How to Answer Tricky Personal Questions at a New Job

Navigating the gauntlet of questions from the new people in your life.

Starting a new job can make us feel like the new kid on the first day of school: nervous, yet eager to fit in and make a good first impression.

The social component is an important part of any job. Research shows that building camaraderie with co-workers and chit-chatting with supervisors can promote harmony and good health. And the first 90 days are crucial: A 2013 study found that new employees are more likely to receive support during this period.

“Social support has been widely demonstrated as one of the greatest drivers of happiness and success,” said Michael Woodward, a workplace psychologist who is known as Dr. Woody.“The stronger the support system you have around you, the more likely you are to feel comfortable, confident and able to succeed.”

Getting there, however, often means navigating a gauntlet of questions from all of these new people in your life. These are likely to range from the moderately professional to the intimately personal, including queries about your age, relationship status, employment history and social habits.

Since research suggests that first impressions last for months, how you respond, even to seemingly innocuous icebreakers, can have an impact on how your colleagues perceive you.

Instead of stumbling over your words, here’s how to answer these tricky questions with confidence.

‘How do you feel about so-and-so?’

Gossip at work is common, Dr. Woodward said, as is the desire to be a part of a group. In a new work environment, this combination can be harmful if you fall in with colleagues who are known for being negative and wasting productive time.

While complaining with co-workers can turn some of these colleagues into friends, Jill Jacinto, a millennial career expert, said it’s best to avoid gossip altogether.

“If someone asks, ‘What do you think of Mark? Have you worked with him yet?’ just focus on the professional,” she said. “‘He’s great to work with. He seems to know technology really well.’”

While your response should be professional, you should be honest, too, said Maggie Mistal, a career and executive coach.

“If you sugarcoat too much or evade, people are going to read that, too,” she said. “You want to err on the side of kindness or giving another person the benefit of the doubt.”

Instead of voicing frustrations with a colleague, Ms. Mistal suggests reframing the critique. For example, you might say, “I think she’s a professional and doing the job the way she thinks it needs to be done.” It’s an authentic, balanced approach, without being catty.

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‘Do you want to join us for happy hour?’

Chatting over lunch or at a post-work happy hour is a great way to get to know your colleagues and learn about the office ecosystem.

“Those invitations will inevitably dry up,” Ms. Jacinto said. “Even though you’re exhausted after your first week, you want to make sure you do go to those types of things and get to know your co-workers.”

Keep the conversation light, Ms. Jacinto said; pop culture, weekend plans and the best lunch spots are safe topics. However, feel free to inquire about your new colleagues’ roles, duties and history with the company, so long as you let your peers do most of the talking.

If you don’t drink alcohol, experts suggest considering making an effort to attend anyway, if that is something you feel comfortable with. Use it as an opportunity to let your new co-workers know that you’d rather get to know them over coffee instead of cocktails next time — if you’re comfortable disclosing such information, Ms. Jacinto said.

‘Are you seeing anyone?’

Questions about relationship status can be tricky to decipher because you don’t know the asker’s intention, Ms. Mistal said.

Get to the root of the inquiry by asking another question in response, she said. This could be a lighthearted quip, such as, “Why, do you know anybody?” or, “Are you?”

“You haven’t revealed anything about yourself, and you put it back on them,” she said. “But you understand the ‘why’ before you answer.”

This line of questioning can quickly lead to even more personal territory: Are you planning on getting married? Having children? Why or why not? Even if you feel like your lifestyle is being criticized, it’s best not to get defensive and to answer politely, said Sherry Sims the founder of the Black Career Women’s Network, which supports the career development of African-American women.

“We have to remember, when we want to work in environments that are diverse or we want to be inclusive, that means you’re honoring the differences and respecting that,” she said.

While you don’t need to defend your choices, by simply saying that you prefer not to talk about personal issues in the workplace you will effectively convey the message to your new colleagues not to broach this topic again, Ms. Sims said. If you’re comfortable, you can offer a compliment like, “I see you’re a parent and I’m sure that’s an amazing experience for you.”

‘When did you graduate?’

Asking when someone graduated from college a subtle way of sussing out her experience — and age. While it is illegal for an interviewer to ask a candidate how old she is, some colleagues — especially younger workers, Ms. Sims said — might forget their manners and ask outright.

If this happens to you, you can play it to your advantage. Finding a subtle way to put a timestamp on aspects of your career is an effective way of hinting at your experience without showing your hand, said Amy Cooper Hakim, an industrial-organizational psychology practitioner and workplace expert.

Dr. Hakim said she has done this herself when others have made comments signifying an underestimation of her experience.

“I’m in my 40s and people think I’m a lot younger,” she said. If you find your expertise questioned, she finds adding career-related context to be effective, saying, “When I was in a corporate office 15 years ago ….”

She added: “It seems adds a little bit of credibility.”

Of course, letting your actions, accomplishments and work ethic speak for themselves does more to build credibility than words alone, Dr. Hakim said.

‘Are you on social media?’

Social media platforms have permeated into the workplace and have become essential networking and career-development toolsfor many professions. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey, many employees leverage their online connections for work purposes: 24 percent of workers use social platforms to make professional connections, 17 percent use social media to strengthen their personal relationships with co-workers and an additional 17 percent turn to social media to learn about the people they work with.

However, some of the personal updates you share with your close friends on Facebook may not be office-appropriate. For this reason, Dr. Woodward suggests you politely suggest colleagues connect with you instead on LinkedIn, a platform designed for professional connections.

If you work in a creative industry, where Instagram handles are exchanged in lieu of phone numbers, it may be difficult to skirt friend requests from colleagues, Ms. Jacinto said. Make sure your feeds are management-friendly, because you never know when your Twitter followers could come in handy later in your career.

“By virtue of them seeing you in this softer, more personal light and getting to know your interests or the other work that they don’t know about,” she said, “this gives you a slightly different channel for them to get to know you and perhaps recommend you to a colleague.”

At the end of the day, think about your career big-picture, Ms. Sims said, and professional connections are essential.

“The best thing you can do is be who you are and let your talent show,” she said. “It’s so tricky when it comes to relationships in the workplace, but you have to make sure you’re building them.”

All Rights Reserved for Allie Volpe

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