The One with the Taboo Topics

With the holiday season in full swing, chances are you have a party or two on your calendar. Maybe an office get-together. A neighborhood potluck. An industry association event (yawn). Some people shine at these kinds of gatherings, able to tear through small talk like a five-year-old opening presents on Christmas morning.

I am not one of those people. I am awkward and strange and nervous. I am the person you can’t wait to get away from with the lame excuse that you have to refill your drink even though you’ve only taken one sip. Case in point: I have attended a writers’ gala dinner and for some reason found it appropriate to open a conversation with National Book Award Winner Julia Glass about a fun little fact on orgasms from Mary Roach’s book Bonk. I wish I was lying.

Clearly I needed this post before that dinner.

Oh, Sheldon (The Big Bang Theory), but you're in my seat!

Oh, Sheldon (The Big Bang Theory), I like you, but you’re in my seat!

Etiquette connoisseurs suggest reading the arts and leisure section of the local newspaper before a party to have plenty of conversation starters. Does anyone do this? It’s not that I’m bereft of preferred topics. In my case, the problem is twofold. I often become stymied in large social groups of strangers, especially around people I admire (Julia Glass, I’m so sorry!) so I say the first thing that pops into my mind. Also I don’t want to be boring.

Good conversation really is an art. How do you engage someone else and be engaging at the same time? Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project listed suggestions for making good conversation, including Ask open-ended questions and Ask getting-to-know-you questions, which makes me feel like I’m at a job interview instead of a party. But I suppose if I treated conversation like work, I wouldn’t make ridiculous comments about orgasms during the soup course.

We all have that colleague or friend who finds a way to steer the conversation back to his/her favorite subject (the children, the office, the recent vacation, etc.) no matter the actual topic at hand. And don’t forget the person who is itching to get in his/her point without listening to a word you’re saying. But how do I know if I’m the one boring people to tears? Gretchen Rubin says that if you’re the one doing all the talking or if the other person’s body is partially turned away from you, then you might be the persona non grata. Body language is more important than I’ve realized. When I get nervous in a social setting, my shyness (arms crossed, eyes looking off into the distance) must read as aloofness or conceit, which makes it difficult to think about those tips for making good conversation.

Maybe it would be easier to remember what NOT to say. In serendipitous support of this idea, a recent episode of the This American Life program on NPR had the answers. Producer Sarah Koenig’s mother has lived by a set of seven conversational no-nos.

“It’s just a question of whether you want to bore people or not,” Mrs. Matthiessen, Sarah Koenig’s mother, says.  Here are her off-limits topics.

  • Rule  1: Health. We’re not talking about serious illnesses here. In this category are your old Aunt Maude’s medications and general doctor visits. “Aches and pains, [it’s] really tiresome,” says Mrs. Matthiessen.
  • Rule # 2: Diet. Discussing your low carb, all-liquid, South Beach, cauliflower, cantaloup diet is not all that interesting to listeners.
  • Rule # 3: Money. This one is probably most transgressed in the US compared to other countries. “Vulgar,” Mrs. Matthiessen says.
  • Rule # 4: Sleep.  I can see her point here, although I’ve broken this rule myself on occasion, telling co-workers and friends that I didn’t sleep well because I had a stuffy nose and… (oh, dear, see Rule # 1, above). That leads to…
  • Rule # 5: Dreams. This one hadn’t occurred to me before, but one’s dreams are really only interesting to the dreamer. Even if you tell me that I was in your dream posing as the grand marshal of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in a Santa outfit, it’s still not incredibly interesting to me. Unless, perhaps, you’re Salvador Dali, then you might get a pass.
  • Rule # 6: Route Talk. “Route talk is when people tell you how they arrived, or how they came, how they got on the road, which road, how long it took. That is the top of my list for what you don’t talk about,” says Mrs. Matthiessen.
  • Rule # 7: Womanly Cycles. Enough said.

Do you have any taboo topics to add to this list? Have you violated Mrs. Matthiessen’s conversational no-nos? 

Have a great weekend, everyone! 



  1. I have your solution. As a dyed in the wool introvert – biology/ chemistry major in college who somehow landed her first job in sales- here’s the ticket. Always always always get the other person talking about themselves. People love to talk about themselves. It’s a topic they know a lot about. Makes sense. Doesn’t really matter about what- their job is a good place to start- then just dig with more questions – case in point. I once spent an hour with a woman on a bus to a bar mitzvah. She never once asked me about myself. Just droned on and on about herself. In response to my questions. I couldn’t believe it. I would prefer to sit quietly and eavesdrop on the conversations of others but then people think you’re weird…


    1. So true — most people can go on and on about themselves, especially one one of the taboo topics. 🙂
      I have to admit I’m an eavesdropper also. On the subway or in a coffee shop, I get the best material for my stories.


  2. I’m beginning to think that you may be my long-lost twin… I’m so bad at all this social etiquette and conversation with strangers thing…

    Things were REALLY bad when I still worked as a Nutritionist. People would ask me what I did, I’d answer (in trepidation), and then the person would bore me for fucking hours about their fucking diet!!!! AHRHGGGHHHH!!!!!! There’s nothing I detest more than women on gluten-wheat-dairy-free diets. Rant over.


  3. I loved this post! Especially the part about you talking about the fun fact from Bonk. 🙂 How did you ever work THAT into a conversation???? I don’t have a problem with conversation. I am one of those people that has a sign on their forehead that says “tell me your life story and anything else that you want to share with a total stranger” . People tell me all. Appropriate or inappropriate—-I get it all. Last weekend on a flight from Orlando to Minneapolis my seat mate was very quiet …..until beverage service time. Then a simple gesture by me of helping with her tray table opened the door and she talked non stop the rest of the flight. I could tell you all about this 47 year old Walmart worker who relocated to Clearwater from Omaha. Trust me. But this post made me a bit more aware of what to say and what not to say! Great post!!!


    1. I’m so jealous of your ability to strike up a conversation at anytime and anyplace. Oh, planes are the worst.Talk about captive audience!
      Maybe we can sit next to each other on a flight and you can give me a few pointers. 🙂


  4. I’m a natural introvert too, except when it comes to my blog and then I feel the need to share all kinds of things. =) I think years of being a military brat and then wife and having to move every couple of years and find a whole new set of friends has forced me to become more extroverted than my genetics would like. It is also helpful that I am really quite nosy. And even boring obnoxious people can make good character studies.
    This did make me remember once I had neighbor who was childless and she paid me a compliment? when she told me “What I like about you, Kristen, is even though you have a kid, that’s not the only thing you have to talk about.” So I guess talking about one’s child ad nauseum is annoying. Add that to the list. But NOT talking about my dog! That is never annoying! =)
    p.s. Love Mary Roach’s stuff! Did you see she has a new one out? Well, maybe it’s not that new, but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.


    1. Talking about your dog is never, ever annoying or boring! Speaking of which, Reggie did this funny thing last week… 🙂

      Mary Roach’s new book is called Gulp. I haven’t read it yet, but I’m interested in finding out how she makes saliva interesting!


  5. Religion is always off limits for me, but it is definitely on the table for a lot of other folks. I’m always surprised by the number of people who think nothing of asking my beliefs and who would debate those beliefs if I’d answer their opening questions.


  6. With that list of off-limit topics, what’s left to talk about, the weather? Or should one just stick to religion, politics and details of their sex life? Seriously, at social events where I know next to no one, I try to play it safe and say as little as possible. I probably give the impression of being epically anti-social. At gatherings where I know everyone, I’m a freely yammering wild woman.


      1. At least you work in the publishing industry. I quit slaving in network news to label tile samples. That’s half a notch above flipping burgers. But yeah I loathe that topic, too. Big time.


  7. Politics and religion. Those convos never seem to go well, especially now when the country’s so divided. And definitely no to the medical stuff. It is so awful to be subjected to every detail of someone’s surgery.

    I ask people about themselves, and that usually goes well, unless they just underwent surgery. 😉

    I would never find you boring, Jackie!


    1. Yes, on all three counts! Especially if you’re at a party. No one wants to be around a “Debbie Downer.” (That’s the phrase we use at work to describe someone who can’t seem to find an upbeat topic to save her life.) 🙂


  8. I cringe when people get too graphic about the details of their health issues. Other than that no topic is off limits, really. I probably would have found your dinner table comment interesting. But like you I’m an introvert, and find people fascinating, and as long as someone else is doing the talking, I can hang.


    1. In small groups of people i know, I’m fine. But put me in a large party where I’m asked to “mingle” and I completely clam up.
      I’m okay with teaching in a classroom of students I don’t know. I think that’s because I have prepared notes and the topic of discussion is clear.


  9. Gosh, Jackie, I don’t think you’re awkward at all! Now me? I’m awkward ands shy. You just seem SO not that way, to me. But like you, I wish I could talk to anyone about anything. I’m just not that person.

    Hope you’re have a good weekend. Stay warm!

    Hugs from Ecuador,


    1. In small groups I actually appear normal and tend not to make wildly inappropriate comments. But I’ll let you and Sara be the judge of that. 🙂

      Ps — It’s starting to snow. I bet you don’t miss that at all!


  10. Dude you are not awkward at all. I love number 7. love it. Next party I’m going to tell everyone I have horrible cramps and watch them run screaming. Actually it might only work with men. Girls are more used to it, I guess. I don’t talk about it enough to know. Would be an interesting experiment.


  11. You might have to get into the depths of your memory to replay that conversation with Julia Glass for us. We need to hear it! This was such a great post. For me it’s the old standbys–no politics or religion. I’ve put my foot in my mouth re: religion numerous times.


    1. I’ve totally blocked out the details of the conversation with Julia. I mean, how embarrassing. She just stared at me, dumbfounded. I couldn’t even blame it on the open bar; I’d only just arrived to the party!


  12. I love that quote. Sheldon cracks me up. I love his conversation skills they spark conversations around here. Ahhhhh too funny. I think you’re on the mark with all of these rules and can’t really think of anything other than tampon commercials and the evolution of the maxi pad. Those may be real conversation killers if you’re trying to blend in 🙂


  13. I’d much rather have a conversation about an orgasm than small talk about the weather, people’s aches and pains and too much detail about dull life experiences! I tend to feel awkward in social situations too 🙂 I think your list covers the worst of it!


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