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???
– 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.