When Is a Topic (in)Appropriate?

Recently someone stumbled across On the Other Hand by googling this question:

What topics are off limits for most people to express?

A contentious debate with a friend who is firmly lodged on the other side of a controversial issue can be absolutely acceptable while bringing up something as ordinary as what someone else is eating or wearing could be emotionally abusive.

The question isn’t what we discuss but how and why we bring it up. In general:

Avoid sore spots. It isn’t possible to avoid every topic that could potentially be painful or offensive, of course, but I usually refuse to engage in hot button debates on religion, politics, reproduction or sexuality with people I don’t know well. The appropriateness of these topics can vary quite a bit based on your surroundings and the individuals involved, though.

Have an escape hatch. Sometimes a conversation gradually steers into subject matter that is uncomfortable for one or more of the participants. Always have a backup question or comment in mind. It could be a running joke, an anecdote, thoughts on a recent movie or book, or something else entirely.

Don’t assume they agree. When I was a Christian it was frightfully easy to fall into the belief that everyone else in my small town shared my convictions. There were a few times when this assumption went over like a lead balloon. Despite having nothing but good intentions I ended up annoying people I really cared about by assuming what they believed instead of asking them.

Make sure you’re ready for the truth. It’s ok to ask almost any question if you do it politely and are ready to accept whatever answer is given. It doesn’t bother me to be asked, “Are you going to have kids?” Being pressured or preached to about the choices I’ve made has damaged more than one friendship, though.

(Picture credit – Laura Bassett, et al.)

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