How to talk about sensitive topics in English

This is a guest post by Christina, from Speak English with Christina. Espresso English readers can click here to get her top 10 small talk lessons.

“Don’t talk about religion or politics.”

Everyone has heard this classic advice about making conversation in English.

These subjects are very delicate. But sometimes, in a small talk conversation, sensitive subjects come up, like terrorism, bad news, politics, religion, or racial issues. Or, maybe you’re curious about what someone from another culture thinks. You want to ask about these subjects, but you’re not sure if it’s ok.

What should you do?

Let’s look at vocabulary for expressing your point of view on a sensitive subject. We’ll see how you can have a friendly conversation on a sensitive subject. This will be very useful in small talk!

Asking for other peoples opinions

If you want to ask a delicate question, it’s a good idea to prepare the terrain. You can indicate that you’re going to ask a sensitive question by introducing it first.

The introductory question Can I ask you something? tells the other person that a sensitive question is coming. This way, they’re not surprised.

You can also say You dont have to answer this, but…” or Do you mind if I ask you…”

These expressions show that you know that the question is sensitive, and that you’ll understand if the other person doesn’t want to answer with a lot of details.

Here are some examples:

  • Can I ask you something? Why is the American government using military force against people who are protecting water at the Dakota Pipeline & Standing Rock?
  • You don’t have to answer this, but how can Americans actually support Donald Trump?
  • Do you mind if I ask you, what is Black Lives Matter about exactly?

Exchanging (different) opinions

During these types of conversations, there is a chance that you and the other person will have different opinions. That’s OK. But you may want to introduce your opinions with persuasion phrases.

Your objective is not to change the other person’s opinion. No one ever changed someone’s political opinion in a small talk conversation! But these expressions help make your disagreement softer.

If someone gives you an opinion that you don’t agree with, you can respond with Yes, but you have to admit… and then share your opinion. This phrase is especially useful for introducing facts that are difficult to deny.

Before you share your view, you can introduce it withYou dont think? Instead of expressing your opinion like a fact, you’re checking to see if the other person agrees or not. Of course, it’s important to be very diplomatic about this. A rising intonation at the end of your question makes it sound diplomatic.

Here are some examples:

  • “Yes, but you have to admit that one of the reasons the USA invaded Iraq was to control the oil reserves.”
  • “You don’t think that it’s better if everyone in the USA has some form of healthcare?”

Concluding a sensitive conversation

At some point, you may decide that the conversation is becoming too intense. If you’re talking to Americans, it is not common to have an intense debate in a small talk conversation. Americans generally try to keep small talk light and friendly.

This means that it can be ok to discuss sensitive subjects, but it’s not ok to create an intense debate.

If you find a point that you and the other person agree on, you can conclude the conversation with At least thats something we can agree on.Then, you change the subject of discussion to something lighter: your weekend, a movie you saw, a future office event, etc.

If you realize that you and the other person don’t agree on many things, it’s perfectly ok to end the conversation with “Well, I think well just have to agree to disagree on this one.

Then, quickly change the topic with that transition phrase So, anyway…” or “Oh, by the way…” The disagreement will just be a past part of small talk, and you’ll avoid a diplomatic disaster.

Example 1:

  • Carrie: I agree that the government has to be careful about security, but I don’t think that it’s a good idea to simply ban everyone from certain countries.
  • Sam: At least that’s something we can agree on! So anyway, got any plans for the weekend?

Example 2:

  • Greg: I’m sorry, but I think that the government needs to know what people are doing on Facebook. It could help them prevent a future terrorist attack.
  • Julie: Well, I think we’ll just have to agree to disagree on this one. Oh, by the way, did you see that cat video I shard on Facebook this morning?

When to avoid a subject

Sometimes, the other person may not want to discuss a subject. It’s better not to insist. How do you know when someone doesn’t want to discuss something? Listen for these expressions: “Dont get me started on…” or I dont really care too much for…

Both of these expressions mean that your partner probably has a negative opinion about the subject. Possibly, he or she is tired of hearing about it all the time. So, you can just change the subject and talk about something lighter.

If you use these expressions, respect the other person’s opinion, and don’t impose your own opinion too strongly, you’ll manage a conversation about sensitive topics and avoid a small talk disaster!

About the author

Christina makes it fun to become fluent in American English, with her YouTube lessons at Speak English with Christina, online courses, and private coaching sessions.

She’s taught English since 2004 and her online course Successful Small Talk was 2016 Finalist for the David Riley Award for Innovation in Business English.

You can click here to get her free Top 10 Lessons for Small Talk Vocabulary.

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