Q: Is it OK to ask a woman if she's going through menopause? --
A: In a word, no. In two words, heavens, no. Of course, there are exceptions: If you’re talking to a loved one with concern about her health, then you might have a good reason to ask. But even then you should tread lightly, because for many women this is a rather (or very) sensitive topic. I think before you ask any woman a very personal question such as this, you should first ask yourself, “Why do I need to know?” Let your answer to that question guide you.
Q: If a woman volunteers to you that she's going through menopause, what would be the correct response from a man? -- Jeff, San Francisco
A: It’s very hard to imagine this announcement coming out of the blue -- you’re just sitting there, talking about tennis or politics, when suddenly Bernadette announces, “I’ve got the menopause!” So let’s put the information in context: Is a colleague volunteering the information because she’s feeling uncomfortably warm? Then offer to open a window or turn on the air conditioning. Is an acquaintance mentioning it in passing while you’re discussing another matter? Then you needn’t do or say anything. Is a dear friend opening up to you about her health concerns? Then ask if there is anything you can do to help. Is your darling wife having a frank discussion with you about her health? Then tell her how very much you love her and that you will get through this experience together.
In general, I think most men will want to avoid expressing dismay (that is, don’t say anything along the lines of “I’m so sorry to hear that”) or making light of the subject. Certainly a man should refrain from offering advice! But there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. In matters of manners, context is everything. So to answer your question: The correct response for a man is to listen.
Q: I'm going through menopause and I want to talk about it -- I find that doing so helps me cope. Is this socially appropriate, or should I keep this information to myself? -- Jill, Philadelphia
A: Here’s the etiquette concept that may guide you: Your health is your business. This gives you freedom -- and with freedom come responsibilities.
You are free to discuss your health situation -- especially as doing so helps you cope. But in matters of good manners, we are all responsible for other people’s feelings and comfort. That means being aware of context and, as mentioned in the preceding answer, not “dropping a medical bomb” into a conversation about tennis. (Being aware of context also means avoiding graphically medical discussions at the dinner table, and so on. But we know that already, right?)
Also consider putting your conversational partners at ease by letting them know how you want the matter discussed: Is this something you feel comfortable making jokes about? Then make a little joke. Is this something that you want to discuss in a serious way? Then begin your conversation by explaining that you want to have a serious discussion.
Also, one has a responsibility to not be a bore. My health is of great interest to me and my loved ones (some of them, anyway). But I should expect my colleagues, new acquaintances, and the checkout person at the grocery store to have a rather more limited interest. I would do well to keep that in mind when choosing conversational topics.
Q: I'm 37 years old. At work this week, I was sweating like crazy. A younger female co-worker asked me if I was going through menopause, and frankly, I was sort of offended. I just laughed and said "no." If someone asks me again in the future, is there a way I should reply? -- Susan, Boise
A: There’s nothing shameful about going through menopause. It’s a normal part of growing older (which we can all agree is preferable to the alternative). But something doesn’t have to be shameful for it to be personal -- and I think that’s where matters of health often lie: not shameful, just personal.
So what do we do when someone asks us an inappropriately personal question? Well, we have choices. We can do as you did and laugh it off. Or we can ignore the question (responding with something like “Oh, my, would you look at the time? I must be off”).
Or we can offer some polite correction. You might have responded by saying, “Now why would you ask someone a question like that?” A gentler version is something like “Very funny. Can you believe there are people who actually ask personal questions like that? Good thing I understand your sense of humor.” And a more severe version is a level stare, followed by a chilly change of subject.
Charles Purdy is the author of the book Urban Etiquette.
If you have a health or medical-related etiquette question about any condition or illness, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll try to answer it on our website. Please put “Etiquette Question” in the subject line of your email, and try to be as specific as possible with your question. Please also include your first name and your city.