The 2 Ways to Pick Social and Work-Safe Conversation Topics

by Sam Diener on March 21, 2010

One of the most shocking revelations that hit me when I entered the working world after college was that certain topics of conversation are simply “not allowed.” I have always been a person that says exactly what’s on my mind. Because no one outside my family ever told me, with the exception of the very obvious topics, I thought it was okay to talk about just about everything with everyone. Trust me, it’s not so true. I didn’t know this, and it quickly began to impede my professional progression.

Because I had some amazing managers at Enterprise Rent-A-Car, they quickly challenged me to pay a great deal more of attention to what I said to my customers and my colleagues. I would say I got written up MORE than my fair share of times. This was very challenging because alongside all of this I was told I had a stellar work ethic. I was getting dinged for things I didn’t even know I had to fix.

A few years later, I have created personal models for determining what topics are safe to talk about.

Whether I choose to follow those models is another story. (I am kidding, kind of….)

As I continue to observe behavior in others, however, it has become VERY apparent to me that many people would benefit from the lessons I have learned. A big issue is that MANY people do not realize that they are “overstepping” boundaries in conversation. Further, it is not very common practice to correct people on their “overstep.” Most people simply use these ‘faux pas’ to judge you negatively. So how can you be expected to fix a problem you don’t even know you have?

There are a couple of subtle hints that people generally will give you if you are broaching a topic they are not comfortable discussing.

  • unexplainable fidgeting or nervous behavior
  • trying to quickly change the topic of conversation
  • abruptly pausing in the conversation when it doesn’t otherwise make sense
  • all of a sudden withdrawing from the conversation after a change of topics
  • quickly excusing themselves from the conversation
  • a sudden change in demeanor coupled with a change of topic

Obviously, these sometimes occur for other reasons, but if these happen to you with even small amounts of regularity, you might want to question why.

However, I have found that it is simply less painful if you don’t err in the first place. Here are two methods that might help:

1. The method I learned in the corporate world: There is a way to ensure that you never offend anyone: Avoid sex, religion, and politics – but don’t stop there. Also stay away from finance, dating, race, sexual orientation, other employees, and pretty much anything personal. But even more, you should also stay away from anything about which someone could possibly have a differing opinion. Keep this in mind when meeting new people and especially when interviewing. You never know who you are talking to or what their belief system is. The only safe topic is the weather.

I was once having an interview for a promotion back in the corporate world. I found myself waiting for one of the interviewers who was unapologetically 45 minutes late.

When she arrived, she briefly said hello and introduced herself and rushed to go give blood at a corporate blood drive. About 15 minutes later, she returned and announced to the other waiting interviewer and I, in a matter-of-fact tone, that she could not give blood that day. Sensing what seemed to be a prompt for a conversation, I asked, “Is everything okay?” She responded that “she had just traveled.” Simple and relatively normal interaction.

Apparently this was not such a simple and relatively normal interaction because this interviewer went back and reported to my manager that she felt my asking whether “everything was okay” was completely inappropriate and too personal. I think it was probably a smart decision at the time that I held back my response about how the stick in her ass must have had a small part in making her an hour late to the interview.




Percentage Of 1000 Surveyed Adults On Inappropriateness of Various Topics. From http://www.creditcards.com/credit-card-news/talk-about-credit-cards-the-new-taboo-1276.php




2. My Method: The method I use should safely work in all situations, except interviews. For those, be as conservative as possible and stick to the first method. An interviewer could be testing your ability to remain strictly professional at all times. And you should know if this is expected of you in your work environment/culture.

Personally, I do like to have rules or set methods for doing abstract tasks, such as determining appropriate conversation topics . Except I take a much more relaxed approach, and one that is becoming much more commonplace. I let the other person dictate what is appropriate because I let them pick the topics.

You all know that I am an advocate of letting other people lead in conversations, and the conversation topic is no different. Especially if they are someone that could have any effect on my income.

I will engage in any conversation the other person brings up. If something is too personal, I will tell them. I generally stay away from discussing sexual topics with the opposite sex during business interactions.

If you do realize that you have made a mistake and crossed the line with someone, people are generally very grateful and impressed if you DO realize that you have done so. A quick apology and topic change generally is quite useful: “I am sorry for asking about that. I truly did not mean to offend you.” Then change the topic and hope everything will be as good as new.

Conclusions:  Sometimes when we are in a situation where we are with another person, we feel forced to make conversation.  This is not always the case – and often leads to inappropriate conversation topics. Sometimes not having any conversation can be as powerful as actually having one.  If you feel like you are having trouble finding an appropriate topic of conversation, or something insightful to say, sometimes it’s best to adopt the WAIT rule.  WAIT stands for “Why Am I Talking?”  If you don’t have anything meaningful or insightful to say, then why are you talking?  (Credit Kellie Bowers.)

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  • mikaliss

    Thanks Sam, I enjoy reading your article.
    I think there might be a typo in your second paragraph- the word “of” which appears in the first line seems to be unecessary.

  • http://www.samdiener.com Sam Diener

    Got it. Thanks!

  • Lance Bolson

    I work with a couple of guys who had a ridiculously heated discussion about wind chill. “No it doesn't feel colder, you just get cold faster…” Even the weather topic isn't always safe.

    I believe you need to know who you're talking to and, depending on your personal relationship with that person, you will know where the boundaries are. With some people, you'll never get past the weather topic. With others, you'll be discussing religion or politics in depth.

    You left out sports. That's also usually a safe topic, even if you're a fan of a rival team. There may be some good-natured ribbing, but we've never hired anyone simply because they're a Vikings fan or decided not to hire them because they're a Packer fan.

    If you can't move past the truly superficial topics of weather and sports, you'll never actually have much of a relationship with any of your coworkers, and you may have a very lonely job.

  • Lance Bolson

    I work with a couple of guys who had a ridiculously heated discussion about wind chill. “No it doesn't feel colder, you just get cold faster…” Even the weather topic isn't always safe.

    I believe you need to know who you're talking to and, depending on your personal relationship with that person, you will know where the boundaries are. With some people, you'll never get past the weather topic. With others, you'll be discussing religion or politics in depth.

    You left out sports. That's also usually a safe topic, even if you're a fan of a rival team. There may be some good-natured ribbing, but we've never hired anyone simply because they're a Vikings fan or decided not to hire them because they're a Packer fan.

    If you can't move past the truly superficial topics of weather and sports, you'll never actually have much of a relationship with any of your coworkers, and you may have a very lonely job.

  • Donald Brownlie Fleming

    Hi! This is such a great article and I am sure a lot of entrepreneurs are going to benefit from this. I have been giving advice like these to many up and coming business people and have been successful so far. I am Donald Brownlie Fleming, an Australian Entrepreneur, ebook author (Master Selling by Donald Brownlie Fleming) and a Philanthropist. If you have time, maybe you can visit me too.
    http://blog.donaldfleming.com.au

  • http://www.samdiener.com Sam Diener

    Thank you!

  • GFSx2

    Really, you had to go there… Grammer Nazi!

  • tlcearns

    Started a
    new job yesterday, made an innocuous, albeit self-deprecating allusion to my ever
    increasing age, to which my panicking co-worker melted down into a severe
    paranoid delusion, nearly into tears. I was mortified, and could not think of
    way to further back myself further into a corner of blankness. Personal needs
    are not part of our work identities – it is a big issue in so much as the work
    world is continuously making the body of contributors nameless and faceless,
    eventually we will be replaced by machines and they will be repaired by technicians….Thanks
    for providing a little reading.

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