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Scarred By Too Many Impertinent Questions

I’m not entirely sure if this is even a faux pas, but I really need some advice on how to handle this. First, a little background: When I was a child, I had a necessary surgery done on my face that left a rather large and noticeable scar. I’ve lived with it for almost my entire life, so I and the rest of my family are used to it, and, consequently, I didn’t realize how noticeable it actually is until I took a job in customer service. Random people comment on it all the time now. They range from the clueless: “You know, I support and donate money to X charity. They specialize in helping people with X condition.”  He meant well, but I did not have the condition he specified, though my scar does look similar to one that someone with X condition would have, so I can see how he could make that mistake.   To the somewhat rude: “I know a plastic surgeon that could fix that for you. Here is his business card.” (Believe me lady, if I could fix it, I would’ve already.) Most people, however, just want to know how I got it. It’s really embarrassing. I don’t feel like I should have to divulge my life story to them, but I don’t know how to politely avoid answering such questions. Please help me! I know it’s impossible to keep people from commenting on something I’d rather forget, but I would really like to go a day without explaining myself to random strangers. 0809-13

My husband has a rather obvious surgery scar in the middle of his chest from a childhood operation.    It looks like his heart was cut out of his chest and then sewn back together with crude stitches.   When random strangers at the pool or beach ask him what happened to cause that epic scar, he  responds, “Shark attack”.   It is obviously not a shark bite so what he has done is somewhat humorously and gently sent the message that it’s really none of their business how that scar got there.  There can be a kind, even gentle way of rebuffing people who ask impertinent questions.  People obtuse enough to not catch the subtle hint and continue asking are met with silence.


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  • Lesley November 4, 2013, 5:54 pm

    I have psoriasis, which at times can be very unsightly. I was at the beach once, and an old man asked me loudly what was wrong with my skin. I replied “leprosy! And it’s contagious!”

    • Robin January 24, 2014, 9:39 am

      Lesley, you are my hero. Nicely done!

  • internetmama November 4, 2013, 6:04 pm

    I know the OP can’t do this since she is in a customer service position but sometimes I feel you just have to hit people over the head with the truth (if you feel comfortable doing that of course). My first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage and my husband and I were devastated. A few days later I was at the grocery store when an older man noticed my sad expression, smiled at me and said in what he probably thought was a friendly, grandfatherly way “Now honey, don’t look so sad, things can’t be that bad.” I just looked at him and said “I miscarried my baby four days ago. I’ll be sad if I want to be.” He sputtered for a minute and then took off down the aisle.

  • Pamela November 4, 2013, 6:23 pm

    These days, if you want to be trendy you could also say, “Sharknado. Forgot my umbrella.”

  • Angela November 4, 2013, 6:49 pm

    “Shark attack” is great. I’d be tempted to say “I got it in prison” but this may not work well in your field.
    MichelleP, I have a kid with Down syndrome and no one asks questions about him…times have changed, I guess.

  • NV November 4, 2013, 7:31 pm

    “My face is none of your business. Please refrain from asking.”

  • Nicole November 4, 2013, 7:31 pm

    Thanks to a moment of teenage stupidity, my brother has several large and nasty looking scars on his arm. He prefers not to explain how he actually got the scars, so his favourite story is “I saved a kitten from a run-away tractor.”

  • Cat November 4, 2013, 7:48 pm

    Count me in with the witty reply folks. May I add these? “I am an alien from Outer Space and this is our version of a zipper so I can climb in and out of this skin.” Or borrow from Igor in “Young Frankenstein” but change it to, “What scar?” or “I used to ask personal questions of total strangers and one of them got really upset at me.”
    People sometimes say things without thinking. I have caught myself in mid-sentence and had to finish with, “I am sorry; I was about to stick my nose right into your business. Please allow me to remove it now.”

  • Library Dragon November 4, 2013, 9:00 pm

    CWM beat me to “Butterfly attack.” I agree, make it over the top silly. A blank look, “Scar, what scar?”
    While it doesn’t come out and say, “How rude of you to ask,” but it is a clear statement that you’re not going to discuss it.

  • Drjuliebug November 4, 2013, 9:10 pm

    One of my favorite actors has a limb with an anomalous appearance. It’s not obvious if not pointed out, he doesn’t share details of his medical history with the public, and it hasn’t stopped him from playing action or romantic leads. But, there was a time when many of his fans started to ask about it on his Facebook page. He invariably deflects impertinent questions with the “shark attack” story and moves on. Glad to see it’s been a helpful tactic for so many people!

  • NostalgicGal November 5, 2013, 12:48 am

    I have an assortment of scars but one very noticeable one is my right first finger is sort of bent and twisted. It works fine, other than the other major injury to it that left it partly nerve damaged (you can’t see that scar unless I show it to you). I do not have a memory of how it got twisted other than it happened the summer I was four… I have gotten asked… I will look at it, holding it up and straight, bend it showing it works fine, then shrug. If pressed I say the truth, I have no memory of what happened-and I consider that a blessing. That has always shut them up. (Mom has told me it was the time the screen door snapped me off the porch-the wind slung the door and it caught me and my trike and sent us over the side onto concrete. I also have half an eyebrow from it, part of one is rather not there anymore)

  • Kate November 5, 2013, 12:48 am

    I have noticeable scars on my right arm and really large ones on my left that look exactly like what they are (scars from a suicide attempt). I get stares, but not usually comments – I think people are scared to ask if I tried to kill myself in case I turn around and try it again, or something.
    If anyone does ask, I say “childhood accident” and change the subject.

  • K November 5, 2013, 1:58 am

    I love all these witty replies! Twice, when I was younger, I accidentally blurted out a rude question about strangers’ physical attributes (a facial scar once and unusual pigmentation another time) and, the second I asked, absolutely cringed before the comment had finished clanging out of my mouth. Both victims of my foot-in-mouth were terse but tactful. I think even a mild, jokey reprimand will make people realize how rude they’ve been! (I know my lapses were a decade ago and I still nearly blush to remember them.)

  • Lex November 5, 2013, 4:26 am

    I’d go with ‘What scar?’ and perfect a bemused expression. People that are prying will not want to have to clarify themselves. This takes the onus off you to come up with an explanation and deflects all questions or conversation on the topic.

    If they persist and say ‘the one on your face’ just respond with ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know what you mean. Here’s your change, do you need a bag?’ (or whatever is appropriate to your job role). It’s not rude, it’s not flippant and it’s not combative.

  • Niamh84 November 5, 2013, 6:37 am


    I love your answer. It can be used in a lot more than just this situation. “I will forgive you for asking such a personal question if you’ll forgive me for not answering” – I’ll remember that one.

  • Lisatoo November 5, 2013, 8:30 am

    The other side:

    While I agree that commenting on scars, Down syndrome, etcetera is very rude, I think it’s a bit strange that a friendly ‘Are you allright?’ to someone with a limp is considered rude or nosey.
    If I’d run in to a casual aquintance with a noticable limp, cast on their arm, anything, I DO ask ‘what happened?’, not to be rude, but just to express sympathy and perhaps offer my help.
    There could very well be a friendly intent behind this.

    Again, I agree scars, pigmentations etc. comments are just rude.

  • Green123 November 5, 2013, 9:03 am

    There are some AMAZING witty comebacks in these comments. Nicole’s brother’s tale of saving a kitten from a runaway tractor is superb! I think I’ll add that to the list of ‘adventures’ next time I need to explain my limp!

  • internetmama November 5, 2013, 9:12 am

    @ Lisatoo

    I think there’s a world of difference between asking an acquaintance if they are all right and expressing concern when you notice that something has happened and asking a complete stranger what is wrong with them. The first instance is because you are generally interested in their well being. The latter is because you’re just nosy and rude.

  • Cady November 5, 2013, 9:46 am

    This is why a year of work in customer service should be compulsory. I worked for a year in customer service, and was treated as sub-human probably 40 percent of the time. And I see others treating customer service workers as sub-human all the time. I think that if everyone were forced to experience life on the other side of the counter, fewer people would be this impertinent.

  • Marian Perera November 5, 2013, 9:47 am

    I’m writing a novel where the heroine has a third-degree burn on her face, and throughout the story, a few people are going to ask how she got such a disfiguring scar. Thank you, everyone, for providing me with plenty of material for her replies!

  • AthenaC November 5, 2013, 10:04 am

    I, too, like the “I’ll forgive you for asking such a personal question if you forgive me for not answering” reply, delivered with a wink and a smile. Swiftly, effectively diffuse the situation.

    I have a birthmark on my face which, to be perfectly honest, I don’t even notice anymore. I mean, it’s been there for 31 years and it’s not going anywhere! I occasionally get asked “what happened” to me. When that happens, I respond with genuine confusion because, like I said, I don’t even notice my birthmark anymore. Then they have to elaborate with “your face” or something like that. “Oh!” I say, suddenly realizing what they are referring to. “It’s just a birthmark; I don’t even notice it anymore.” The more persistent folk will say, “It looks like someone hit you.” Uh … thanks? I don’t know what someone could have hit me with to leave a small, reddish mark about the size and shape of a penny, but whatever. Lol.

  • Lola November 5, 2013, 11:53 am

    Listen, the OP is in customer service, so she can’t go snark-happy like some here suggest. Mildly humorous like Admin’s husband is OK, but some customers might take umbrage even to that. I’d suggest, as painful as it is, go the politely aloof angle and respond with something like, “That’s a long story. [Followed by immediate change of subject.]”

  • MichelleP November 5, 2013, 1:26 pm

    @Angela, bless you and your child with Down syndrome. I’m glad you don’t get cruel comments. Unfortunately this was up until fairly recently; my stepbrother died just a few years ago and he and my stepmom heard it up until the day he died. Not as much in later years however. Some were well-meaning, others weren’t.

    When I was with them recently, when some kids were staring, (I didn’t have a problem with that but did have a problem with the parents not telling them to quit), I used my favorite line from my favorite movie, Mask, “What’s the matter? You’ve never seen anyone from the planet Vulcan before?? Beep beep!” (Best movie ever, starring Cher and Eric Stoltz).

  • ketchup November 5, 2013, 2:47 pm

    I was born with a large birthmark on my neck and shoulder, and also on my hip. My parents had decided to have it removed, and the one on my hip was no problem, but the one my shoulder turned out to be a bit of a challenge, and one botched surgery later, I was left with scars, infected skin and also some remaining pigmentation. It took 10 times to get it all out, a few times with total anesthesia, but in the end it did look a lot better. There was still some pigment left, and there were scars, and that made a lot of children ask and tease…
    Years later, it had faded and no one asked me about it, and the fact that I wore my long hair over it, helped a lot. And now, after a pregnancy, it’s darkened again (apparently, pigment darkens when you’re pregnant.) Some people have commented on it, and the one that stands out most, was when someone asked me if I hadn’t washed enough, whether I was dirty. Others assume it’s burns or something.
    Kids can be the worst. Without a doubt. Not all of them, but some.

  • ImpossibleGirl November 5, 2013, 5:55 pm

    Heh. If someone gives you a business card for a plastic surgeon, you could reply “Thank you! He did a wonderful job on your face!” But I’m evil like that…

  • Stepmomster November 5, 2013, 7:47 pm

    My daughter has a large scar up her back, and people ask her about it… my favorite comeback quip from her was when she was 12. We were at a family reunion and her second cousin, who didn’t know us very well, kept pestering her about it. She finally told her, in a hushed voice and wide eyes “Don’t let my mom count all the way to three!”

    The horrified gasp of her cousin made all of the adults listening in burst out in laughter. The cousin suddenly realized she was being a pest and laughed too. The incident has made it one of the family’s favorite stories.

  • Tanya November 6, 2013, 2:30 am

    @ Kristen: Exactly this. I can’t get behind the ‘funny’ responses as that is not my style. The great thing is, you can polish off the conversation with an “Oh.” to whatever they answer. Perfect.

  • Cherry91 November 6, 2013, 8:52 am

    @DanaJ, your story reminded me of a tale a friend told me.

    This was while I was still doing martial arts 2-3 times a week. Fantastic lessons, but you often ended up bruised because we would do exercises like how to get away if someone grabbed your arm or pinned you down.

    A fellow member of my class accidentally received some brusing to her face and neck while we were working on a move that imvolves someone having you in a headlock.

    She came to the next session slightly annoyed. Apparently someone had seen fit to drop some domestic abuse leaflets on her desk, without even asking her what happened!

  • Annie November 6, 2013, 9:23 am

    My favorite response to questions like that is, “People actually ask me stuff like that! Can you believe it? You obviously have better manners than that.” It confuses people and shuts them up, by implying that that their rudeness was just a joke. And if they have any sense at all, it shames them when they think about it later.

    • MoK March 3, 2014, 2:45 am

      That is brilliant, Annie. My favorite response by far. It’s witty and classy and puts them in their place while not being insulting. I hope to remember that when people ask me about things I’d rather not talk about. Love it! Thank you!

  • BB-VA November 6, 2013, 2:06 pm

    @Cady – yes yes YES!! I do not believe in a military draft but I do believe that time spent in customer service should be mandatory. IMO, the world would be a much politer place!!

    To the OP – what does your manager say about replies? Is s/he ok with a response to the questioner?

  • Snowy November 6, 2013, 2:28 pm

    “What? Oh, this, cut myself shaving.”

  • helen-louise November 6, 2013, 2:42 pm

    I agree with Sam@41 – if you are a young person using a walking stick, people feel the need to ask all sorts of questions that are none of their business. Even worse when the question is phrased as “What have you done to yourself?”. It’s impossible to answer when you haven’t *done* anything to yourself.

    You might be pleased to hear that the questions go away when you start using a wheelchair instead. People are trying so hard not to look at the wheelchair that they don’t *dare* ask anything rude! This goes double for large, heavy electric wheelchairs that could hurt if you ran over their foot…

    My favourite answer for “What’s wrong with you?” is still that of the friend who answers “I was bitten by a sphinx for asking impertinent questions.”

  • Sam November 6, 2013, 5:46 pm

    Helen-Louise@81….I love it! Mind if I steal it for my “list of comebacks”? Even worse are the ones who yell at you for stealing your grandfather’s cane and using handicap parking. I got fat after I got sick because I couldn’t work out. People see me park and tell me being a fat *** isn’t a handicap. I apologized for taking their spot, because while being fat isn’t a handicap, being a jerk certainly is. (Note: once again, probably not e-hell approved!)

  • CJ November 7, 2013, 10:29 am

    Just want to chime in with one of my favorites that I can’t use anymore. Thanks to treatment for a very rare skin disorder, I have scars on my legs that people often mistake for burn scars (don’t know why, they don’t look like burn scars). I used to tell people that I had worked in a nuclear power plant and there was “a minor radiation leak”. But then I moved to an area that actually had a nuclear power plant and used that line without thinking … and got a flurry of horrified questions about the local nuclear power plant!

  • ladycrim December 16, 2013, 7:48 pm

    My ex-boyfriend had abdominal surgery that left quite a large scar. His responses to the “How did you get that?” question ranged from “Ninjas” to “The student loan people mean business” to “C-section”. (And yes, the person he told that last one to believed him for a minute!) So I’m with Miss Jeanne. Come up with goofy answers and have fun with it. 🙂

  • MoK March 3, 2014, 2:41 am

    My friend has a pretty crudely stitched scar on her shoulder and neck from a botched operation. When asked where she got it, she responds very confidently with the air she can’t say anymore, “Got shot in Detroit.” Pretty much ends the questions.