Dinner Conversation Etiquette

Right and Wrong Topics to Discuss at the Table

Backyard dinner party

  Maskot / Getty Images

When you sit down to a meal with family or friends, you probably expect to have a pleasant conversation that enhances the experience. Discussions about things like hobbies, interests, and even the weather are calming. 

There are some topics that need to be left at the door. The last thing you want to do is suppress someone’s appetite by saying words that are inappropriate or gross.

If you are concerned that you might say something you shouldn’t, prepare a list of conversation starters before the meal begins. This can help keep you on track and prevent a slip of the tongue that might create an unpleasant mealtime experience.

Pleasant Topics

Try to keep your mealtime discussions pleasant. Something lighthearted that isn’t controversial is ideal unless everyone at the table thrives on heated debates. If you are unsure of other people’s tolerance, don’t bring up anything that might cause someone’s stomach to tighten.

Spend more time listening than talking. Most people enjoy sharing their experiences and hearing about yours, but if they can’t get a word in edgewise because you can’t keep your mouth shut, you’ll be considered a boor. Have as much back-and-forth conversation as possible.

Here is a list of safe, pleasant topics you might want to discuss:

  • Food: It is always a good idea to discuss what you like about the food you are eating. The host or hostess will be flattered, and if everyone else is eating the same meal, they can add their thoughts. You might even want to add an anecdote about similar food or ask for the recipe.
  • Fashion: A nice compliment will endear you to others, so find something pleasant to say about someone’s outfit, jewelry, or hairstyle. You might learn some fashion tips if you give the other person a chance to respond.
  • Music: Most people enjoy some type of music, so that is generally a safe topic at the table. You can share thoughts about your favorite entertainers or composers and tell about a concert or symphony that you particularly enjoyed.

Unpleasant Topics to Avoid at the Table

No controversy allowed. Although you may enjoy starting or stirring controversy, the dinner table is not the best place to do it. Wait until after the meal is over and find a person who can match you in the debate. Your host will not appreciate an argument after spending the entire day in the kitchen preparing the meal.

There’s more than one way to fry fish. Try not to sound too opinionated without giving others an opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings. You don’t want to come across as a know-it-all.

Controversial jokes are not funny. Humor is good as long as it isn’t too sarcastic or brought up at another person’s expense, even if he or she isn’t present. You never know who knows the person, or worse, may be related.

Try not to be defensive. If someone makes a comment that seems insensitive, change the subject to avoid conflict at the table. Chances are, the other person will take the hint and follow your lead.

Don’t gossip about anyone. This negative conversation can ruin many people’s meals. Saying malicious things about people will cause others not to trust you because they may think you’ll do the same when they aren’t present.

Be cautious about bragging. If you want to mention something brilliant your child did, that’s fine as long as you give others an opportunity to do the same. Make sure you give others credit for their ideas. Never fall into a game of one-upmanship. No one wins, and the dinner will be ruined.

Wrong, barn breath. Never correct another person. If someone says something that is totally incorrect, you may pause, nod, and offer a different perspective. If the person starts to argue, smile and change the subject.

Other topics to avoid:

  • Medical conditions: Health problems, particularly if they involve body fluids, will destroy many people’s appetites at the mere mention of them. Unless you are enjoying a meal with doctors, nurses, and others who don’t flinch at the sight of gushing blood, it’s best to leave that talk for another time.
  • People’s age: Although you may be proud to have lived to the ripe old age you are, the person sitting across the table might be depressed about aging. Don’t ask someone’s age or discuss the act of getting older.
  • Politics: Unless the dinner is being held in honor of a political candidate or is happening in the midst of a political convention, leave all talk of politics for later.
  • Religion: Never offend anyone of a different religion. If the host offers a prayer or blessing before the meal, be respectful and follow his or her lead. You may say your own private prayer if you are of a different religion, but never call attention to yourself when doing so.

Topics That Are Sometimes Okay but Not Always

There are some things you may discuss in certain groups but not in others. While some families and groups of friends may thrive on current events, there are some who are easily rattled and might find these types of discussions unsettling. Rely on conventional social etiquette while at the table. Use your judgment and pay attention to signals.

Borderline dinner topics:

  • Current events: Discussion of gory events or anything racially charged show poor taste in a mealtime setting.
  • School or work: Grades, unpleasant school experiences, and workplace drama can be entertaining, but it can also be upsetting for some.
  • Sports: It’s fun to have a favorite team and show team spirit but put two college rivals at the same table, and you might need to hire a referee before dinner is served.
  • Prices: Most people can commiserate about the price of almost anything, but it’s never polite to ask someone what he or she paid for a car, house, outfit, or anything personal. Be careful when discussing anything money related, particularly at the dinner table. You might cause indigestion.

The dinner table is the place to come together, make small talk, laugh, and enjoy friends and family. Keep conversation light and lively to show respect for the host and other guests.