4 Helpful tips for navigating social situations when you don’t want to discuss certain topics with certain people
What do you say when you find yourself at an office holiday party standing under the mistletoe with your cubical mate? How do you respond to your aunt who asks you about your biggest life goals and marital status while passing you the gravy? What do you talk about with a friend when you’re going through a particularly rough season of life?
There’s a long list of potentially awkward conversations surrounding our bravest seasons of life — divorce, getting laid off from your job, vehemently opposing someone else’s political leanings.
This is why mastering the art of changing the subject can be one of your biggest survival skills as an adult navigating the seas of relationships.
Don’t get me wrong, avoidance is not always the answer; there is a time and a place to stand up and say bold, brassy, even audacious things, and also express poignant honesty. But every act of bravery requires a certain awareness of your surroundings and not every context is prepared to accept every uncensored truth of yours (or theirs.) Not only that, but some days you’ll need to reserve your conversational strength for the moments that truly matter.
Personally, I’ve attended a handful of holiday parties and other gatherings when I was battling serious depression. Moping around and crying on a colleague’s shoulder was not always the appropriate behavior during these festive occasions. So I learned how to avoid certain topics in certain group settings. Do you want to escape having to discuss your recent breakup with Nana at the next family gathering? Want to refrain from talking about your custody battle with colleagues? Want to definitely never bring up that one very awkward moment with a buddy? Want to maintain your sense of decorum when you know the likelihood of losing that decorum is slim to none during a conversation about _______ [insert delicate subject matter here]?
For all of the above situations, I highly recommend ‘conversational acrobatics’.
Here are 4 things to do to master the art of changing the subject:
1. Create A List of Safe Topics
Start by creating a list of topics you can talk about. Having this list nearby or memorized makes the rest of this process feel a bit lighter and enjoyable. Maybe this list contains a chat about the latest BBQ recipes you’ve tried. Maybe the local sports team is killing it this season. Maybe your newest hobby of gardening feels like a great start.
Other good options might be: comedians, movies, other shows you’ve seen recently, work, career, your pet, hilarious viral videos — the list could be endless. I encourage you to make this list of safe topics as long as possible. Then take it one step further and highlight 3–5 favorite subjects and memorize these. You’ll need these top-of-mind later.
2. Create A List of Topics to Avoid
Boundaries are crucial to being brave. During my greatest seasons of bravery, I wish that I had written out all the subjects I didn’t want to discuss. I wish that list had been explicit and specific. When you’re already feeling raw and vulnerable and taking frequent trips to the bathroom to cry, conversational boundaries can feel like donning a steel breastplate before battle — heavy but necessary. These extra steps of boundary-setting can empower you with a much-needed sense of protection. I cannot begin to tell you how much relief it gives me to have those 3–5 topics to turn to when conversation veers into “I’d rather not” realm.
There was a particular holiday a couple years ago wherein I did not want to discuss anything food or self-image related with anyone. This is seemingly a difficult topic to avoid during holidays that revolve around parties with a lot of food, but it’s not impossible, especially with a couple go-to topics to segue into. For example: “Honey, what are the grocery stores like out where you live?” says the inquisitive Aunt veering into the danger zone of food-centric conversation. If music is a safe topic, then you can bounce back with, “Oh they’re okay. But they pale in comparison to the music scene out in Seattle. That’s on fire. I’m really enjoying [insert artist’s name here] these days. What about the music in your area?”
3. Create A List of Appropriate & Playful Responses
Your list will be different, but my favorite go-to responses are: “Hmm… I’d like to check on a few things before I answer that.” If your grandma keeps asking when are you going to get married/have kids, your playful response could be, “I’ll tell you when your recipe for sweet potato pie stops being the best thing in the world, Grams!” Does your uncle want to discuss the latest political nightmare? Try this: “Interesting point. I’d like to check into the subject before we talk about it. How’s your [insert very different, safe topic] going these days?”
4. Practice with a Friend
Rome wasn’t built in a day — and neither will your bravery. Improvising on the spot with conversational acrobatics is a skill that doesn’t come overnight, but practicing with a friend can help speed it up immensely! This skill might take a few attempts to feel like you’re getting a handle on things. The trick is to not only deflect the direction of the subject matter, but to additionally introduce a new, safer topic back onto the conversational table.
Gather a friend for happy hour after work to playfully work through some of these topic-changers. Have them role-play, and if needed, refer to any lists you’ve made previously. These lists can be written or memorized. In fact, you might find keeping the list in your pocket to be a truly comforting thing to bring to any gathering with conversational minefields. Retreating to the bathroom or leaving to go “grab something from the car” can be a great opportunity to refer to your list of safe topics of discussion.
Remember that boundaries are your friend, so go forth and converse with agility. You’ve got this!
You may also enjoy reading How To Enhance Your Wellbeing Through Balance and Non-Negotiables by Dena Argyropoulou