There are two types of people in this world: those who love confrontation—or, as my father calls it, “healthy debate”—and those who hate it. (Depending on how vehemently you disagree with this statement, you’ll know which side you’re on.) But whichever you are, there’s one vital skill that could come in handy when navigating the holidays: the ability to gracefully change the subject.
Mastering the subject-switch can be a lifesaver when conversations awkwardly veer towards politics, religion, money, sexual orientation, or lifestyle choices. It’s not something “a lot of people can do with great confidence,” says Philip Skyes, founder of The British School of Etiquette, which teaches professionals the emotional intelligence and insight behind good manners. Skyes thinks part of the reason people struggle to extricate themselves from difficult conversations is a hangover from being “cornered” at school into answering a question. Exiting gracefully without breaking a sweat “takes a bit of practice.”
If a conversation starts to reach a place where you feel uncomfortable responding, Skyes recommends pressing pause. Tell the person they have an interesting point, ask them to repeat it, or even physically put your hand up to stop them so you can have the space to think. “Slow it down,” he says. If the person persists, Skyes advises “literally [putting your] foot down in a very diplomatic way and [saying], ‘I think this conversation is for a different time and day. It’s not appropriate right now, I don’t want to get into this.'” He adds: “You don’t need to explain yourself.”
But you will need something new to talk about. So here are some topics recommended by Skyes—and Quartz—as “safe” for those awkward moments.
Travel / Traffic
“What route did you take to get here?” should do the trick. Also: “I’d love to see the photos from your latest trip!” (Only to be used in an emergency.)
“I would love to see you demonstrate your pottery wheel!”
Just not the politics of it, and not in countries where the team you support requires a blood oath. Some people are “very feisty about who they support,” Skyes says.
We are, quite literally, obsessed.
“Can you explain how you made that dish to me, in excruciating detail?”
Those Karadashians, amirite?! (Not Kanye West though.)
Thanks a lot, climate change.
But just Adele.
- Bats can swim!
- Dwayne Johnson has his own alarm clock app! (It’s called “The Rock Clock.”)
- Cacti are a metaphor for millennials!
- UPS moves 18 million packages a day!
Dinner running long? Keep hundreds of additional subjects at your fingertips with this handy topic generator. Each has been explored in depth in Quartz’s Obsession newsletter.
If all that fails, Skyes advises giving the person you’re talking to a compliment, or, as we call it at Quartz, the “golden retriever” approach. “The power of good etiquette and manners is about making people feel comfortable,” Skyes says. “The whole point of engaging in conversation is to see if you have something in common. We always should be, in my opinion, trying to support one another.”