“So, what are your plans for next year?”

Eight words that all seniors respond to with immediate sweaty palms and slight nausea. It’s an involuntary response that most of us experience because being asked to confront the biggest source of stress we have at this moment is awful.

Every. Single. Senior. Has heard this question — at minimum — 10,000,000,000,000 times this year alone. And, in case you slept through the last moments of 2016 and Mariah Carey’s New Year’s Eve performance, it’s just two months into the new year.

The question itself is relatively harmless at face value. It’s a natural follow-up to the normal “How are you?” “I’m good, how are you?” type of conversation you have twice every hour on average. More often than not, though, the question is asked by someone carelessly inquiring about your future on the off-chance that they’ll be interested. Or, their parents just taught them good manners and reminded them not to talk just about themselves during small talk.

Coming from peers, the question is inquisitive. Coming from relatives, the question can be intrusive and coming from strangers the question can be invasive. But for whatever reason the question is asked, there’s still the obvious fact that you must now answer it.

And that’s why a lot of us want to spontaneously combust, because we just don’t know. And in a society where saving face is key and having your stuff together is attractive, admitting that we are clueless AF is unbearable.

No matter how you answer the question, you’re trapped. If you’re one of the chosen few and have already locked down a job or a graduate position or whatever, you feel guilty by bragging or feel disheartened when they don’t care or feel protective if nosy relatives give you their take on what you’re choosing to do.

Because clearly Aunt Helen knows more about working in a lab than you, even though you’re the one graduating with a degree in biomedical engineering.

If you respond with a joke, others might feel that you aren’t taking things seriously and you might become a bum. If you respond with a simple “I don’t know,” the pesky counterpart will probably follow up with a “Well, do you have any ideas?” type of question.

So how, as seniors, do we grapple with publicizing one of the scariest transitions in our lives while also not knowing what to publicize?

I’ve found that politely disassociating with the conversation works. That, and learning to just have quick hits such as “I’ve applied to some jobs” or “Some graduate schools are looking at my application now.” Just enough information to quell the nosiest inquirer, but not enough to display how much you have no clue what’s going on.

In truth, there’s a part of me that loves the question. I mean, it’s inviting me to talk about myself, which is amazing. When I first started getting the question in September, I would jump at the chance to talk freely about all the possibilities I had in front of me. Quickly, when I saw my friends solidifying their post-graduation plans, my frankness turned to embarrassment because there was nothing definitive. And then it turned to humor. Over holiday break, my friend asked me what I will be doing my next year and I just laughed.

It’s not that I find not knowing what I’m going to be doing funny, it’s just that I find my reaction to the question now funny. Going into senior year, and hearing from former then-senior friends, I knew that people didn’t like being asked that question, which I had always found unfathomable. How do you not like talking about yourself? But I think I get the dislike now. The question just invites me to continuously face an unknown future, which scares me quite shitless.

So, I’m not suggesting that people don’t ask, because I understand the knee-jerk curiosity for someone else’s life. But, maybe, wait for them to post a Facebook status about their job offer or graduate school offer or whatever else they might be doing before subjecting them to the challenge of explaining their (probably) stressful decisions.

How to: Respond to The Question

1. So, you’ve been asked about your plans.

2. First rule: No matter how much you want to claw their eyes out, consider that the last resort.

3. Remember you probably really like whoever asked.

4. Seriously, remember that.

5. And if you — don’t well, your mom would want you to stay calm.

6. Now, open your mouth.

7. Say words.

8. You can lie; for all they know, it’s the truth.

9. Say more words.

10. OK, stop saying words. You’ve probably said enough to bore them to the next topic of conversation.

11. Take a deep breath.

12. Because at the end of the day, you’ll figure something out.

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