MODERN MANNERS | Managing the art of conversation

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There is an art to navigating everyday life gracefully, and an art in how we conserve about our days. People love a great storyteller or an engaging speaker. But often we are faced with awkward social situations and conversations that feel like stale air. We’ve all experienced moments with that quirky family member, an inebriated partygoer or interestingly, a complete stranger.

With my experience as an etiquette consultant, there isn’t a week that goes by without someone expressing their grievances to me about a recent comment or social situation that went awry. Blame it on social media or the growing lack of face-to-face interactions, but the art of conversation is dying a quick death. And this reaches far beyond the world of millennials. I often wonder if the openness and accessibility from social media has prompted people to think that all topics are available for public consumption.

The following list of conversation faux pas has been compiled based on feedback from clients and readers about the most inappropriate topics:


The list for topics surrounding money is extensive, but asking about the cost of housing, vacations, child care or the cost of items; i.e. cars, clothing, engagement rings, etc. should be avoided. When it comes to income, unless you’re interviewing for a job, the topic of salary should never be discussed.


Asking someone when they are getting engaged or why they are not yet married is an irritating question I hear about often. I believe most people mean well and want people to have happy relationships, but the topic is very personal. Couples today may date for many years before getting married — if they choose to get married at all.


Anxious parents wishing to be grandparents, beware of this topic. Asking when someone will have a baby is a loaded question. Not all newlyweds or couples want children. A recent bride doesn’t mean an instant mother-to-be. On the flip-side, some people try desperately to have a baby to no avail, so the question is extremely emotional. Starting a family is a very big and personal decision; the topic should be handled gracefully in conversation.


Giving a genuine compliment makes someone feel at ease. It can be a great ice breaker for many occasions. If someone gives you a compliment, the best response is always, “thank you.” Taking a compliment is just as important as giving one.


These two important subjects are so varied and personal, they should be discussed intelligently. With our current presidential election and hot topics, political conversations can escalate quickly if not handled with respect. If you don’t want to talk politics, never feel pressured to discuss your opinions. No one can ever force you to reveal your personal thoughts on these or any topics.


The topic of weight makes people feel vulnerable, even if there has been weight loss. If someone has lost weight, tell them they look great instead of focusing solely on their weight. Aim to be supportive and address health topics positively. And if any statement involves the words “weight” and “baby” — avoid it at all costs.

The next time you’re engaged in a conversation, take a moment to think about what you’re really communicating. Having a conversation with a close friend or family member is different from when socializing or networking. Always be aware of the audience when engaging in any conversation, especially when broaching emotional or personal subjects. And if there is one thought to overshare, it should be a reminder of The Golden Rule of treating others as one would like to be treated. That rule is always appropriate, in any conversation.

• Lauren M.G. Burt is a communications professional and etiquette consultant based in the Midwest. She believes in the importance of embracing etiquette and a return to civility. Read more about her work at Contact her with questions or comments at

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