“Why do you want to know?”


‘How to deftly handle the odd impertinent query’

When I first moved to New York, there were quite a few things that took some getting used to. But the most startling thing wasn’t the garbage trucks clanking away at five AM or the fact that a “regular coffee” comes with cream and sugar — or even that panhandlers sometimes panhandle with cats on their heads. (See “The Cat is The Hat” for hilarious details.)

Wombat, who looks exactly like the cat in “The Cat is The Hat”, perched not on my head

No, the most startling thing was the way New Yorkers were so preoccupied with how much things cost. “How much rent do you pay?” “What did that Jag set you back?” (not that I had a Jag, mind you). Even (gasp) “How much money do you make?” And it hasn’t stopped. Now that I’m no longer gainfully employed I get “How much do you have in your IRA?”

Me, when I was promoted to Vice President at Ogilvy and started making “none of your beeswax” per year

Why, when you compliment a friend with a “nice skirt” or a “wow, I just love your coat” she won’t go “Oh, this old thing?” or “This? I’ve had this for years” like a Midwesterner. No, she’ll tell you how much it cost — with emphasis on how little she paid for it. “This? Oh, this I got at Loehmann’s — on the sale rack. The once-yearly clearance sale rack. Also, it was Loyalist Day. Plus I used my Aunt’s employee discount. And had it sent to my Mom’s in New Jersey so I didn’t pay sales tax.”

Feel free to compliment The Child and/or her Gal Pal. They won’t tell you how much they paid for those party outfits — because they get them from Rent the Runway

By the time she gets done it sounds like the store paid her to take the darned thing. Which actually does happen in New York sometimes. But not to me. (Though I did score some pretty choice free items from advertising shoots. Like a Gucci suit that was used in a Pantene commercial. Seriously. It fit me — brag brag — so Wardrobe let me take it home.)

But I digress.

Back in the Midwest, where — and when — I was raised, it was considered incredibly crass to discuss money in what was called “polite company”. Sex and/or religion, too. Oh, and no politics either, at least not at the dinner table. And, unless you were a census taker or an employee of the DMV, you certainly didn’t ask anyone, especially a woman, her age.

My mom and I at my first wedding. At the time, I was almost exactly half her age. Which is so not the case today

The title of this piece is the reply that my wise — and polite — mother used to give when Some Person Who Didn’t Know Any Better would ask, “Myrna, how old are you?” She would smile sweetly and reply, “Why do you want to know?” Which would usually nip that line of inquiry right in the ole bud.

Now me, I’ve reached an age that nobody ever even asks me about anymore. No, well-meaning people just assume that I’m entitled to the Senior Citizen Discount. But I still have my little payback strategies. I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned this one before, but what the heck. Nowadays, when a Nice Young Person offers me a seat on the bus or subway, I smile sweetly, look down at my tummy, and say, “Oh! Am I showing already?”

Amagansett, New York. July 2019


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8 thoughts on ““Why do you want to know?”

  1. My mum said the exact same as your mum. In fact even now she’s passed away I would not be able to tell you who she ever voted for and I only know what she made a year thanks to sorting her taxes and pension etc after she passed away x

    • I love that your mum was like mine. There seems to be so much “oversharing” these days! Some things are, well, just meant to be private. Or at least my mum, your mum, and I think so!

  2. Ruth Meisenheimer

    This is so true, Alice. Some of the most interesting people are neither wealthy nor do they have fabulous careers. And I can so hear your Mom saying “why do you want to know”? I know a man here who would take his new car on a dusty, country road so nobody would no he had a new car!

    • Oh my, Ruth! That dusty car story is just too much! But yes, I know people like that too. And yes, I too can hear my Mom saying her “why do you want to know?” She taught me a lot, my Mom. Plus, she’s hilarious!!!

  3. Unbound Roots

    My Midwestern family has always adhered to the rules you stated. You can imagine my surprise when my husband’s family talked openly about money, sex, etc. I have since talked my husband into being more discreet about personal matters. Luckily his family has followed suit. Much less uncomfortable ?

    • Yes, it’s quite shocking, isn’t it, to have someone ask you about your sex life right after asking you to pass the potatoes! So glad your husband’s family has toned it down a bit. I think The Dude’s clan is irredeemable.

  4. Ha! I love that last line. Fantastic. Well, since we don’t talk politics, religion, age, or money, we can talk about the weather. And luckily for Midwesterners, there’s always plenty of weather going on. Here in the D.C. area, everyone’s nosy about your job–which is boring because almost everyone’s a lawyer. I do think it’s regional, what people will ask after an introduction. Farther south, first question is: what church do you go to? That would never fly here. Fun post!

    • Hey thanks, Becca! So glad you got a kick out of this one, last line included. There’s a whole post in writing about what people ask after an introduction. For years, for me anyway, it was “What do you do?” Now that I don’t even LOOK employable to most people, I get “Where do you go on weekends?” and sometimes “Do you play bridge/golf/tennis?” At least either of those is a hell (word chosen intentionally) of a lot better than “What church do you go to?”!!!!!

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