I recently attended an online seminar related to building scientific writing and research skills. The TA started by saying he wanted us to introduce ourselves and asked each of us to tell everyone where they were born, currently live and what they do in their free time.

Is it valid for me to having felt uncomfortable with sharing personal information? I fail to see how this information was relevant for completing the seminar. From my point of view, it may introduce bias, if the TA dislikes some of the things he hears from an attendee.

Moreover, not everyone may have a socially acceptable answer to the question what they do in their free time. This leads to an uncomfortable situation where you either lie, not answer at all or say the way things are and face the consequences.

For clarity, one could, as an extreme example, imagine someone suffering from severe depression/crisis and university related work being the only thing they do. Or someone has unconventional interests. Being asked this question puts them in an uncomfortable postion.

I wanted to confront the TA with my concerns and not answer the questions, but I feared that it may have impacted the grading of my performance, so I didn't. I feel it's unethical to, even indirectly, "force" students answer questions that may put them in an uncomfortable position by using your position of power. Am I missing something or is it valid to feel this way? How could I go about dealing with similar situations in the future?

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    What country? (Yes this matters!) Oct 16, 2022 at 17:15
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    I'm grateful for this question because it makes me more aware that some perceive these kinds of questions as problematic. Oct 17, 2022 at 8:26
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    One thing that gets too little attention is, in my opinion, the topic of the seminar "... related to building scientific writing ... skills". The TA doesn't really want to know about you, they'll have forgotten your place of birth and hobbies by next week. What they do want to know, because it relates to the topic of the seminar, is how well and concisely you're able to describe a topic when you don't struggle with facts. Oct 17, 2022 at 17:39
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    One thing of note which is both unrelated and crucial here: You're asking "Is it valid to feel uncomfortable with...", and the answer is "Yes, it is valid because all feelings are valid". This does not mean, however, that asking the question was inappropriate on the TA's part (and I would agree with the answers saying that you're within your rights to politely refuse to answer, but there's nothing wrong with asking). To be able to deal with these situations better in the future, it could be worth exploring where your anguish at the question is coming from. Oct 18, 2022 at 13:38

11 Answers 11


I am answering this on the basis of what it would be like in Canada. It may be very different in other cultures.

I fairly strongly disagree with many of the answers, and very strongly with many of the comments.

The situation here is supposed to be professional. It is supposed to be an instructional session in a professional activity. It is not a social occasion.

It is offensive to suggest that “you are going to face a long hard road in all avenues of your life” because you don’t want to spill out your life story at a seminar. This is essentially social blackmail, i.e.: Do what we are all doing or you are a pariah.

Turn it around. If you can’t handle being told that invasive questions are invasive, then your road is going to lead to some mighty dark places.

The personal questions that would be acceptable would be things like name, academic level, school or institution, and such. If the TA had asked something like “what do you hope to get from this seminar?”, that would be very different.

But “where were you born?” is not acceptable. I have worked with people for twenty years, gone to their weddings, and I don't know where they were born. And "what do you do in your free time?” is just plain invasive.

I agree with the OP that these questions were out of bounds.

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    Moderator’s notice: I edited the answer to tone down accusations of other users and removed some bizarre and unclear statements that are causing nothing but controversy and do not appear to be substantial to the answer. (@BillOnne: If you want to keep these statements because you think they are essential to your answer, you need to clarify them.) […]
    – Wrzlprmft
    Oct 20, 2022 at 9:52
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    Moderator’s notice, part 2: I also cleared all the comments as they are either obsolete or discussion. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment. In particular, if you have a differing opinion that can be as well posted as an answer to the question, post it as an answer (or upvote a matching existing answer). Take the discussion to chat.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Oct 20, 2022 at 9:52

and asked each of us to tell everyone where they were born, currently live and what they do in their free time.

These are routine questions that you should be(come) comfortable answering. No, it is not unethical to ask students to answer questions like this. Classes do not happen in a vacuum; even in a math class, it is fair to expect students to have basic skills in other areas, including basic social skills.

I fail to see how this information was relevant for completing the seminar. From my point of view, it may introduce bias, if the TA dislikes some of the things he hears from an attendee.

The TA was probably trying to create some rapport with the students. Having a go-to fact about each student might help the TA to remember names. And having the students speak aloud might help wake them up, especially in an early-morning class.

In a larger sense, I would try to worry less about the TA's opinion and bias -- the TA is just a student a few years older than you, what do you care what they think? It seems pretty unlikely to me that the TA would hate your answer so much that it would affect their grading. On the contrary, to the extent that the TA cares at all about your answer, it is probably that they are hoping for enthusiastic, genuine responses.

How could I go about dealing with similar situations in the future?

Have stock responses. For "what do you do in your free time," a good quick answer is "what free time?" But it's a good idea to think of something genuine you are comfortable sharing. For example, if you like dogs, a fair answer is: "I like to play with dogs." It doesn't matter at all if you don't actually spend much of your free time playing with dogs -- the point of the question is not to audit your timecard. Rather, the point is to state something that you enjoy doing, so that others can feel like they know something abut you.

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    Some TAs might even have been advised to do such things (TA training) to build rapport. Especially if they will meet the same group pf students throughout the term.
    – Buffy
    Oct 16, 2022 at 19:34
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    There are things people will never be comfortable doing, and they owe nobody an excuse. The reasons don't need to be rational, and nobody has any business asking about them. "Learn to get over this" isn't always possible. "I feel very uncomfortable answering personal questions" is a perfectly acceptable approach that should go unchallenged. Oct 17, 2022 at 0:35
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    OP certainly could say that, and a college TA should respect this if they choose to do so. But more generally, social skills are important for nearly all careers. Deciding to respond to all polite chit-chat with "I feel very uncomfortable answering personal questions" will be a career-limiting (and life-limiting) move. OP might not be able to "get over it," but it's certainly worth investing some time and effort into developing strategies (such as stock responses) for dealing with this situation more gracefully.
    – cag51
    Oct 17, 2022 at 3:57
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    @Disillusioned Overall, I think most answers here 1) acknowledge that it's okay to feel uncomfortable even if the instructor had no intent to make students uncomfortable, 2) explain that this is likely meant to build rapport, help the instructor learn names, or just get people comfortable talking (and maybe knowing these motives will help you feel less discomfort) and 3) suggest some alternative ways to answer the question. I think these are meant to be both reassuring and pragmatic, rather than insensitive.
    – Bryan Krause
    Oct 17, 2022 at 21:42
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    @Disillusioned - To be fair, you said that these remarks made you "uncomfortable" and were "unethical," and you considered "confronting" the TA about them. If you had instead said "I personally didn't mind the questions, but I wonder if they are really useful," then the answers may have gone in a different direction.
    – cag51
    Oct 17, 2022 at 21:46

These kinds of ice-breaker exercises are common in academic activities and also in the professional workforce. They typically involve sharing basic details about your background and interests so that others can get to know you. (In this respect, they are not atypical of the types of questions people face in ordinary social situations.) It is a good idea to become comfortable with these exercises as a basic form of sociability. If you have hobbies, interests or life-circumstances that you don't feel comfortable sharing, learn to give some stock answers that get you through these questions without disclosing details you're uncomfortable with.

I would recommend that you take a more open-minded view of this activity and consider that it is probably designed to help people get to know each other, in order to facilitate greater collegiality or enjoyment during the seminar session. The vast majority of people take the answers to these questions in good spirit, so unless your hobby is cutting the ears off puppies, you are probably going to be fine. It is fine to feel uncomfortable in these situations (some introverted people do). However, while it is not impossible that disagreements over background, personal activities, etc., could lead to bias, focusing on this highly unlikely outcome at the expense of the more general positive effect strikes me as a kind of paranoia.

(It is also worth pointing out that your position here has all the hallmarks of the deleterious effects of "call-out culture". You seem to be taking a relatively innocuous social situation, confecting a very marginal possible negative outcome based on presumed discriminatory intent, elevating that hypothetical negative to be the sole focus of attention, and then expressing a desire to "confront" the "unethical" action of the identified malfeasor. In such a circumstance, I would suggest some introspection on that aspect of the matter and some reconsideration of whether that is a good long-term strategy for dealing with people.)

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    "From my point of view, it MAY introduce bias[...]" There is a big difference between "may introduce bias" vs. "likely". "May" mentions a possibility, and "likely" makes a judgment on the probability. If "assuming this to be the likely outcome strikes me as a kind of paranoia." is meant as a general statement, I agree. Oct 17, 2022 at 20:59
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    From that "may introduce bias" you then go on to posit that the ice-breaker activity is unethical and determine that you want to confront the TA about this. Thus, you are seemingly considering the slim possibility of bias to have a much larger impact than seems reasonable to me.
    – Ben
    Oct 17, 2022 at 21:03
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    (I have now edited that sentence so that it no longer refers to a likely outcome; instead it notes your focus on that outcome.)
    – Ben
    Oct 17, 2022 at 21:14
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    @Disillusioned "I'm surprised how easily unfriendly assumptions are made." - But it seems to me that the entire basis of your question is your own assumptions about a TA who was just trying to be friendly. The assumption that you would be maligned or punished (or otherwise face "consequences") for simply saying "I'd prefer not to answer" is quite uncharitable.
    – kaya3
    Oct 18, 2022 at 0:51
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    @Disillusioned Ethics aside: these ice-breaker activities are present in every class and every job, and you will never escape them, period. The overwhelming majority of people have deemed them to be normal practice in society, like bowing or shaking hands. Your feelings are valid, but the practical advice is to understand that you probably need to conform somewhat, unless you're okay with the consequences of people's judgements. I feel your discomfort, but this is fighting an ingrained element of society that has always existed and likely will always exist.
    – Jerome
    Oct 19, 2022 at 2:21

Usually people don't insist on getting every question answered. If you feel uncomfortable answering your origins, just skip the topic and tell more about your hobbies or your pet. If you don't want to share your hobbies, watching TV or listening to music is always an option.

People want to get to know with whom they are working. They are not interested in your personal secrets or inner struggles. Don't get intimidated by such questions, they are not posed in bad faith.

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    I think this best asks the implicit question which is more like "I feel uncomfortable talking about this, how can I handle it gracefully?"
    – Clumsy cat
    Oct 17, 2022 at 18:32

Is it valid to feel uncomfortable with questions unrelated to the grading of your performance?

Yes, definitely. Note that "Are there legitimate reasons to ask this question?" and "Is it legitimate to feel uncomfortable with being asked this question?" are completely different questions. You are completely entitled to your feelings, even if they include discomfort at legitimate questions.

I fail to see how this information was relevant for completing the seminar.

People tend to find personal interactions aid collaboration. Even if the content of the personal interaction is not relevant, the mere fact of there being personal interaction is therefore relevant.

From my point of view, it may introduce bias, if the TA dislikes some of the things he hears from an attendee.

Yes. And the degree to which personal interactions help varies from person to person, and from moment to moment even for the same person. While an extrovert may find the questions fun, a shy and/or neuroatypical person may find the questions to be a completely unnecessary and sadistic spoon expense. The question of how to balance this issue with the general usefulness of personal interaction is not a simple one. Creating an environment where people don't feel put on the spot should be a consideration, such as making it opt-in, or giving participants various options. In the case of "where they were born, currently live and what they do in their free time", the TA could have phrased it as "Tell me about yourself, such as where you were born, currently live, or do in your free time". That phrasing would make it seem more like suggestions of what to talk about, rather than a checklist that they have to get through.

I wanted to confront the TA with my concerns and not answer the questions, but I feared that it may have impacted the grading of my performance, so I didn't.

There should be a means of providing anonymous feedback; if there isn't, that's even more of a concern than the personal questions themselves. It's perfectly valid to share your concerns and ask the TA to take them into consideration.

I feel it's unethical to, even indirectly, "force" students answer questions that may put them in an uncomfortable position by using your position of power.

It's not exactly forcing them, it's just making them uncomfortable if they don't want to, and the catch-22 about consent is that it's difficult to ask for consent without making someone who doesn't want to give it uncomfortable.

How could I go about dealing with similar situations in the future?

Look for when you might be dealing with an X Y problem. When someone asks you for Y and you're uncomfortable giving Y, consider whether there's some X that is really what they want. Your TA says "I want you to tell me what you do in your spare time" and you hear "I need to say what I do in my spare time". But the TA's ultimate goal isn't to collect dossiers on what the students do in their space time (probably), it's to have personal interactions. Asking what people do is a means, not an end. What they're really saying when they say "I want you to tell me what you do in your spare time" is "I want to have a personal interaction with you". So have a personal interaction with them. Tell them what your favorite subject is. Tell them your pronouns. Tell them about your pets. If you spend several minutes talking about yourself, is the TA going to pipe up at the end and say "Hey, you never told me what you do in your spare time"? Possibly. But quite likely not. If they do, they're showing they're prioritizing sticking to a formula over teaching the actual people they have as students.

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    Importantly this question is definitely not asking someone to talk about themselves for minutes: you should respond with one sentence. "My name is, I'm from, I like to".
    – Bryan Krause
    Oct 17, 2022 at 13:28
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    +1, I'd like to emphasize: IMHO it would be important to give the TA feedback. To me, the questions OP cites are unnecessarily on the personal side. In my home culture, "where are you from" is a stock small talk question, and (importantly) one can choose in answering whether one wants to tell about one's continent or country of birth, the Land(state/province) where one grew up, or what quarter of the town one lives or even "I live on campus" or "I live a little bit east of here". If it's a professional training, one may even answer without location and instead say "I come from $subfield". Oct 17, 2022 at 14:17
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    ... In contrast "where were you born?" is a far more personal question. Oct 17, 2022 at 14:33
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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Bryan Krause
    Oct 17, 2022 at 22:05
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    I suggest you look at the false dichotomy between extroversion and neuroatypicalty implied in your third paragraph in case that was unintentional. Oct 19, 2022 at 21:25

For a shy person or someone from a minority or someone ... yes, these can be disconcerting at first. Eventually, if you work at it (the shy person especially) you can get over it.

But no, you don't need to tell the truth and certainly not all the truth. Nor do you need to be very specific. What do you do? Well, I read a lot. What do you read? Popular fiction and tech stuff. Where are you from? The Middle East (Africa ...). Where do you live now? Ohio (Finland...).

The general answers reveal little and the asker will move on, though it is good to have at least one follow up.

Now that you know this happens, you can construct some non-committal answers.

There is no reason to take offense, though. I ask everyone where they are from, but because I like connections. Generally, connections are good, even for introverts. But they develop over time, not as a result of simple questions like these.

Also, it is important that you reach a point where you feel comfortable interacting with them. Asking questions, especially.

Some questions are off limits, however. Questions about medical issues or about performance in other courses.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Bryan Krause
    Oct 18, 2022 at 14:23
  • -For you is there no real difference between "where were you born?" and "where are you from?" I give different answers to those questions, if I answer them at all. IMHO birthplace is objective and somewhat personal. Where I’m "from" is more up to me to decide what I think of as "home". I ask because the question says "born" and here you wrote "from". I also understand some people feel prior restraint about discussing their origins, because at least in America there are many racist and nationalist people. Oct 19, 2022 at 21:28
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    Many comments were moved to chat, but I think it is worth recording that some people think it is OK to tell small lies, and some people think it is not OK and it is easy to think of something to say to these questions that is truthful while still avoiding revealing too much about yourself if you don't want to reveal things.
    – Oliver882
    Oct 19, 2022 at 22:04
  • I’ve been reading about the origins of the human species, lately. So now, when asked “where are you from”, I say “I’m from Africa, same as everyone else”.
    – bubba
    Oct 19, 2022 at 22:59

First of all, you don't need to ask anyone permission for what you feel. If these questions make you uncomfortable, they make you uncomfortable, and that's valid because it's true.

A few people have given you suggestions as to how to handle this situation: it's a social opening, not an interrogation, so you're allowed to deflect, skip, (gently) lie and otherwise disengage. Learning how to use these techniques will be helpful in general. "Grow a thicker skin" is obviously neither helpful or constructive, but such a strong reaction as you're having can be a symptom of deeper issues, and if you think this is the case, I encourage you to seek some support.

But also, your discomfort is not that unusual. I have done a little bit of training in "audience management" as part of a job in healthcare - a field with perhaps more attention to sensitivity and empathy than academia. Like your TAs, we were encouraged to use "icebreakers", but we were advised to ask "small" questions: not "what are your passions" or "where are you from" (this in particular was highlighted as a rather uncomfortable question for many people), but stuff like "what is your favourite biscuit" or "share a cool fact that you've learnt recently". The aim is to give people a "hook" to introduce themselves, but at low stakes - nobody cares if you say ginger biscuit when in reality you like custard creams better, and you'll probably find it easier to share these tidbits than a significant aspect of your personality, like your hobbies or your origin.

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    +1 for the low-stake questions. (Personally, I'm rather sensitive to such questions, and the one OP cites are IMHO unnecessarily personal and narrow/closed. However, "where are you from" would be easier for me than the cool fact, since [in my culture] it's a stock small-talk question, so something where stock answers are given AND acceptable level of detail ranges from extremely extrovert/almost exhibitionist all the way to keeping one's privacy ("I'm from north of here", "Oh, I'm from right here" - here being quarter or country...) - the cool fact to be shared would require more thinking) Oct 17, 2022 at 14:55
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    IMHO there are better questions than about hobbies - but from the stressed answerer's point of view, there's the advantage that the course subject may suggest a safe answer: e.g. answering "I like to read" in a scientific writing course is not revealing anything (@OP: and having a stock answer "I like to do $X" is well worth while). Oct 17, 2022 at 15:00
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    @cbeleitesunhappywithSX yes, you need to read the room - in a group with patients, I wouldn't use the cool fact question (but I would be ok with the biscuit one, or one about pets, nature, or something they like about the town they live in). I agree that it helps to be prepared for the stock questions, no matter how annoying it is to be asked "yes but where are you really from" for the 100th time.
    – Ottie
    Oct 17, 2022 at 15:10
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    a field with perhaps more attention to sensitivity and empathy than academia - well you must not have been in medical school Oct 18, 2022 at 4:08
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    @AzorAhai-him- indeed, I said “attention to”, not “success in”… sometimes I suspect all this “patient centred” training we get is just to undo those years of damage.
    – Ottie
    Oct 18, 2022 at 7:35

It's an invitation to participate in an elementary social interaction. You can either accept that invitation or effectively refuse it by providing a minimalistic response along the lines of "I like reading books and watching movies" or "I like the outdoors" or "I don't really have much free time these days". Realistically, no-one is going to pry for more detail.

Yes, some people find it difficult to imagine that others might not enjoy such interactions. Conversely, some people might find it difficult to imagine that others do benefit from or expect such interaction.

I suggest that what's going on here is that you are (i) misunderstanding a request for engaging an elementary social interaction as an attempt to pry into your privacy, and (ii) vastly overestimating "the consequences" of "saying the way things are". In other words, you are overthinking it. Just provide a polite non-answer and move on.

As an aside which might not apply to your situation, people are sometimes uncomfortable with such questions not because they fear "the consequences" of "saying the way things are" (really, what do you imagine these consequences to be in an online seminar on research skills?), but because they are in some way or another ashamed of "the way things are". For example, they feel that they should have an interesting hobby and that it reflects badly on them if they don't, or that they should lead an active social life and that it reflects badly on them if they don't. I would venture to guess that this is far more common than an actual fear of "consequences". In that case, the best thing to do would be to confront such feelings of shame rather than trying to blame the situation which instigated them.

Anything may make someone uncomfortable. Someone could be self-conscious about their voice and might prefer to stay silent. Someone might not want to share their name. Someone might detest being asked where they are from. Someone might despise being asked anything at all about their childhood. There is no obligation on people to avoid doing things that may make someone uncomfortable. If you have an unusual thing that makes you uncomfortable (such as stating what you do in free time), it's on you to be able to handle such elementary interactions, not on someone else to foresee this. Just because someone might have, say, social phobia does not mean it's some sort of illegitimate power play to expect them to engage in elementary social interaction.

All that said, I do sometimes find it obnoxious when people do this and I find it's better practice to ask a more open-ended question and explicitly indicate that there is no obligation to answer. That is, tell us something about yourself if you like rather than where were you born, where do you live, and what do you do in your free time.


It's just meaningless small talk so you are allowed to interpret things as broadly as possible and ignore some questions as long as you give some answer, any answer to most of them. For example: What do you do in your spare time could be answered with something you like, even if you don't have time to do it, even if it's not an activity. For example, "I like cats/dogs/cars/animals/food". You could even just ignore some questions and just say something else about yourself instead. No one is going to call you on it because no one actually cares. It's not an interview.


I think most of these answers are failing to make an important distinction.

The question "What do you do in your free time" (or variations of "Tell me about yourself" or "What's a fun fact about you") etc. can be answered with graceful evasion. Nobody really cares, it's just a chance to make a connection with people with similar interests. If OP is concerned, it would be wise to have a harmless stock answer prepared. (Though there's always the risk of exposure as a result of enthusiastic follow-up questions, however well-intentioned.)

On the other hand, the question "where are you from" or "where were you born" can be colossally loaded--so much so that it isn't even legal to ask it in US job interviews. Members of groups who are frequently discriminated against get asked variations of this all the time--and even if the TA doesn't mean it this way, that can potentially remind them of every time they said "Cleveland" and then had the follow-up "No, but where are you really from?" Apart from that--I'm writing this in October 2022; can the other answerers really tell me that saying "I was born in Russia" is guaranteed not to lead the TA and fellow classmates to draw prejudicial conclusions? I think not.

Whatever the TA's intent, asking questions that can potentially cause disproportionate discomfort to members of minority groups is neither appropriate nor an effective means of building camaraderie.

As I said above, I think the "say your hobbies" question is more neutral and manageable, and thus more permissible. But I think other answers have underestimated the risks posed to those who give unconventional responses. I can point to two actual situations where people were asked these questions in job interviews and were passed over, in part as a result of the response.

In one case, the interviewee answered a "what are your hobbies" question by saying they were interested in locomotive engineering. The interviewer asked a follow-on question: "Oh, what interests you about that?" The interviewee didn't know what to say and responded "It's just a personal interest." Interviewer pressed further but interviewee couldn't come up with anything else and just repeated "Oh it's a personal interest"--shy, neuroatypical, polite fiction, who knows why? But the interviewer talked about how they "obviously wouldn't be able to work with that weirdo" and shared it as a "funny story" for a long time afterward.

In another instance, the interviewer noted that the interviewee had a two-hour-long commute, and asked what he did to pass the time. He said he liked to "just sit and think about things," which the interviewers thought made the candidate seem sufficiently unrelatable that it was a factor in making them choose someone else.

Obviously that's an interview situation and not a seminar icebreaker, but I think other answers to the question have been a bit too dismissive, even of OP's concern over admitting to an unusual hobby. It's probably a better practice to favor more open-ended questions (or ones more specifically focused on trivia) and to give participants advance notice that they'll be asked to share something, in case they need to make something up.

  • It should be noted however, that this was not an interview so the risk involved is much lower and the chances that no one cares what the answers are, if they are even listening to begin with, is much, much higher.
    – DKNguyen
    Oct 18, 2022 at 23:54
  • I'm open to being convinced to the contrary, but I don't think it's actually true that it's illegal to ask place-of-birth in job interviews (in the US or elsewhere). I've heard this assertion made but never seen it backed up by legal analysis. My understanding is that it is typically unlawful to discriminate in employment on the basis of place-of-birth, and that asking about place-of-birth in an interview could potentially provide some evidence of discrimination; I am not aware of it being illegal in and of itself.
    – Ben
    Oct 19, 2022 at 1:58
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    More on hobbies: not all of them are socially acceptable to an equal measure. Using all the free time to play video games may be completely fine in most places and to most people, but some of my profs were seeing red whenever they heard it. And this is not the only undesirable outcome possible: one would not necessarily be comfortable with sharing certain hobbies, either. I certainly felt uncomfortable when people were too prying about my poems back in a day. Sometimes you just don't want emotional connection of any kind, even if it happens to be unsolicited praise.
    – Lodinn
    Oct 19, 2022 at 9:30
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    On place-of-birth, it's connected to national origin, a protected class in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (eeoc.gov/statutes/title-vii-civil-rights-act-1964). The text of the law does not specifically forbid asking it, but the EEOC (the enforcement body created by the same law) considers asking about it to be presumptive evidence of discrimination unless the employer can show business necessity (see e.g. labor.idaho.gov/dnn/Portals/0/Publications/GuidetoLawful.pdf bottom of p6).
    – Tiercelet
    Oct 19, 2022 at 20:59

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that the TA should not have asked these questions. It's too personal, not to mention risky, if answered. Tiercelet's answer explains why the first two are not harmless. This one explains why the third question is also a dangerous one to ask.

People do things in their free time that not everyone else approve of. This does not mean "illegal". There are plenty of legal things that others can find uncomfortable. Examples:

  • Maybe the student is politically active for a cause they passionately believe in, but the majority are against it. For example, maybe they think everyone should stop eating meat because it's animal cruelty.
  • Maybe the student believes in some evangelical religion and spends their free time spreading it.
  • Maybe the student writes erotica for leisure, perhaps publish the work under some pen name. Maybe the student even works as an escort/stripper. Imagine the consequences if the student actually says this, with the implicit offer of their services to the class. One could easily get complaints to the university.

Some answers above suggest the student might be able to give some stock response instead. The problem with this is that it's lying. Even if one is willing to bend personal moral codes to avoid a scene in class, all religions are likely to prohibit lying. Once religion gets involved then all bets are off.

The TA should not have asked these questions. Given that they already did, then perhaps the best the student can do is to say they won't answer in public but can tell the TA in private after class if they really want to know. This should warn the TA that they are treading on thin ice. If the TA is perceptive, they might swap to less controversial questions as a result.

I once witnessed a similar conversation where someone asked what they must have thought was a perfectly innocent question. The second person said "are you sure you want to know?". The first person said yes, then after getting the answer, they realize that they didn't actually want to know. C'est la vie. You live and learn.

  • I find it hard to believe that someone, whose main hobby was E.g. writing erotic fiction or being involved in radical politics, wouldn’t be able to say something mundanely trivial which isn’t a lie, like ‘I like eating nice food’ or ‘spending time with friends’ or even just ‘relaxing on a weekend’.
    – user438383
    Oct 22, 2022 at 10:01
  • @user438383 that's lying by omission, which is still lying.
    – Allure
    Oct 22, 2022 at 10:03
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    I agree with @user438383. If the question was "Tell me everything you do in your spare time," then just saying "I like eating nice food" would be a lie. But if the question was "Tell me something you do in your spare time," or "What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?", then it would not.
    – Oliver882
    Oct 22, 2022 at 10:13
  • 1
    @Oliver882 the wording as given by the OP is "what [do you do] in [your] free time", which implicitly asks for what you do the most.
    – Allure
    Oct 22, 2022 at 10:37

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