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Your Friendly Guide to Conversation Killers

We’ve all been there. The incident could have been in the hall between classes or at one of those mythical cocktail parties I’m never invited to. This could even happen over dinner with friends. This menace is the Conversation Killer. Once uttered, the conversation skids to a halt and your companions may glance at their bare wrists and proclaim they really must be going. Dear readers, I am here to save you from such a fate. It is only through knowledge that we can avoid killing conversations.

(Note that these apply primarily to conversations with strangers or acquaintances. Presumably your friends are used to your conversational tic of bringing up recent bowel movements or typography and are able to look past this and appreciate your many wonderful qualities.)

Top 10 Conversation Killers.

10. The Overshare.
Simple enough. No one really wants to know about your GI troubles or that weird rash on your back. Similarly, you’ll make people uncomfortable if you try to delve into your deep-rooted phobias over the salsa bowl. And there is no one in the world, other than your doctor or sexual partner, who should be told about any sort of discharge.

9. The Pony Remark.
This is a reference to that great episode of Seinfeld where Jerry, at a dinner party with his elderly relatives, said, “I hate anyone who ever had a pony when they were growing up.” Lo and behold, his Aunt Manya had a pony when she was a girl in Poland and had to leave it behind to emigrate to America. She takes offense to this offhand remark from Jerry and subsequently dies. What’s so terrifying about the Pony Remark is that you never know when it could happen: “I hate a Capella,” “I was the head of my a Capella group in college. It was my most meaningful experience.” The impulse is to immediately recant, “Well, I’m sure your a Capella group was fine.” Which makes you seem insincere and might land you in a deeper hole, especially if you continue to say, “At least you weren’t in Marching Band,” to lighten the tension. They inevitably were.

The fear of being confronted by a member of the group you are disparaging is enough to stop anyone from making any strongly worded pronouncements ever again. Luckily, this is one that you can brush off your shoulder. Everyone makes stupid comments. Just apologize and move on.

8. “I’ve gained five pounds/I’m so fat.”
The only response to this one is “You look great!” Because you probably do. We are so hypercritical of our own appearance that we often forget our peers are similarly preoccupied with that weird white hair growing on their chin. Often it comes across as fishing for compliments (even if you aren’t), which is really frustrating.

7. Any conspiracy theory.
This includes, but is not limited to: the CIA planned 9/11, the CIA killed JFK/MLK/RFK/Abe Lincoln (really, anything with the CIA), Henry Kissinger is really the Antichrist, Bill Clinton ordered the murder of three Arkansas teens, Hillary Clinton is a feminazi robot who personally murdered Vince Foster, Freemasons doing whatever it is Freemasons do, or anything that starts with, “Well, Glenn Beck said.” There are message boards for those sorts of things.

6. “You had to be there.”
I guess I did. But you are still going to try to explain why this inside joke is so damn funny. I won’t get it. Inside jokes are great for those on the inside, and uncomfortable for those on the outside. Save the jokes about the wacky camp counselor until you’re with your camp friends.

5. “Rape culture,” “Male Privledge,” “Social Construct.”
Ok. I’m guilty of this one. I often find myself embarking on a feminist rant about reproductive rights or Roman Polanski, and am able to see the interest fading from my companion’s eyes. There is a time and a place for intellectual discussions of social constructions of race and gender, and a date is not one of them (I discovered that one the wrong way). Save these topics for appropriate forums, like the workplace or Thanksgiving dinner.

4. “Oh, I hooked up with him/her/them once.”
You meet someone at a party and realize you have a mutual friend. “Oh! You know Friend McMutual?” “Yeah, we used to bone.” This is a subcatagory of the Overshare. No one really wants to know about who you’ve hooked up with unless it’s over absurdly pink drinks. The only thing I can imagine to say in response to this, other than the polite “Oh,” is the snarky, “How were they?” Which is a conversation killer in its own right.

3. “I had the craziest dream last night”
The thing is, this is a totally natural impulse. Dreams are really weird. This one time, I had a dream that I was trying to convince Tina Fey and Kate Middleton to be my best friends and also write a book about ferrets… Are you bored yet? There’s a certain universality to the weirdness of dreams. Because everyone thinks their dreams are weird and crazy, no one is interested in hearing about your absurd dream.

2. “You look just like someone I know.”
What can someone say in response to that? “Well, surprise! I am your sister’s freshman roommate! You figured it out!”

1. “Awkward.”
There was a time when this was a slightly funny thing to say. It was just self-aware enough that it could break a moment of tension or reopen lapsed conversation. Now it’s just pathetic. In fact, it’s often rude. Once, I was leaving a class with a friend of mine and one of his roommates. I made an off-hand reference to needing to go to the pharmacy to pick up a medication before the weekend. The roommate sang, “Awk-Ward.” Listen, douchecanoe, I’m not embarrassed about the fact that I sometimes need to fill a prescription. My friend isn’t uncomfortable with the idea that sometimes people take medications. Maybe you don’t believe in modern medicine, or maybe you assumed it was a “girly” medication. But it’s not awkward, and you are the reason why the conversation ended.

Anyway, I can’t think of any context in which saying “awkward” doesn’t automatically make everyone feel like it’s 2006. It makes people feel uncomfortable and makes the sayer look like an ass. After all, as the Facebook group says, “It wasn’t awkward until you said “˜awkward.’”

Ultimately, these rules aren’t the be all and end all of conversational etiquette. You may find yourself in a situation where a Pony Remark is moved past with a laugh or where people are genuinely interested in that new mole. But, I find that it is best to think of conversations as a permutating tree with an ever-changing number of branches. With a mention of the burger places in New York, the number of branches increases, as there are now more directions in which the conversation can go. But bring up that trippy dream you half remember from last week, and the number of conversational permutations drops instantly. An ideal conversation never runs out of branches but ends when either party excuses themselves to the restroom or the snack table. What makes the Conversation Killer so insidious is that it can derail a perfectly pleasant conversation in one phrase and lop off all branches in one.

Honestly, it might just be easier to stick to the weather.

By Lizy Yagoda

A young writer living in Brooklyn, she likes to make food, eat food, and think about food.

Follow @ElizabethYagoda

16 replies on “Your Friendly Guide to Conversation Killers”

My (soon-to-be-former) roommate does all of these, but she especially adept at the overshare. She nearly cost me friends when I invited her out for drinks and she discussed a recent surgery and vaginal discharge. She’s also great at number four, since she’s had many sexual partners, and things can get very uncomfortable when she’s describing a one night stand she had three years ago.

I have to deal with number two a lot, since everyone feels the need to point out that I look like Zooey Deschanel.

I’m constantly haunted by #2: “you look just like someone.” It’s actually a predictable nuisance. I don’t know if I just have the world’s least differentiated face (I suspect not– my nose is awfully differentiated, if you follow me), or if it’s in my mannerisms, or what, but almost without fail I get this comment. I’ve never met these other me’s, so the concept of them fascinates me a little bit. Half the time, the person can’t place who I remind them of, and I have to stand there patiently while they try to puzzle it out.

In a weird way, I like the idea that I remind people of other people. I actually find it vaguely entertaining to find out who these other me’s are.

This one happens to me all the time as well! And I also like to get further details about the person, just to see how oddly similar or dissimilar this “someone” is. However, I believe coming up with some witty comments to throw back might be fun, especially since it really does happen to me constantly.

What, no religion? That is the biggest conversation killer to me. I am from the South, and yet I still manage to be blindsided by religion all the time. I should come to expect it, but damn if I’m having a conversation with someone and they bring up being saved, connecting to Jesus, or say that God has been so good lately…I just want to run and never speak to that person again. There is a time and a place, and you can bring that shit up at church or a church party, but I just wanted to eat my crackers without a side of dogma, thanks.

I’m not an oversharer so much as I’m just an asshole who likes to make people uncomfortable. Not everyone, mind you. Just the people at my job. Everyone else I interact with, I feel like I can make a connection with easily enough.

At work, everyone is so fucking uptight, no one wants to talk about anything other than A) their children, B) giving birth to their children, or C) getting pregnant. Even the dudes. It’s weird. I once started having a conversation with a male English teacher about Green Lantern, but he managed to steer it to his wife giving birth, which I didn’t understand.

Anyway, when it becomes clear that I don’t have children, it becomes. . . . well. . . uncomfortable. And then it goes like this:

Them: “Oh, you’ll meet the right guy and have kids!”
Me: “We’ve been together for 7 years.”
Them: “Any time now, then!”
Me: “We’re not sure about having kids. We’re thinking about just getting dogs and being a really awesome auntie/uncle to our family’s kids.”
Them: “Oh, ummmm. . . . ”

That’s usually a good time to say either, “We used to live over a Chinese take out place next to a porn theater” or “I’m a socialist” (I really am) and giving them a reason to go somewhere else.

Like I said, this conversation isn’t for my usual circle; just the work crew.

5. “Rape culture,” “Male Privledge,” “Social Construct.”

Having this one one the list bugs me, because I generally find myself bringing this particular genre up in conversation in reaction to a casual rape joke or slur against women. And it’s taken me a long time to say these things to guys who wonder why I can’t “just be cool” about them. Yes, it’s certainly a conversation killer, but feeling it ought to brought up is likely an indication that the conversation should be over.

Also, people who don’t want to talk about social construction of gender on a date are a total deal-breaker…

I feel you, but I think it also depends on the circumstances. Yes, if someone says something that is blatantly misogynist or racist or homophobic, they shouldn’t get a free pass. But if you’re at Easter dinner or in a meeting with clients and your distant uncle or a co-worker makes a comment that is fairly innocuous but has a whiff of entitlement to it, you need to decide if it’s worth calling them out on it. I think it’s also kind of rude to attack someone you’ve just met at a party if you have no idea what their background or politics are (unless the remark is particularly heinous).

But you’re right — if you’re having a discussion with friends or if you’re on a date and the person needs to end the conversation if you call them out, then it’s probably not a conversation worth continuing.

Although, it’s the “blatantly” or “particularly heinous” qualifiers to sexist that are tricky.

(To be fair, I’ve just reread this really excellent piece on dealing with folks you care about while feminist, which has raised my hackles some.)

I honestly find it far easier to react to blatant slurs, when I can say “This is unacceptable.” and walk away.

What’s tougher, and what I’m seriously guilty of, is letting stuff slide. Like when my boss says something that I find inappropriate about women, but I know that if I say something about it I’m going to be seen as hostile. Or when the really clever folks from my dept. I’m going out for drinks with with want to play devil’s advocate about gender/race/class/etc. And I don’t think I have to assume the best intentions from someone who’s said something that’s not okay.

I see what you’re saying, but it does bother me that this is on the list with Oversharing of bodily functions/”Aaaawkward”. It’s true that people get angry about being called out on “socially acceptable but inappropriate” language, but it’s not okay.

[end transmission from feminazi boner-killer ;) ]

You’re right — a lot of people don’t realize they’re making remarks that are casually racist and sexist. Maybe I’m just too meek/lazy to call them out sometimes.

On the other end of the spectrum, my in-laws once had elderly family friends from Germany over for Christmas dinner who loudly declared that “Hitler was largely misunderstood and was actually very good for Germany.” Because they were old (and everyone was choking on their turkey) NO ONE called them out. My father in law actually politely agreed with them! After they let, every single member of our family expressed regret over trying to be polite.

I have to agree with you. In most situations, I’d rather ruin a conversation than continue interacting with someone who can’t talk rationally about privilege. Considering that the example given was a date, I’m even more inclined to be bothered by its inclusion–I REALLY don’t want to be on a date with someone who is both casually oppressive and unwilling to examine themselves. Not to mention that I want my own shit called out and broken down, because we all screw up sometimes.

BTW, I agree with everything you’re saying. I will decimate anyone who makes a rape joke or talks about how much they love Charlie Sheen or how “the 70s were a different time” and we should forgive Roman Polanski for drugging and raping a 14-year old because he makes good movies. And I don’t even care if it makes someone uncomfortable, and frankly, I’m pleased if it does. But I was more referring to the unprompted politicizing of a conversation, which I am wont to do:

Person: [Makes joke about TSA and patdowns]
Me: Yeah, because it’s not like people of color haven’t been dealing with this bullshit security theater for the past decade. But, of course, it only becomes an issue when it affects white men. And the people who are all up in arms about this are probably the same people who think Stop and Frisk is the best thing that happened to New York City. I guess the 4th Amendment only applies to you if you are a white man.
Person: … Imma going to go to the bathroom.

ETA: It’s also a conversation killer when I launch into a similar rant with people who agree with me. Like, I was on the subway with my friends and saw one of those horrible “Free Abortion Alternatives” ads and started in on crisis pregnancy centers. Not only did they all agree with me, but they had heard similar rants several times before.

My problem is that people tend to ask about my bowel problems. Seriously.

Like… someone will make an offhand remark (the host will say something like “I got snacks that you can eat” or whatever), and then people are like “Oh, do you have food allergies?” And it’s like “Well, I have Crohn’s Disease.” And then it just goes downhill from there.

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