But old people may not intend to be rude: in fact, age-related changes in brain function may explain their lack of tact, according to a new Australian study just published in the journal Psychology and Aging.
Tests carried out by researchers at the University of New South Wales, in Sydney, found that people aged 65 to 93 years were more likely to ask each other such personal questions in a public setting than younger people aged 18 to 25 (see example below).
Yet the study also found that older people were just as likely as younger ones to agree that making public inquiries about private issues was socially inappropriate and embarrassing: so why do older people blurt out such discomforting questions?
The ability to inhibit thoughts and actions is critical for socially appropriate discourse but that ability appears to weaken due to changes in brain function related to the normal ageing process, according to one of the authors of the report, Associate Professor Bill von Hippel, of the UNSW School of Psychology.
"It's not just that older people were more likely than younger people to ask personal questions," says Professor von Hippel. "In fact, young people in our study were more likely to ask each other questions of a personal nature, but they usually did so in private.
"It seems that young adults have a greater ability to hold their tongue than older adults in contexts where it is inappropriate to discuss personal issues." Behaving badly like this also seems to have negative consequences for peer relationships, particularly for older people.
"Young people weren't too bothered when their friends were occasionally inappropriate, but older adults felt much less close to those acquaintances who asked about their private lives in public," says Professor von Hippel.
Are you tactful?
In the research project, small groups of friends were asked questions like this about each other: Imagine that you have some private medical condition (for example, haemorrhoids). Your friend knows about your condition. You are alone together with your friend, maybe at home having a coffee together.
Would your friend inquire/comment about your condition?
How about if you were at a gathering with other people when your friend arrives. Would your friend inquire/comment about your condition in front of the others? Similar questions were asked about recent weight gain, personal family problems, etc.
ABOUT BILL VON HIPPEL
Bill von Hippel, PhD, is associate professor in the school of psychology at the University of New South Wales (Sydney, Australia). His research interests include prejudice and stereotyping, social-cognitive ageing, and evolutionary psychology.
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