Conversation Etiquette

Smiling female friends sitting on deck overlooking backyard pool
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Everyone knows a person who speaks out of turn, says the wrong thing that creates an awkward moment, asks rude questions, or never allows anyone else to get a word in edgewise. He might have good intentions, but being around him can grate on the nerves. Don’t become that person. If you already are, you probably know, but you're not sure how to change. It's important to understand some basic social skills and then put them into practice.

Regardless of how smart or witty you are, there are times when you need to stop and evaluate the appropriateness of what you are saying. Make sure you have good speech filters to prevent saying something rude. Acquiring the skill of a good conversationalist requires learning some fundamental guidelines and practicing them.


Before you open your mouth to speak, stop and think about what you are going to say. Too many people speak before they think and when the words come out, they don’t convey the intended meaning. Before you say anything, pause for a moment to allow your internal filters to take over. This may make the difference between being considered a good conversationalist and others thinking you are boorish.

Pay Attention to Signals

As you chat with others, pay close attention to their body language signals letting you know that you are losing them in conversation. If you continue talking long after they have mentally zoned out, you may find yourself alone, or worse, not invited to the next get-together. The instant you realize you’ve said too much, take a breath and give someone else a chance to talk.

Signs the other person is no longer engaged in the conversation:

  • Yawning
  • No longer making eye contact
  • Glancing around the room as if looking for an escape
  • Backing away
  • Not responding
  • Tapping foot or pointing feet toward the nearest escape

Listen to Others

One of the best ways to have people thinking you are good at conversation is to listen to what they have to say. In order to listen, you have to zip your own lips and be in the moment. This shows your interest in them, and they are more likely to show interest in you when you speak. Give the other person your undivided attention. Listening is the best way to get to know someone.

How to show you are listening:

  • Maintain eye contact
  • Nod or interject an occasional, “Yes, I agree,” or “I know what you mean.”
  • Ask questions during pauses
  • Acknowledge the other person's triumphs by congratulating them

Conversation Topics

Before you go to a party or casual get-together with friends, put some time into what you’d like to discuss. Doing this will help prevent lulls in conversation, and you’ll find that these topics provide excellent springboards for discussion that can go in a variety of directions.

Ideas for discussion topics:

  • Local news items
  • Favorite foods
  • New businesses in the area
  • Sports
  • Hobbies
  • Music releases
  • Favorite books
  • Pop culture topics
  • TV shows or movies

Topics to avoid (unless you are with long-time friends who will love you anyway):

  • Political opinions – unless you are at a political rally or convention
  • Lifestyle pet peeves – unless you are at a function that promotes a specific lifestyle
  • Age issues – unless you are at an event where everyone is in the same age group
  • Weight issues – unless you are with a group of people whose goals are to gain or lose weight
  • Personal finance – unless the other person is your financial advisor or banker
  • Nitty-gritty details about a health problem – unless you are with a group of health professionals who don’t get grossed out from talking about blood and other body fluids

Etiquette Mistakes

A social situation calls for knowing how to avoid making mistakes during a conversation. Many people leave wondering what they might have said or done to turn people away. Be aware of some of the most common mistakes in order to prevent bringing a discussion to a screeching halt.

Common blunders:

  • Not knowing anything about the person you are talking to. The solution there is simple: take the time to get to know the person you are having a conversation with. This will enable you to talk about something that might interest him or her.
  • Texting or constantly checking your phone for messages. No one wants to feel that the phone is more important than the here-and-now conversation.
  • Using R-rated language in a G-rated situation. This is just downright rude and offensive.
  • Telling off-color jokes. If you don’t know the person you are speaking with very well, you never know what might be offensive.
  • Interrupting or monopolizing the conversation. Give the other person a chance to shine. Doing otherwise is a good way to have people walking a wide berth around you.
  • Randomly changing the conversation to suit yourself. If you do this often, others may consider you to be narcissistic.
  • Glancing past the person you are speaking to. You don’t want to appear opportunistic at the expense of the other person’s feelings.
  • Acting like a know-it-all. No one knows everything, so don’t pretend that you do.
  • Forgetting to introduce others. Be gracious and at least start with an introduction.
  • Gossiping about anyone. You never know whose best friend you are talking about.

There are times when you can't prevent the conversation from going toward an uncomfortable topic, and there are a couple of ways you can handle it. You can quickly change the subject and hope the person takes the hint. Or you can simply say, "Let's not discuss this anymore."