ESSAY- How rude! Comebacks for any occasion

We've all been asked questions we'd rather not answer; questions that are, in fact, so insensitive or inappropriate as to make you wonder just what goes through some people's heads. Next time, instead of just sputtering with astonishment (and then coming up with the perfect zinger two days later), here's help on dealing with these Jerry Springer-like intrusions. (Keep in mind that your responses all depend on who is doing the asking – "How old were you when you lost your virginity?" may be perfectly valid coming from your gynecologist and it may spark a fun gabfest among your best pals, but coming from your boss, it's cause for a lawsuit.)

Prying question: "When are you two going to get married already?"

Why they ask: "People ask these questions because we are fundamentally social creatures and need information from other people in order to make sense of our own lives. We really want to know what other people do so we know what is ‘typical' or ‘normal'," says Susan Clayton, Ph.D., professor of psychology, The College of Wooster, Ohio.

Your comeback: Keep it light and vague to avoid a nasty exchange, and steer the conversation to another topic: "Aren't weddings fun? Hey, do you think Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn will get married or is their relationship just a publicity stunt?"

Prying question: "How much do you make?"

Why they ask: "Many people use money, children, careers and such to measure themselves. They are asking to figure out where they fit in the equation of life," says Dr. Clayton.

Your comeback: You are under no obligation to reveal all, even if it's your mother asking. Keep it short, keep it simple, add a touch of humor and leave no opening for further questions. "Not enough" or "Well, as far as the IRS knows, I've never made more than $100 but let's keep that between us." If they keep pursuing it, a blank stare followed by a complete change of subject should do the trick.

Prying question: "Do you know who your (adopted) daughter's real parents are?"

Why they ask: "Too few people in this world have a working edit function on their brains. They just blurt things out without stopping to think of the result," says Leah Ingram, author of The Everything Etiquette Book. Or they just may be truly ignorant as to why these questions are inappropriate.

Your comeback: Use the opportunity to gently enlighten them: "We are her real parents, but if you are asking about her biological parents, that is her story to tell when she gets older."

Prying question: "Are you still breastfeeding that child? How old is she?"

Why they ask: Maybe they think they are trying to be helpful. Nahhhhh, they are trying to tell you what to do and are phrasing it as a question in order to make it sound more polite. "We have a tendency to want other people to have the same practices we do. So if I do something it must be the right thing to do, and one way I know it's the right thing is if other people do it as well," says Dr. Clayton.

Your comeback: Make pointed exaggerations, "Sometimes humor is the best way to diffuse an awkward situation and to politely point out someone else's rude behavior," says Ingram. Say something like, "I thought I'd stop when she starts asking for martinis instead." If they don't back off – and these types rarely do – just say firmly, "Thanks for your concern. In the future, I will call when I need your opinion."

Prying question: "So, are you still working as an assistant at the old place?"

Why they ask: Because they want to feel superior to you and maybe feel better about their own lives and decisions. (If they feel low, they'll feel better knowing that you are lower.)

Your comeback: "Plaster a smile on your face, and make your life look great. It will really make them mad!" says Dr. Clayton. Watch them squirm when you report, "Yes, this suits me perfectly. I can take time off to see my kids' plays or go on vacation, and I get home in time to actually enjoy a meal. Are you still putting in those crazy hours? I don't know how you can stand it."

Prying question: "So when are you due?" (When you are not pregnant, merely fat.)

Why they ask: It's an innocent mistake.

Your comeback: Don't make them feel worse than they already do – let them off the hook, even if they've crushed your feelings. "I'm not pregnant, but I guess this blouse does drape strangely." You'll earn brownie points for when you inevitably make a similar gaffe. You can never go wrong trying to spread a little good karma in the world.

Beth Levine is a writer whose essays have appeared in Redbook, Woman's Day, Family Circle, the Chicago Tribune, USA Weekend and Newsday.