade of retail work. Customers looooooove to tell me I’m “too young” to be making the grunting/groaning noises I make when I have to get up from a crouch or similar, because apparently there’s an age limit on disability and nobody told my connective tissue.

          Do they think I’m exaggerating the groaning for sympathy? Probably. Sigh.

          • ashbet said:

            I have more in common with the ladies in their 60’s and 70’s doing water aerobics at my pool (I have trouble keeping up with them!) than with people in their 30’s, like me. Ehlers-Danlos keeps you looking young, but holy CRAP does it wreck your body.

            And, yeah, I’ve been told that I’m “too young” (for a wheelchair, to be in this much pain, to be dealing with XYZ medical issue) and/or that I’m exaggerating for sympathy/attention (thanks, Mom!) far too many times to count. So frustrating — I’m sorry you’re experiencing it, too :/

            *Jedi hugs and solidarity, if welcome*

          • thelittlepakeha said:

            My problems are from doing gymnastics. You know, that sport that has an average retirement age of around 20 and you can break your back from a bad fall. Yep, definitely “too young”!

          • No, I’ve been told I’m “too young” for very obvious, visible disabilties. It’s my impression that it generally means, “It is unfair of the universe to give you that infirmity during years most people can expect to be healthy,” not, “I see through you, lying liar who lies.”

            I have never known what people want us to DO with the information that we are too young to be disabled–fix things with magic??? But even though it usually comes across as a microaggression, it’s actually an expression of sympathy. Extremely misguided and poorly aimed sympathy.

          • CJ said:

            It’s been my experience that sympathy is the intent behind the “too young” comment. That being said, I would still be inclined to interpret it in a context dependent manner. I can envision situations where a frustrated family member may attempt to deny that a disability exists (especially an invisible disability). So it really all comes down to who is saying it, their tone of voice, and their relationship with the disabled person.

          • Rorie_Lee said:

            I feel you. I have Ehlers-Danlos and I once worked at a bookstore that mostly employed older women. They had an incredibly steep set of stairs into the basement area where boxes of books were stored, and, even though I mentioned that I couldn’t carry many heavy things (dislocating shoulders!) or do stairs very well in my interview (at that point I’d only been able to stand up [from sitting] by myself for two years!), they still insisted I carry everything up and down the stairs and move all the heavy stuff ‘because you’re young!’. They acted like they thought I was just being lazy and trying to get out of work whenever I brought up the Ehlers-Danlos thing, and I suppose they really thought that, but . . . nope. Similar shiznit goes down in public bathrooms when I use handicapped stalls, ’cause I need the assistance bars sometimes. It seems very hard for some people to accept that young not-visibly-disabled people could possibly have anything wrong with them.

          • CuckoosChild said:

            Saaaame. The amount of shit I get for being disabled in my mid 20’s is frustrating as hell. I have suspected Ehlers-Danlos and GI issues that cause abdominal bloating, so people automatically assume ‘not disabled, just fat’ and tell me to take the stairs or exercise more. Sod that, just dragging myself to work all day is hard enough sometimes. My cousin has a birth defect that affected her spine – she needs a cane, and she regularly gets glared at for using her handicap placard or using the handicap seating on the train, because she’s too young for spinal issues apparently? *shakes head sadly* And disability services on campus are a joke. *Jedi Hugs*

        • Haflina said:

          Oh MAN, I got that one constantly when I first started showing up at work with a cane, and every time it would take everything I had not to get snappy with everyone asking. I did not do anything to myself, thanks for assuming.

          Not sure if that was better or worse than the guy (not just a coworker, but my team lead!) who saw me walking very much on eggshells before I gave in and started using the cane, and gave me this smirk and asked “So, fun weekend?” I wanted to slap him!! Yes, I most definitely had a fun weekend getting accustomed to playing pain roulette every time I tried to move around my own damned house!!

          • Ughghgh work can be so awful. I have knee issues that come and go, and one bad flareup was when I worked on the second floor of a two-story building. I used the elevator when my knees were flared up, and unless I was also on my cane, I got so much crap.

      • I have had all those. Brave for getting out of the house. Inspirational. Ugh, you name it.

        But “whats wrong with you?” is my favourite.

        I look confused and say “Wrong? Theres nothing wrong! In fact Im having a great day today, thanks!” and skip… Or limp… Into the sunset.

        See also “no, I meant, whats your disease?” “Oh, no, its not catching! Byeeeee!”

        • thebewilderness said:

          I have a somewhat forbidding countenance and so I get looks but rarely questions. When I get questions from strangers I simply reassure them that I am not contagious accompanied by an eyebrow lift. Works a treat.

      • mamacitaconpistoles said:

        “I am chronically late with thank you notes, and an irascible witch before I have coffee. Does it show?”

        • twomoogles said:

          I love this!!

    • I have trained myself that the answer to “how long have you been in a wheelchair???” is “since I left the house” (or whatever else). It is now a completely automatic response that I don’t have to *think* about making in advance so can’t second-guess myself over, and people have absolutely no idea what to do with it.

      (My ink is usually not visible, but yeah, it is very symbolic and very personal and very abstract, and I’ve talked about it in full with maybe five people OF WHOM ONE IS MY COUNSELLOR. Sorry for not having anything useful for this specific question.)

    • kaberett said:

      I have trained myself that the answer to “how long have you been in a wheelchair?????” is “since I left the house” (or whatever else). It is now a completely automatic response that I don’t have to *think* about making in advance so can’t second-guess myself over, and people have absolutely no idea what to do with it.

      (My ink is usually not visible, but yeah, it is very symbolic and very personal and very abstract, and I’ve talked about it in full with maybe five people OF WHOM ONE IS MY COUNSELLOR. Sorry for not having anything useful for this specific question.)

    • I used to get “is that real?” a lot about my leg piece, and I’d lick my finger, rub one of the elements of the tattoo, and then look up surprised and say “yeah!”

  3. CJ said:

    I have both a visible brand and a tattoo. Strangers often stop me to ask about the brand, yet have always been very polite. Sometimes too much so, continuing to apologize for “bothering” me.

    Occasionally someone will ask if the brand has a special meaning. I usually just tell them (in a bored detached way) that it’s a “spiritual symbol”. The typical response has been, “Oh. Well thank you”, before going on their way. I guess they don’t want to risk a conversation about my beliefs (which I would not share anyway).

    I’m trying to imagine the kind of rude person described by the LW, who continues to push after being told that the LW doesn’t want to talk about it. I can imagine an obnoxious family member doing something like this, but never a stranger. In such a situation, I would be inclined to go the confrontational route. But I agree that this may not be appropriate in the context, or comfortable at that particular time.

    • peeta8 said:

      Especially if they actually apologize for bothering you… I am mentally practicing some combination of “yes, you are bothering me,” and “Why are you so drawn to my ink specifically?”

      I think my usual deflection is to say Thanks! (even if they didn’t compliment my tattoo, pretend they had), and maybe then “are you thinking of getting one?” Which can continue but alter the conversation, or it can be a way to send them away with “because Jinx Proof does great work, check ’em out!”

      • ashbet said:

        I take it you’re a DC person, since you mentioned Jinx Proof? 🙂

        (Spent 17 years living in MD and commuting to DC — now relocated to TX. Mine were done by Rev. Fish and Paul Roe!)

      • slythwolf said:

        Responding to what someone ought to have said rather than what they actually said both works and is pretty entertaining.

    • I’d wager the letter writer is a woman; people are so so much more willing to demand information/access to women’s bodies.

  4. Nice Ogress said:

    In these situations, I give myself permission to be a horrible sarcastic person. I know not everyone can manage it, but I no longer suffer fools.

    Me: “Why yes, it DOES have a secret, personal meaning to me! You’re very astute! But I’m not gonna talk about it because what’s symbolic to me is kinda boring to everyone else. This is kind of true generally, if you think about it. ”
    Them: “But I really wanna know! ”
    Me: (in a vague, bored voice ) “It’s good to want things. Shows initiative. ”
    (TERRIBLE AWKWARD PAUSE )
    Me: …”So, if you were gonna get a tattoo, what would it be? “

  5. mamacitaconpistoles said:

    You do not owe people the truth! If they’re breaking the social contract, you can lie to extract yourself! Telling the truth to your own undeserved detriment is not a moral plus. Lies are a politeness option.

    Things I’ve said:

    1) oh, I went to Naked Hippie College in the 90s. You couldn’t graduate without a hippie tattoo. So many phases of the moon armbands, I tell you.

    2) what does it look like to you?

    3) oh, its meaning changes with time. Right now it’s just a pretty design.

    4) oh, you know. Lots of things.

    5) hm? Oh, it means I should have worn sleeves to avoid discussing it today.

    6) it means my grandma is disappointed in me.

    7) when I worked at Y Camp, I used to let kids color it in with face paint.

    Except for 1) none of these are false and all of them are inconsequential.

    • Anothermous said:

      Haha number 6 is fantastic!

    • ReanaZ said:

      Ha! These are the best.

    • thepaintedlady said:

      My fiance’s response is, “It means 21 year olds shouldn’t be allowed to make permanent decisions about their appearances.”

      • Commander Banana said:

        I tell people I had too much disposable income and poor impulse control. Both of which are true although neither apply to my tattoos.

    • Melanie Chorisglossa said:

      “I got drunk one night and promised to my drinking buddies I’d get this tattoo. *shrug* I guess I could have backed out when I sobered up, but… a promise is a promise, eh?” followed by a wan, slightly embarrassed expression.

      Nota bene: this was during a fantasy role-playing game in a semi-contemporary setting. The game referee liked to “throw” non-player characters at my (decoratively tattooed) character, demanding pretty much answers to those questions like LW’s. He employed the tactic at regular intervals, as an extra challenge for the players to cope with; even without a deep self-awareness, he understood the effect that questioning had. (After awhile, he also stopped: my answers never seemed to allow him to create further problems, I guess. *wink*)

      It occurs to me that role-playing various answers with a trusted friend, and seeing what fits, or amuses but doesn’t quite work, wouldn’t be a bad way to go.

    • Lahona said:

      Absolutely going to use#5 thank you

  6. samsam said:

    i don’t have tattoos, so it’s different circumstances, but I always find that when a completely random stranger decides to ask me a question out of the blue about clothes/hair/obama pin/what i’m listening to in my GIANT HEADPHONES THAT I’M CLEARLY WEARING IN ORDER TO AVOID TALKING TO STRANGERS/etc., I find a very pointed “do I know you?…then why are you speaking to me?” combined with the bitchiest, most disdainful, new yorker face that I can muster usually solves the problem right quick.

    Mind you, this only works with people that you do not have a pre-exisitng relationship with, and that you have no desire to have a relationship with in the future.

    (I also have this issue where I’m very “nice” looking – not “nice” as in “attractive” (I’m fine-looking, but that’s not the point of this story), but “nice” as in “approachable”, so I get approached ALOT when walking down the street – greenpeace solicitors, tourists seeking directions, the damn improv everywhere people who somehow think that suddenly jumping out in front of a woman and yelling in her face “do you like comedy?” – they’ll skip over 20 other people, including people standing on the corner waiting for the light to change, and will literally step in my way as i’m running for the subway/bus, so I have not so much adopted a ‘resting bitch face’ as ‘active and aggressive bitch face’ when trying to go to work).

    (No seriously, I’m wearing these giant over-ear headphones on a subway platform in 100-degree weather because I want you to launch into a series of questions without even waiting to see if I’m paying attention to you.)

    • thelittlepakeha said:

      Oh god I hear your third paragraph. Several years lived in a city that didn’t have a downtown anymore, then moved to where I am now which has a very busy downtown and I swear I can see these people, out of the corner of my eye, not looking directly at them, passing their gazes over the crowd, spotting me and going “YES THAT ONE!” It’s like I have a neon sign over my head or something. I think it’s been a lifelong thing, because I can remember tourists stopping me while on school field trips to ask for directions too. Plus sometimes I walk with a cane so I get the visible disability-prop comments too, not to mention that lady who interrupted my lunch to ask if she could pray for me…

      • attica said:

        I was so startled when a lady asked me if she could pray for me, I laughed out loud and said “I promise you your god won’t answer, but hey: you do you!” She was so startled, she may still be sputtering.

        • Sparky said:

          I don’t eat McDonald’s food, but my boss used to send me to get him food from there. Interesting fact, Greenpeace people will bother me, except when I’m carrying a McDonald’s bag. I guess they figure someone who eats there isn’t going to be interested in their cause.

        • Courtney said:

          I once answered that question with, “As long as you don’t pray *at* me, go for it.”

          • peeta8 said:

            “It’s unlikely to be the best use of your time.”

          • I like it! I might try “Sure, as long as it’s silent.”
            Sometimes I say, “Sure, and I’ll pray for you.” I’m a pagan, but they don’t know that…

        • thelittlepakeha said:

          Yeah it was weird because while I wouldn’t say this is a secular country, we tend to get less of the loud “praying for you” religiousness. (Though we did have Mormons doing our yard work for a while.)

        • Godless Heathen said:

          My go-to for being prayed for is to say, in a really condescending tone unfortunately, “God answers all prayers. Sometimes the answer is ‘no’.”
          If you’re praying for my general well being I don’t mind so much. If you’re praying that I’ll drop my Heathen ways and become a Respectable Woman, it hasn’t worked so far and it’s unlikely to work now.

          Don’t have advice for the OP but congrats on your tattoo!

          • Laughing Giraffe said:

            “In an infinite universe, all things are possible.” Really useful non-response for all kinds of questions/requests, though I especially like it for, “Will I see you again?”

      • I find that hugely insulting. It basically says “youre fucked and need fixing”.

      • sam said:

        I also always like coming up with the most horrific thing I can think of to say to people who won’t stop pestering me (this is largely for the “clipboard” people, who don’t know how to respect a simple “no” and will literally follow you down the street or actually block your path. My response in those circumstances usually involves some sort of “I hate “children/dolphins/whales/etc” and hope that more of them die”. That usually stuns the person for long enough for me to get away.

        Note – I don’t actually hate any of those things, and many of the causes are great causes. But if any of those clipboard people think I’m giving my contact/credit card info to a random stranger on the street simply because they’ve got a clipboard and a vest, then they’re more gullible than they certainly think I am.

        for the improv everywhere idiots who think it’s a good idea to jump out in front of women and yell “do you like to laugh” in their faces? – “I don’t know, will it be funny when I kick you in the balls?” (note – the improv everywhere people seem to have stopped this tactic).

        For people who ask you directions and THEN ARGUE WITH YOU OVER THOSE DIRECTIONS (this has happened to me). I send them the wrong way. But only after they argue with me. If you think you know better than me, why are you bothering me in the first place?

        I like to think of this as giving tourists an “evil, rude New Yorker” story that they can bring home to wherever they came from. Everyone wants one, and it’s my gift to you.

        (Note – I have gone blocks out of my way, on numerous occasions to actually help non-argumentative tourists get to where they need to go, but only when they have the sense to ask me when I’m clearly not running for the subway during rush hour in the morning!)

    • Myrin said:

      I agree with this as a non-tattoo-haver and apparently approachably-looking person.

      I’ve also been wondering, as the LW specifically mentions this happening with “random strangers or new acquaintances”, if you could just turn around and leave? I have to admit to doing this on multiple occasions, although it’s certainly dependant on the situation (a crowded room where you can flee undetected into the masses is different from a carpooling situation where the cousin of your coworker suddenly takes an interest in your tattoo and you still have 15 minutes to go) and the person/your exact relationship with them. So yeah, I’ve had succes with making a scrunched up face (and it must be a horrible face, according to my sister), maybe saying “Why would you ask/say this?”, and running away but yeah, that depends.

      Other than that, maybe you can just say “No.” in a really bored voice when someone asks if there’s a meaning. Or a simple “I liked the design” or “I got two for the price of one yay!”. I just wish people would mind their own business, especially around random strangers!

    • Alli525 said:

      Oh man. Once I was on the subway (I live in NYC, where most people know to leave fellow straphangers alone) and a woman asked me where I got my Claddagh ring. I pulled one earbud out and said “my dad” and put my earbud back in. She then followed up with “are you and your dad close?” [earbud out] “No.” [earbud in] “Oh, is your dad dead?” (WHICH. !!!!)

      Some people, I s2g.

  7. “What does it meeeeeeeeeeeeeeean” is a bullshit question anyway. Unless you show me your Ink Police badge, I’m not obligated to accept your premise that a tattoo has to (intentionally) mean anything, let alone tell you what it means if, as in LW’s case, it does happen to have meaning.

  8. This reminds me of Nosey Strangers who start asking personal questions when you’re pregnant/carrying a newborn and want to pet your stomach/baby as if it were a dog.

    The above scripts are great, but if circumstances allow you could just turn and walk away:
    “Oh look a shelf that needs stocking”
    “I think I see my [imaginary] friend – got to go”
    “I’m on my way somewhere – goodbye!”
    “My phone is vibrating…”

    Nosey People – strangers or known – are a PITA. I hope you get some respite from them soon.

    • onyx said:

      Can’t have kids, but ugh ugh ugh! I hate that people do this to pregnant women/new mothers, especially the ones that don’t even ask and just TOUCH the person’s belly or child. I don’t think I’d be able to stop from slapping their hand reflexively.

    • Leonine said:

      Oh, man. Yeah. Okay, so when my first son was a baby, I was shopping with him and I clocked some lady–a store employee, actually–eyeing him. Sure enough, she approaches me in the aisle. She explains that her own baby, who was about the same age as my son, was not living with her at the moment (her parents had custody, iirc), and just loved little babies so much, so could she hold my son, and she had already washed her hands. This last bit of information was delivered in a cheerfully reassuring tone, as though the cleanliness of her hands would be my primary concern in this situation. As bad as I felt for her, my son was not a baby goat and this was not a petting zoo, so no, she could not use his body for her purposes. I didn’t want to confront or even engage, however, so I just pretended that I hadn’t heard the request and that I didn’t know what she was talking about. I made sympathetic faces, and then smiled and nodded while walking away. She was *not* happy and made a very sour face when she realized that she wasn’t going to get to hold him, but there wasn’t much she could say. This might not work with random strangers who are not in their place of employ, but a blank smile and a puzzled, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand the question” repeated a few times might do the trick on the tattoo thing. If you can make them think you’re even stupider than they are, they’ll probably leave you alone.

      • Drew said:

        ATTENTION PEOPLE OF EARTH

        DO NOT ASK TO PICK UP OR EVEN TOUCH STRANGERS’ BABIES UNLESS THEY ARE TRYING TO EAT URANIUM

        THANK YOU

        • Emmers said:

          I’m sorry, Drew, I couldn’t hear you, even with the all-caps. I believe my shoulders are PERMANENTLY STUCK INSIDE MY EARS FROM HAVING READ LEONINE’S COMMENT.

          Seriously. That story. Gaaaahhhh.

        • Mary said:

          See, neither me nor my baby mind it. I don’t think asking is so terrible, but it should definitely be the kind of asking that is happy to accept a no.

    • quinalla said:

      Ugh, I was very lucky that for both of my pregnancies I had only one stranger that tried to touch my belly without asking. I’m tall, so I tend to intimidate people, but yeah I luckily saw it coming and gave them a “BACK OFF” look and they did not touch. Being pregnant and having small children is really an eye opening experience to just how much people think they can do/say to women & their offspring in our society.

      And yeah, nothing wrong with a lie or truth that misleads if you don’t want to go into it LW! Sorry you have to deal with that, you are doing everything right, there are just certain things that people don’t do boundaries for and apparently tattoos are one of them.

  9. Sneaky said:

    I’ve gotten along pretty well by recycling simple, 3-word answers that, while they tell nothing of the actual personal meaning of my tattoos, seem to satisfy people. “It means support.” “It’s a door.” “I like circuits.” They’re not lies, really, just super, super basic summaries with all the personal details stripped out. Because while I like sometimes to talk about my tattoos with close friends, repeating the same elaborate back story over and over again is exhausting and kind of takes the magic out of it.

    Totally gotten the thing where deflection or “That’s private” makes people defensive, more curious, or whip out the old “If it’s so private why did you stick it where everyone can see it.” While all of those reactions are rude and wrong, my objective is to not deal with that, so for me, it’s all about the elevator versions.

    • olivia0330 said:

      My husband has had success with this method. “I like Frankenstein, and I like my mom and dad.” while giving the “no doy” eyebrow was an effective conversation shutdown at our favorite grocery store, once. 🙂

    • LeighTX said:

      I read this too quickly, and thought the third sentence said, “I like doors.” Which might actually be a good answer to any nosey question, in that it’s sufficiently confusing enough to give you time to get away before the Nosey Person figures out how to respond. 😛

      • I think this is very promising. The next time some random stranger drops an invasive question on me, I hope I remember this in time to announce cheerfully “I like doors!” and immediately walk away. Let them puzzle on that for as long as they like.

  10. Fangirl said:

    Wow. Just wow. People, man.

    I have my own tattoo that is gorgeous and sometimes visible based on my tank top. I’ve gotten a few “How pretty!” or “where did you get it?” No “What does it mean?” yet.

    I might go with “It’s art; does it really mean anything?” or something like that, because some people find meaning in Jackson Pollack and other people see a bunch of paint splatters.Then a segue into talking about their tattoos and the style of tattoo or praising the artist.

    • EvilEye said:

      Alone the lines of art-related responses, I could also see “It means whatever you want it to mean,” or perhaps even deflecting the question with a “what do you think it means?” Using it as a springboard to discuss art in general I think is a great idea.

      Although… with people who are so rude as to keep pressing after someone has said they don’t want to talk about it, I’m not too confident anything would work. Yeesh.

    • I like this response a heck of a lot. My tattoo doesn’t have any deep personal meaning beyond “I wanted a tattoo,” and people sometimes aren’t satisfied with that answer. It’s art! Just go with it, folks!

      • Anon Tattooed Person said:

        This. I’m also secretly afraid they’ll judge me for putting something permanent on my body that isn’t SOOPER MEANINGFUL.

  11. Bonelady said:

    You might try what Suzette Haden Elgin called the Boring Baroque Response. It might go like this: “you know, that’s kind of a long story. It all started when my Aunt Susan baked me a cake…no, wait, it wasn’t Aunt Susan, it was Aunt Mary.. or was it Aunt Annie? Shoot, I can’t remember – no it was Aunt Jane, I’m pretty sure. Aunt Jane made the best chocolate cake. But I don’t think the cake was chocolate…” and go on from there and on and on and on. This has to be done seriously and as tediously as you can manage. Most people will get bored or impatient and leave before too long.

      • thelittlepakeha said:

        The episode of Black Books where Mooma and Moopa come visit.

    • Tapetum said:

      Anne McCaffrey used to do that for people who wanted to make chit-chat sitting next to her on airplanes. She’d pull out pictures of her grandkids, and start telling them about her long (boring, very, very boring) life as a potato farmer from Idaho. Before very long, they were hiding behind their magazines from her.

      • slfisher said:

        As someone who lives in Idaho who has lots of farmer friends, being a potato farmer in Idaho can actually be really interesting. 🙂

        • I kinda want to hear about Idaho potato farmer stories now. Are there any on the interwebs you might recommend?

  12. Madb said:

    I am tattoo artist shopping since the gentleman who did my current one doesn’t have the correct style for the others I want (he did a magnificent job! It is exactly what I wanted, where I wanted it, and it gives me great joy every time I see it some six years on) and really the only question I feel is appropriate to ask people with visible ones is; “Where did you get that done?”

    In my experience that question generally leads to either “Artist name/shop” + change of subject or “Artist name/shop” + story of tattoo. I’m just adding this here for the sake of people who want to respectfully ask about tattoos and aren’t sure how to go about it. You don’t have to say you’re looking to get inked if you’re not, but it’s an open-ended way to get the story if the other person wants to tell it.

    • LW 729 said:

      Yes, this is all true! I’m happy to talk about my artist and the shop and tattoo styles generally and so on, that’s totally fine and (usually) fun to talk about. It’s just the invasive BUT WHAT DOES IT MEAAAANNNNNNNNNN?!?!?!?!? patrol that gets my hackles up. It’s like the difference between an acquaintance asking “So how’s your day been?” versus “EXACTLY WHAT DID YOU EAT FOR BREAKFAST AND WHAT COLOUR UNDERWEAR ARE YOU WEARING AND HOW DO YOU FEEEEEEL ABOUT YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH YOUR MOTHER?!?!?!” Like, whoa, buddy, you just escalated to intimacy level eleven and we only have a level two relationship, please back off.

      • My new roommate’s dad asked me about my big visible tattoo of a book (a question I get a lot as I just started in a new job two months ago) last week whilst we were moving our stuff, and I said “Well, because of my name” which is always what I say, and he slapped his forehead and said “oh, of course” just like everyone always does. I find if you can come up with some SUPER obvious link–“I like birds” for a duck tattoo or “my mother’s maiden name was Starr” for a star tattoo people generally are like “ohhhh of course” and just go away.

        I find that there’s a subset of folks without tattoos who think of tattoos as always defining some big life event, so they always think there must be some Reason, when often the reason is “I had some extra money and I like donkeys and chickens so I got The Bremen Town Musicians on my arm”.

        But I also feel no compunction about lying to strangers. 🙂

    • It also has the advantage of being the one almost guaranteed non-creepy opener. My husband is a big bald dude covered in ink and would potentially be somewhat alarming as a stranger, and the number of people who visibly relax when he asks that question is…well, high double digits by now. It’s like the secret handshake of inked people for “I am admiring your ink but not hitting on you,” and it allows a graceful exit if the other person doesn’t want to talk.

      • Anon Tattooed Person said:

        “It’s like the secret handshake of inked people for “I am admiring your ink but not hitting on you,””

        This is so true. Also, I can’t think of every getting the “what does it mean” question from a moderate-to-heavily-inked person, which is interesting.

    • Oh good, that’s what I’m usually asking as I’m also artist-shopping, generally after I exclaim about how gorgeous/much I like said visible tattoo. Folks have been giving me some good answers, and often like to give story of tattoo, but I definitely don’t expect it — I just feel honoured when they do share ’cause it often IS personal!

      It’s funny how people kept saying I’d regret getting a tattoo later in life if I got one in my late teens/early 20’s. My biggest regret, honestly, is not having gone through with it back then! If I had a tiny time machine that only solved miniscule problems…

  13. This is the reason why I don’t plan on visible tattoos (except my wrists). My current one, when people ask to see it, I pull up a photo of what it’s basd on (seal of rassilon from classic doctor who) and tell them I don’t particularly want to be arrested for indecent exposure (becuase it’s on my right hip really close to crotch and far enough down that there’s no way to show it if I am not in a bikini bottoms and running around in a bathing suit. When asked why I just say I am a fan of the show and I like it. But I totally get people being invasive and not respecting boundaries.

    My hair was a really pretty dirty blond colour as a teen (before I started dyeing it) and I have had people (from when I was 13-19) mostly older who would randomly touch/stroke my hair without consent and ask where I got it done at and would get mad when I said genetics? Because apparently my hair wasn’t allowed to naturally be that colour? I had one lady get mad and rip some strands out. I know it’s different from people inquiring about personal aspects of a tattoo but the best advice I have seen work is bored voice saying I just thought it was pretty (especially if you are afab/female looking/passing)

    • Beth said:

      OMFG rip strands of your HAIR out?! I am so far beyond horrified. Did you call the police?

      • Nope. I was a scared and shy teenager who had recently had a bad run in with the police (in which a cop watched a guy almost run me over, blow a stop sign and go at least 30 mph over the speed limit and did nothing and when I sat on the curb to fix my hair so I could see and took helmet off cause I was on rollerblades got pulled over for it -_-). Also our cops here are basically useless. They’re on loan from the county because we’re too poor to have our own p.d. and none of them want to be out here. And it’s obvious

        • Beth said:

          I am so, SO sorry you had to go through that!

    • jaynn said:

      Why do people think it’s okay to randomly touch strangers? I’ve had similar issues with a favorite sweater (it’s fuzzy and oh so comfy and I wish I could replicate it) but at least that I can take off.

      • I don’t know. I’ve never understood it. But I’ve witnessed it so many times with people with tattoos. And it always makes me go “wtf?”

    • Ugh, I had that. Natural redhead. Went to greece ona school trip. Men would bike up to me, throw the bike down, and pull my hair to see if it was real.

      Thats assault!

      • Yeah. As an adult now I’d definitely be taking a photo of them and calling the cops and filing a report. Luckily it doesn’t happen anymore. Thank you hair dye

        • Commander Banana said:

          Gaahhhhhhhhhhh! My hair is dyed very black and I wear pretty elaborate hairstyles, and it’s also SUPER stick straight, and I’ve had people ask me if it’s a wig and actually TUG ON IT.

          • This will constantly confuse and baffle me

          • Cartimandua said:

            Speaking as someone who wears a wig: AAAAARRRGGH!
            I don’t get what goes through people’s minds when they do this. Either it isn’t a wig, in which case you’ve hurt someone to satisfy your curiosity, or it is a wig and you’re now holding a stranger’s hair in your hands while they yell at you, thump you, sink to the floor in tears or (if it’s me) attempt all three simultaneously.

      • I don’t think I’ve ever had a man touch my hair out of the blue (at least, not a stranger), but women have. Also the constant, constant “is that your natural hair color?” and creepy-ass “compliments”. When I was a child, I had developed a reflexive duck response to the approach of strange women because a large number would TOUCH MY FUCKING HEAD because a) redhead and b) child, thus public property. People used to ask my parents if they dyed my hair, which generally garnered stares of baffled wtf – have you tried getting a toddler to sit still that long?

        I get it less now that I have developed the ability to look like I’m very busy going where I am going and will not be fucked with, or am so not “there” that I wouldn’t hear you, anyway.

        • orbitalflyby said:

          There’s also a big racial/white supremacist thing to hair-touching; white people of all genders do this to black women on a far greater scale than those of us who are white experience. Entitlement and dehumanisation.

    • Astara said:

      Yay for DW tattoos:) I also have a Seal of Rassilon tattoo; mine is on my ankle. If I don’t feel like explaining Doctor Who (I’ve had it since prior to the reboot) I tell people it’s a pretty piece of knotwork.

  14. mountainshadows299 said:

    Yeah… When I got my tattoo, I planned it so that I had both a vague explanation for it and the real explanation for it. For people I don’t know well/don’t want to explain to, I tell them precisely what it is “Well, it’s a phoenix…and I picked it because I felt like it represented my personality,” I’ve had a lot of change in my life, and I bounce back well- ie, rise from the ashes- and sometimes I don’t even explain that much. It’s not untrue and it works well enough for people to leave me alone for the most part.

    • thelittlepakeha said:

      That’s probably what I’ll do when I eventually get around to getting mine. “My favourite birds” is a lot easier than getting into the whole story about the mythological symbolism of those particular species and personal history.

  15. Iris said:

    However well meaning these people are, they are being rude. You’re not required to feel bad for them if they end up feeling awkward. I can see how you might want to avoid drama, though. I also second mamacitaconpistoles’ suggestion of an easy lie/half truth that will shut them up.

    If you don’t want to go with a lie I have two suggestions: I would go with short answers *combined with* a topic change every single time. So for example
    “Does your tattoo mean anything?”
    “Yes. So, what do you think of local sports team/quilting club/chess team”
    “What does it mean?”
    “It’s very personal. DId you catch last night’s episode of current hot show?”
    “Why? Why is it personal? What happened?”
    “It’s very personal. Aren’t these mini cheescakes delicious? Do you cook?”
    “TELL ME! WHY WON’T YOU TELL ME?!!11!!”
    “It’s very personal. Do you like the new shop on main street?”
    etc.

    You can just keep repeating “It’s very personal” and offering various other topics ad nauseum. At some point they will give up or make themselves look so foolish that they will have to go live in a hole.

    For perfect strangers you are well within your rights to simply reply “I’m sorry, do I know you?” and walk away.

    • slfisher said:

      This is what I would go with. “Oh, it’s really personal.” Repeat as needed.

      Though I did like “It’s complicated.”

      Honestly, I’m not sure I would ever ask someone *where* they got their tattoo; that seems on the order of asking where someone bought their clothes or furniture and seems inappropriate unless it’s someone I know well. Just speaking for myself here.

      • ashbet said:

        I don’t mind “Wow, I love your tattoos, where did you get them done?” (YMMV, I’m more tolerant of stranger-interactions than some.)

        To me, the combination of a compliment and a neutral expression of interest is much more polite than asking about the “meaning” or whether it hurt or “how far down does it go,” which is often asked by leering dudes. (Answer: Farther than you’ll ever get, buddy.) It’s not “personal” for me to share the artist’s name, and I’m happy to send business his way whenever possible — although now that I live halfway across the country, a lot of people say “awww, damn” when I tell them he’s in DC!

        I genuinely don’t mind people asking technical/neutral questions — but if I’m busy/preoccupied/in a hurry, I want them to respect my time, and to accept a short answer and a “Gotta get on my way!”

        • Cor! said:

          Honestly, as a fan of the art form, the artist and style are really the only questions I’d consider appropriate in these situations. It’s like asking someone, where they got a particularly nice pair of shoes or a really good smelling pizza. It’s for information’s sake and not at all something that will put somebody else in a bind.
          I remember, the only time I ever asked someone about their tattoo, I waited for ten minutes so the conversation could flow and I wouldn’t seem pushy or rude. And they weren’t a complete stranger! They were a friend of a friend who had just been introduced to me, and the tattoo struck me because it was a reference from an anime I really like. Had it been something more open to interpretation, like a mermaid swimming out of a teacup or a dog jumping through Saturn’s rings or something, then I just would have thought to myself ‘cool tat’ and not even bother asking.
          I don’t even have any business asking about artists because I can’t afford one at the moment, *sniff* I’m ok.
          But again, I was into tats waaaay before this whole reality tv fad came along, so maybe I just learned my tat manners a little better.

      • tinyorc said:

        I think asking where someone got their tattoo is more along the lines of asking who painted a particularly striking piece of artwork in your house. I’m always happy to answer it because the artists behind my tattoos did a kickass job and I think they deserve praise and exposure. Out of all the questions I get about my tattoos, I find “who was your artist?” or “where did you get it done?” the least invasive by a long shot.

        • thepaintedlady said:

          I don’t mind it either – I still live near where I got mine done, my artist is relatively new, and she does unbelievable work, plus she’s just a lovely person, so if I can send her more business I always try to. She works at a very popular shop in town, and she’s the newest artist, so that’s actually kind of a fun conversation when they’re like, “Oh! They have a female artist now! That’s great! I only knew of Rock Star Vet and The Guy Who Isn’t Him! I’ll have to check out her portfolio!” And then I tell them that one of my pieces is in there and joke about how my left shoulder is famous and it’s a good diversion from the standard, “But what does it MEAN??”

      • iiii said:

        Is it rude to ask where someone got their clothes? I’m fat, and if I see another 3x-sized woman in a dress I like I ask her where she got it. Usually the answer is, “consignment shop, sorry.” Sometimes that’s the end of the conversation, sometimes we bewail the state of the fashion industry together, but so far no one’s been offended at the question.

        • entendante said:

          Is it rude to ask where someone got their clothes? I’m fat, and if I see another 3x-sized woman in a dress I like I ask her where she got it.

          Fat lady here, and there’s a difference for me between getting that question from general person-on-the-street (=kind of odd, but flattering, I guess) and getting it from a fellow fat person or person-with-similar-femme-presentation (=solidarity!). I think it was @ashbet above who said that she’s fine divulging bra-shopping tips to someone who’s clearly in the same boat, and for me that applies even more strongly to clothes-shopping tips.

  16. email link to this post is broken said:

    OP, you also have my permission–nay, encouragement–to lie. What fun you’ll have, looking forward to a new opportunity each month or so, wondering what your mood and sense of whimsy will come up with next time, now that you’re free to say anything at all, no matter how outrageous! Here are a couple of possibilities, to get you started:

    1. (If your tattoo contains some text in a strange language:) It’s Tibetan for “Cobra who pokes at mongoose gets nose bitten.” (make up your own)

    2. (If your tattoo has graphic design elements:) It’s the Currier and Ives logo–I get a small stipend from them each month for wearing it.” (pick a local or national company whose name they will recognize, but not their logo)

    3. (Weird mystery answer): It’s the Shield of the Illuminati–(pause)–but I’ve told you too much already. (Dart eyes nervously left and right.) Promise me you won’t tell anyone.” (The Trilateral Commission, The One World Order, Opus Dei, Sea Org–pick your own mystery)

    Turn annoyance into a fun time–now go have a ball!

    • Irene said:

      It’s Tibetan for “Cobra who pokes at mongoose gets nose bitten.”

      I really wouldn’t go there.

      • Fierce Passion said:

        +a zillion

      • Emmers said:

        Great, now my linguist brain is trying to analyze that sentence and…no. It doesn’t matter HOW it’s orientalist…

    • Caraval said:

      Now I want a tattoo just so I can use #3.

  17. serrana said:

    “It’s complicated.”

    (one one thousand two one thousand three one thousand)

    “I’m sure you understand.”

    • Sneaky said:

      In the same vein, I’m a fan of the tried and true, “It’s a loooooong story.” Most curious people are not actually into sitting through some massive back story and will leave it at that. And by “most,” I mean “every single person I’ve used this on,” which since I have several obvious tattoos is a pretty good record.

      • I’d love a long story about what inspired a tattoo design. I’d also recognize “long story” as probable code for “don’t want to tell you” and let it go, but that’s me. If I were as clueless as the strangers LW is running into, I’d be all, “telllll meeeeeee!”

        • Sneaky said:

          Perhaps I’m just lucky that, despite my 3 obvious and ambiguously symbolic tattoos, I’ve never encountered anyone THAT pathetically clueless. Even my resident Clueless Coworker, who is exactly the kind of person to try and push a point, and can’t pick up cues for “don’t-want-to-be-in-this-conversation-please-let-me-go,” was able to cut it out after “[3 word answer] + It’s a looooooooong story.” I’m inclined to think that if anyone pushes past that point, they’re not clueless, they’re fucking with you, and deserve to be handled as anyone else who is intentionally fucking with you (ie. peace out on them, stick headphones in, etc).

  18. digitalsidhe said:

    Okay, I’m not a tattoo wearer, but I do wear a visible item of jewelry around my neck that sometimes attracts attention and questions.

    I’m going to disagree with all the people saying to just lie, because that encourages the person hassling you to believe that what they’re doing is okay.

    “Hey, what does that mean?” -> “It means such-and-so” tells them on a meta-level that the question was okay.

    “Hey, what does that mean?” -> “I’d rather not discuss that” shuts them down, and tells them that they should stop.

    OP’s question, of course, was more along the lines of “And then what do I do about the people who don’t accept that?” To which I say, make them accept it, because turning around and giving them a story that pretends to satisfy their nosiness just encourages them to keep on being nosy in the rest of their lives. I mean, really, that situation is:

    “Hey, what does that mean?” -> “I’d rather not discuss that” -> “Oh, but I insist!” -> “Okay, then I’ll answer”.

    That rewards them for being pushy. I’d really rather not encourage that kind of thing. It just trains them to be even pushier to the rest of us. I’d much rather see:

    “Hey, what does that mean?” -> “I’d rather not discuss that” -> “Oh, but I insist!” -> “*icy look* I said, I am not going to discuss that.” *either turn and walk off, or the nosy-parker apologizes and scuttles off*

    (Or, honestly, I’d really rather see them respond to the first “I’d rather not discuss that” with an apology and polite disengagement, but if they were doing that, OP wouldn’t have had to write in the first place.)

    • ReanaZ said:

      Yeah, but that strategy is really, really, really emotionally exhausting. A polite deflection or lie is about as much energy as I want to waste on a pushy stranger. The OP is not one-woman Social Graces tutoring company. Do whatever is the easiest way to you to disengage from the question and move on with your life.

      Although I think there are plenty of ways to tell an open lie or half-truth that deflect and mildly rebuke (examples from my partner and I down-thread), without getting into an exhausting stand-off or cheerfully pretending it’s 100% okay.

      • digitalsidhe said:

        As noted below in my response to Anna Sthetic, a simple shutdown/no isn’t that exhausting a strategy for me — that would be male privilege at work, where people are much more likely to actually hear and obey my “no”s. So, sorry about missing that.

        I do like the answers that give some rebuke. I’ve seen a bunch of them in people’s suggestions.

        • K. said:

          Hm, there are some women who are more comfortable saying no to things like this. I don’t know if it’s male privilege – in this context – so much as individual differences in which strategy is easiest.

          I’m a woman and comfortable shutting strangers down. The more polite or passive ways of handling this are, kind of unfortunately, more difficult to me. I don’t really have the patience or subtlety.

          • W.T. said:

            To clarify: the privilege involved is having people (generally) RESPECT the shut-down, not in feeling comfortable making the shut-down in the first place. (Though one obviously influences the other, as the reason many women find it hard to employ a direct shut-down is because they anticipate it won’t be respected and will lead to a more direct confrontation.)

          • Laura D said:

            Agreed. I have no problem saying “No” or “I’m not interested in talking about that” and backing it up with a neutral or actively bitchy face (or just leaving) that people generally respect. I can understand how it could be exhausting to have to constantly repeat the same answer if a simple no doesn’t work and I can also see that women will frequently get told off for saying no. That doesn’t particularly bother me, so I stick with the bitchy no. It works for me. It’d be way more exhausting for me to make up lies or try to redirect the conversation.

          • K. said:

            W.T. – I totally understand that a lot of people are less willing to take a “no” from a woman, but for some of us, the shut-down still works better than anything else.

          • W.T. said:

            K.– oh yeah, agreed! Different strategies work for different people, and the direct shut-down works well for a lot of women. I was addressing the “I don’t know if it’s male privilege” part of your comment, because it DEFINITELY is– just a different part of it than I felt like you were identifying. (A man telling a woman to just shut people down because it works for him = privilege! And quickly self-identified as such; thanks for being aware, digitalsidhe. Women sometimes also feeling comfortable using this strategy = not privilege, obviously.)

      • digitalsidhe said:

        Also, many people are advocating strategies like coming up with funny/sarcastic stories ahead of time, or driving the questioners away with long-winded, rambling stories. For me at least, those would take way more time and energy than just telling the person to go away. I agree that I want to waste as little energy as possible on a pushy stranger. I was just thinking that a blunt “no” would be less energy than many other things.

        • Vicki said:

          Even if you are able and willing to say “That’s personal….That’s personal…I said, that’s personal. That means that if it was your business you’d already know” and walk away from a stranger, when the intrusive person is a coworker or a cousin you see periodically but have never really cared for, evasion or the boring baroque might be less total stress. “I wanted to know about Vicki’s tattoo, so I asked her what it meant, and she went on for half an hour without answering, just rambled about not being able to remember how long ago it was, and the artist warning her it might hurt, and never did get around to answering” is a harder complaint to get traction with than “I asked Vicki about her tattoo, and she told me to fuck off.”

    • It’s not the LW’s job to “encourage”/train people to be less rude. LW cannot, by singular example, teach the rude people they encounter that it’s rude to ask; more likely, the rude people will just assume the LW is being extraordinarily closed-off and unobliging, not that they’ve done anything wrong.

      • digitalsidhe said:

        Good point.

    • Anna Sthetic said:

      Ok, so this is a privilege thing. If you have the quantity of can necessary to maintain a Fortress of Righteous Go Away You Nosey Bastard, that is excellent and a thing you should totally do.

      But Fortresses of Righteous Go Away You Nosey Bastard require upkeep. Boiling oil is expensive, and nosey bastards are legion. So telling someone off for not having the resources to keep Nosey Bastard Battling is not cool.

      • digitalsidhe said:

        There probably is some privilege in my answer, you’re right. Being male, people are far more likely to accept a simple “No, go away” from me than if I were female. So thank you for pointing that out.

        However, I missed the part where I told the LW off. I gave my own advice, which was different from others’, and explained my reasoning.

        • ashbet said:

          Yeah, it’s harder for a woman to just say “No, go away” — far too often, the response to that is anger or potential violence. The response is pretty much unanimously “Why you gotta be such a bitch! I was just ASKING! No need to get NASTY!”

          (“No” is a complete sentence. For some people, however, it is treated like an aggressive attack, and often can get bystanders involved in a negative way. Sometimes, it’s safer to use the softer-worded version, when you’re trying to avoid a confrontation. This is definitely something where gender and privilege can mean that it’s “safe” for one person to use a flat “no,” but it can put others who do the same thing in danger.)

          <– veteran of WAYYY too many subway rides where I was interrogated with the equivalent of "Whatcha readin' for?" No amount of please-fuck-off vibes seems to dissuade pushy dudes from trying to engage me in conversation, no matter how obvious I was about not wanting it.

        • ruinousillusion said:

          I’m guessing that what seems like you telling OP off for not having the resources to keep telling strangers to go away is when you said “I’m going to disagree with all the people saying to just lie, because that encourages the person hassling you to believe that what they’re doing is okay.”

          The way that statement is phrased seems to imply that most of the coping strategies people have advanced here are contributing to the nosy bastards they’re having to combat, and puts the onus for teaching the nosy bastards better behavior on the people trying to cope. It doesn’t state that that’s how you think of things, it puts that view forward as fact.

        • entendante said:

          I think the part that people are interpreting as a telling-off is where you said “That rewards them for being pushy. I’d really rather not encourage that kind of thing. It just trains them to be even pushier to the rest of us.” It sort of takes it out of the realm of “this is what I do” and into the realm of “what you do is wrong because you’re not expending your effort on educating people on behalf of ‘the rest of us.'”

          Probably not what you meant, but not a wildly implausible reading, either. ::shrug::

      • K. said:

        The Fortress of Go Away is a better option for some of us than others. Maybe digitalsedhe is in that camp. I have no idea if LW is.

        Telling someone off for not being able to do that (or able and unwilling, which is also valid) wouldn’t be cool – telling someone off for finding it the best strategy available to them wouldn’t be cool, either.

        • K. said:

          *digitalsidhe, sorry.

    • mamacitaconpistoles said:

      Yeah, no. I am not around in public to be a free manners finishing school for people asking personal questions.

      And some people don’t mind being asked (who I imagine read this post and replies like… OK? and moved along). I am not the offense arbiter, either.

      Tattoos are like clothing that way, to me. Under the right circumstances, different kinds of conversation are more appealing. I am not the court etiquette master of subtle variations in social vibe.

      I just want to move along with my day. And polite lies help with that.

    • Emmers said:

      There’s a cashier at my Target (SUPER friendly, he’s my favorite, we talk about Legos/Nintendo while checking out) who presents as male (at least to my reading) but has a tri-gender (?) necklace. I’m mildly curious (does he identify as nonbinary, for example? am I using the wrong pronouns in my head?) but I don’t ask, because NOT MY FUCKING BUSINESS.

      Tangent! 😀

  19. Part-time Jedi said:

    I knew someone who had lost a large portion of his thumb. I have no idea how, because when I asked him, he told me an elaborate story about how he lost it when he stuck his hand out too far hitch-hiking, and then started chuckling, which I correctly interpreted as “I don’t particularly want to talk about it.”

    The next time someone asked him about it, he told an even more elaborate story about getting into a really intense game of ping-pong and the ball hitting him just right at warp speed. He had a seemingly endless supply of ever more ridiculous fake stories, and he at least appeared to take great enjoyment in telling them. If that kind of absurdist humor is your style, that may be a tactic to use. It has the benefit of not being confrontational, if you would prefer not to dish out an icy round of “I don’t want to talk about it”.

    • manybellsdown said:

      I’ve done this for my large, visible open-heart surgery tattoo, when I’m not in the mood to tell the actual story (and also because it’s clearly a surgical scar, so how do they THINK I got it? They’re really asking “what’s wrong with you?). I like “Shark attack.” or “I lost a swordfight. *beat* You should see the other guy!”

      • Muffin said:

        That’s GREAT.

        Also, I wonder if “You should see the other guy” might work for the LW. It’s just nonsensical enough when applied to a tattoo to give the stranger pause and allow LW time to escape, like a squid inking and fleeing!

      • Andie said:

        I’m on medication that makes me bruise easily, plus I am uncoordinated, so I’ve usually got visible bruises.when people ask I like to steal a line from a Kids in the Hall sketch and say, very dead-pan like “I FELL DOWN WHILE MAKING SOME TOAST.”

        • manybellsdown said:

          Oh my goodness, I’m going to add that one to my repertoire. Said as deadpan as possible.

    • emilyb said:

      I had a friend in college who broke her collarbone one winter and did the same thing whenever someone asked about her injury. Every time she was asked she had a new elaborately composed and completely random story. I heard at least four different versions, one of which involved running away from a goat, and another that involved tripping on a folding chair in the middle of a hiking path.

      It actually became a game within our group were every time a new person asked we would see what she could come up with and started sort of scoring them based on things like length, believability, and how different it was from previous attempts. To this day I don’t actually remember how she got injured. I think after the reveal and ensuing laughter if anyone did ask she would just say something super nondescript like “I fell”.

      • Courtney said:

        My uncle’s first wife had to have a mole removed from her neck many years ago. For maybe 2 weeks after the procedure, she had to have a bandage on her neck, and for the first week, that bandage was actually pretty big. So many intrusive questions. After a particularly nosy-question filled day, she looked at me and said, “I’m going to tell the next person who asks that your uncle gave me a giant hickey!”

        That’s how I know what it feels like to get cola up your nose.

        • Vixyish said:

          I’d’ve looked around nervously and whispered, “vampires.”

          • Courtney said:

            Ha! You win!

  20. Anti Kate said:

    I guess I’m lucky here. I tell the truth. “It’s a memorial piece” seems to stop lots of folks in their tracks.

    • Felicity said:

      Yeah, mine isn’t very visible (left shoulderblade) so I haven’t had to cope with this as much, but my instinct has just been to tell the truth: it’s a memorial for a very dear friend who died of cancer. (Now, if they ask WHAT it is, that’s more uncomfortable for me and weirdly, more personal — you know, well, her name was ‘X’ and she had a ‘X of Y’ tattoo as a result, and so I chose a tattoo of X of Y but upside-down and because of what she meant to me I made it a Y AND another thing, and…ugh.)

      My instinctive truth on the topic seems to make people feel awkward, like Anti Kate. So I guess we are lucky that we feel comfy sharing that much, and also get to feel like we’re reducing the odds some stranger will ask that particular question again! DEATH AND MORTALITY, stranger! Aren’tcha glad you asked?

  21. Jae said:

    I am totally with Goat Lady here that distracting often works best. “Do you have any tattoos? Oh really, where are they/why not?” unless you really don’t want that person to pull down their trousers on you *lol*
    Something what also works but that I find really really hard to do is not answer at all. After the first “I don’t want to talk about it” if there is another pushy questions in that direction, turn your eyes elsewhere and simply don’t say anything. If possible engage in a conversation with someone else, or simply walk away. It’s extremely rude and that’s why it’s so hard for me to do, but it leaves the original rude person standing there like a dummy and hopefully thinking about what they did.

    • CJ said:

      People like this don’t generally reflect on their behavior though. But they can be very good at generating drama to make themselves look like the wronged party.

      In my experience, they are more likely to run to others and play the victim. “I was just asking about her tattoo and she (insert some horrible behavior attributed to you). Why such a big deal… I was just askiiiiiiing.”

      • Cor! said:

        One of the worst justifications I’ve heard from some of these people is ‘why would he/she/etc. get a tattoo if they didn’t want people staring and asking questions’.
        Seriously, the best comeback I can think of is saying that tattoo art, like most art, is better appreciated in SILENCE.

    • thepaintedlady said:

      I have a friend who answers overly personal questions with a very loud, “OH HEY WILL YOU LOOK AT THAT OVER THERE.” Or something similar, like, “THAT TREE IS HUGE. DO YOU THINK IT’S AN OAK OF SOME KIND?” Something really off and strange, and when people ask her what she’s talking about, she repeats it. If they try to repeat the original question, she repeats it or elaborates on her original diversion, and keeps going till whoever she’s talking to gets the point. Some people find it off-putting, but I’ve been surprised how many people find it really funny. It’s not perfect, and sometimes she does get “I was just *asking*, geez!” huffiness, but she’s managed to coax herself into the field of no fucks.

      • thepaintedlady said:

        Oh, and the moment the person doing the invasive asking gets it and changes the subject, no matter how mind-numbingly boring it is, she immediately switches into “that is fascinating! Tell me more!” mode, which is actually charming enough on her that even the most huffy people are usually charmed.

  22. tilde said:

    As a very visibly tattooed person, I get lots of comments. It bothers me when people feel entitled to a story. It’s like they think I must have gotten tattooed because I want to talk to strangers about it. Other peoples’ tattoos: Not About You. I agree with Goat Lady’s advice — giving people a terse, bored synopsis with a subject change has worked well for me. Good luck!

    Also, while we’re listing things not to ask: “Did that tattoo on your scalp hurt?” makes me roll my eyes.

    • letternext said:

      I also get the “did it hurt?” questions a lot. I usually just flatly say “yes.” It does get pretty annoying, like what kind of answer do people want? A specific number on the 1-10 pain scale? Or “no, getting tattoos doesn’t hurt at all”?

      But yes, exactly. No one is entitled to your story. Because some of my tattoos are super personal, some don’t really have stories, some are self explanatory [which unfortunately hasn’t stopped people grabbing at them or even trying to twist my body around to get a better perspective], the answer I usually go with is:

      “I just wanted it” or “I just like it.”

      Sometimes people do try to follow up, as in “Oh, there’s gotta be more to the story than that” kinda thing, so there’s not much I can do except shrug, look bored or say “nope, not really” or “that’s it.”

      Shrug + “there ya go” sometimes works for shutting down intrusive “no, what’s the REAL story” type questions. I have no idea why. Maybe because it doesn’t really mean anything & doesn’t really make sense in the context? “There ya go.”

      Unfortunately there’s no perfect answer or action that stops intrusive people being intrusive. It says more about that person’s feeling of entitlement than it does about you [LW you & general tattoo having existing in public you.]

      • AnonToday said:

        For the “did it hurt” question, you could also steal Rachel’s line from Friends:
        “Mine was licked on by kittens!”

    • golden peanut said:

      “Did that tattoo on your scalp hurt?”

      “Actually, I came.”

      (choose your bystanders carefully if you say this. surprisingly, some people don’t think it’s funny.)

      • Cor! said:

        Don’t know about the rest of the world, but if you said this in front of me, I would worship the ground you walk on!

    • Alice_Fraggle said:

      I don’t have tattoos (yet), but I have a semi-unconventional piercing in the lower cartilage of my ear. I always LOVE when people ask if it hurt because I get to go all science-y on them with “You know what?! Humans don’t really have pain memories! So I don’t remember *how much* it hurt, but I remember that it *did* hurt because it was a NEEDLE GOING THROUGH MY EAR!”. That shuts people up.
      The “Is it real” people drive me nuts, too because they have to see that it does, in fact, go through my ear – going in one side, and coming out of the other. Luckily, nobody has tried to touch it.
      I am also unfortunate enough to be terrified of needles used for IVs and blood draws, but not of piercing needles. I get “but you have your ears pierced!” ALL THE TIME when I tell the nurse inserting the IV or doing the blood draw that I’m afraid of needles, and may pass out, so please use a butterfly and distract me and BE FAST! Why am I not allowed to enjoy one needle and fear another? I’m a human; I am complex! (ahem – getting off of the “not that you asked” soapbox now)

  23. Aealias said:

    If you want to NOT tell a story and also not be overtly confrontational, you can try switching the subject to their behaviour.

    “What does it mean?”
    “Oh, I’d rather not get into that.”
    “No, really, why THAT? What’s it about?”
    Beat. Pleasant, innocent inquiry: “does that usually work for you?”
    Non-sequeter confusion: “what?”
    “Pushing after someone’s told you they don’t want to talk about something. Don’t people get grumpy?”

    You’re drawing attention to their behaviour, while avoiding being overtly irritable with them yourself. If you keep your tone cheerful, they have very little purchase for getting wound up at you, and if they DO get a little defensive, well, conversation diverted, anyway.

    People at 90% rude and below should be flustered and take the hint. They might find you uncomfortable afterwards (good!) but they’ll hopefully take the lesson to heart and stop harassing you.

    People at 91% rude and above will be either oblivious or vastly offended, and you can feel free to be as nasty to them as necessary, because they’re not the sort of usually-nice-but-blind-to-THIS-boundary people you’re concerned for, anyway.

    • Carolyn said:

      This is the next level of what I do – I usually go to the Miss Manners tried and true response to a personal question: “Why would you like to know?” That way if there is some weird semi-legitimate reason for being nosy, they can tell you … but most people just blush and stammer and get really embarrassed.

      But your technique? I think that might work for me even better – totally stealing it! 🙂

  24. ReanaZ said:

    I have a small tattoo that I mostly keep covered, but mostly because common clothing coveres it except in summer. It’s the stylisation of an (uncommon) atheist symbol. It also happen to be a mildly obscure math mathmatical symbol. I live and work in a conservative environment, and it’s not always safe for me to be out about my religious and spiritual beliefs, although I enjoy brazenly walking around such an environment with such a symbol. I got it because this set of beliefs is deeply important *to me* not because I wanted to make a constant public statement about them.

    When people ask what it means, which they do about 50% of the time, some times I tell the truth but very rarely. Usually I go for something either super literal or super bland but not untrue: “It’s {blank} mathmatical symbol!” “It’s a little pretty, a little dorky, and a little belief system. I like it.”

    Sometimes if they press on about the whyyyy, I become a broken record of “Because I wanted to.” OR I go on a rambling explanation of the mathmatical symbol and it’s role in a certain branch of mathmatics and see that connects back to an idea that’s important to me. Usually they’ve lost interest at this point. So… one strategy I’d recommend is an overly technical explanation of what the tattoo is of and its specific images, etc. concluded with “And that’s why!” without any specific mention of why.

    My partner has a small tattoo that is somewhat of a word-play in his native (non-English) language, emboding both a reminder of something important (but private) to himself AND a nickname from his (deceased) father. He’s a private person and this tattoo is deeply personal to him, but strangers and casual acquaintances ask him what it means and why he has it all of the time. (I actually didn’t know for a long time, although I didn’t ask until it naturally came up several months in to dating. I don’t think I even knew the whole thing until after we were already civil unioned.) He quite enjoys making up ridiculous explanations and delivering them with varying degrees of seriousness and playfulness. Some (modified for privacy) examples:
    “What’s your tattoo?”: M “Yeah, but what is it?” the 13th letter of the alphabet. “But why do you have it?” So I don’t forget that letter!
    “What’s your tattoo stand for?”– Mary, Mother of Jesus
    “What’s it?” — The beak of a bird! A cartoon mountain! Two touching triangles missing their bottom!
    Sometimes people believe him and just nod along, possibly slightly confused. Sometimes they can tell he’s joking but press for the “real” answer. He insists the silly answer is the real answer and continues this until people give up and stop asking.

    Etc. So total irreverence is also a winning strategy.

  25. CJ said:

    I’m having trouble posting suddenly. My comments appear to go through, yet fail to post. Help?

    • JenniferP said:

      The spam filter sometimes grabs comments from even regular commenters for inexplicable reasons. No need to keep posting the same thing if something doesn’t show up. I fish things out once or twice a day usually as I can. Sorry for the confusion.

  26. Some strategies I use when people ask what my tattoos composed of illegible text say, deployed based on intent of the question (which, because of the location of a few of them, often is an excuse for strange men on public transit to attempt to stick their nose much closer to where they most absolutely does not belong):

    “It says stop staring at my [body part]”
    “It says stop harassing women” (last part usually shouted– great way to deflect attention back to the asker!)

    “It says [what it actually says]” (Full stop. Repeat.)

    And then I did a creative writing/thinking exercise and came up with two real answers, just like you’d maybe come up with an elevator speech pitch for your masters thesis as well as be able to explain your argument in all its complexity to a certain few. My “elevator speech” hits on the positive parts of the more complex emotional note: my tattoos are related to some intense mental health struggles, but they’re about overcoming them, or at least reminders to ground me when that shit pops back up. So I say they’re “inspirational” or other bland, vague, but real words that don’t make them sound too deep. The idea is to have a response ready, and to make it boring. Another analogy may be like how folks prepare answers to questions like “How are you?” It is polite to answer because a response acknowledges the interest the person has taken in you, but you don’t need to give a deep and honest accounting of how you are.

    If they press, a “oh there’s a whole long story associated with that but now’s not the right time to tell it” said earnestly like a promise often does the trick for me– make it about the timing and context to take it off you and your (lack of) relationship to that person.

    Then I do indeed have a whole long story associated with it which I can whip out for 3am long aimless walks around the city, as appropriate.

    ===

    On a related note, I have visible and easily identifiable self-injury scars. These often are interpreted as an invitation to violate my privacy and my body. Lot’s of people like to grab me to get a better look, or exclaim about scars loudly in public places. If you ever feel compelled toward either reaction: please do some internal soul searching. For me, the scars are related to sexual trauma, so when someone violates me through them, it can be intensely triggering.

    Again, I took time to prepare responses to the different ways people approach them (with some past Capt Awkward advice mixed in there). I practice these because it helps me react even when I am triggered.

    “Don’t touch me!” “Do not discuss my body.”
    “That’s private.”
    “I have a skin condition.”
    “They are old.” (Full stop. Repeat.)

    I do not ever hint that there’s a long story attached to the scars because either people get it or they don’t, and I’d rather not invite them to try to spend time dwelling to come up with something on their own. If folks ask about them because everyone’s showing fun war wounds from sports or adventures, I don’t offer, and if asked just say, “It’s boring” and defect back to them.

    And for these scars, I find direct and medical deflection that does not open my heart up can sometimes work best, especially for people to whom I must give an explanation but do not want to invite into this part of my life (i.e. certain employers or coworkers, doctors [doctors can get very invasive!!], some friends, busybodies who you cannot alienate, occasionally used on people who have been particularly invaisve as a means to shame their behavior):
    “They are a symptom of PTSD from a sexual assault when I was younger for which I have been treated.”

    • Whoa… grabbing you to get a better look at your self-harm scars is a thing that *a lot of people do*???

      Holy fuck… sometimes I think I’ve plumbed the depths of the sheer generalised assholishness of humanity, and then a comment like this makes me realise I was only in the shallows all along.

      (shakes head hopelessly, fantasises about shooting lasers out of eyes at the world’s idiots)

    • Beth said:

      I asked a friend once what the strange skin on her wrist was. She was very kind in how she told me there were from when she self-harmed. I was mortified but at least i’ll never be so inadvertantly insensitive again :-/

  27. Beth said:

    *three seconds silence*

    Wow.

    *three seconds silence*.

    So whats up with ?

    Or just turn and walk away if its a stranger.

    Aside – my son recently started with the personal comments. Any suggestions on how to explain to a four year old that it’s rude to comment that a stranger at the bus stop has tattoos??

    • Myrin said:

      I don’t have kids so I’m not an expert with personal experience, but I’d suggest starting off with how it is: “It’s rude to comment on strangers’ (or anyone’s, really) tattoos, so please don’t do it!” Maybe he’s going to be satisfied with that? And if he isn’t and asks why, you can explain that it will make people very uncomfortable if they feel like they have to share something that is personal to them. Or something. Insert other reasons here, I guess. Ugh, I’m bad at this.

      • Anna Sthetic said:

        Yeah, my uncle once mortified my grandfather by saying, Daddy, why is that man so fat? in a very loud voice. I’d cast the ‘do not comment on people’s appearances’ net as wide as possible.

        • Myrin said:

          Ah yes, “appearance”, that was the word I was looking for! (I was focusing on tattoos in my answer but you’re absolutely right. I’d especially try to nip things like “making fun of people who are in any way “funny looking”/not something I find aesthetically pleasing” in the bud, as I’ve been bullied due to some perceived ugliness when I was barely eleven. Children need to learn that it’s NOT okay to do that.)

        • This. (I have a 6 yr old and a 3.5 yr old and I’m sick of the sound of my voice telling them “Honey, it’s impolite to comment on people’s bodies”, but after a while it gets through. The 6 yr old is much better about it than he used to be, anyway.)

    • Owl said:

      Wait, it’s rude to comment that a stranger has tattoos? Can’t you just say “yes kiddo, he does, good lookin’ out!”?

      • Beth said:

        She didn’t seem bothered tbf! He just went from ‘kid who doesn’t make personal comments’ to commenting on people’s hair, tattoos and wobbly stomach in one bus journey. Absolutely no malice in any of the conments, but something i want to discourage. I was so glad the last woman didn’t hear. She was average-sized but probably it would have hurt her badly 😦

    • B. said:

      My script for my little cousin is “Honey, hearing you say that can really hurt his/her/their feelings. If you have a question, make sure you ask me when we’re out of earshot, ok?” And then I take my time to explain about the particular situation. Children respond very quickly to empathy, so pointing out that what she’s saying can be hurtful is the way to go for me.

      • Irene said:

        I say “People get embarrassed to hear strangers talking about them in public, even if you’re saying something nice.”

        • Rana said:

          I’m going to have to remember this one. It’s perfect.

          • Irene said:

            Thank you! I think one reason it works is that it’s true for a lot of kids, too. I didn’t much like hearing strangers say things about me either, even when it was “what a cute little girl” rather than “she’s too big to suck her thumb” or something.

        • Serin said:

          That’s excellent.

          I’m sure most strangers wouldn’t mind a little kid saying, “That person has such booful hair!” but a kid doesn’t know that not all adults interpret “There’s somebody who’s really shiny!” as a compliment.

          • Irene said:

            Yeah, and kids often matter-of-factly state things that could go either way, not meaning them either as compliments or insults.

        • Lefty said:

          I love this response.

        • Beth said:

          Absolutely perfect, and i *never* would’ve come up with it myself. Thank you.

  28. Some strategies I use when people ask what my tattoos composed of illegible text say, deployed based on intent of the question (which, because of the location of a few of them, often is an excuse for strange men on public transit to attempt to stick their nose much closer to where it most absolutely does not belong):
    “It says stop staring at my [body part]”
    “It says stop harassing women” (last part usually shouted– great way to deflect attention back to the asker!)

    “It says [what it actually says]”

    And then I did a creative writing/thinking exercise and came up with two real answers, just like you’d maybe come up with an elevator speech pitch for your masters thesis as well as be able to explain your argument in all its complexity. My “elevator speech” hits on the positive parts of the more complex emotional note: my tattoos are related to some intense mental health struggles, but they’re about overcoming them, or at least reminders to ground me when that shit pops back up. So I say they’re “inspirational” or other bland, vague, but real words that don’t make them sound too deep. The idea is to have a response ready, and to make it boring. Another analogy may be like how folks prepare answers to questions like “How are you?” It is polite to answer, but you don’t need to give a deep and honest accounting of how you are.

    If they press, a “oh there’s a whole long story associated with that but now’s not the right time to tell it” said earnestly like a promise often does the trick– make it about the timing and context to take it off you and your (lack of) relationship to that person.

    Then I do indeed have a whole long story associated with that which I can whip out for 3am on long aimless walks around the city, as appropriate.

    ===

    On a related note, I have visible and easily identifiable self-injury scars. These often are interpreted as an invitation to violate my privacy and my body. Lot’s of people like to grab me to get a better look, or exclaim about scars loudly in public places. If you ever feel compelled toward either reaction: please do some internal soul searching.

    Again, I took time to prepare responses to the different ways people approach them (with some past Capt Awkward advice mixed in there).

    “Don’t touch me!” “Do not discuss my body.”
    “That’s private.”
    “I have a skin condition.”
    “They are old.” (Full stop. Repeat.)

    I do not ever hint that there’s a long story attached to the scars because either people get it or they don’t, and I’d rather not invite them to try to spend time dwelling to come up with something on their own.

    And for these scars, I find simple, direct and medical deflection that does not open my heart up can sometimes work best, especially for people to whom I must respond but do not want to invite into this part of my life (i.e. employers or coworkers, some friends, busybodies who you cannot alienate):
    “They are a symptom of PTSD from a sexual assault when I was younger for which I have been treated.”

  29. meadowphoenix said:

    I tend to go with polite confrontation and subject change strategy:

    Person A: What does your tattoo mean?
    Person B: Oh I don’t want to talk about it.
    A: But what does it mean?
    B: (mild and politely) Oh did you hear what I said?
    A: Yes/No
    B: (mild and politely) Then why do you keep asking me rude questions?/ (slowly and pointedly) I. Don’t. Want. To. Talk. About. It.
    A: Blah Blah
    B: change subject as if A had never said anything else unless it’s an apology, respond thereafter as if subject was changed

    But that’s only if I have to stay in conversation with that person. If I don’t, I just say “I don’t know you.”

  30. Majikkani_Hand said:

    “You do not have the friendship clearance level required for that explanation. Please inquire again when your clearance has been raised.”

    • Og said:

      “You must be at least a level 4 friend to unlock my Tragic Backstory.”

  31. My dad gave me a line I love: “Establish your need to know.”

    • empsk said:

      Cavyherd, that’s fantastic. Will 100% be using it in my daily life

    • XtinaS said:

      I love it.

    • Commander Banana said:

      I can’t remember who came up with this – it might have been Miss Manners, but “What are you planning to do with that information?” is a good one too.

  32. Rainy Jay said:

    I have a tattoo on each shoulder. I like to walk people through these meanings. And the design process. Here’s my spiel:

    “Yep, it’s an ankh. and a heart and feather. No, it’s not a valentine’s heart. See the blood vessels?

    “The ankh is basically a stencil of this necklace I got at that great little shop in midtown, do you know it? And it broke about two months after I go it. That was when I was… twenty? It symbolizes life.

    “The heart and the feather are the symbols of the weighing of the heart that in ancient Egypt represented what happens when you die. Your heart was weighed against the feather of Ma’at, to see if you’ve lived a good life. If you did, you went on to the afterlife, if not: oblivion. Because your heart would be heavier. I got this when i was thirty. Took me ten years to think of a new one.

    “Have you been to the new Egyptian exhibit at the museum? I thought it was so cool. There’s little figurines baking bread!

    “Anyway, dear questioner, this is why I try to wear sleeves, but it is SO HOT TODAY, don’t you think?”

    Then they talk about the weather for a minute, and presumably go to lie down, having been exhausted by the tide of words washing over them.

  33. Monika said:

    My inner bitch wants to answer the nosey/rude question: Oh, I get a tattoo for every person I kill for asking rude and nosey questions.

    @cavyherd I love that line and I’m going to steal it!

  34. DarcyPennell said:

    I have an ankle tattoo and is the response that works best for me:
    “It’s really boring, it’s just characters in a typeface I like, I guess I should come up with an interesting story to tell people?”

    Note I did not say what the characters are. Nosy people are so uniformly disappointed in this answer. It’s a total let down for them. I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone press on with “but what does it meeeaaaaaan” after that.

    Don’t feel like you owe these people either honesty or etiquette coaching. It’s absolutely OK to get out of the interaction in whatever way is easiest/least tiresome for you. I’ve had the tattoo for over 15 years and I still get this question a lot. I feel not one ounce of regret about a boring, effective lie.

  35. Anne On said:

    I’m non-tattooed so maybe I can offer some insight from a different culture.

    To me, a large tattoo in a visible place grabs my attention in the same way as graphics on a t-shirt. It appears to have been chosen for a similar flag-waving, message-bearing purpose and I assumed that it was visible as a talking point in the same way. My tatted friends set me straight.

    Invasive questioning is never welcome. I hope you find a good strategy for deflecting it here.

    • Sneaky said:

      As a tatted person, I actually agree with this. Tattoos are art, and it’s culturally acceptable and encouraged to talk about every other kind of art, including its supposed “meaning.” The reason so many people in this thread have encountered this problem is not because the world is swarming with super rude nosy people, but because it’s normal to want to talk about art and kind of easy for people to miss the part where since it’s on another person’s body and you’re not in a gallery, it is not always Talk About Art time. I don’t care about training people to see the difference, just keeping the conversation as short as possible so I can get back to my life.

      That’s why, instead of implying that the person is nosy, I just give them a three-word answer and change the subject. I can’t guarantee this will work for everyone all of the time, but it has managed to work for me every time.

    • I’d put it in the same category as tee shirts also, but in the sense that I’m pretty happy when someone delivers a drive-by “I LOVE THAT GAME TOO” or “OMG where did you get that?” but if someone comes out of the blue to have a full-on conversation with me about my clothes I’m like “ew who even are you” (unless I’m in costume, and then talk to me for years, it’s fine). Mostly I buy clothes because I like them but I wear them so I’m not naked. I don’t want to have a conversation with every literate stranger I pass during my day. I have shit to do.

      • Jane said:

        Not tattooed, but I. . . sort of do not welcome conversation from strangers in public places, ever. Most especially men. I think that assuming that people you don’t know don’t necessarily want to talk to you is generally a safe idea.

      • Laughing Giraffe said:

        I was once walking down the street wearing my “I will do science to it” shirt. Dude appears by my side and says, “Great shirt, I love Dresden Codak!” Oh yes, me too. “Aaron Diaz is such an interesting guy.” Mm, yes. “Are you into transhumanism?” …not particularly. “*extended burbling about Dude’s personal philosophies on life, the universe and everything*” Oh look, my friend and I have to get on that bus.

    • erinest said:

      This is understandable, but the difference is that I can choose to put on my favorite Star Wars shirt only when I am trying to attract fellow geeks and give them an opening for conversation, whereas I’ve had my tattoo every day for 15 years, and if I want to wear cap sleeves or a sleeveless shirt because, say, I wanted to go swimming or running, or it’s hot, or I just felt like it – it’s going to be visible. Also, I can get rid of old t-shirts whose messages I no longer identify with, but the tattoo I got at 21 is here to stay. 🙂 I like it fine, it’s a part of me, but my relationship with its original meaning has evolved and I’m no longer interested in giving a long explanation about it.

      Cap sleeves, by the way, are worse than sleeveless outfits for my upper-arm tattoo, because people will touch me to push my sleeve up to see the whole thing; only occasionally will someone touch it if the whole thing is visible. I did once have a woman walk up to me and rub it when I was attending sexual abuse prevention training that she was facilitating. That was uncomfortable.

      Touching bothers me much more than questions. When people ask what it means I just say, “It’s a Goddess symbol,” which is both true and almost always a conversation-stopper. OP, if you’re looking for a lie, you could try that, although I guess YMMV depending on the people who are asking you.

      • I like that differentiation between the two! I totally wear t-shirts as conversational catnip, but absolutely, if I’m not feeling it that day I can just wear something else.

        I am so sorry that people touch you like that, oh my gosh. SO not okay.

        • erinest said:

          Thanks. It doesn’t happen very often, but it catches me by surprise when it does, and it’s pretty uncomfortable. Especially because it always seems to be new acquaintances.

  36. egl said:

    I don’t have any tattoos, but if the design has an obvious central element you could focus on that.

    Them: So what does it mean?
    You: It means I really like *main design element*

    Or you could just go a bit surreal on them:

    Them: So what does it mean?
    You: It matches my sofa and really ties the room together.

    • Courtney said:

      “It matches my sofa and really ties the room together.”

      *gigglesnort*

    • Luminous said:

      Your comment about matching the sofa reminded me of one of my real-life responses to this sort of question:

      Stranger: “Why did you decide to get that tattoo?”
      Me: “You know, it was a few years ago, so I don’t remember if I bought my eyeglasses to match my tattoo, or if I got my tattoo to match my eyeglasses. But I guess by this time I’ve made a live-long commitment to purple eyeglass frames!”

      It didn’t exactly answer their question, but it did successfully derail the conversation.

      Also, just because I like sharing this story, here is my all-time favorite response to an unexpected question about my tattoos:

      My Very Catholic Dad, with his best “disapproving parent” voice: “But your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit! Why would you alter what God has given you?”
      Me: “Many religions decorate their temples and chapels, do they not? You even have a reproduction of the entire Sistine Chapel ceiling framed in your office.”
      Dad: “…………… Hm. Point taken.”

  37. CJ said:

    “it leaves the original rude person standing there like a dummy and hopefully thinking about what they did.”

    In my experience, people like this don’t reflect on their behavior. However, they can be very good at creating drama to make themselves look like the wronged party.

    I have just seen too many situations where people who are rebuffed will instead run to others and play the victim. “I was just asssssking and she (insert some horrible behavior attributed to you).”

    • sam said:

      There was no one so mortified as the person who assumed I was pregnant because I was wearing an unfortunately shaped coat, to whom I responded with a very blunt “no, just fat”. And then proceeded to glare at her and not give an inch as she attempted to stumble over an apology.

      This was a complete stranger who I was standing next to at the deli counter, so unless she wanted to leave without her smoked salmon, she was stuck next to me until her order was done.

  38. MadDissector said:

    I have a tattoo on my shoulder, which is only visible when I am wearing fancy dresses. I designed it myself and it represents a monster that I frequently dreamt with when I was a teen (all that existential angst…). Eighty percent of the time, though, people see my tattoo and mistake it for a dragon, though it has no wings, no horns, and a lot of hair, and initiates a “you must love dragons, your dragon tattoo tells me so, so many people have dragon tattoos, why are dragon tattoos so popular? Blablabla…”. At the beginning it didn’t bother me, but now it’s just plainly annoying. So as far as they mention “dragon” for the first time, I now snap and say, “that’s not a dragon, that’s a wolf monster with scorpion tail that I used to dream about, my subconscious is just THAT sick, I wonder what it tells about me”. Normally, this ends the conversation. Other times it continues because the other person wants to know the reasons that drove me to “mark” my body. For this, I only have an unpolite answer, which is “so that, in case that my body is found somewhere, the forensics can identify me easily”.

    • thelittlepakeha said:

      For this, I only have an unpolite answer, which is “so that, in case that my body is found somewhere, the forensics can identify me easily”.

      Haha I should steal that one too. Most people know I’m from somewhere that had some major natural disasters and every so often I do come out with something incredibly morbid like that.

  39. Jack V said:

    I can think of lots of sarcastic answers, but not so many helpful answers 😦

    I generally aim for “it’s boring and complicated” (by implying or saying it), as I judge those more likely to quell interest than “it’s painful” or “it’s personal” or “you wouldn’t understand” or “it’s embarrassing”. But I think you’ve already got that covered and people aren’t listening 😦

    Less helpful answers:

    Q: “But what does it meeeaaaaaannnnnn….?”
    A: “I’ve no idea! We got drunk, and when I woke up…”

    Q: “But what does it meeeaaaaaannnnnn….?”A: “Oh my gosh, you CAN SEE IT? The sign has finally manifested! Praise the high one, we must summon the conclave!”

    Q: “But what does it meeeaaaaaannnnnn….?”
    A: “I won/lost a bet.”

    Q: “But what does it meeeaaaaaannnnnn….?”
    A: Oh, that’s really interesting, I’m glad you asked. Well, first you should know my cousin, you know, Aunt Masie’s husband’s daughter, is studying at $place, do you know how she’s getting on? Well, she told us [talk for as long as you want about anything that interests you]
    Q: But what does that have to do with the tattoo?
    A: Hold your horses, I’m getting there! So, first you have to understand the 14th century history of western europe [talk for as long as you want about anything that interests you]
    Q: But what does that have to do with the tattoo?
    A: I’m just messing with you. Actually, I’m offended you asked.

    But none of that cuts off questions quickly 😦

    • ashbet said:

      “Oh my gosh, you CAN SEE IT? The sign has finally manifested!

      *falls out of chair laughing*

      I think you win ^____^

    • letternext said:

      Haha, I have this little fantasy that someone asks “But what to those tattoos meeeaaan??” & I just look really confused & say: “…what tattoos?”

      • tinimaus said:

        OMG, you can see my Hunter’s Mark? Welcome to the sisterhood.

      • “That’s a common mistake — it’s actually a birthmark. The other children gave me hell in kindergarten.”

  40. S said:

    LW, you can totally lie to nosey strangers!

    My pal and I have each other’s names tattooed on our arms and both of us get a lot people asking “…but what if you stop being friends?” I usually answer “it is also my mum’s name, so it was really economical and/or so it is fine if we stop hanging out!” And sometimes when people ask about the tattoo and I really can’t be arsed talking about it, I’ll just say “it represents the beginning and beginning of the end in medieval Christian eschatology” and that usually ends that conversation. My friend has her own answers to these questions. While none of these is the reasons we got the tattoos, all of these things are true, and using these answers saves me from having to justify our friendship or analyse how I would react if we stopped being friends.

  41. “Oh, if I told you I’d have to kill you. So what is it that you do?”

  42. ClaireC said:

    Goat Lady is correct, lying is 100% the best response. I usually cheerily respond “It actually doesn’t mean anything!” and get to enjoy people’s faces looking confused and upset as their worldview is shattered.

  43. jenividivici said:

    For nosy questioners in general, if they seem well meaning but are Not Picking Up on attempted subject changes, I sometimes opt to make it really explicit.

    Them: *Nosy question*
    Me: Eh, it’s a long story. So how did things turn out with ____?
    Them: Oh, *reworded nosy question*
    Me: I don’t really want to talk about it. *Different subject change*
    Them: But *Nosy Question!*/*Takes affront at or argues with non-answer*
    Me: Man, I am really trying to change the subject but it is just not taking! *SUBJECTCHANGE!*

    I’ve found that 98% of people, if you can manage to deliver that last line in an affable tone that doesn’t prompt them to try to defend themselves, will finally take the effing no-longer-a-hint. For the other 2%, come up with the shortest string of words that will let you go somewhere that is else.

  44. Julie said:

    I would never be so rude as to ask a stranger intrusive questions about their tattoo, or for that matter, other marks on their body. However, I am one of the ones who basically doesn’t understand tattooing and since so many of you who have tattoos are responding to this thread, it seems like a good time to ask what is the point of it.
    If you get a tattoo that’s private, but that shows in public, doesn’t it seem like you would expect reactions in public? It’s like walking around with a piece of art in public…it seems like, to a member of the public, this is to create a response. Yes, I get that response to public art on your body might be annoying or invasive, but, why are you carrying that art around if you don’t want anyone to notice it? You want us to notice it but not say anything, or, only say polite things. I can appreciate that you don’t want people to say rude things. But you’ve turned your body into an art gallery. So you may sometimes need to perform the function of a docent and teach people how to act in the presence of Art.
    Then, conversely, if you get a tattoo that doesn’t show at all, especially if it’s on your back or some other place that you can’t even usually see it, again, what is the point of that? Like buying a creating a beautiful piece of art, then sticking it in the closet where you rarely see it and hardly anyone else ever will.
    I apologize in advance for the possible rudeness of this inquiry. I fully recognize and support individuals’ rights to do whatever they like with their bodies. There is something I just don’t “get” about the tattoo experience, and I’m hoping that one or more of you tattoo aficionados might help me understand.

    • entendante said:

      I haven’t gotten it yet, but I’m planning a tattoo in a place I won’t be able to see (and that won’t show except on the kinds of summer days that are too hot for me to go outside anyway).

      I can’t answer for everybody – wouldn’t even try – but for me, it’s kind of like wearing really nice lingerie when you know you’re going to have a super-rough day, or wearing a special necklace that you keep tucked inside your collar. Nobody else knows it’s there, and sometimes you might even forget it, but every time you remember, it just gives you a jolt of secret happy (or tough, or whatever you get out of your tattoo, whether it be symbolic or purely aesthetic).

      As for the visible tattoos… I know you probably didn’t mean to sound like one of those people who asks someone why they wore a low-cut top if they didn’t want to get groped on the subway, but maybe keep that image in your head and re-read your comment?

      I use this specific analogy because I have a Rack Of Unusual Size, so it’s one I’m kind of familiar with; and aside from the fact that anything short of a turtleneck looks low-cut on me, it’s also the case that I feel most put-together and pleased with myself when I’m wearing clothes that are tailored close to my upper body and a bra borrowed from the nearest Valkyrie. My clothes fit me, in every sense: my personality, my gender, my aesthetic sensibilities. And I know I’m visible, and mostly I like that I’m projecting a pretty accurate snapshot of myself into the world. But I haven’t turned my body into anything other than my body, and overly-personal interactions are still unwelcome.

      Likewise with eye-catching jewelry, or freaking fantastic shoes, or, yes, visible art on one’s skin – there’s a difference between something being visible and something being an invitation to push past appropriate social boundaries. (Good: “I love that dress; where did you get it?” or “Oh, wow, are the heels on your shoes modeled after fancy chair legs?” Bad: “Holy shit, what bra size do you wear?” or “How the hell do you walk in those things?” or ::grabby hands:: or “What’s that necklace? Oh, it’s a flaming chalice? Unitarian Universalist? That sounds like some kind of hippie cult. Do you people have churches? Oh, yeah, which church do you go to? What about Jesus, do you believe in Jesus? Why not? How can it be a church if you don’t believe in Jesus?…….” ad infinitum until I leap off the subway at whatever the next stop happens to be and wait for another train.) And I’m enough of an extrovert that my tolerance for random-stranger conversation is pretty high – but even I know that follow-up questions past two conversational turns are not cool unless the other person demonstrates interest in continuing the conversation by extending it on their end.

      Bottom line: people are allowed to be visibly fabulous, for their own many-splendored reasons, and for their own benefit. This does not mean they’ve signed away their right to personal space, quiet, or getting to work on time.

      • ashbet said:

        *wild applause* Perfect answer 😀

        As the fellow owner of a RoUS, I know exactly where you’re coming from with that. I’m totally up for compliments on my wardrobe (and I’ll even tell a stranger where I buy my bras, IF THEY’RE A FELLOW BUSTY WOMAN.) But I’m not telling a curious stranger my bra size, just because my breasts happen to be Out There On Display (by which I mean “wearing everyday clothes.”)

      • Thanks for this.

        OP, there is a measurable difference between “Oh, I love your tattoo!” which, if it sparks more than a simple thank you in response from the tattoo-bearer, could reasonably be followed with “May I ask you what it means?” or “Does it mean something to you?”

        … and the invasive, unending questioning described by the LW. I hope you can see the difference.

        And as for your question– yes, I love my tattoos, they are art for the world as well as for myself and they are meaningful. But they are permanent, and my moods and circumstances are not. It is not always appropriate to discuss them, and I am not always interested in indulging everyone’s curiosity. And as many posters have said, many of us put tattoos in places that are usually covered up, so they are reserved for our own private viewing or for lovers, or certain social settings… but occasionally it’s really hot out or the fashion changes from what we measured the original tattoo placement against, or any number of reasons why something we may not intend for the world happens to be visible to it.

        We’re talking about bodies. You are not entitled to them, no matter how much you wish to colonize pretty things.

        • mamacitaconpistoles said:

          In a way, asking what a tattoo means is kind of like asking a novelist where they get their ideas from.

          Discussing your process is not the point of writing a novel. The point of a tattoo is not to be your on call gallery guide!

        • Courtney said:

          I can certainly see giving one instance of “does it have a special meaning?” a pass, especially if it’s asked in a respectful way. But after a person is told they aren’t getting that information (whether it’s a subject change, “It’s personal,” a statement that it doesn’t mean anything, or any other kind of direct or indirect “no”) doubling down on the question makes them an asshole.

        • Leonine said:

          Even “I love your tattoo” can be invasive. I made this mistake once. The young lady ringing up my groceries had a large, gorgeous lei tattooed over her chest and shoulders. It was a beautiful tattoo, so I said, “That’s a beautiful tattoo,” and she was . . . not pleased. I could tell that she wanted to tell me to fuck off and mind my fucking business, but she was at work, so she just completed the transaction without another word and without looking at me again. Even that would have been enough to get her in trouble if I had been (more of) a jerk, but it seemed like that was the best she could do. That was when I learned that a tattoo is not open to comment like a garment or a piece of jewelry. It’s part of the person’s body and is therefore off limits. Sorry, young grocery checker. I wish I hadn’t had to learn that from you.

          • Leonine said:

            Oh, and when I said that garments and jewelry are open to comment, I mean comments like “I love your shoes” to an acquaintance, not demanding an explanation of a stranger.

      • “people are allowed to be visibly fabulous, for their own many-splendored reasons, and for their own benefit. This does not mean they’ve signed away their right to personal space, quiet, or getting to work on time.”

        I love this so much, thank you.

      • Anodyne said:

        “As for the visible tattoos… I know you probably didn’t mean to sound like one of those people who asks someone why they wore a low-cut top if they didn’t want to get groped on the subway, but maybe keep that image in your head and re-read your comment?”

        Yes, THIS! This is why that comment made my hackles rise – just because something’s visible (or cannot be made invisible), that does not mean that I have, by extension, given up my right to not be harassed about it.

    • Vicki said:

      (I had started this answer with “two parts” but it’s now up to four.) First, do you wear glasses or contact lenses? I can choose one or another style of eyeglass frame, but what my glasses “mean” is that I want to be able to see. And how would you feel if random strangers kept asking what your hairstyle means, since you choose to go out in public with it so you must expect reactions in public?

      Second: there’s such a thing as an excluded middle. I didn’t get my tattoos primarily for my partners, but I have one tattoo that few people other than them see now that I’ve stopped going to a gym and using the changing room. Don’t think “hiding the art in the closet,” think “I don’t invite everyone in to see what I’ve got on the bedroom wall.”

      Third: have you tried googling “reasons for tattoos” or “history of tattooing”?

      Fourth: if you must say something like “I apologize in advance for the possible rudeness,” at least before you say the thing you realize may be rude. That gives people a chance to stop you if it’s in person, or to scroll past or click “back” if its online. You’ve just proclaimed that you wouldn’t do something rude, then done something you realize may have been rude, and then thrown in the “oh, but I apologize after the fact for what I just said, so you shouldn’t be upset with me.”

    • Anyanka said:

      My body is not an art gallery. It is my body. I get my tattoos for how I look, and how I want to look, and not for how anyone else might feel about them. I don’t expect public comments because some part of me still thinks that other people have a basic sense of politeness.

      Do you think that people who wear earrings or nose rings are making their body into ‘an art gallery’? What about you, since you wear clothes?

    • ashbet said:

      @Entendante said it very well — I agree completely with their answer. Just wanted to add a couple of things . . .

      To answer “why get a tattoo in a place you can’t see?”:

      Most of my tattoo (it’s a full backpiece that wraps partway around my ribs and shoulders, and trails down to below the waistline of my underwear) is out of sight for me, unless I’m looking in a mirror. My partners are the main people who see it in full. But I got it for *me* — it’s beautiful, it’s personal, it’s a work of art, it’s based on my art, it’s personal, and I can carry it around with me for the rest of my life. It makes me happy to know it’s on my body.

      And to address “So you may sometimes need to perform the function of a docent and teach people how to act in the presence of Art.”:

      No. Very much no.

      If I’m out in the world, minding my own business, I do not need to do the emotional work and/or deal with the stress of educating ignorant, rude people. I can *choose* to do it, if I want to, but I don’t NEED to be the person to teach them polite appreciation of Art.

      My body is not an art gallery, a public space where anyone can walk in from the street. Think of it as a private exhibition that requires tickets — you may catch a glimpse of part of it, but you’re not allowed to just walk in the door because you’re curious and want to see more.

      Also, any train of thought which starts with, paraphrased, “You have done _x_ to your body, so now it is public property” gets a MAJOR side-eye from me. My body, my business. No one else has a right to comment on my body, touch my body, or somehow “own” my body in public, whether or not I look unusual in any way.

      (Keep in mind that this happens to many women even when dressed conservatively for work — I have distinctive natural hair and I’m an attractive woman with big tits, so I got a LOT of street approaches and street harassment when I was younger and not visibly disabled. People thought they could touch my hair, comment on my figure, etc. — because I was Out There In Public, so obviously the general public got to interact with me in any way they wanted, right?)

      Please drop that line of thinking — it leads to ugly places.

      • “People thought they could touch my hair, comment on my figure, etc. — because I was Out There In Public, so obviously the general public got to interact with me in any way they wanted, right?”

        Honestly, part of why I have my tattoos is that “If you’re going to stare anyway, now you have to stare at what I chose and designed.” Taking back a little control over my body from unrelenting street harassment.

      • thelittlepakeha said:

        I mean, a docent gets to go home when they’ve finished work and not talk about art in their spare time.

      • MsM said:

        Also, even public art galleries have codes of conduct. The expectation is generally that you’ll appreciate quietly or sign up for the guided tour at the specified time. You don’t go disturbing other patrons’ experience with loud commentary or following the docent around demanding to know what it means, especially if they’ve indicated they’re busy or otherwise unable to respond to your question.

        (FWIW, I have no body art. Partly because I don’t think I could handle the questions.)

        • “I don’t think I could handle the questions.”

          There have been periods when a lot of people have felt compelled to comment on/ask me about my long hair.* There was a period when I kept it rolled up in a bun, because I was just so tired of all the questions and (even complimentary) comments.

          * Which, at its longest, is waise-length; not all that remarkable

    • Annafel said:

      [content note for cancer, death of a family member, and depression]

      Hi Julie,

      I am happy to answer your questions today 🙂 I have two tattoos. One of them is on the inside of my forearm, so it is visible to myself and others most of the time, and the other is on the back of my shoulder. I have long, curly hair, so even when I wear tank tops, people don’t always see that one.

      My first tattoo was the one on my shoulder. It is a European skylark in flight, surrounded by blue sky and clouds. I think it’s utterly beautiful. It also does have personal meaning, but that relates to why I chose THIS image, not why I got a tattoo at all. I always wanted one. I love the idea of wearing art on my skin. Sometimes I almost forget that it’s there, and then I’ll happen to turn my head to the side and see the edges of one wing, or I’ll glimpse it in the mirror after a shower. Seeing it always makes me happy. I chose its placement for practical reasons – it’s a pretty big tattoo, and the back of the shoulder provides a conveniently large and flat surface, plus I can choose my clothes to show it off or cover it up quite easily. I love it when people tell me that they think it’s pretty, or ask me where I got it. When they ask about its meaning, I tend to just say that I really like it, it’s pretty, I like having art on my skin, and so forth. So in that sense I avoid talking about its meaning like many people have suggested above.

      My second tattoo is a stylised sun, also surrounded by blue sky and clouds. I got it when my dad was terminally ill with cancer, because he loved the sun – like, more than anyone else I’ve met so far – and I wanted the tattoo to help remind me to think of him in positive and even funny ways – sunbathing with his t-shirt piled on top of his head, or coming home from school and realising he was doing yoga naked in the back yard (Dad, we live on a hill, the people up the street can SEE YOU) – rather than remembering how he looked and felt in the months before he died, or how he could be soooo blind to his (educated white male) privilege. Since I don’t see my skylark all that often, and I can only see the whole image in the mirror, I wanted the sun to go someplace where I would see it all the time. The forearm works well for that.

      Incidentally, it also pushes back against the so-called “white-collar line” idea, which is that you can’t get a white collar job if you have tattoos below the elbow. I have a ton of privilege myself, being white and having a law degree, and so far I have not experienced any career-related restrictions as a result of my tattoos. Even when I tutor schoolchildren in private schools. So I like to think that I’m helping a little to change that idea.

      As with my skylark, I am happy to have people tell me that they like my sun or to ask me who the artist was. If they ask about the meaning, I will sometimes tell them, but my dad who died of cancer is a pretty depressing topic, and then people feel guilty about asking, and it often takes the conversation to a place of great awkwardness. So often I just say that I think it’s pretty and I like it. The nuance of it being not only a memorial tattoo but one that I got to help guide and direct my thoughts of my dad skirts pretty close to talking about my mental health and how I have learned to manage my depression, is usually something I don’t want to talk about.

      I hope that gives you a bit of insight into why people might get visible tattoos. Of course I can’t speak for anyone else, but those are my reasons.

    • K. said:

      Not tattooed here, but I don’t do things to my body for other people’s response. I didn’t get piercings for anyone else.

      I’ll avoid doing anything that wouldn’t go over well at work, but that’s about as far as my thoughts on other people’s opinions go. My skin’s my own.

      • K. said:

        I’ll also add this. Just because you have a reaction to someone’s appearance doesn’t mean that your reaction was their intent.

        • boutet said:

          YES

        • Courtney said:

          Yep. And it also doesn’t mean that your reaction is their problem. If you are making it their problem, you are being rude.

          • K. said:

            Or if it’s a positive reaction, it still doesn’t necessarily need to be said. I mean, I’m fine with compliments on this kind of thing, but the whole unsolicited-appearance-opinion thing doesn’t always go perfectly.

          • Courtney said:

            @K –

            Exactly. I’ve dealt with street harassment for 30-something years. There are lots of situations where even a nicely-said compliment from someone who isn’t behaving in a scary way still has the subtext of, “I have a right to your attention” and “you should care what I think about your appearance.”

        • Anon Tattooed Person said:

          This should be a television PSA.

        • K. said:

          I think I came off kind of harsh here, which I didn’t mean. Tone on the internet is weird!

    • erinest said:

      I’m not sure if I can adequately answer this without going into a way-too-long explanation about the history and meaning of tattooing, my beliefs about the nature of the body and soul, and my own personal and spiritual growth. … Actually that right there is kind of the reason I don’t want to answer a lot of questions about my tattoo. I don’t always feel like explaining all that stuff to everyone I meet, and I doubt they really want to hear it most of the time. Maybe over a bottle of wine at 1 a.m. with someone I feel like I’ve known forever, in between talking about my thoughts on Camus and my relationship with my grandmother, but if you don’t have that kind of relationship with me…

      My tattoo is not performance art: it is body modification. It’s not for you, it’s for me. It was and is about the experience of getting tattooed, a liminal experience that permanently manifested a crucial aspect of my Self – who I was, who I am, who I hope to become – and… yeah, I bet you see my point about this being one of those conversations you have with a soulmate long after you had meant to go to sleep. 😉

    • LW 729 said:

      I’m an outgoing-enough person that I’m usually totally happy to talk about the Art (tattoo) itself, it’s the questions about *me* that I don’t like, particularly when they come from random strangers or new work acquaintances or what have you. General, positive comments are nearly always welcome (“Hey, that’s a really nice piece!” or “I love the colours!”), as are questions about the work itself (“Where did you get it done?” or “Who was the artist?”).

      What I don’t like is people expecting me to answer questions about my Feelings and Thoughts and Personal History that are related to the art. The piece of art itself is on public display, but my personal thoughts and feelings are not. I hope that distinction makes sense.

      Also, just wanted to say thanks to everyone in the comments for your suggestions and ideas, as well as you, Goat Lady! I have lots of helpful options to try out now and am looking forward to testing them out …

    • Anon Tattooed Person said:

      “but, why are you carrying that art around if you don’t want anyone to notice it?”

      Do you see the parallel here with “but why would you wear that tightly fitted shirt if you didn’t want people to gawk at your boobs?” It’s not quite the same thing (though I do think tattoos on women are often sexualized, whether we want them to be or not), but I think there is something similar at play here, which is that even if a particular aesthetic choice is unusual or very noticeable, it doesn’t mean that the primary purposes of those aesthetic choices is to be noticed.

      Also, I hope this isn’t coming off as snippy – you asked your question in a very polite and thoughtful way and I appreciate that. But I thought the shirt example might be salient, since your name is female-coded and this seems to be a relatively common experience for women.

      There are two levels to what my tattoos mean for me. The first is a certain claim of body ownership: This is mine and I can do what I want with it, and it doesn’t matter if (generic)you don’t understand or like it. I got my first tattoo when I was 18 (a long time ago now!) but this is still really resonant. The second is that I think they are beautiful – tattoos in general but mine in particular. Having tattoos makes me like the way by body looks more than I did before – even if they’re in a place I only see in the mirror.

      “You want us to notice it but not say anything, or, only say polite things. ”

      This is you making assumptions about what tattooed people want. I’m sure some people want their tattoos noticed, and that’s fine. But I did not get tattoos so they would be noticed or commented upon. I got them because they made me feel like I owned my own body. Whether or not someone notices them is approximately as relevant to me as whether or not you notice my mascara – yes, it’s all part of the aesthetic package I put together, but it’s not like I go about my day thinking “Gosh, I hope everyone notices this awesome mascara I’m wearing.”

      “But you’ve turned your body into an art gallery. So you may sometimes need to perform the function of a docent and teach people how to act in the presence of Art.”

      OK, how about this. Let’s say you have a beautiful painting hanging up in your living room. Right across the room is a large glass window. One day, there is a knock at your door. You open it, and a stranger is standing outside.

      “I noticed your painting through the window,” they say. “Can I get a closer look? Can you tell me what it means? Let me tell you my opinion about it…”

      “Um, you’re a random stranger,” you say, “I don’t want to let you into my home, and I don’t want to talk to you about my painting.”

      Maybe the stranger leaves after that. Maybe they argue with you, saying that because they can see your art from outside the window, you should be a good Docent and explain it to them.

      Maybe you’re in a good mood, and the stranger seems nice, and you’re happy to talk about the painting. But I think we can all agree that despite the fact that your painting IS visible from outside of your home, it’s still in your home, NOT in a public art gallery. I think we can agree that it is generally considered strange behavior to knock on a stranger’s door to ask about the painting you saw through the window. Not necessarily red flashing light boundary-violator behavior, but it is a stranger asking to come into your private space. Even if we agree that the stranger did noting wrong (and if the stranger was more polite than in the example above, I might agree), no one would think it was weird that you didn’t want to let the stranger in and talk to them about your painting. No one would think you were obligated to be their Docent.

    • Jane said:

      I think Best Practice Rules of Humaning Apply, regardless of tattooage.

      Which is to say:

      – no physical characteristic or combination of physical characteristics indicates that a stranger is, a priori, willing to interact with any other stranger
      – no physical characteristic or combination of physical characteristics indicates that an acquaintance owes any other acquaintance particular information about themselves.

      To me this goes mostly back to upholding consent culture. I prefer to assume that the default answer to any request for someone to share their personal being (whether that be emotionally, intellectually, or physically, or a matter of time, effort, or personal space) is no. I really feel that people should be aware of when they are *asking for a bit of someone else’s person* (even if that bit is “share your intimate story with me”) and try to respect the significance of that.

      TL;DR — when it comes to things that belong to other people (time, stories, access to bodies, hair, jewelry, tattoos, etc.), the assumed answer is no, and it’s possible that you shouldn’t ask.

    • Shadowflash said:

      I’m not tattooed, although like many people I’ve flirted with getting one. Just thought I’d chime in to echo the “my body isn’t up for public commentary, no matter how provocative you may find its appearance” sentiment.

      The reason I want one is because I’m not very attached to things. My parents used to tell me “you live in my house, you sleep in my bed, everything you think you own was bought with my money and actually belongs to me so I get to make the rules” when they were frustrated, which is a common parenting gambit but I seem to have internalized it oddly. The result is that I view all my possessions as ephemeral, easily taken away/destroyed. The things I can never lose are my body and the thoughts in my head. So if I want to keep meaningful things close, and *real*–not to be forgotten or blocked out–they have to be part of me, on my skin. That’s the appeal of a tattoo.

      The reason I haven’t gotten one is because I can’t decide where to put it. Meaningful things are private, I don’t know that I’d want it on display (in part because of intrusive questions). So I was trying to think of a place to put it where only I/intimate partners could view it, and…there really isn’t one on the female body that isn’t on top of the genitals. From dresses to bikinis, there’s hardly an inch of skin that’s not “on display” at one point or another. It’s a social trap that’s largely (but not exclusively) unique to women: the expectation that they bare a bunch of skin and submit themselves to all kinds of commentary on its shape/color/decoration. Tattoos are no exception.

      So tell me, where exactly am I supposed to put a block of poetry that *wouldn’t* invite comments from people like you?

      • My tattoo location basically means that if I don’t want it seen, I can no longer wear a bikini, yeah. So I guess it’s tankinis for me from now on, or board shorts & rash guards, at least until I can wrap my head around non-immediate-family seeing it. :/

    • Carolyn said:

      I don’t have tattoos, but I do have piercings – one of them has a huge personal meaning to me … not 100% what you asked, but along those lines. I guess compare this to your scenario in which you get a tattoo that is not visible in public – it’s just a small cartilage piercing that every other person I run into seems to have so its kind of invisible in that way and I doubt I will ever be asked about its meaning!

      I got the piercing after I got through a bad time – I was a completely different person on the inside (my happiest healthiest self!) and after such a change it felt … uncomfortable? … to see how unchanged I was physically. So, I got the piercing – I was marked on the inside, I needed to be marked on the outside to feel balance. It is a reminder to always follow my own star, to be true to myself and to trust I know what is best for me.

      The details of my personal journey are meaningless to people who don’t already know me well so I am not baring myself for just anyone. If I had marked that time on my body with a tattoo instead, it would have been in a place not readily seen in public. It was for me – it was an important part of healing, it marked the start of my brand new life. Its for me and no one else.

    • “If you get a tattoo that’s private, but that shows in public, doesn’t it seem like you would expect reactions in public? It’s like walking around with a piece of art in public…it seems like, to a member of the public, this is to create a response. Yes, I get that response to public art on your body might be annoying or invasive, but, why are you carrying that art around if you don’t want anyone to notice it?..”
      “Then, conversely, if you get a tattoo that doesn’t show at all, especially if it’s on your back or some other place that you can’t even usually see it, again, what is the point of that? Like buying a creating a beautiful piece of art, then sticking it in the closet where you rarely see it and hardly anyone else ever will.”

      There are a lot of good responses here already. I just want to add that for some people, getting a body modification is not about how it looks. It’s a symbol of something, or they want the experience, or they like how it feels, or any of a number of other things not related to aesthetics.

      Personally, I got a body modification on a part of my body that I once had a lot of health issues with. It was a symbolic way of saying, “Heyyy, let’s make peace! I’m going to stop trying to pretend you’re not there and in return I want you to try to work with me. Look, I got you something pretty! Can we be friends now?” Because of where the mod is most people assume that I got it to be “sexy” or “for attention.” They can think that if they want. I don’t care. But how it looks to other people is completely unrelated to its purpose on my body. I keep that part covered more now that I have the mod than I did before.

      • Jadis said:

        To add to the chorus of “people get tattoos that have nothing to do with you”, I’ll just add that this point about making peace with your body in some way is definitely A Thing.

        I’ve been fat all of my life, and I’ve wanted a tattoo for as long as I can remember. My constant refrain was always “I’ll get a tattoo as soon as I have a body part that’s attractive enough to decorate!” Which, when you think about it, is a pretty gross way to talk about yourself. Last year, at age 43, I finally got to a point in self/fat-acceptance where I said “You know what? Fuck that. My body is good enough to decorate NOW. Not at some distant date. NOW.” And that is how I came to acquire two very large tattoos in my mid-40s.

        I like to show them off and I fortunately haven’t been hassled about them like the LW here, and I’m fully prepared to give anyone who might do so some serious what-for. But still, regardless of whether I put them on display or not, the very fact that I have them is all about ME and my relationship with my body, and not at all about anyone else’s admiration (or lack thereof), ever.

        • Og said:

          Not a tattoo story, but I know a lot of people (myself included!) who get mods as a way of reclaiming ownership of their bodies. This belongs to me, and I can do what I like with it.

          Specifically: I’ve got nipple + genital piercings, both as a way of reclaiming those things as mine after sexual assault and as a way of making peace with them as a trans person. They are absolutely NOT for partners and although I like the aesthetic I have no interest in being objectified through them — honestly, most people don’t know how to actually interact with them properly anyhow.

          • It’s really neat to know that several other people had motivations similar to mine! I hope it worked as well for both of you as it did for me 🙂

      • Luminous said:

        “Personally, I got a body modification on a part of my body that I once had a lot of health issues with. It was a symbolic way of saying, “Heyyy, let’s make peace! I’m going to stop trying to pretend you’re not there and in return I want you to try to work with me. Look, I got you something pretty! Can we be friends now?””

        I am echoing what bostoncandylady said. My first tattoo is a couple inches away from a scary medical scar. It served multiple purposes, including distracting me from my excessive self-consciousness about the scar. It also was a sign of the promise I made to myself to take better care of myself — I love art, and I want to take good care of this original work of art which I commissioned onto my body, and therefore I must take good care of my body. On a really bad day, it is easier to treat my artwork with care and respect than it is to treat my body that well, but since I have art ON my body, I sort of tricked myself into better self-care because I won’t neglect the art!

        In my case, both of my tattoos are on my back. They are on places I don’t see very often, unless I am twisted in a pretzel and looking in the mirror. But I like the fact that I don’t see my tattoos all the time; if I saw them every day, I might get tired of them, but since I don’t see them often, it is a pleasant surprise when I do. Even if nobody ever saw the tattoos but me, I would still delight in them.

        Some people have fancy china tea sets and heirloom table linens which they only bring out for special occasions; I have tattoos on my back which I can uncover if and when I want. I don’t put my grandparents’ tea set out every day, but nobody has ever asked why I inherited their tea set if I was just going to keep it in a box half the time, because people understand that some things are reserved for special occasions. It’s the same with some tattoos.

        And even if I did use my grandparents’ tea set every day — even if I carried a delicate tiny cup of tea with me in full view of everyone on my daily commute — that still doesn’t mean that anybody would be entitled to ask to taste the tea or hold the cup. I don’t even have to tell anybody about the history of my grandparents and why I treasure these fragile little vessels. I might want to talk about the tea set one day, but the next day, I might simply say “Earl Grey is my favorite tea. So, did you see that sportsball game?”

        I am probably taking this analogy about “walking around with a piece of art in public” a little bit too far. But still. This tea set could easily belong in a museum, but holding a museum-worthy work of art does not magically turn me into a museum guide. When the “piece of art” is actually a piece of a human person, that is especially important to remember.

  45. tinyorc said:

    Oh LW, I feel your pain. I have two large leg pieces that end up on display for most of the summer months. The one on my thigh literally has no meaning beyond “I think it looks awesome.” But some people – especially folk with no ink of their own – seem to lose their minds when I give them this perfectly honest answer. Once I was out in a bar and a drunk girl got actively aggressive with me about it, like she was leaning forward on her chair yelling “BUT IT HAS TO MEAN SOMETHING!!!” It was really bizarre. It’s a detailed piece with lots of different elements and it took about seven hours, so I guess people have a hard time believing that I would put myself through all that pain and expense for something that doesn’t mean anything? I dunno. For me, tattoos accumulate meaning over time and they don’t have to have a detailed backstory to be important or worthwhile.

    My other piece is a homage to a videogame franchise that meant a huge amount to me as a kid, but I hate trying to explain that to anyone over forty, since most of them don’t understand how a videogame could be important to someone and often launch into “Well, you’re going to regret that…” or whatever.

    For me, faced with either scenario, I find the most effective and conflict-free deflection is to answer a question with a question. “Do you have any tattoos? If you were going to get a tattoo, what would it be?”

    In my experience, most non-inked folk have considered getting a tattoo at some point and what it might be and what it would mean, and in general, they’re quite happy to discuss it at length. Or if they’re in the anti-tattoo camp, you can go with a nice neutral “Yup, they’re certainly not for everyone + subject change.”

  46. Alteralias said:

    1) “I can’t remember”
    2) “It’s been lovely talking to you, goodbye”
    3) “Fucked if I know, ask the tattooist”
    4) “It means ‘s/he who minds their own business has a rich and prosperous life'”
    5) “It represents the fact that I am a deeply private person”
    6) “It represents hope that I might one day be cured of my highly contagious tonsilitis”
    7) “It represents a pledge to one day murder a person matching your description”
    8) “It’s a conversation starter! Now tell me, do you accept as your personal saviour?”

  47. craniest said:

    “It’s to remind me not to kill the next person who asks me deeply personal questions. Again.”

  48. Monty Crystal said:

    You can also say, “Why would you ask that?”, wait for them to defend themselves, and then say, “Oh” and let the silence stretch forever.

  49. Jellotheocracy said:

    I get this a lot, and believe strangers are more likely to approach a woman than a man on the subject. This is because I am FTM, and since I transitioned, just about nobody asks about my tattoos anymore.

    However, I am very heavily tattooed, and before society saw me as male, I got this a lot because I was very feminine looking. To add to it, my largest tat is my back piece, covering my entire back and wrapping around my waist. It’s a deeply personal tattoo that has to do with surviving a violent childhood. It’s nothing I’ll discuss with strangers. Most of my friends don’t even know the story behind it. Just my spouse and my tattoo artists, actually.

    My responses were tailored a little to the person asking. If the person was someone I knew, I’d try to deflect with humor, but if it’s a stranger using the question to judge, or be rude, I make the conversation uncomfortable for them.

    My rudest response was always, “I wanted the guy fucking me to have something to look at.” That shuts down things fast, which is what I wanted.

    I also just answer “Yes. . . ” when I get the “Does it hurt?” question. Accompanied by a level stare. This is often an opener for more questions, and I find that response shuts it down.

    However I think it’s very gendered. I have had exactly zero questions about the meaning of any of my tattoos since I transitioned. Either it’s because heavily tatted up guys are intimidating, or society at large cares less what men do to their bodies. Only folks who really know me even ask about my tattoos, and the character of the questions has changed. It’s often more a “can I look at them” type of thing. Nobody digs into why anymore.

    I got my first tattoo when I was 18 (with lots that followed), and lived as a woman until 40. So, the polite response after years and years, just didn’t yield a result. Nobody took my refusal to answer at face value. Being rude was my best defense for other folks rudeness. Being confrontational to a bit, was what shut down these entitled jerks who thought I owed them an explanation for my life choices.

    • ashbet said:

      Thank you for sharing your experience/informed perspective — I agree, these are often gendered questions. Men generally don’t run into as many members of the public assuming that their body is up for discussion, period.

    • G said:

      That is really interesting that exactly the same tattoos get such different reactions when they are seen on a male person or a female person. Not surprising, though, that the female person is the one who had to deal with demands to explain her body, and what it MEANS, to strangers.

    • LW 729 said:

      Thank you for telling me this. I’ve been wondering if gender is a contributing factor, both in the likelihood of asking these kinds of questions in the first place, and also the refusing to acknowledge a “no”. UGH.

      • LW 729 said:

        *likelihood of BEING asked, I mean. So far I can’t tell whether question-askers skew towards any particular gender.

  50. Groovy Biscuit Intervention said:

    The middle ground between a lie (“I just thought it was pretty”) and sitting the person down (“I don’t discuss it with strangers “) is something along the lines of “I get asked that a lot, but you know, not everyone’s tattoo has a personal meaning.” (and then, if necessary, deflecting into a discussion about tattoo shows on TV). What you’ve said is perfectly true, you just haven’t mentioned that it’s not true of your own tattoo.

    • daisylee said:

      This is what I usually go with. I’ve had a lot of conversations along the lines of:

      “What does it mean?”
      “Hmm, you know a lot of people assume that all tattoos have to have some deep personal meaning, probably because of shows like Miami Ink. But that’s not necessarily true. Lots of people just get imagery that they enjoy.”
      “But why would you get something tattooed on that doesn’t have meaning?”
      “[shrugs] do all the decorative objects in your home have a personal significance? Or are some of them just things that you enjoy looking at and wanted to fill your personal space with?”

      There’s usually a lightbulb moment around that point in the conversation – or at least, that sounds enough like an answer rather than a deflection that people will generally stop asking.

  51. strophoria said:

    I decided to get a feminist symbol tattoed on my forearm, and occasionally i say that its a videogame power-up if don’t feel like getting into it with a Clueless Man™. Lying is sometimes the best option

  52. ranunculus said:

    The first tattoo I got is on the back of my left shoulder (apparently the traditional site for a first tattoo in many cultures – there’s a fun fact!) so it’s not normally visible except when I wear summer clothes. I don’t know if the insistently rude personal remarks and questions are exclusively a US thing, but it’s not something I’ve experienced regarding my tats – most people either make no comment, or they’re complimentary and ask me where I got them done, which I have no problem with telling them.

    The only time I had cause for a “WTF?!” moment was when I turned up at my knitting group* on the first sunny day of the year wearing a vest top, and this one, usually extremely nice and well-mannered lady, immediately grabbed me by the shoulder and started shoving at my bra strap so she could “get a better look”. To her credit, she quickly saw my startled expression and apologised, whence I gladly re-arranged clothing MYSELF so she could take a look.

    I’ve actually had some nice chats with strangers about tattooing and the symbolism thereof, after one of us has admired/commented upon the other’s work. I do understand however, that this differs from your situaton in that those people were pleasant and un-pushy, and did not ask me a lot of personal questions. “It means something TO ME” has always been a sufficient response. I really can’t fathom how anyone can be so dense as to push for information when someone obviously doesn’t want to give it them.

    As to advice and suggestions? There’s always the Terry Pratchett response, which I’ve used myself when somebody asked a rather fatuous question about one of my Yule traditions: “It’s symbolic. Of symbols, and stuff. Very miffic.”

    It’s just occurred to me that some people’s interrogation of LW about the symbolism of her tattoo is very like that hateful habit some people have of interrogating a person wearing a band tshirt by demanding that they name three of said band’s albums. Or if you express a liking for some video game, or sci-fi film series, someone deems that you need to ‘prove’ your fandom to their satisfaction. Horribly gendered, snobby, and extremely rude. And nobody has any obligation whatsoever to satisfy these people. I may be wide of the mark here, and LW’s interrogators are simply showing prurient curiosity rather than sexist power-play, but the response to rude and inappropriate people is the same: you don’t owe them anything. They’re the ones who should feel embarrassed, not you. And I’ve writ far too much, to very little import. Sorry.

    *No, the comedic incongruety of nice middle-class ladies wot knit discussing body art has not escaped me.

    • entendante said:

      I’m pretty much the least-tattooed member of my knitting group, and am getting a knitting tattoo, so it mightn’t be as incongruous as it seems. 😉

      Have you found, by the way, that fibercrafters tend to be touchy-feelier? I suspect it’s something to do with having such a tactile hobby, but if a fellow knitter came up and grabbed a piece of my clothing (without grabbing the piece of me that was in it), my first assumption would be that they wanted to discuss yarn choice or pattern details. Anybody else grabbing my clothes, on the other hand, would be instantly and irrevocably persona non grata.

      • TurquoiseDra9on said:

        I do think fiber people are more touchy-feely about clothing. The polite ones, of type which I try to be, who ask before they touch get detailed answers as to fiber type, pattern name, and tips on making it. I once politely told my professor that I wished to stare at her stomach for a moment, because she had the most interesting sweater on, with a pattern just on the lower abdomen. She laughed and let me.
        My tattoo is not visible with most shirts. I have thought of getting a second, but couldn’t decide what I would get. Fiber-based . . . . hmmmm. And possibly more visible . . . . .

  53. Saucy Minx said:

    I was thinking that the folks pressing for the meaning of a particular tattoo might just be literal-minded, if tactless, which doesn’t excuse the rudeness, but perhaps explains the failure to grasp the difference between I Want to Know the Facts & It’s Not Really Any of My Biz. Seems like some Myers/Briggs typing might come into it too, but I am not knowledgeable enough to do more than privately speculate on that point.

  54. kamrynwhowanders said:

    Hey, I know you guys said it’s rude to ask someone about the meaning of their tattoo just out of the blue, but is it okay to do a quick “Wow, that’s a really cool tattoo!” aimed at a stranger, and then continue on with my day without interrogating or saying anything else? Lately I’ve been trying to tell people when I think they did their makeup really well or their shirt is cool or their hairstyle is gorgeous as a way to give myself Positive Social Interaction Points, but I don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. Should I just keep the compliments thing directed at my friends, or are one-off compliments in passing okay?

    • Anyanka said:

      I think they’re okay, unless it’s a memorial tattoo. Those are…not something that people generally want everyone commenting on, IME. I appreciate people liking my tattoos, because they’re beautiful and well-done, and I find that as long as it’s not pushy or touchy, compliments on them are welcome.

      • Are Memorial Tattoos generally a thing? I mean, will I be weird if I get a single angel wing across the top of my left shoulder, starting at the spine, with a couple raven feathers thrown in for my dead mother, grandmother, and godmother?

        • Anyanka said:

          They are a really big thing! And that’s not weird at all.

    • LW 729 said:

      I think it’s totally fine, and I’m probably at the high end of the “DON’T ASK ME STUFF” scale (which varies from Overly Friendly Labrador Wagging Its Tail At You Hopefully right up through Punk Porcupine Listening To Headphones And Glaring Out The Window). Although obviously I’m not the arbiter of Opinions Of All Tattooed People Everywhere, YMMV, etc. 😛

    • Anon Tattooed Person said:

      I don’t have a problem with a quick “Hey, I like your tattoo.” It’s not really any different from “Hey, I like your boots.”

    • Commander Banana said:

      As someone who both has a lot of tattoos and tends to dress in a pretty flamboyant pin-up style, complete with elaborate retro hairdos…no. I dress this way because it makes me feel the most me. I don’t do it for other people. There is nothing more annoying than getting stopped in the grocery store for random compliments. I don’t like interacting with strangers and having to respond to a compliment so I don’t come across as a rude bitch feels like being forced to interact with someone when I don’t want to (because it is?), and if anything, it makes me feel more hesitant to go outside dressed the way I most like to dress because of the unwanted attention.

      It sounds like your comments are coming from a positive place, but personally speaking, I find compliments from strangers almost as intrusive and unsettling as other forms of harassment. I know a lot of folks on here will probably disagree with me, and YMMV, obviously, but I really don’t like it. I don’t always have the spoons available to make small talk with strangers when I really just want to finish my shopping/get home/buysocks/whatever.

      • Genuine inquiry: if the compliment comes with zero social interaction at all, including no expectation of response, is that any better, or is it still stressful and unsettling? I tend to throw out the occasional brief-impersonal-compliment-in-passing, the kind where there isn’t really a chance for the other person to say anything, when I see someone with a really awesome (t-shirt/bumper sticker/pair of boots/etc). Just a brief “Awesome boots!” as we walk past each other. I wouldn’t comment on a person’s tattoos, as that feels way too personal and intrusive.

        • Commander Banana said:

          I can’t speak for anyone else, but the majority of the time I do find it stressful and unsettling, if only because when I’m out and about I’m usually focused on whatever task I’m doing at the moment, and being interrupted by someone speaking to me without my expecting it is jarring and breaks my concentration.

          I also have no way of knowing if the person complimenting me expects a response or not, or if my not responding to them is going to escalate the situation (strange man on the subway says “nice shoes,” and if I don’t smile and respond politely, is he going to attack me? Scream at me? Call me a bitch? This is the lightning-fast mental calculus I have to do and the consequences of getting it wrong can be deadly.).

          And as someone who gets street harassed on a fairly regular basis because I live in a large city and take public transport daily, it’s wearing, and often makes “nice shoes” and “nice ass” kind of feel like the same barrage of unwanted attention. I also hate the feeling that it’s my fault – that if I didn’t dress the way I did, I wouldn’t get that kind of unwelcome attention – but then, I dress like this for ME, and I should be able to pick out my clothes based on what I like, not what I think will make me as unobtrusive as possible.

          I’m not trying to come across as the Evil Compliment Squashing Ogre, but I can say that as someone who does get this on a fairly frequent basis, the unpleasantness far outweighs the pleasantness of a random stranger compliment. There are also a lot of layers to unpack to this question, up to and including how strangers seem to think they have the right to touch/interrogate people (usually women) and expectations that women will always be ‘polite’ and ‘nice’ when interacting with others (I would recommend reading Shakesville’s blog for a way more articulate take on this than I could provide here). And some days, dammit, I just don’t have the energy or will to respond to someone. And I can’t tell if the person is giving me a random compliment or looking for an in to take up my time asking the type of questions the LW wrote in about in the first place.

          I realize this makes me sound like the Mayor of No Funnington, but it’s honestly really tiring. A few days ago at Whole Foods I was eating and a woman stopped by tell me how much she liked my look and my purse – then PICKED UP MY PURSE to try out carrying it around. Which leaves me in the super awkward position of being like, hey, can you not take my stuff?! when all I’m trying to do is eat my goddamn lunch. I mean, stuff like this happens literally nearly every time I leave my house.

          The only time it doesn’t bother me is when someone needs a tattoo studio recommendation or has a specific question about my clothing, like where I bought a particular piece or what decade it is, because that usually means they’re also into vintage/thrifting and have a practical question I can answer.

          Sooooooo, I don’t know how useful my answer is – just something to consider, I guess, or think about if you compliment someone and they seem put out or annoyed. I really do try hard to be polite to people who say stuff to me but it’s genuinely hard; I’m not an outgoing or particularly friendly person by nature even under the best of circumstances.

        • miss_chevious said:

          I am the same. If I give a compliment to a stranger it will be in passing, in that I wouldn’t stop anyone (including myself) to give it, but would do it in motion. Like, walking past saying “great dress” or something. And I would only comment on something about the person’s appearance that was chosen and temporary, like an outfit or markedly artificial different hair color or something, not a tattoo or innate characteristic. And it would be specific, like, “great dress,” and not generic like “you’re pretty.” This is based on my own preferences when receiving compliments from strangers, though, and I do try to be sensitive to the body language of the person whose path I’m crossing. A

          • This, pretty much.

            Like, here’s an actual example from my life:

            I see a woman walking towards me. She is wearing a totally fantastic trench coat in a vivid color and it looks great on her, and it makes me smile. She notices me smiling, and we make eye contact, and she gives a tentative smile back. (FWIW, I read unambiguously as female.) As we pass, I nod & say “Great coat!”, never slowing down or moving towards her. She smiles more broadly and replies “Oh! Thanks!”, also without slowing.

            If she’d darted her eyes away rather than make eye contact, or been looking at her phone, or listening to headphones, I would not have said anything; instead, she was looking at other people and acted receptive to social interaction: hey that person is smiling at me! I’ll…smile back? OK!

        • Commander Banana said:

          Dang, I wrote what I thought was a really well thought out and detailed response and it appears the spam filter nommed it.

      • letternext said:

        Yeah, I guess the thing for me is, a lot of the time the pushy to outright invasive comments or actions begin with a really innocuous sounding little comment. There’s no way to know if any given interaction is “just” a compliment or is going to turn into something I really don’t want to deal with, including harassment, physical touching, etc. So that’s probably something good for people to think about. Also, most of the time I try to react to any comments by strangers, especially dude strangers, in the same way, just by trying not to prolong the interaction. So maybe it comes across as though I don’t mind, but what I’m thinking is, at the very best, “well, at least that one didn’t do X, Y or Z dodgy thing that also happens to start with an identical comment.”

        I also think there’s a big difference between just existing in public, like in a shop or on the street, & social interactions, like a party or being introduced to a friend of a friend or something. When I’m just going about my day, I don’t feel the need to comment on other people’s physical characteristics or appearance, I just keep those thoughts to themselves. A lot of people think tattoos [or other body art] should be the exception, but I don’t believe that.

    • Exit Flagger said:

      Can’t speak for other tattooed people, but for me a quick compliment is always okay. Even better if it comes from someone who is also visibly tattooed (since I know that there won’t be any “does that hurt?” follow-up questions), but I figure that I chose these tattoos just like I chose to wear a certain outfit or hairstyle, so a compliment on them is a commentary on my good taste.

    • I am not tattooed but I have been the recipient of comments on my appearance every day for over 40 years. I don’t like the comments at all. And if the commenter presents as male, any comments come across as a threat.

      Again, I have no tattoos. So maybe comments on tattoos from strangers are less offensive. But I don’t think so.

    • W.T. said:

      This is obviously a YMMV thing, but yeah, I’m always okay with quick, thrown-out-while-walking, no-stopping-to-make-small-talk “I love your tat!”s or “Awesome shoes!”s. I’m sssometimes up for the longer “Where’d you get it? I love that style! I’ve always wanted a [blahblah]” conversations, but that’s a lot more variable depending on the situation/asker/my energy levels that day.

    • kamrynwhowanders said:

      Okay, thanks for all your replies 🙂 It sounds like I should maybe not do the compliment thing unless someone’s body language is really positive and open. I don’t really think I’d be taken as a threat, considering that I am a five foot two teenage girl, but I also do not want to be anything like one of Those Dudes so thanks for the feedback on that.

      • Commander Banana said:

        I REALLY appreciate your asking the question and taking the time to consider everyone’s responses – it’s honestly not something I had really sat down to think about before and it’s made it a lot more clear to me why, most of the time, compliments make me feel annoyed instead of flattered.

  55. Mel said:

    I also have a fairly large and very visible tattoo that garners a certain amount of comment if I’m not wearing crew-necked shirts. For me, the usual question has been “what IS that?” (It’s a pair of extremely stylized seahorses back-to-back; it looks a bit like “tribal” tattoos from the ’90s, but with curvy lines, and actually is a piece of 16th-century Turkish art that I love.) My answer to that question is, always, “a pair of seahorses,” and most people stop there. Once in a while, someone will ask about meaning, and my answer is “I just loved the graphic.” So far, no one’s pushed beyond that (though sure as I write this here, someone will), so I offer that as a possible non-answer that is probably not also a lie. 🙂

    Also, I live in a part of the US where conversation with strangers is common and expected and has established (if unwritten) boundaries. Here, the comment goes something like “wow, I couldn’t help noticing your (optional: lovely) tattoo. What IS that design?” and it’s intended to acknowledge that the person was looking and is friendly and positive. A person who disapproves does not comment, and does not look. (And if they do comment negatively to my face, they will be judged by the other people around them for being rude.)

    When I lived in a different part of the US, where strangers conventionally do not make small talk, I got the same question, but it meant something else – either it was an attempt to establish solidarity (look, another tattooed and possibly unconventional person!) or they were telling me that they didn’t like it. With the latter, I pretended not to understand that they were attempting to disapprove, answered the question (it’s a pair of seahorses) and moved on. Ignoring the implicit disapproval was often enough to shut it down. (And the very few times anyone pushed further, I had no qualms about being rude back and making my point explicit – “I don’t really care whether you like it” – because they’d already broken the social script.)

    I don’t know where you live, LW, but I do wonder if figuring out where their question about meaning falls in terms of the kinds of conversations strangers and random acquaintances have with each other might help in determining what kind of non-answer would close off further questioning?

    • Annafel said:

      Oh yes, I have definitely had a few conversations with disapproving people. Usually family members, though, or the odd acquaintance. So far I have been able to shut them down with a version of, “Fortunately, you get to decide what to do with your body, and I get to decide what to do with mine.”

  56. As a tattooist with visible tattoos, this problem comes up a lot for myself and my clients…sometimes towards myself from my clients. It is absolutely true that there is a large group of people who believe that every tattoo has to have a ‘story.’ There was even a time when I liked to share detailed accounts of why I have the work that I have, but as your tattoo becomes less of a novelty to you and more of just another piece of you, I’ve found it becomes more irritating than anything to be interviewed at random about something that happened X years ago. When I see someone wearing a shirt I like or with a cool hairdo, I will say “That is awesome, I dig it a lot!” and, if I’m feeling chummy and honestly want to know, “where/how did you aquire that?” I don’t think I’ve ever asked a person “Why” they look how they look because it’s super rude and not my business. I feel that tattoos should have the same rules apply with the sanction of someone offering to tell the reason at their own prompting.

    In conclusion, I agree that “Because it is pretty” or “Because I like it” are perfectly acceptable and complete answers.

  57. K. said:

    I don’t have tattoos. I do have visible surgery scars, a birthmark, and a couple of old self-harm scars. I don’t hide any of those things.

    “Why do you ask?” works magic.

    I’m also a fan of the often-recommended, flat “wow” when someone is being rude, changing the subject, or saying I don’t want to talk about it. Some people won’t take the last one as an answer, but most will, and it’s worth a shot.

  58. Muffin said:

    LW, I second Goat Lady’s advice to lie your bum off, but if you don’t feel comfortable with that, I’ve had good success with just describing what my interlocutor is looking at. In part, this works because my tattoo is on the larger side and has multiple components, and I don’t know what yours looks like, but I do find that people quickly get bored and stop asking when the conversation goes like this:

    STRANGER: Ooh, what’s your tattoo mean?
    ME: Oh, it’s a big skyscraper that’s also a weathervane! See the directional symbols?
    STRANGER: Yeah, does it mean something?
    ME: Yes, it has a lot of different parts to it! There’s also a bunch of cardinals around the top, I don’t know if you can see them…
    STRANGER: Oh–uh, yeah, I see them. Are you a Cardinals fan?
    ME: Wait but look at the windows here–see the pattern? They’re exactly shaded to create a pattern. Two dark, one light, three dark, two light…

    And so on. (This doesn’t describe my actual tattoo, but you get the idea.)

  59. potterchik said:

    You can’t really stop strangers from saying things you don’t want them to, so your only option is how to respond. I vote for the broken record approach:
    “It’s personal. I don’t really talk about it. (Deflect conversation with question)”
    {Questioner asks again.}
    “I don’t really talk about it. It’s personal. (Deflect conversation again)”
    {Questioner pushes.}
    “My, you are determined!” (Deflect conversation)

  60. Taz said:

    If a white lie in this situation makes you uncomfortable, you could always go with a casual, “Oh, I wouldn’t say that it really has a meaning.”

    Subtle elision and totally true! You wouldn’t say (to random curious strangers) that your tattoo has a meaning.

  61. I’d suggest telling ’em it’s supposed to be a talisman of some sort – against earworms, against being attacked by invisible tigers/badgers/ferrets, or (if you’re irritated enough) against getting asked invasive personal questions by strangers. Then advise them not to bother getting one, because it doesn’t appear to be working.

    • B. said:

      “Then advise them not to bother getting one, because it doesn’t appear to be working.”
      xDDD
      I’ll be borrowing that one, hope you don’t mind!

      • Feel free! That’s why I shared it.

  62. B. said:

    I’m a fan of facial henna tatoos, LW, so I feel you. Most of the invasive questions happened when I got my first tatoo at fifteen*, a Horus eye that covered my whole cheek for months. Though I loved it -still do-, there was literally NO meaning behind it, so here are some of the answers I gave to those who thought “I just like the design” was not answer enough:

    – It’s a lucky charm to help me ward off __________. (The blank went from “celery” to “rude assholes” depending on my mood).
    – No idea, the high priestess refused to tell me after the invocation was over.
    – It’s a symbol ancient Egyptians scratched on their tombs when they wished to be left alone by nosey strangers.
    – My brother dared me to and this was the cheapest design they had.
    – It represents silence and solitude, which I value highly.
    – I don’t know, but you should never bet against a camel. (Said with a very straight face and even voice, without breaking eye contact)

    Usually, people got that I was messing with them and either laughed and changed the subject or left in a huff of sputtering and indignation at my cheekiness. Either way, I had fun (at their expense). Maybe this is not the best way for you, LW, but you don’t owe these people your time or conversation, much less your life story. So lie away, be bland, be rude, be awkward, be sarcastic, be silent and turn around… Whatever works for you that allows you to leave the unwanted conversation. Best of luck! 🙂

    * As I’ve gotten older, people tend to leave me alone, at least in the college setting where I work.

  63. DameB said:

    A thing that my family has mastered (but I have not) is to simply ignore the question. Either pretend you didn’t hear it or just answer something unrelated. For instance, when Nosy Ned says, “what does it mean?” you could say, “the design process us a fascinating collaboration. I was lucky to find such a great artist!” When Nosey Ned replies, “but what is the personal symbolism?” you reply, “choosing the colors was the hardest part!”

    It’s a form of gaslighting – you’re denying the reality of what they are saying – so you may not be OK with it. But it totally prevents them from getting any traction with the question.

  64. tattoothrowaway said:

    Piggybacking advice request! My most visible tattoo is an Om tattoo, and I’m white. I got it when I was 18; I regret it but can’t afford laser removal and don’t cover it because I’m not going to wear long sleeves in an Australian summer.

    When people ask me what it means, I don’t feel like I can just lie – I feel like I have to explain the correct meaning, the problems with cultural appropriation, the reasons I didn’t understand that at 18, and the fact that I now regret it.

    Do I have that correct? That’s a fair burden to carry for the mistake?

    Any thoughts welcome.

    • MsM said:

      I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to handle it. But you have to live with this thing you don’t want any more; seems to me that’s penance enough if you decided to just leave it at “These days, it’s a reminder I need to put more consideration and research into my tattoo selections.”

    • Anonymous said:

      Om is not of my culture, but those ugly dream catcher tattoos people like to get are, so I will give you what my answer would be if you were talking about one of those;

      Explaining the entire concept of cultural appropriation to total strangers every time someone asks about your tattoo is a lot to put on yourself, and to be honest I wouldn’t feel comfortable with someone dragging around one of my cultural symbols as a ‘burden’. Honestly, the biggest issue – that you payed for the tattoo, I assume from someone that doesn’t have any more cultural right to the symbol than you do – is over and done with. My personal opinion is that you should make peace with your mistake, and your explanation to nosy strangers doesn’t need to go beyond ‘it was a mistake, and I regret it now’ or ‘I was young, if I knew what I know now I wouldn’t have gotten it’.
      Basically what I’m saying is you don’t have to be treating it like you were branded with a scarlet letter. Many, many people do much worse things and we don’t (unfortunately, in some cases) force them to go around explaining their past mistakes to any stranger that asks.

    • W.T. said:

      I feel like this is an obvious question so I almost hate to ask it, but have you considered going to a cover-up specialist and getting another tattoo to disguise it? I can only address the cultural appropriation side as far as to say I think it would be more satisfying for both you and for the people whose culture you appropriated– you would get a tattoo you actually like and don’t have to feel ashamed of, and they wouldn’t have to roll their eyes when they see this white person running around with a symbol of their culture. (I don’t mean to imply that you’re OBLIGATED to get it covered, just that it seems win-win to me! No longer carrying around a symbol of appropriation: positive for everyone.)

      • It’s not a financially viable option for me

        • W.T. said:

          That’s a bummer. 😦 But I’m glad that Anonymous upthread was able to give you some helpful advice, at least!

  65. golden peanut said:

    *calm even gaze* “I don’t have a tattoo.”

  66. I didn’t know this was a rude question until now. As it happens, I never asked acquaintances or strangers about the meaning of their tattoos, but only because such a question could yield a more in-depth answer than would be appropriate for our superficial small talk. If I’d ever asked and gotten the answer “That’s personal,” I would’ve backed way the hell off. What the hell is wrong with people?

    • Anon Tattooed Person said:

      “but only because such a question could yield a more in-depth answer than would be appropriate for our superficial small talk.”

      And that’s a lot of what makes it a rude question, so your intuitions were spot-on, even if you weren’t framing it as “rude.”

      It’s sort of like…say you’re in a coffee shop reading your favorite book, and a stranger comes up to you and says “I’ve seen you reading that book here many times before, what does it mean to you?” Some people might be happy to answer that question and that’s fine, but it’s still someone asking for (what they seem to assume) is a deep, personal answer from a stranger.

      To carry the analogy forward, it’s much more socially appropriate to ask “I’ve been thinking about reading that book, would you recommend it?” (“I like your tattoo. Is the artist local?”) though the usual approaching-a-stranger in public rules still apply (does their body language indicate they’re OK being interrupted, etc). Because that’s not assuming or probing for personal information.

    • Jane said:

      It only takes one “actually it’s a memorial to my dead cousins” to make sure you NEVER ASK ANYONE ABOUT THEIR TATTOOS EVER AGAIN.

  67. When I get an invasive question from strangers or bare acquaintances about my tattoos or other aspects of my personal life and a lighter deflection doesn’t work, I usually go with a version of “People who deserve to know the answer don’t need to ask the question”, followed by a quick subject change. I deliver that line with either a dazzling smile or the most forbidding look I can muster, depending on my mood and what I think will be most effective. It’s worked pretty well.

  68. I’ve had this problem myself. Depending on the person (if they’re a stranger or acquaintance) I have a few stock replies. For strangers I’m likely to never see again, I look sort of bewildered and say, “I woke up with it one morning! Must’ve been a wild night, right?? I wish I remembered it..” For people I’m likely to see again I just smile and say “It’s personal.” And keep saying that to all followup questions. Smile. Maybe even a conspiratorial wink. Eventually they get the hint.

    Um, this is my first comment here. Hello!

  69. Blackbird said:

    I don’t think these people are in the right, but I disagree that it’s okay to treat them with passive aggression and lies as the first choice of action. I’m surprised that so many people here are suggesting it. It’s not okay at all, and it DEFINITELY doesn’t count as “innocent”, “pleasant” or anything like that.

    LW, I think people get thrown by the non-answers. They definitely aren’t allowed to keep pressuring you, and they aren’t entitled to the story of your tattoos, so you do have the right to not answer them. But non-answers, obvious lies and passive-aggressive fake politeness throw people off.

    There are many many subjects that are neutral to many people and loaded for others. When I was unemployed, I hated it when people asked what I worked with. But if they ask “So, what do you do?” and I smile and say “Why do you need to know?”, I’m being way ruder than them. They couldn’t know that I didn’t want to be asked, but I do know that they don’t want to be manipulated to feel bad, and yet I’m doing it anyway to punish them. That’s gross.

    You don’t have to give them the info, but you have to answer them in good faith. I learned to say “looking for work – what do you do?” or “I’m unemployed right now, but I’m really into [hobby]” or “oh, it’s the weekend, let’s not talk about work, let’s talk about the party! How do you know the host?”. You respond to their INTENTION rather than the question.

    People ask these questions as icebreakers, so the best thing to do is to break the ice. If you follow the advice to lie to them, become coldly fake polite, insinuate that they’re a bad person, etc, you’re doing the exact opposite. It’s hostile.

    HOWEVER. If they can’t take an actually nice (not fake nice!) three second answer, you are totally allowed to say “no, seriously, it’s kind of personal” in a serious tone of voice. If they become confused (as people often do!), repeat yourself and change the subject. If they become angry, NOW you get to make them regret they asked.

    • Anyanka said:

      Actually, people don’t have to answer rude, invasive questions in good faith.

      Like, ‘what do your tattoos mean?’ is exactly as invasive as ‘what’s your bra size?’. It’s not appropriate for total strangers to ask that, and people who expect everyone to be nice or engage with them when they were being rude and creepy are being entitled.

      Like, in this scenario, what about people who just plain don’t want to interact? I almost never want to have to tell a random stranger literally anything about my body and my tattoos. I don’t *want* to break the ice or be friendly or anything of the sort; I want them to go away and not ask me creepy, weird questions.

      • Jane said:

        Yeah. . . these people are *strangers.* They don’t have a right to her *time* (frankly I don’t think they have a right to her *eye contact*), let alone her positive energy.

      • Blackbird said:

        No, it’s not BY DEFINITION rude and invasive. Some people do feel that “what does your tattoo mean” is rude, some don’t – just like “what do you work with”, “are you going to your parents for [holiday]”, “where did you go to college”. If you’re unemployed, have a horrible family and dropped out of high school at 16 (like I did), these questions feel awful. But to many people, they’re neutral. I don’t ask people about their tattoos (at least I don’t think I have), but I’ve seen many people be delighted to talk about their tattoos when someone asks. The question is neutral to some people, loaded to others. Someone upthread compared tattoo to paintings on your walls. You can have a painting that is incredibly meaningful to you, or a painting just because the colours are pretty. Sometimes people ask, sometimes you don’t want to answer, but they’re not doing anything bad or wrong just for asking, so it’s not okay to respond as if they’re doing something bad (though you can, of course, decline to tell them the deepest meaning). “What’s your bra size” isn’t a neutral question, so it’s not an honest comparison, you’re comparing apples and oranges.

        • Anyanka said:

          You seem really defensive about this. I guess we just disagree on the basic premise: I think asking strangers about things as personal as tattoos (which are *really personal* for many people, and you can’t tell at first glance which ones are personal and which aren’t) is incredibly rude and therefore does not require the askee to be polite back. I also don’t think that I’m obligated to not be cold and unfriendly to strangers. I don’t even want to *make eye contact* with strangers, must less have to answer questions about myself to them.

    • W.T. said:

      Wow, I didn’t know the additional price for getting a tattoo was to be willing to be “actually nice” (~~not fake nice!~~) to anybody that ever comments on them at all times. Tattoos: mandatory ice breaker time! You’re never allowed to be ~~fake nice~~, evasive, or hostile to people who comment on your body again!

      Which is to say: er… no. You really need to rethink this. Someone getting a tattoo is not an eternal agreement to satisfy random-ass people’s curiosity about it whenever said random-ass people so please. You are never OBLIGATED to “break the ice,” as you put it. You are never OBLIGATED to indulge stranger’s curiosity about your life, your beliefs, or your body.

      (Also, for what it’s worth, I completely disagree that your hypothetical “Why do you need to know?” to someone asking “what you do” would have been rude! It would be, in fact, a way to POLITELY signal that it’s a topic you’re not willing to talk about. Are people just not allowed to refuse to answer questions, in your world? I’m totally baffled by this train of thought.)

      • Blackbird said:

        Treating people well is not a special behaviour you break out just because you get a tattoo. It’s just what you do. No one is advocating any extra niceness. I, however, am arguing that the usual niceness still exists even if you have a tattoo and someone asks about it.

        Feel free to not talk to them about your tattoo! But do not act like it’s okay to be cold and rude. If you read these comments, you see that quite a lot of people are encouraging the LW to be awful. That’s not good advice at all. Seriously, people are telling LW to be manipulative on purpose, “smile” and say stuff like “people who deserve to know the answer don’t need to ask the question”. That’s a really gross, manipulative way to talk to other people and I can’t believe the Awkward community would encourage that – insulting people in a cheery voice to confuse them and make them feel bad? Pretending that you don’t hear them talk? Subject change with no acknowledgement that they asked you something? Ew! That’s a really gross way to behave. I have no other words for it, it’s gross. Don’t you hate it when people do it to you? I sure do, like when you put all those cute tildes in your comment to convey contempt. You basically tried the “ape what they say in a baby voice” trick. It’s contemptuous.

        My point is that the LW *still doesn’t have to talk about their tattoo*, but you can’t act in bad faith towards someone who acted in good faith. If they START to act in bad faith, like not accepting that LW doesn’t want to talk, fine – get them to fuck off.

        Respond in kind. Good faith gets good faith, bad faith gets bad faith.

        • W.T. said:

          First: LW’s question was, in fact, specifically about people who CONTINUE to push for an answer after the first “it’s personal,” so I believe that many of the commenter’s suggestions are coming from a place of “what’s okay after the other person has already broken the social contract.” At that point, it’s not hostile, it’s defensive! You did allow for that in your comment, but seemed to miss that that IS the situation being discussed by the community as a whole?

          Second, however, I feel like Leonine’s points below were well-made, specifically 3 and 4– even in the case that you aren’t being persistently rude, you can’t approach other people with a personal question (and “What does it mean?” IS, inherently, a personal question, though you’re right that not everyone might consider it a rude one) and not accept the potential that that question might get shut down. If you would be offended by asking someone a personal question and getting ignored, lied to, or even blatantly brushed off, that is most definitely your problem and no one else’s. The issue of good faith or bad faith doesn’t apply here to me, because when you’re asking strangers personal questions, you have to accept that they might shut you down hard. (Especially what with being strangers and all, it’s pretty damn hard to anticipate whether someone IS asking that question in good faith, and how long they’ll stay that way once you answer!)

          (To expand– “what does it mean” is inherently a personal question because the asker is assuming that the tattoo DOES have a personal meaning beyond “it was just pretty” or “I liked the design.” In my experience, people tend to assume that tattoos are about meeting major milestones, overcoming challenging life events, in memory of someone that’s passed away, or otherwise representing something of value to that person or something reflecting their personal beliefs– all extremely personal stuff, and stuff that it’s honestly pretty friggin’ weird to assume a stranger would be okay with sharing, though as you’ve mentioned many of them are! This is my actual lived experience about what people are actually asking when they ask “What does it mean?”, so I feel pretty confident in asserting that it is inherently a personal question, AND that the people who ask it are aware of that on some level.)

          • Blackbird said:

            Not really, the LW’s question was “people keep asking when I give them non-answers”. I suggested that this happens when you give non-answers, because people can be confused (like, did LW not hear, did I miss the answer, why are they acting weird, I don’t get it, I’ll ask again). Other people gave good advice, like to come up with a three second answer that you’re okay with (if you have a phoenix because you made it out of a horrible childhood, you can say “it’s for rebirth” or “I love mythology” or “it symbolises that life goes on”). But many people were telling LW to just act really mean to get people to feel bad for asking, or boasting that they themselves behave like that, and I don’t think that’s okay at all.

            I also disagree that you should expect people to be openly hostile when you ask a neutral question that they happen to not like. What? No. And it’s not weird to ask slightly personal questions when you meet someone for the first time! That’s how many people get to know each other. Not everyone has to like it, and you don’t have to participate! You just can’t act like the other person is being A BAD PERSON for asking you or for having different social norms than you. They aren’t mind-readers. They can’t know whether you hate being asked about your tattoo, or if you’ve bored your friends to tears with your tattoo stories and will be delighted to have a willing audience.

            If they keep going after the three second answer (“I love rebirth myths”) and your explicit boundary setting (“sorry, the full story is too personal”)? If they say for example “yeah but we’re friends now, you should tell me”? Okay, now they’ve left polite society, now they’re deliberately boundary pushing, so now you can freely tell them to fuck off. But there’s a difference between invasive boundary-pushing and asking a reasonable question that you happen to dislike.

          • Ran out of nesting, but, @Blackbird, at some point aren’t non answers a cue that the topic isn’t a good one to discuss? Or that the person doesn’t want to talk anyway? I’m generally a people pleaser, but I’ve said things like, “Well it’s good that it’s me wearing this shirt you don’t like and not you,” after my non answers about the terribleness of my shirt didn’t end the topic.

          • W.T. said:

            I think what’s happening is that you’re interpreting non-answers as “vaguely changes the subject” and I’m interpreting non-answers as… the examples the LW gave, which were “I don’t really talk about that stuff with strangers” or “that’s a pretty personal question.” At that point, asking further is being pushy as fuck and I thumbs-up whatever approach the LW wants to take on the “gentle” to “hostile” scale. Also, like mongoosefart added, even giving “vaguely changes the subject” answers are ANSWERS, and if the asker doesn’t get the point that their question isn’t being answered on purpose, that is in fact the perfect time to pull out a “Establish your need to know.” Letting people know that their invasive questions are invasive and unwelcome is not unduly hostile, to me.

            Actually, none of the responses I’ve seen people suggest are unduly hostile to me! (And “let them know their opinion/actions are unwelcome with a big smile” is actually regular advice here on Captain Awkward in my experience, so the bafflement is a little… baffling, to me!) You’re very insistent on the rudeness of these responses just like others have been insistent on the rudeness of asking the question on the first place– as you’ve noted elsewhere, rudeness is in the eye of the beholder, but I think where we disagree is that you seem to think that means “So treat everyone as if they’re not being rude as long as they didn’t MEAN to be” and I think it means “so don’t be surprised when you accidentally piss someone off.”

            It is NOT FAIR to expect people– and women specifically, in this context, because as established upthread this particular dynamic effects women much more heavily than male-perceived people– to pretend that they aren’t offended when they are offended. You’re literally saying “Don’t be/act offended because they didn’t MEAN to offend you,” but people say rude shit in good faith literally all the time. “Your hair was so pretty when it was long!” “I’ll pray for you.” “You can do so much better!” “Where’d you get that scar?” I don’t think it’s my job to pretend what they said wasn’t rude just because it might make them uncomfortable, because– shock– they’ve already made me uncomfortable by saying rude shit! I’m returning that discomfort to the sender. People don’t always have the fortitude to calmly explain “actually what you said was rude and here is why,” especially when they’re dealing with STRANGERS and it’s easier to just shut them down and move along. You might think that’s terrible and awful and rude; I think using kid gloves on thoughtless people is a good way to make sure they don’t grow to be more thoughtful. What you interpret as a neutral question– which, an ENTIRE THREAD OF PEOPLE who actually live with this issue have said that it’s not so much of a neutral question, so I find your insistence on this point bizarre– is sometimes going to be offensive to other people! It’s awkward and uncomfortable but it’s life, and when has telling people “have you tried not being offended/being nicer to people that offend you?” ever been good advice?

          • CJ said:

            “You’re very insistent on the rudeness of these responses just like others have been insistent on the rudeness of asking the question on the first place”

            I’ve been wondering about that insistence myself. I can’t help but wonder whether this individual is inclined to satisfy her curiosity by approaching strangers with intrusive questions herself, and somehow wants to validate her behavior as being socially acceptable because she regards herself as well-intentioned.

        • Jane said:

          . . . I would estimate that about 2% of my total interactions with strangers have been “in good faith” on their part. 98% of the time, whatever their opening question is, it’s an introduction to either harass me or ask me for money. I have no particular reason to assume good faith on the part of any stranger, ever, and I don’t see why protecting yourself should be less important than the feelings of some person you don’t know and will never see again.

          We don’t know the context of the LW’s stranger interactions; I would guess that some significant portion of the time it’s a creepy dude who’s angling to start the sexual harassment sequence with the tattoo questions as an intro. That shit gets to you and it changes how you view stranger interactions, from “I have no particular feelings about this stranger, one way or another” to “the risk that this is going to get ugly and emotionally draining is high enough that shutting it down quickly is preferable.”

          You’re not going to convince people here that they owe random strangers time and energy. The topic of approaching people in public, expecting their time and good faith, and why it is a bad idea has been well-traversed.

          If you think the mean responses are mean, fine, you don’t have to respond meanly to strangers. (In the LW’s situation I would probably just stare, shrug and mutter something unintelligible, and walk away, because I don’t have the wits or the bravery for snapping back in the moment.) But demanding that someone MUST be willing to let anyone who feels entitled enough to ask take up their time and energy? No. That’s not okay. (Rhetorical question: if you’re concerned with good manners on the part of strangers, why aren’t you preaching consideration and restraint to the people who feel like strangers with tattoos have to be open to questions at all times?)

          • Commander Banana said:

            Yup. I can remember every interaction that has actually been pleasant and brief because they are so rare. The vast majority are 1. dudes using it as a way to hit on me/offer their unsolicited opinion about how THEY feel about MY body, 2. scammy people wanting money or donations 3. nosy parkers who want shopping/tattoo recommendations and then tell me why my recommendations are terrible (seriously, twice last week I was stopped by couples who just moved here and wanted to know where I bought my clothes, and when I told them what thrift stores I frequented, wrinkled their noses and started telling me why my choice of stores are bad/uncool/not hip/whatever. So that’s not exactly making me want to revise my policy about being pleasant to strangers.) and 4. people I just don’t want to talk to, because I’m busy living my life and chatting up random people is not something I enjoy or want to do.

          • W.T. said:

            Right? Like, this issue of good faith vs bad faith when you’re talking about strangers is BIZARRE to me, because you have literally no way of knowing whether they mean you good faith or not? One time I was with another inked friend and a lady stopped her, was very polite, and asked the “What does it mean?” question. My friend was in the mood to answer, and followed up with “What made you ask?” The lady responded, smugly, with “I was just wondering what was so important that you would ruin your beautiful skin.” The question, in the first place, was not in good faith. My friend opened up to this stranger about an intimate part of her life, and said stranger was honestly just looking to judge her to her face. When you actually have to put up with this stuff day-to-day (including the leering/prelude to harassment as mentioned, GOD), you kind of stop relying on the assumption of good faith!

        • Anodyne said:

          1) These people have already started off by being rude. It is *not polite* to ask an intensely personal question – less so to refuse to let the topic drop when given social indicators that it’s not a topic the person wants to talk about. 2) This is, as indicated, a very gendered question; most men do not get people coming up to them and demanding answers to personal questions, or grabbing parts of their bodies to examine them. Most men do not get called to answer to the “realness” of their appearance. It is, however, a *very common* thing for women to have to endure.

          All of which is to say: why should I start off with the assumption that I owe a random person on the street anything? They’re intruding on my time and space. Why should I go with the assumption that it is even SAFE to talk with this random person, when there’s so many times that it isn’t?

          Why should I assume that someone asking me an intensely personal question, when I *do not know them* (and now have no inclination to get to know them), is acting in good faith? “Is that a wig” followed by yanking at hair isn’t an icebreaker question! “Where you going” is CREEPY! The best you can do is talk about the weather or books or local theatre or movies, and then drop it if they don’t want to keep talking.

          As to “don’t you hate it when people do it to you” – uh, no? Because if someone does this to me, then I’ve committed a social faux pas and the person is (in the case of a conversational redirect) being kind enough to not thump me over the head with it or at least bluntly pointing out that I made a goof. If you’re finding that people do this to you a lot, then perhaps you should rethink what you’re asking them?

    • Leonine said:

      “. . . I’m doing it anyway to punish them . . . .”

      I have a lot of thoughts about this, so I’m numbering them in an effort to keep them organized.

      1. That’s not why people decline to answer invasive questions. People decline to answer invasive questions because the answers are none of the askers’ business. A question is not an obligation, and a non-answer is not a punishment.

      2. People are allowed to have boundaries about what they’re willing to discuss and when and with whom they’re willing to discuss it.

      3. When someone is asked a personal question–even if the asker doesn’t realize that they’ve asked a personal question–they can handle the question in whatever way will get them the best result, the best result is the one with the least emotional labor for themselves. If it’s easiest (i.e., least triggering, least likely to wake up the brain weasels, most self-empowering, etc.) to tell the truth, they should tell the truth. If it’s easiest to lie, they should lie. If it’s easiest to return the awkwardness of the awkward question back from whence it came, they should send it thither. The askee didn’t ask to be asked an invasive question, so the emotional fallout is not their responsibility.

      4. Starting a conversation or asking this kind of question, however well-meaning or innocent, is an emotional risk. We take an emotional risk when we address ourselves to a stranger, or even to a friend. That is part of the nature of human relationships. The askee can’t be reasonably expected to do the heavy lifting of protecting the asker from the consequences of hir question.

      5. Equivocation is a valid strategy in this situation. You don’t have to answer the literal question (“What does your tattoo REEEEEEEALLLYY mean?!?!”); you can answer the actual question (“Will you please answer this invasive question in a way that I will find emotionally satisfying?”) instead: “Oh, it’s a fish, and my Aunt Sally, God rest her soul, was a Pisces.” The fact that you do not have an Aunt Sally or believe in astrology is not any more of their business than the real meaning of the tattoo. They’re asking a question. Answer it if you want, but answer the question you want to answer.

      • Blackbird said:

        1. That’s not what I was saying, though! I was talking about how people are advising the LW to be deliberately snooty and rude because people deserve to be treated badly if they fail to read your mind. Declining to answer the question isn’t a punishment, but deliberately being an asshole to punish them for asking is a punishment.

        2. Yes, I explicitly said that LW has the right to not talk about their tattoo. I love boundaries. They are great. You’re misinterpreting me, because you read my comment to say “LW doesn’t have the right to not answer the question” when I actually said “LW can decline to answer the question, but this comment section should stop advising LW to be mean on purpose”.

        3. You do get to try to make things easy for yourself, but you don’t get to behave in *any way you want* whenever you have a feeling. People aren’t asking about tattoos to make you uncomfortable, unlike when they ask about your bra size or “why are you disabled”. Asking about tattoos is more like asking people if they have kids. Some people are delighted to be asked, others feel crushed because they’re infertile or because their kid passed away. But no one can know in advance how YOU are going to feel. No one can read your mind. So you don’t get to act like they should have known. You do get to not answer the question, but you don’t get to act contemptuous or aggressive. Unless they start a fight. Then you can fight.

        4. Uh, yes, you can. You can totally, totally expect that others treat you with basic politeness. You can absolutely expect that other people don’t demand that you be a mind-reader and punish your failures to anticipate what they do or don’t want to talk about. It’s not other people’s responsibility to ask exactly your favourite questions, just like it’s not your responsibility to talk about exactly what other people want you to talk about. BOTH parties have to compromise, be nice and give each other the benefit of the doubt.

        5. “Will you please answer this invasive question in a way that I will find emotionally satisfying?” isn’t “the actual question”. That’s ONE way to interpret the question. Here are a few other ways to interpret “what does your tattoo mean”:
        “Do you want to talk with me for a while? I picked a subject that I think you’ll enjoy.”
        “I’m really interested in other people and love to talk about meaningful stuff. Care to join?”
        “I know that many people with tattoos LOVE to talk about them, so I’ll give you an opportunity to talk about your tattoo for as long as you want!”
        “I don’t really know what to say, I’ll ask a few small talk questions to see what you like.”
        It’s not okay to act as if the other person asked you the worst possible alternative. Act like they asked you a question that they thought was neutral but that actually was really sensitive to you. Just like “what do you work with” can’t be answered with a snooty “I personally don’t feel the need to classify people based on their professions” just because you’re unemployed and hate being asked.

        • Actually, people who ask why you’re disabled aren’t asking for the purpose of making you uncomfortable, either. They’re asking because they’re curious and they either haven’t learned or aren’t bothering with self-restraint.

          I think you’re reading people’s responses here as if they’re answers to the question, “How should I respond when an acquaintance asks me a polite question one time?” But that’s not what the LW asked.

          About once or twice a month, someone will ask me “but what does it mean” or a variation on this, and keep digging at me until I offer up something suitably personal. My problem is that a) these otherwise well-meaning people really pressure me for a detailed answer, asking and re-asking their question repeatedly even though I am visibly uncomfortable with their interrogation and give them multiple non-answers, and b) there is indeed a personal meaning behind my tattoo, but I have less than zero interest in sharing it with random strangers or new acquaintances.

          The LW is asking “How can I get total strangers to quit pestering me with super-personal questions that I’ve repeatedly indicated I don’t want to answer?” And in that case, yeah, there’s no responsibility to be polite or nice. The other person didn’t just break the social contract, they fed it through a confetti shredder and lit the pieces on fire. And, just for context, I live in a part of the US where polite chit-chat with strangers is expected and normal. This is not a “How dare you approach me!” scenario.

          Example: I occasionally have periods when I need a cane to walk. Sometimes for a few days, most recently for about a year. There’s a difference between an acquaintance asking about it and a total stranger asking about it. An acquaintance gets a polite answer about a flare-up of a back problem. A stranger asking where I got my cane gets a genuinely informative answer. A stranger asking why I’m using a cane gets, “Because I have trouble walking without it.” A stranger who *keeps* asking why I’m using a cane gets the same answer, said slower and louder.

          Who’s doing the asking, and how much they persist, makes a really huge difference.

          • Blackbird has really kinda dug in on this but I don’t think s/he is wrong that there’s a lot of people #answering# LW with advice to go fairly nuclear right out the door. That is indeed not the question/situation that LW actually posed, but even CA’s lovely readers can sometimes get a little frothed up over a topic near and dear to their hearts. There is unquestionably some advice here to react with some questionable hostility before any questioner has done anything wrong by conventional understanding.

            That said, I think Jane is 100% on the money in saying that a huge number of initial contacts have nothing to do with cordial pleasantries and are just pretexts to intrude in our lives in ways the questioner knows perfectly well we would not welcome. If we sometimes presume incorrectly that these people are looking for something we don’t want to give them and politely brush them off without giving them an opportunity to engage with us further… well, clearly we were right that we didn’t want what they had and we’re doing them a favor by promptly and politely sending them down the street where they can find someone who *is* interested.

        • Leonine said:

          Okay, I’m not trying to get in a big debate here, so I’m going to clarify, then I’m out.

          1, 2, 3, and 5. The LW asked about cases where she is “visibly uncomfortable with their interrogation.” We’re not talking about mind-reading here, we’re talking about people who refuse to acknowledge clear signals. As noted in a thread above, this kind of boundary-pushing is very often gendered, and there’s research if you want to Google it that shows that people only take a soft no as seriously as they take the agency of the person saying it. Let’s trust the LW’s description and interpretation of her own experiences. The people she needs help with are rude, pushy people. She needs help developing what another advice columnist refers to as a “polite spine,” meaning strategies for enforcing boundaries with increasing firmness. Even Miss Manners and Emily Post acknowledge that the cut direct is sometimes warranted. Again, this LW is asking for advice on how to deal with pushy people who won’t take “no” for an answer.

          4. See, and this is where I think we have a fundamental disagreement: when you say “both parties have to compromise,” you’re assuming that “both parties” are parties in any meaningful way. Talking about parties and compromise suggests contracts and obligations, and I find that a problematic way of looking at this kind of interaction. My being outside is not a contract. My existing in the world does not entail social obligations of any kind, and a stranger’s comment on my appearance does not engage my automatic consent to participate in the conversation. In my own behavior, this means that I do not *expect* others to treat me any particular way. I *hope* they treat me with basic politeness, and if they don’t, I don’t make it about me, except in so far as I examine my own behavior to see if I stepped on their toes in any way. The Golden Rule is frankly insufficient; I try to live by the Platinum Rule: “Do unto others as they would have done unto them.” If someone is rude or reacts with hostility, I take their cue and leave them alone. But again, this conversation is about people who refuse to take cues. Their refusal to be polite does not obligate the LW to consider things from their point of view.

    • Commander Banana said:

      Having been in the unenviable situation of being unemployed in a large city where “what do you do?” is literally the second question you are asked, ALL THE TIME, I can sympathize with you. However, asking someone what they do is not nearly as invasive as asking someone about their body. And you can answer “what do you do” with basically anything and the majority of people will not question it (sand-worm herder! novelty circus squirrel operator! Buggy whip repairperson! Or reply with what you do as a hobby instead of what you do as a job.).

      Howwwwwwwever, when you are commenting on someone’s tattoos (or hair, or disability, etc.), you (not, like, you-you, but the hypothetical you) are indeed commenting on their body, and I think that’s something important to keep in mind here. And the LW did specifically ask about how to deal with people who are already being pushy and invasive and have already disrespected either her answer or her efforts at deflection.

      I personally find a quick lie or evasive answer easier than refusing to answer because it just makes the other person pushier or angry. Ultimately I have to prioritize my own safety and mental wellbeing over the feelings of strangers, and while I wish I could do that without ever being rude or cold, it’s really not possible. I am not capable of being my best self 100% of the time, and I reserve the right to expend my mental energy on things other than satisfying the curiosity of strangers.

      I think you raise really good points about how other people can’t know what your loaded subjects are, and it’s not fair to expect them to. That’s something that I need to be keeping in mind. In a perfect world, people would quickly back away when others say a topic is personal or something they don’t want to talk about.

      Of course, I am filtering this whole string through my own experiences as a heavily tattooed female who has to field a lot of unwanted questions on a regular basis. Trust me, any question you are asking/compliment you are paying/opinion you are expressing to a tattooed person is likely one they have heard about a million times, unless they got tattooed yesterday. And a lot of my interactions with strangers asking about my tattoos are men who are being pushy, invasive, harrass-y, and rude.

      As someone who has lived what the LW is living every day for over a decade, I can say that 1. I personally never ask about the meaning behind other people’s tattoos. The only time I comment on a tattoo is when asking where they got it because I am actively looking for a studio and we’ve already been chatting for a while. I assume that the tattooed person had a reason for getting that tattoo, even if that reason was it was pretty or I was drunk and I don’t have a need to know what it is. and 2. I personally dislike talking about my tattoos/hair/clothes/general appearance with other people except under fairly specific and limited circumstances.

      • bostoncandylady said:

        “I think you raise really good points about how other people can’t know what your loaded subjects are, and it’s not fair to expect them to. That’s something that I need to be keeping in mind. In a perfect world, people would quickly back away when others say a topic is personal or something they don’t want to talk about.”

        I agree with Commander Banana 100% – and this is one of the reasons that we have small talk! That’s why many conversations between people who don’t know one another well begin like:

        “Hi, how are you?”
        “I’m X, what’s your name?”
        “Do you live around here?”
        “I like your Y, where did you get it?”
        “Gosh, the weather sure is ____!”

        We should STILL be responsive to body language and other forms of “soft no” when we do small talk. Getting to have a conversation with a stranger is not a universal human right! Maybe they just don’t want to talk to you, and that’s allowed.

        But anyway, my point is that beginning an unsolicited conversation with a stranger outside of the topics that are generally considered safe and polite is already dancing on the edge of the social contract. Continuing to push that topic with a stranger after cues have been given to change the topic is way over the edge. I don’t think anybody needs to feel guilty about shutting that shit down, or making a polite lie to evade.

        It’s also worth remembering that many predatory people intentionally use social conventions to get what they want at others’ expense. So, being willing to be rude if you’re in a situation that feels unsafe to you is a really good practice.

    • AWV said:

      FWIW, Blackbird, I agree with you and am confused by a lot of this thread.

      Well, I disagree with you about lying, I guess–but I don’t really see it as lying to just imply that the tattoo is for aesthetic reasons. I have a tattoo that is visible and the full explanation of it would include something that I don’t necessarily want to talk about with strangers/acquaintances. If people ask, I just explain what the tattoo is of. Plenty of people have tattoos that don’t “mean something,” so if someone continued pressing and I didn’t want to answer that’s probably what I would say. I don’t know what the OP’s tattoo is of, but I think some version of “I just like how it looks,” “I just like this quote,” or “it’s my favorite animal” (a simple made up answer) would cover most kinds of tattoo?

      • W.T. said:

        See, it’s funny, because despite my firm stance here, my most visible tattoo is still new enough that I’d actually be pretty happy to explain what it ~meant~ if the explanation wasn’t so long! So sometimes when people ask I manage to pare it down to, “Oh, the elements all represent different reminders about the person I want to be” and am okay with that. But in a couple more years I’m sure I’ll be tired of the question, and when I am I will feel just as entitled to cheerfully respond with “Nope, none of your business bye!” as I am to answer the question right now. Because… it’s none of their business! If having this actual Fact presented to them offends them, well, I mean… their problem!

        Because, to me, “What does it mean?” isn’t a neutral question. “STRANGER, TELL ME AN EMOTIONAL STORY ABOUT YOUR LIFE” isn’t a politely neutral question to me. “STRANGER, TELL ME ABOUT YOUR PERSONAL BELIEFS” isn’t a politely neutral question to me. “STRANGER, TELL ME ABOUT THE THINGS THAT ARE IMPORTANT TO YOU PERSONALLY” isn’t a politely neutral question to me! They’re not appropriate to ask a random person at the grocery store, they aren’t appropriate to ask a random person on the street, they aren’t even appropriate to ask at a get-to-know-each-other kinda party! And again, since in my experience these are the types of answers that people who ask are EXPECTING, these are actually the questions they’re ASKING when they ask that question! They’re purposely digging for an actual stranger to reveal pretty damn intimate things about themselves and somehow tricking themselves into believing it’s not an intensely intimate question with the more neutral PHRASING of “What does it mean?” The phrasing can be as pretty and unoffensive as it likes, but at its heart the question is deeply personal, if only because the people who ask are EXPECTING it to be deeply personal. That’s why they’re asking. (This is, of course, assuming that getting an answer to the question is even really the person’s goal, as others have covered how very frequently being approached in public by strangers has to do with completely separate agendas from their actual question.)

        So yeah, in my opinion, the question is always rude at its heart. Sometimes the asking is a social faux-pas I’m willing to tolerate, because yeah, blah blah good faith whatever, but sometimes it’s NOT, and I do not at all feel bad for responding to a rude question that offends me as if it’s a rude question that offends me just because the person didn’t mean to do so.

  70. Anon Tattooed Person said:

    Story time.

    My date: What does your tattoo mean?
    Me: (Honest answer)
    Date: I know that’s not the real reason, but it’s OK, you don’t have to tell me.

    Needless to say, that was the last date we had.

  71. Commander Banana said:

    Oh man, I have All The Feels about this. I have full sleeves, a chest and back piece, and two large stomach pieces. I do NOT like comments, whether they’re complimentary or not. I would prefer that everyone ignore me. I generally wear long sleeves, but you shouldn’t feel obligated to cover yours up to avoid jackassery from other people.

    Getting a visible tattoo doesn’t mean you’re obligated to answer intrusive questions about it from strangers. Many of mine have no meaning at all; they were designed to be visually pleasing (to me) and to pull all of mine together into a cohesive sleeve. Even if the person asking isn’t being rude, some days I’m just tired, or busy, and don’t want to your personal ambassador for the Tattooed People. And frankly, it’s not anyone’s business. Because I take public transport twice a day every day, I’ve gotten really good at deflecting people who want to ask about them. Granted, some of these responses are pretty rude, but so is assuming a stranger will be delighted to tell you all about their tattoos- and I’ve had mine for over ten years, so this has gotten pretty damn old.

    I will frequently pretend not to speak English. Or I’ll pull my phone out and slowly sidle away from them while they’re mid-sentence like I’ve just been texted the nuclear codes. I’ve found “It’s a long story, and I’m sure you’re not interested” while moving away works pretty well too.

  72. mercutia said:

    You: “Isn’t it amazing? I love really bold/colorful/accurate descriptor art; always have. What do you like?” Or same thing but end on “What do you like about it?” Other Person: “I like the leopard spots/blood smears/picture of Satan faxing a paperclip order to his office supply seller.” You: “I find that what people are drawn to is so telling about them! People who like [element they chose] are very adventurous! On that note, I’m off to get a bagel/new kitchen table/chainsaw.”

    Conversely: [in hushed tones] “My dark lord and master forbids me to tell.”

    • Lefty said:

      I currently have one large piece that is only visible when I am in a bathing suit, which is not a time I’m really open to meeting new people… Generally, a quick lie of “It means strength/fortitude/integrity” and walking away has worked for me.

      If I am ok with talking to someone new at that point in time, I’ve also responded with, “Why do you ask?” The answers have run the spectrum: “I’ve always loved THAT THING too and wondered if it has any deeper meaning”= I love it too and it means ________ to me; “I’m just nosy”= you get no answer and I’m fine with telling you that; “I love the lines/color/style”= you get the name of my artist who offers a slight discount if you come in with my name & remember my tattoo; “I wanted to start a conversation with you and didn’t know what to say”= thank you, but no- my body is not a conversation starter; “I’ve always wondered why pretty girls get ugly tattoos”= I’ve always wondered why some folks have no manners, but you don’t see me asking you that, stranger who just insulted something I love. LW, I think you’ve got to find the answer/style that works for you- short and terse, flippant and sarcastic, silent and walking away…

  73. The Girl with the Multifaceted Tattoo said:

    Hey! I have a number of tattoos that range from small and easy-to-hide to huge and Starbucks-won’t-hire-me.

    My arm sleeve tattoo is perhaps my most favorite thing about my body at the moment, and I likewise get a ton of feedback. Most of it is cool (“Holy *#%% that looks awesome! Where did you get it?!”) but some of it is invasive. One of my tiny-but-visible tattoos is a memorial to my father, who committed sucked when I was 14, but I shortened that to “I got it because my dad’s really into _______,” and that usually shuts them up.

    In general, when it comes to my tattoos they tend to have two or more meanings. Like, for my sleeve, its heavily based on the Heraclitus quote “You could not step into the same river twice, because other waters are ever-flowing onto you,” and even though it has another, deeper personal meaning to me, it’s handy to have one that’s more innocuous in the event somebody gets real nosey.

    So yeah, I’m on team “just come up with the most basic exaplanation, and l tell them that.” Because then they won’t guess that there’s a more personal story, and they won’t be all up in your business.

  74. thebearpelt said:

    I decided a long time ago for nosy questions in general that a slightly sharp-sounding, “it’s personal” would be my go-to. I also decided that if folks ask again, they are ignoring very clear, very obvious social etiquette and are being incredibly rude at that point, which grants me permission to reply with something like, ” ‘personal’ means NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS.” But I’m more comfortable with that than most people.

  75. bostoncandylady said:

    Some years ago, I needed to take a few months off of work for reasons that were personal and painful to discuss. I talked with my health care provider of the time about strategies for handling intrusive questions from coworkers. But what I found often worked was NOT the script she had suggested – it was sort of letting people make up their own stories about why I’d been gone.

    When the initial question happened, I’d sort of smile and shrug. Maybe a raised eyebrow or looking away. I was surprised that then usually the person would respond with, “Oh, were you taking care of a sick relative?” “Dealing with some old business?” “Recovering from surgery?” or whatever answer apparently made sense to them. My policy was simply to agree to whatever their belief was without offering any further details. “Yes, that’s right. Now, about those lab notebooks…”

  76. Badger said:

    I have two tattoos. One is a memorial for my father, and it’s pretty obvious. It’s on my left shoulder, is badly done (by hand, with a needle and ink….it took an entire afternoon and evening). The other is the word “Wrong” on my left upper arm. It looks kind of weird, especially the letters R-O-N. The quippy answer I give when people ask about it (they don’t often ask, it’s not often visible plus I don’t go out much) is, “I used to be married to a man named Ron….” while covering the W and the G with my fingers, then uncover, “then I figured out that I had been Wrong.”
    I can say that with a smile on my face now, but it used to be a thing.
    Personally, the most I ever say to anyone with body art is, “Excuse me, I just wanted to say I really like your art. Did you have it done locally?” And then we go on our merry way.

  77. MadGastronomer said:

    I had a conversation about the reverse of this situation this weekend. A group of us, who knew each other online but were meeting face to face for the first time, were sitting about, and one person wanted to ask another about the intricate and clearly thematic tattoos on much of her body. The interested person said, “I’ve been told it’s rude to ask what someone’s tattoos mean, but I’m really interested in yours.”

    Since we weren’t all strangers, she was willing to tell us, and afterwards, I suggested that a polite thing to say would be “What a beautiful tattoo! Would you be willing to tell me a little about it?” which leaves it open for the tattooed person to tell whatever they’re comfortable with telling.

    • chocolatetort said:

      What a lovely dynamic! I have to say, as a tattooed person, I’ve been finding these comments fascinating and eye-opening. I’m not a big talk-to-strangers-in-public person, but even I might approach a fellow tattooed person and comments on an especially striking or beautiful tattoo. And I miiiiight even asked what it meant–probably not a total stranger but maybe as small talk at some manner of gathering or mingling. Now I understand how intrusive that can be. I really like the second approach in particular. It’s open to something as simple as when or where it was done or as complex as its deep personal significance.

      As someone with memorial tattoos, I buck the trend and love to talk about them. It’s other people who get awkward at hearing that they’re in memoriam, but I sincerely love talking about the people they memorialize. However, I definitely recognize that that is not true for everybody, and it would certainly not be my default assumption that anybody else wanted to talk about memorial tattoos.

      And the time, place, my personal mood and the vibe of the person asking are so, so important to how much, if anything, I’m willing to discuss. I mean, this is true for such about any personal subject, but tattoos are one of those sometimes very visible items that seems to attract people who want to get weirdly personal, weirdly fast. (This is something I’m not looking forward to about pregnancy, if/when!)

  78. Emmers said:

    Would an appropriate script for the nosy people instead go something like this?

    “That’s a beautiful tattoo! May I ask if it has a story?”

    Then, if the answer is demurral, STFU forever.

    Thoughts?

    • Anyanka said:

      I’m kind of baffled that you want a polite way to be nosy (ie impolite). Like…what?

    • W.T. said:

      I personally like that much better than “What does it mean?” because it gives that peace of mind that if you do choose to answer with “No, just thought it was pretty/striking/awesome!” (whether that’s true or not), it’ll be accepted! THOUGH, building off of Anyanka’s response above, if you’re looking for a way to ask about someone’s tattoo that isn’t going to offend ANYONE and will NEVER get a curt shut-down, that’s not going to happen– it’s a personal question, and like I’ve said above to Blackbird, when you ask something personal you have to accept that risk! However, it’s a script that would give me personally a lot more peace of mind with the person asking than the alternative.

      (Also, since you had the mind to ask, I assume this doesn’t need to be said to you necessarily, BUT since a lot of people do have issues understanding it: while I’m not going to say “never ask anyone about their tattoos,” please do try and keep environment in mind! Even your script isn’t really appropriate for like, a line in the grocery store, or seeing someone randomly on the street, imo– keep it limited to settings where a little bit of mingling and getting to know each other is expected, you know? Since it’s literally asking someone for a personal story from their life!)

  79. SubmarineBells said:

    I don’t have any tattoos, but I do have a somewhat unusual first name. I have on a number of occasions dealt with nosy questions about my name in the following fashion:

    NosyParker: Why did your mother call you SubmarineBells?
    Me: Because she was frightened by a submarine when she was pregnant.
    NP: Really?
    Me: No.

    They don’t tend to push for more info after that. But if they do, my ability to make up increasingly ludicrous reasons knows no bounds, and eventually even the most persistent will get the hint.

  80. B said:

    “Oh my goodness! I never noticed that before! How long has that been there! I need to get that checked out!” Look horrified, then shuffle away quickly.

  81. The Awe Ritual said:

    Haven’t had time to read all the comments, and have to go to work now, but maybe clue people in to how, “What does your tattoo mean,” is a personal question and not a less-boring alternate to “So, what do you do for a living?” (Not that this is not a personal question, itself, but it’s small talk.)I know, I know, it’s not your job to enclue the clueless, but I imagine that people want to know when they’re being offensive— if only so they can enjoy it next time.

    • The Awe Ritual said:

      I just mean, “That’s actually considered a rather personal question for those ‘in the know.’ I realize you didn’t mean any harm, so I won’t take offense unless you press the matter, but you should know that in the future.”

  82. onyx said:

    What’s a way to deflect people who see you’re inked, and therefore think you want to hear a detailed explanation about every single one of THEIR tattoos? I’ve gotten this from dudes without having any tattoos myself (I’m “alternative” looking, hair and dress style-wise), and I’m getting tattoos soon so it’s probably going to get worse. Is there a strategy beyond being a asshole to make them leave? Genuinely wondering since so many of the comments here redirect to talk about the asker’s tattoos/tattoo plans, and I am really not interested so baiting that conversation sounds worse than getting approached in the first place.

    • JenniferP said:

      Isn’t this what “cool story, bro” was made for? “Huh, interesting.” + Subject change.

      🙂

  83. I think the key is to be assertive and explicit: saying “it’s personal” may seem to some like an invitation to push harder – better to be more explicit and say “I’m sorry, that’s too personal and I’m not willing to talk about it.”

    Once you’ve stated clearly that you’re not willing to talk about it, if they keep pushing you can just repeat that: “I said I’m not willing to talk about it. Can we change the subject please?” (or instead of “can we change the subject” you can introduce a different subject, or as Goat Lady suggested you could throw a question at them so they might talk about themselves and forget about your tattoo.)

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