Types Of Inappropriate Conversation Topics
A basic, reasonable piece of conversation advice is not to bring up offensive, uncomfortable, inappropriate topics, especially when you're first getting to know someone and don't know what subjects they're okay with discussing or not.
Certain things tend to be seen as inappropriate for a couple of reasons:
- They can cause people to feel a variety of unpleasant emotions, like discomfort, disgust, anger, and embarrassment.
- They can put people in an awkward position, where they feel forced to choose between two difficult choices (e.g., if they don't agree with you they can either speak up and risk getting into a tense, tedious argument, or say nothing, but seem like they condone what you're saying).
When you bring up an iffy topic it reflects poorly on your social judgment. You're expected to have enough knowledge and empathy to know when to avoid certain issues. Some people aren't quite sure what's appropriate or not, and worry their instincts aren't good enough to help them figure it out on their own. They fear they'll, say, accidentally ask an overly personal question, or reveal some off-putting bit of information about themselves. In this article I'll go over the kinds of topics you should be careful of.
First, a few disclaimers
Context is important
As you read the list farther down you'll see many of the points are things people talk about all the time. There are general, playing-it-safe guidelines to keep in mind, but what's appropriate or inappropriate depends on the setting and the person you're talking to. If you're chatting to someone with a dark, twisted sense of humor you can make jokes that might grievously offend someone else. If you met someone at a mental health support group you can casually reveal things about your past that would be considered oversharing in other contexts.
The idea isn't to be bland and only ever talk about the weather. It's to pick your moments. Sometimes you can use your intuition to figure out when it's fine to say something that would normally be considered inappropriate. If you're not sure, you can always hold back and observe what everyone is like, and not go into a subject until you're totally sure they'd all be okay with it.
It also matters how you bring up something vs. the topic itself
Another way that subjects aren't Always Okay or Always Bad is that it depends on how you discuss them. For example, if you have a personal problem, it's one thing to offhandedly refer to it in a casual tone, then quickly move on to something else, or to say, "Is it alright if I talk about ____ for a minute?" Mentioning it at all may still be a bit of a faux pas depending on the setting, but it's not a huge mistake. It's a different story to bring up the same problem, go into excessive detail, with whiny, angry energy, then expect everyone to drop everything and support you.
Bringing up an inappropriate topic isn't necessarily a horrendous error
In an ideal world you'd be able to read the room, know what's okay to speak about or not, and never say anything that's offensive or upsetting to anyone. In real life no one always gets it right. Mentioning a slightly uncomfortable subject won't instantly make everyone hate you, especially if you notice you made a slight mistake, apologize, and move on. For example, you begin talking about your health concern, realize it's not the time to go into it, and change the subject.
Types of inappropriate topics
I've organized these based on the core mistake or discomfort causing element at the center of each one, rather than just saying, "Don't talk about politics", "Don't talk about how much money you make", etc."
Controversial, contentious topics
When you bring up a controversial subject you risk making someone angry, because they're on the other side of the issue. A disagreement or full blown argument may break out, which can kill the mood of the conversation. Even if there isn't a fight, there can be tension in the air as everyone discusses the matter, because they know things could go sour at any second. It can also be demoralizing to assume you shared similar values with someone, but it turns out you clash on some fundamental points.
Contentious topics can put people into that awkward spot where they don't agree with you, but they're not sure whether it's worth calling you out and getting into a disagreement. However, if they don't say something they have to sit there and pretend they condone the nonsense they believe you're spewing. Depending on the power dynamics they may not feel like they're able to speak up. For example, an employee's boss corners them and starts sharing their racist opinions about immigration.
Some classically controversial issues:
- Economic policy
- Whether certain drugs should be legal
- The struggles of marginalized groups
- Conspiracy theories
Depending on the subject, and how strongly you feel about it, you may think it's your duty to bring it up, mix it up with everyone, and cause some hurt feelings if necessary. Maybe in your eyes any damage is a justifiable trade off for the cause. However, it may still not be the most appropriate choice depending on the type of interaction.
Subjects that are upsetting or distressing
Obviously it's not the smartest play to talk about things that might make someone feel distressed. Another factor is you don't know people's personal histories. Certain subjects may be sore spots and make them upset above and beyond what someone else may feel. A few examples:
- Accounts of mistreated, abused children
- Grisly crimes
- Unjust, unfair deaths
- Sexual assault
- Stories of people getting away with doing terrible things
- Everyone's inevitable death, and the pointlessness of existence
Anything that makes people feel forced into a position of having to give you emotional support they may not be ready to provide
One way to do this is by oversharing about your personal problems, like your insecurities, relationship conflicts, mental health struggles, financial setbacks, history of abuse, and so on. You don't even necessarily have to be emotionally distraught and looking for comfort as you recount it all. Even discussing it casually, or with a positive "Look how much I've grown and overcome my demons" tone can still put people in a place where they think, "I don't know them that well. This is too much to have dropped in my lap all at once. What do they expect me to say?"
Another route is by venting, whining, or complaining, even if you don't go into a ton of detail. Aside from having to absorb your negative vibes, which they may not be in the mood for, it puts people in a position where they feel they have to listen and take your side, which they might not want to do at the moment. It's especially uncomfortable if you're complaining about someone they also know, and you're thrusting them into the middle of your spat.
Prying for personal information on subjects people may not feel comfortable sharing much about yet
For example, asking someone about:
- Their salary
- Their weight
- Their sex life
- Their mental health
- Their personal failures
- Embarrassing things their family has done
- Details of a disability or physical difference they have
You can do this unintentionally if you believe you're taking a friendly interest in someone and trying to learn about them, but you picked the wrong thing to ask about. People don't feel good when they have to reveal aspects of themselves they find shameful or which they might be judged for. When you ask about that stuff it makes them feel nervous and put on the spot. If you pick up on their uneasiness and drop your line of questioning, that's not too bad. If you persist they may get irritated as well, and wonder why you don't have the common sense to move on.
Subjects people may feel grossed out by
Hearing about certain topics can literally make people feel queasy and revolted. Whatever you talk about, their mind can't help but picture it, and it may not be something they want to see. That's especially bad if they're in the middle of eating. For example:
- Bodily functions
- Bathroom habits
- Health problems, large and small
- Medical procedures
- Detailed descriptions of sex acts
- Confessions about your sex life, who you're attracted to, what your fetishes are, etc.
Sick, offensive, or mean humor
The jokes themselves may offend or upset someone. It's another situation that forces people that make an unwanted choice. They might not be personally offended, but think, "Ugh, do I have to speak up and say I don't approve of their ignorant, mean-spirited humor, and possibly get into an uncomfortable confrontation?"
Topics that involve making comparisons, and where someone may feel bad if they come up short
No one likes to be reminded that they don't measure up, or be made to feel envious or jealous. It can also be hard to discuss these subjects without seeming like you're bragging. Sometimes when you're genuinely proud of an achievement you want to let everyone know, but try to consider who you're telling. If they're also successful in that area, and feeling secure, they'll probably be happy for you. Someone who's not doing as well is more likely to feel inadequate. Some examples:
- How much money everyone makes
- How successful your dating or sex life is
- How amazing your life is in general
- Who's traveled to more countries
- What flashy possessions everyone recently bought
- How well everyone's kids are doing
- How much weight you've lost recently
Anything that bluntly criticizes someone
This can simply hurt someone's feelings. Again, no one likes their flaws pointed out. Even if you're trying to help them, if you word things poorly your feedback or suggestions probably won't go over well. Some examples:
- Pointing out someone looks fat in their outfit
- Casually commenting that they're bad at something
- Offhandedly psychoanalysing someone's personality weaknesses
- Pointlessly mentioning how you didn't like someone when you first met them, for x,y,z reasons
- Giving suggestions on ways someone could stop making mistakes in their job search, since they've been unemployed for so long
Trashing other people behind their backs
This could be gossiping about someone, straight up making fun of them, or engaging in faux-concerned speculation about why they're such a loser screw up. It can make you look petty, insecure, and vindictive. It tends to make your conversation partners think, "Wow, what do they say about me behind my back?"
Boasting about something mean, sketchy, or illegal you did
This can upset people as they have to hear about how someone else suffered, and how the perpetrator (i.e., you) got away with it. It says bad things about your character, that you're bragging about something that's not at all admirable, but you believe it is. Once more, it puts people in the distasteful position of deciding whether to call you out, or say nothing and tacitly endorse your crappy behavior.
For example, bragging about...
- ...how you drive drunk all the time and never get caught
- ...lying to women to get them to sleep with you
- ...using people for money or favors
- ...how you cheat on all your partners
- ...how you used to bully people in high school
- ...how you scammed customers of your sketchy small business
Anything that might make someone think you're hitting on them, when that's not your intention
There's nothing inherently wrong with making a move on someone, at the right time and place. However, if you're just trying to make friendly chit chat with your new co-worker, you probably don't want to accidentally come across that way. Here are some things that could do that:
- Quickly asking someone about their relationship status
- Probing for lots of details about their relationship, whether they're happy with their partner, and so on
- Discussing what you like about their appearance
- Talking about sex in general, making sexual jokes, sharing details about your sex life
At work, anything that makes your co-workers see too much of your non-work, unprofessional side
Some topics aren't that inappropriate in other settings. Maybe they're kind of boring to hear about, but not automatically a no go. At the office your colleagues may only want to engage with your respectable, professional facade. Hearing certain things about your personal life is too much information. They don't care about it, and it shows poor judgment to bring it up. It varies depending on the staff and the work culture, but a few examples could be:
- How much you partied, got drunk, or did drugs on the weekend
- Your sex life or sexual preferences
- Your health problems
- Issues in your marriage
- Family drama