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“How old are you?” (Just don’t ask this question!)
“How old are you?” (Just don’t ask this question!)

By Dana Gornitzki

While it’s nice to live by Mark Twain’s philosophy that “age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter,” it seems that age is one of the delicate issues in most people’s personal lives (up there with salary and weight).

Asking someone how old he or she is could potentially be a recipe for a social graces disaster. In fact it may be old fashioned to say this, but this may be one of the more vulgar questions one can ask - especially right when meeting someone. Although it’s a sensitive matter for most people, society seems to be especially punishing to gentlewomen.

“It’s pointless to pretend that we’re not as conscious as we are [about age],” says modern manners expert Christopher Middleton. “There’s an unspoken ageism everywhere in daily life.”

Most people don’t like to reveal their age, and it’s no surprise with our youth-obsessed society constantly flogging cosmetic remedies and celebrity secrets that “keep them looking so young!” (Note: a Google search returned over 60 million results for the phrase: “stay looking young”. Oh, yes).

Of course, children are quite proud to show off about their most recent birthday and sneaky teenagers love to tell a little fib about how old they are, too, to try and get hold of a little moonshine when they know they shouldn’t (tsk tsk, but we’ve all been there).

However, in today’s electronic era, the mystery of age is not such a difficult riddle to decode. It doesn’t take much homework beyond clicking a new acquaintance’s or colleague’s name in a social network to find out. Without even seeing the birth year, one can easily figure out a workable range by seeing when someone went to school or university. (This is especially true for celebrities whose ages are exposed on major sites like IMDB or Wikipedia).

Why does society seem to be so obsessed with age?

Christopher Middleton, modern manners expert, continues: “It is important because it defines you, and says an awful lot about you by providing reference points. It provides a prism in which people can judge you.”

Even in an age when scientific research says that “40 is the new 30” it’s best to steer away from asking “how old are you?” until you get to know the person better.

If one must find out, a more delicate way of finding out is:

  • Ask a few leading questions like when he or she went to school or university
  • Once a few little hints are revealed, flattery goes a very long way (ie; always rounding down a couple of years when guessing will always earn a few bonus points.”

“You need to ‘pay’ for access to this type of disclosure,” says Christopher Middleton. “Not with money, but asking something like ‘how old do you think?’ or ‘I’ll tell you if you tell me’.”

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