Finding out someone’s age without asking

People don’t tell you their age because it’s a loaded question

In Summary

• Someone's reaction to a period-specific event or pop-culture reference is a giveaway

Elderly people during a procession along city during a campaign for the recognition of their rights
Elderly people during a procession along city during a campaign for the recognition of their rights
Image: FILE

I made a discovery recently. It solves a pesky, intractable problem that has plagued society for a while: how to ask someone their age without actually asking them their age.

Society considers it rude asking someone their age while chatting them up or because you’re curious. People just don’t like it when they’re asked how old they are, and there are good reasons why.

Some are concerned about being discriminated against because of their age — ageism. If you’re older, the fear is people thinking you’re past your prime. If you’re young, the worry is you’ll be seen as immature.


Others are in denial about their age. So they dye their hair and get terribly offended when people don’t share their delusions of youth.

The best reason why people don’t tell you their age is it’s a loaded question. You see, past childhood, age becomes this measure of life achievements, if you have any.

That said, we do often find ourselves unavoidably wondering how old the person standing or sitting across from us is. How do you ask without asking?

A quick internet search reveals a number of ways. None of them, though, is as good as mine or as simple. One online suggestion is to stalk someone on social media; creepy. Another suggestion is a numbers trick that involves complicated sums with five-digit number multiplications, and additions, and subtractions, and square roots… I mean, I’m curious how old you are but I don’t care that much to go to all that trouble of getting a calculator to find out.

Onto my discovery. So I‘m having a conversation with this lady and I make a joke about Imhotep, and she didn’t know who that was. If you’re like her, Imhotep was the evil title character from the 1999 movie, The Mummy. When I mansplained this to her, she went: “You expect me to remember an old movie I watched when I was a kid?” Wait, what? My brain said. You were a kid in 1999, meaning between the ages of 8 and 10, not more than 11, and we’re in 2019, then that would make you… click! One doesn’t even need a calculator.

I didn’t give it much thought, though. But, 24 hours later, I’m in the house and I start humming the theme song to The Muppet Show, a puppet show that aired on TV in the late 70s, early 80s. My wife then turns to me with a smile and says, ‘Muppet Show.’ That’s when it all came together: my discovery.

Who watches puppet shows? Kids. How far back are the late 70s, early 80s? Click! Again, you have an approximate age.


It’s that simple. All you need to do to ask someone their age without asking is have a conversation where you work in a period-specific event or pop-culture reference, and see how they react. Blank stare, they weren’t there. They know what you’re talking about, you’re about the same age. You don’t know what they’re talking about, they’re older.

Anything period-specific can be weaved in into a conversation; how scared you were when Micheal Jackson’s Thriller video came out (1983), where you were when America elected its first black president (2008), the excitement around the launch of the first independent Kenyan urban music radio station, where every presenter (Kenyans included), spoke like an American or a Brit (1996).

It’s all in the timing.