Wednesday, May 15, 2013

I don't want to talk about it, but I kind of do

Hello Polite Readers!

This week's topic is a request from an anonymous friend. The issue is how to handle controversial areas of your life (work, hobbies, politics, religion) when they come up in mixed company and you know they might not be well-received. It can be really awkward when you don't want to seem like you're hiding something or that you're ashamed of yourself, but by the same token, you don't want to bring down the tone of an event by going into details.

I think there are two basic ways to handle this, and you can use them individually or combine them. One is to describe what you do in accurate but vague terms, and the other is to ask the person about themselves instead.

Let's use something from my own life as an example. I am a belly dancer. I'm not ashamed of it in any way, and I'm lucky to live in a city where it seems like most people are already pretty familiar with belly dance, have an accurate picture of what it is, and think it's really cool. But it's entirely possible that I could find myself in a situation where I wouldn't want to talk about it. Maybe I'm visiting family in a more conservative area, or I'm talking with a guy who's a real creep and I don't want him to imagine me in my bra. So if someone asks me what I do, I might say "Oh, I dance and I make jewelry. Did you see my Mom's necklace? I made that last week." By putting more emphasis on the jewelry-making aspect of my life, I've subtly shifted their attention away from the thing I don't want to tell them about (I do undulations with my belly! and sometimes people give me money!). You can use this in a lot of different ways. They ask about your job and you're a telemarketer? "I work in sales but work was really rough today and I don't want to think about it for another minute! I just can't wait until I get to go hiking this weekend." Someone wants your opinion on a divisive bit of legislature? "I haven't finished reading up about it. What do you think about <far less controversial issue>?"

You can see that I am already segueing into "Ask them about themselves." People love to talk about themselves. I'm a natural introvert and even I've had conversations that I've looked back on and realized that someone asked me about something I was passionate about and I gushed on and on and on about it without ever thinking to ask them a thing about themselves. So if I want to redirect someone from my belly-barin' ways, I might say "Oh, I dance. How about you? I see you're wearing a bike chain bracelet. Are you a cyclist?" Later on they might look back and realize that they never got to ask me what style of dance I do, because they were too busy talking about their favorite bike path. Success!

If you want to tell someone about it, but it's not the right time or place (for instance, you want to tell this awesome lady you just met about bellydance class, but not in front of the creepy guy who keeps trying to buy you both drinks), try to come up with a good excuse to talk about it later, ie "I'd love to tell you more about my dancing but it would be better if I showed you! Can I send you the link to my YouTube channel?"

If you want to gauge someone's reaction to what you do to decide if they might be cool with it, try using some comparisons. I might ask someone if they've seen certain local dance groups, and use that to judge how they feel about dance in general. If they respond positively, I can say how my work compares to theirs. If they respond negatively, I can shrug and say "You might not be into my style either, then."

I hope this helps you all navigate the tricky waters of socializing in mixed company! If you have your own awkward situation you need help with, please e-mail me at

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