Things I am not going to be talking about
September 11, 2006 10:26 AM   Subscribe

What topics are taboo for casual conversation?

I am a religion journalist. At a wedding this weekend, I got into no end of discussion and argument over religion, spirituality, and piecemeal details of belief. I am putting together a list of those other things (sex, politics, abortion) that are taboo for casual conversation. What are some others?
posted by parmanparman to Human Relations (61 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
 
Traditionally, religion and politics. To that one would nowadays have to add sex---time was when that wasn't even an issue/question. I would also add that judgmental comments about people, whether present or not, should be taboo, even if they're commonly not thought of that way.
posted by LeisureGuy at 10:28 AM on September 11, 2006


How much money you/they make...
posted by skrike at 10:31 AM on September 11, 2006


This is totally dependent on cultural context. Are you just discussing America? Any particular socioeconomic status, race, or geographical area? Age group?
posted by occhiblu at 10:32 AM on September 11, 2006


Bowel movements.
posted by chrisamiller at 10:34 AM on September 11, 2006


God, yes: bodily functions are taboo. Also details of medical conditions and procedures. Anything that might trigger the "too much information" response.
posted by LeisureGuy at 10:36 AM on September 11, 2006


Work. Don't talk about work!
posted by Lockjaw at 10:44 AM on September 11, 2006


Jokes about the Holocaust.
posted by thirteenkiller at 10:50 AM on September 11, 2006


In America: race.
posted by orthogonality at 10:54 AM on September 11, 2006


Nothing. Casual conversation without sex, politics, religion, and race would be dull indeed.

How 'bout those Sox? How does it feel to drive Car of the Year? Nice curtains.

Yawn.
posted by unSane at 10:58 AM on September 11, 2006 [1 favorite]


This is totally dependent on cultural context. Are you just discussing America? Any particular socioeconomic status, race, or geographical area? Age group?

I would love some out-of-America suggestions, if people can reference them.
posted by parmanparman at 10:58 AM on September 11, 2006


nihilism
posted by riotgrrl69 at 11:00 AM on September 11, 2006


Most discussion of race is typically taboo, especially if you are discussing a racial group other than your own.

Certainly, and rightfully so, this taboo prevents (most) marginally or moderately racist people from making stereotypical or offensive remarks in public. However, I have seen this carried much further, to the extent that people avoid ANY topic that involves making distinctions between races, even if the distinctions are valid, legitimate ones that are worthy of attention--for example, discussing the problem of income inequality between blacks and whites. People seem hyper-sensitive to saying/doing things that could be construed as racist, even if they aren't.
posted by jtfowl0 at 11:01 AM on September 11, 2006


The French people I have known have been completely horrified at the fact that Americans talk about work in social settings. Italian I have known have found it completely appropriate to discuss how fat you've become and what you should do to fix it, which would not be appropriate in the States. Americans in tight real estate markets tend to discuss rents and housing prices without any problem; this would be considered taboo in different markets. The items I felt comfortable discussing with co-workers when I spent time in the exurban Midwest (television, family) are really different from what I feel comfortable discussing among acquaintances in urban San Francisco (progessive politics, gay bars). Things that are taboo to say in San Francisco (say, certain things about race) were commonplace in the South at my high school.

The only thing I've ever found totally taboo is menstrual cycles when there are men present. I've yet to find a man, even those who consider themselves particuarly enlightened, who's comfortable when the topic turns to menstruation. Ovulation sometimes can barely squeak among good friends.

Otherwise... this is just a really broad question, and "taboo" is different than "should be approached carefully, with regards to the situation at hand."
posted by occhiblu at 11:08 AM on September 11, 2006 [2 favorites]


Interestingly, the racial taboo seemingly no longer applies to Muslims and Arabs for the most part.
posted by jtfowl0 at 11:08 AM on September 11, 2006 [1 favorite]


your deep emotional problems/issues, such as your mother was controlling and your father was distant and so now you're screwed up and unhappy all the time.
posted by amethysts at 11:10 AM on September 11, 2006


Anything technical.
posted by gadha at 11:14 AM on September 11, 2006


abortion, unless you want the group polarized. Very few people can discuss it, mostly they yell about it.
posted by theora55 at 11:24 AM on September 11, 2006


SUVs vs. Bikes

Pro Critical Mass vs. Anti Critical Mass

Fat is unhealthy and gross vs. Fat is healthy and normal

Smokers are obnoxious drug addicts vs. Smokers are exercising their freedom by enjoying rich tobacco flavor and cool mildness and maybe you should just get off your damn high horse you stupid hippie.

Han shot first, dammit! vs. Who the hell cares you silly fanboy, go back to spanking it to your Jaba-slave Leia action figure in your mom's basement.

Ginger vs. MaryAnn
(FWIW: Maryann)

Your favorite band sucks vs. My favorite band rules

People who signed up after [your MeFi user#] have ruined this place vs. Elitist old-timers are ruining this place.
posted by bondcliff at 11:24 AM on September 11, 2006 [5 favorites]


It is generally considered rude to ask doctors/lawyers/others for what amounts to free advice in a social setting.

Also, if you meet someone from Iraq/Lebanon/Afghanistan/Wherever do not ask about their experience of the situation and the well-being of their family etc unless you are sure that you are willing to commit the necessary time and attention to letting them respond properly. Even then, it's probably better if you leave it alone. My wife is from a troubled country and finds it quite hurtful when she does her best to answer these kind of questions and it almost inevitably turns out that people don't really care that much after all.
posted by teleskiving at 11:26 AM on September 11, 2006 [1 favorite]


I agree with unSane, conversation is better when it's free to roam through any and all topics. It sometimes requires a bit of tact and a willingness to accept disagreement, which I think is not much to ask.

I'm curious to know the origin of the saying that one shouldn't discuss politics or religion in polite conversation. I didn't find an answer, but in searching for it I found this longer list of subjects suitable and too dangerous for timid "small talk" according to someone's interpretation of British etiquette (which, to judge by this description, seems to be quite restrictive).

Anyone know where the "religion and politics" thing came from, or how long it's been around?
posted by sfenders at 11:27 AM on September 11, 2006


Oops, wrong link there. I meant this one.
posted by sfenders at 11:33 AM on September 11, 2006


In Asian cultures, it is completely appropriate to bring up physical health issues in public- including those ailments that may feel terribly embarrassing to discuss in America. Growing up Asian, I had to understand that my mom just felt it perfectly OK to mention my (or my friends') weight gain and acne outbreak in front of people. Aside from it meaning that she cared, Asians just consider this a generally beneficial thing to discuss (what one can do about it, what medicines/doctors help, etc.)

Having that said, Asians have many superstitions which prevent you from doing many things at certain times. One example is that there is no talking about death or anything morbid during birthdays or other celebrations for example; it would be considered bad luck.
posted by pinksoftsoap at 11:37 AM on September 11, 2006


Please don't talk to me about philosophy.
posted by nathancaswell at 11:40 AM on September 11, 2006 [1 favorite]


'How much money you make' is supposedly a topic that Americans find doesn't go down well abroad, though I've not encountered that many Americans who talk about how much money they make in polite company. 'How much your house is worth' is a corollary.

'Religion and politics' are traditional high-table taboos, but I don't know if that's the origin. (Certainly, English colleges were often considered refuges from the religious politics of the English Civil War.) And there are certainly implicit rules in French settings: no talking shop until after dessert.

Oh: 'meat is murder' doesn't go down well at the dinner table. Nor does 'why are you a vegetarian, and isn't my steak lovely'. But that falls into the general 'don't be a dickhead' rule.
posted by holgate at 11:40 AM on September 11, 2006


What's taboo is something you need to find out about with each person. Casual polite conversation is all about finding common ground before launching into the free-roaming part. How many times have you seen two people who didn't know each other in the least start off arguing over something as trivial as which football team they favor and then go away permanently disliking each other.

Never ever say 'nice curtains', they may have been selected by someone disliked or they might be thought awful and your compliment will backfire suggesting the person you're talking to has poor taste. If you must reference curtains, say something like 'oh, and where did you find these curtains'.

Some consider it very rude to ask people for charity contributions or to talk business in a social setting.

In families it's usually taboo to discuss old lovers, drinking buddies, or any generally dissolute youthful-indiscretion type behavior in front of grandparents and the kids.


Anyone know where the "religion and politics" thing came from, or how long it's been around?


Since dirt was young.
posted by scheptech at 11:42 AM on September 11, 2006


Joining bondcliff, here are things I wish were taboo, mostly because they are deadly boring (US):
* Cell phone plans, cell phone features, ATM transaction fees.
* Interest rates, credit cards, personal budgets.
* Global warming (real). The Bush administration (bad). The Democrats.
posted by salvia at 11:46 AM on September 11, 2006


Nobody wants to hear about your horrible childbirth experience (particularly not at a baby shower).
posted by Joleta at 12:12 PM on September 11, 2006


Very few people seem to be addressing the actual question; I realize it's more fun to talk about "topics I personally hate," but like the man said, please limit comments to answers.

On the other hand, as occhiblu said, it's meaningless as a general question; taboos only exist in a particular context. What context did you have in mind?

It is generally considered rude to ask doctors/lawyers/others for what amounts to free advice in a social setting.

Bullshit. What you mean is: doctors/lawyers/others don't like to be asked for what amounts to free advice in a social setting.
posted by languagehat at 12:20 PM on September 11, 2006 [1 favorite]


I don't see anyone else covering this, and most people don't think this is taboo, even though it is.. traditions and customs.

For example, I find the whole concept of giving jewelry, diamonds, engagement rings, etc, to be absolutely ridiculous and steeped in commercial expectation, yet discussing this at a wedding is social suicide.

When it comes to discussing customs and traditions, people will rarely want to talk about it, since most people have no idea why they blindly follow these conventions and so are very uncomfortable talking about them.
posted by wackybrit at 12:30 PM on September 11, 2006


(In America:) IQ and class, too.
posted by callmejay at 12:37 PM on September 11, 2006


My Jewish friends tell me their mothers and older women in the family have a manner of speaking called "third person invisible."

Two people will discuss a third person's shortcomings as if they weren't there, and if reminded of the person's presence, they will change the subject.

In other words, they'll tell their friends, in front of you, that you should study harder. But they won't tell you, in front of their friends, to study harder.

It's as if the direct discussion (you should study harder) is somehow taboo, but it can be ameliorated if it's conversation with another person (he should study harder).
posted by frogan at 12:37 PM on September 11, 2006 [6 favorites]


For example, I find the whole concept of giving jewelry, diamonds, engagement rings, etc, to be absolutely ridiculous and steeped in commercial expectation, yet discussing this at a wedding is social suicide.

Wackybrit, I know exactly what you mean. The bride had this long string of teardrop pearls, and it turned out that they had been a gift from somebody who'd been divorced and had worn them on her wedding day. So it was taboo to talk about their origin.
posted by parmanparman at 12:40 PM on September 11, 2006 [1 favorite]


any topic of conversation that exists solely to prove how smart you are (philosophy, art criticism, indie bands). note to grad students of the world- resist the temptation to tell people how clever you are, they really dont care
posted by petsounds at 12:43 PM on September 11, 2006 [6 favorites]


"People talk about eugenics like it's a bad thing!"
--Bob the Angry Flower
posted by Faint of Butt at 12:43 PM on September 11, 2006


Bullshit. What you mean is: doctors/lawyers/others don't like to be asked for what amounts to free advice in a social setting.

languagehat - I expect you're responding to the technically correct definition of the term 'taboo' rather than perhaps the spirit of the question wherein the term may have been choosen to mean more generally 'hot button topics likely to get me in trouble with people I don't know well enough yet' or 'help me avoid being a boor'?
posted by scheptech at 12:52 PM on September 11, 2006


Circumcision.
posted by Catch at 1:08 PM on September 11, 2006


How much your posessions cost you.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 1:09 PM on September 11, 2006


I think that British list is really about small talk, the list of safe topics are all good things to start conversations with, or to fill those awkward pauses. The ones to avoid list is more about things that you shouldn't really talk about until you've got to know each other a bit more...

When I lived in Poland and my parents came to visit, I found it odd that my Polish friends asked them how old they were. As a Brit I'd never dream of asking someone their age if I didn't know them well.
posted by Helga-woo at 1:11 PM on September 11, 2006


There's a difference between taboo, boring, and topics that are passionate to people and I think alot of answers here confuse that.

Taboo:
Sex, bodily functions, your last prostate exam, how daddy never said he loved you, etc

Boring:
Work, technical things others won't understand, how much you make, etc

Passionate:
Politics, religion, sports, etc

The first can be discussed generally only in specific narrow contexts where people wish to talk about them (except your prostate exam...no one wants to hear about that). The second should be avoided at all cost if you want people to like you. The third set are good topics to talk about, if only because alot of people have opinions on them...strong opinions. Let's face it, if those topics were taboo to talk about talk radio would be...even worse (if you can imagine it!).
posted by crypticgeek at 1:54 PM on September 11, 2006 [1 favorite]


Incest and cannibalism. The last remaining "big" taboos?
posted by Dr. Wu at 2:19 PM on September 11, 2006


Let's face it, if those topics were taboo to talk about talk radio would be...even worse (if you can imagine it!).

Tell me about it! I work in talk radio, and the landscape would be bleak without taboo subjects.
posted by parmanparman at 2:20 PM on September 11, 2006


So to summarize, the following should generally be avoided:
  • religion
  • politics
  • sex
  • race
  • personal appearance and fitness
  • anything remotely related to the human body
  • money
  • philosophers, artists, and musicicians, in case someone is around who hasn't heard of them
  • anything too complicated for the simplest at the table to instantly understand
  • anything related to the particular area of expertise of the person you're talking to, in case they're the sort of laywer/doctor/engineer who doesn't like explaining things to people who know less than they
  • self-deprecation, as you might inadvertently deprecate some aspect of yourself that your audience is particularly insecure about in themselves
  • compliments, as you might inadvertently say something complimentary about things "selected by someone disliked or thought awful"
  • questions, since something as innocuous as a pearl necklace might for some bizarre reason be a sensitive topic
  • anyone who isn't there, since many consider it impolite to speak of them in their absence
  • anyone who is there, since after all you don't want to get too personal
  • anything technical
  • anything emotional
  • sports, unless you're sure nobody present favours a rival team to yours
That leaves weather. Feel free to talk about the weather. Just don't mention hurricanes.
posted by sfenders at 2:24 PM on September 11, 2006 [8 favorites]


Or global warming.
posted by occhiblu at 2:26 PM on September 11, 2006


Ford vs Chevy (Trucks)
posted by Bonzai at 2:46 PM on September 11, 2006


Any conversation about gay marriage that has the word "bigot" in it.

Trust me.
posted by Danf at 3:41 PM on September 11, 2006


A food co-op i once cooked for had decieded that tapeworms were a conversation killer, along with the concept of skinny people as "anal" babies. YMMV.
posted by casconed at 3:49 PM on September 11, 2006


Bullshit. What you mean is: doctors/lawyers/others don't like to be asked for what amounts to free advice in a social setting.

Bullshit on your bullshit. For lawyers at least, asking for free advice may create a potential liability for the lawyer. :awyers disregard this constantly, but it is part of the professional canon of ethics for lawyers.
posted by Falconetti at 3:54 PM on September 11, 2006


But it's not "taboo" to ask for advice, just rude.
posted by occhiblu at 4:02 PM on September 11, 2006


As mentioned repeatedly including by me halfway upthread, context matters. I guess we've learned that a wedding where emotions run high and you're probably an invited guest being fed for free maybe isn't the best place to debate, well probably anything, let alone the big issues.
posted by scheptech at 4:02 PM on September 11, 2006


Bullshit on your bullshit. For lawyers at least, asking for free advice may create a potential liability for the lawyer.

You're missing my point. I completely understand why lawyers and other professionals hate being buttonholed for free consultations. But it is not a conversational taboo, it's just something lawyers (etc.) hate. If it were a taboo, people wouldn't do it, so you wouldn't be constantly annoyed. Capeesh?
posted by languagehat at 4:10 PM on September 11, 2006


check out the bondage.com forums. pretty much anything you will find there should qualify.

anal fisting, anyone?
posted by krautland at 4:26 PM on September 11, 2006


Here are a few sentences, only one part of which is safe to utter. Can you guess which is which?

1) You look great — what have you had done?
2) What a beautiful day — for the Rapture!
3) I love your outfit — does it come in normal sizes?
4) I'd like to introduce you to my wife — and my husband.
posted by rob511 at 4:35 PM on September 11, 2006 [1 favorite]


The point of good light conversation -- eg at a wedding reception, rather than an academic conference -- is to let everyone contribute, feel comfortable, find a topic where they share commonalities, have a good time.

So: nothing too shocking (eg some sex stuff; this will depend a lot on the group) because when people are shocked they can't feel comfortable and contribute.

But mainly, no topics or remarks designed to build yourself up or put a conversational companion down. No bragging, no insults.

This can encompass all the topics above:
- money -- don't show off how rich you are, or how poor you are in contexts where being poor is a virtue,
- work -- don't show off how powerful or prestigious a job you have, or rag on others' jobs.
- smarts -- don't show off how many big words you know, or what a fancy school you went to, or try to make someone else feel bad that they know a lot of big words or went to a fancy school.
- race -- eg don't put down someone else's race, or point out that others at the table are members of a privileged race that benefits from the oppression of others.
- class -- eg don't put down some of lower class, or point out that others at the table are members of a privileged class that benefits from the oppression of others.
- health -- eg don't brag about your healthy habits, or "brag" about your illness in a way designed to focus sympathy and attention on only you.
- personal moral virtue -- eg don't brag about your faith, or your atheism, or your own brilliant insights about the ways of the world, or your hippier-than-thou lifestyle (vegan, no TV, whatever), or your political stance insofar as it's a matter of moral virtue.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:30 PM on September 11, 2006 [5 favorites]


That was more "how not to be a boor" than "what topics are taboo". Here's another piece of advice about wedding conversation, not about taboos.

Safe conversation openers with total strangers usually include: places (where are you from?), travel (how was your trip here?), recent movies that several people at the table have probably seen or heard of, non-hot-button science news (did you see there's going to be another shuttle launch?), sometimes work (and what do you do for a living?; best on east coast of US), sometimes hobbies (what are you into? what did you do this past weekend/summer?; best on west coast of US), sometimes colleges (where did you go to school?; depends on the crowd), sometimes sports. Of course at a wedding, the best way to start is the standard "So how do you know Susie and Brad?" and go from there.

If you hate being asked questions, just start asking other people questions. People rarely get their act together to reciprocally ask you the same one.

When there's a branch point in the conversation, pick the thing that you can be most positive about and ask an open-ended question about it: "Oh, you're from Toronto? I've always wanted to visit there. What's the best time of year to come?" "Oh, you're a journalist? What's the most interesting interview/story you've had?" (The subtext of each of these questions is: tell us something interesting about something you like and are familiar with.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:48 PM on September 11, 2006 [2 favorites]


Am I strange in believing that it is rude to bring up the cost of your belongings and/or how much money you make, but it's certainly not rude to ask the same thing of others?
posted by Parannoyed at 7:54 PM on September 11, 2006


#Parannoyed: Am I strange in believing that it is rude to bring up the cost of your belongings and/or how much money you make, but it's certainly not rude to ask the same thing of others?

In some Jewish cultures asking money/cost question is considered displaying polite interest while in many other cultures it is considered the height of rudeness.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 8:06 PM on September 11, 2006


  • Things you don't like about the other person.
  • Personal sexual habits/attractions.
  • People/groups/races that you hate.
  • Bodily fluids
  • Confidential information
  • Things that only you and your spouse know
  • How bad someone looks
  • Self-Links

  • posted by blue_beetle at 8:36 PM on September 11, 2006


    Also, if you want a book recommendation, get Miss Manners's Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior. It's really really funny and has good systematic common sense advice about this question and many related ones.

    Here's her list of questions that are too personal for conversation with people you don't know well (I've added a couple):

    Age:
    "How old are you?" [Miss Manners says this is traditionally thought of as taboo, but she thinks it ought not to be.]
    "That was an awfully nice young man you brought over the other night, but tell me, isn't he a little young?"
    Children:
    "So when are you going to have children?"
    "Isn't this your third? Did you plan it that way?"
    "Shouldn't he be walking by now?"
    Divorce:
    "And we thought you were the ideal couple. What went wrong?"
    Energy:
    "Don't you think you keep this house too hot?"
    "Don't you know SUVs are killing the planet?"
    Food:
    "I'm surprised to see you eating that. Didn't you tell me you were on a diet?"
    Good works:
    "Our development officer has figured out what a person of your income level can afford to give. Would you like to hear what it is?"
    Health:
    "You didn't tell us what that test was you went into the hospital for. But let me just ask this: was it benign?"
    Advice:
    "I think you ought to..."
    Money:
    "How much money do you make?" [Her rationale for not asking about this is: "We do not judge people by the amoutn of money they make (do we?), and therefore any interest in amounts is unseemly."]

    Also, she says conversations about money are always boring, because their topic is only ever really either:
    1. My, I was clever. or
    2. My, things have changed for the worse since I was younger.
    posted by LobsterMitten at 8:43 PM on September 11, 2006


    Do not call anyone you haven't seen naked "honey" or "hon".
    posted by dagnyscott at 8:37 AM on September 12, 2006 [3 favorites]


    Death.
    posted by Human Flesh at 10:13 AM on September 12, 2006


    "So I was trying to fuck this greasy pig when..."
    posted by premortem at 12:23 PM on September 14, 2006


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