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Blog: Born to Write 

The Five Topics Which Used to be Off-Limits (and, Maybe, Should Still Be?)

Social media seems to bring out the best in some people and the worst in others. We’ve all noticed that some people use Facebook, for example, in a positive way while others become weirdly competitive, snarky, or even abusive.

Not long ago there was an unspoken rule that certain topics were, quite simply, off-limits. My parents, members of the “Greatest Generation,” certainly conducted themselves in that way. When I was a little girl, I considered my parents’ dinner parties to be so boring that it wasn’t even worth trying to eavesdrop. Nothing juicy was ever said outright. Euphemisms were employed with such delicacy and skill that I was left completely in the dark. I know this sounds very “Downton Abbey” but it was generally-accepted behavior throughout America until a generation or so ago.

Here are the 5 no-no’s as I remember them:

Money. You never talked about your salary, or how much money you had in the bank, or how much you spent on that new car sitting in the driveway. And, it was considered the height of rudeness to ask.

Physical intimacy. In other words, the word that starts with “s” and ends with “x”. That included anything related to childbearing. Pregnant women were said to be “expecting.” (I remember as a kid thinking, expecting WHAT?)

Death. People passed away. Sometimes they were said to “go to Glory.” They didn’t “die” and deceased persons were not said to be “dead.” I often had the impression that people vanished, flew up into the sky like a bird, or simply left the room. No details were forthcoming.

Religion. You didn’t bring it up, period. The most you might say is that your church had a new minister and he seemed like a swell guy. But that was about it. The last thing you wanted to do was offend someone, so if you were Protestant and one of your guests was Catholic or Jewish, you would never put him or her on the spot by asking for an explanation of religious beliefs. In “polite company,” you were aiming to make your guests feel comfortable, not awkward.

Politics. Oh my, never! Off-limits! Radioactive! You didn’t ask who someone was voting for, and you didn’t tell, either. Why? Because it was considered divisive. And divisive was not a good thing!

The goal was to find common ground. Once you knew a person well, you might have a one-on-one conversation about something in the “off-limits” category. But you did not – ever – put someone on the spot in front of others.

Of course, one might wonder, what on earth did they talk about? Acceptable topics included travel, weather, novels, films, music, home improvement projects, gardening, cooking, children (in general terms; bragging was in poor taste), vacations, new technology (e.g., power windows in cars, the Space Race), sports, hobbies, and taxes (because everyone hates taxes).

I don’t think we should go back to the old ways, even if we could. I’m all for freedom of speech, speaking out for what you stand for, sticking up for yourself, and so on. But sometimes it seems a slippery slope, and all we end up with is people shouting at each other. While we can laugh at the old ways, maybe there is a time and a place to be more reserved, after all.