Conversation boundaries are the rules around appropriate discussion topics, personal questions, and gossip. At any given moment, someone may cross into this land mine territory.
Has it ever happened to you?
Generally, topics of a very personal nature are reserved for the closest of relationships. So are inquiries about sensitive issues concerning other people.
When someone with whom you are not in a close relationship, particularly a coworker, approaches you with gossip it is best to refrain from the discussion. Such conversations can lead to unwanted repercussions.
But when a prying question is thrown at you, it can be difficult to duck and run.
The best solution for gossip and prying questions? A quick change of subject.
No need for apologies, simply interject when you can with a question or comment on a different subject and get the conversation rolling in a different direction. Preferably, directed at the other person. After all, people love to talk about themselves (even if few of us admit it).
However, if your conversation partner doesn't follow in that new direction, you may have to hit her head-on. "I'd rather not discuss this with you" is one such way of letting her know where you stand.
What's important is to keep your wits about you. Boundary lines can sometimes be determined individually, and the other person may not realize she has made a mistake even though she purposely initiated the conversation. By remaining calm, it is easier to lead by example.
Have you ever been at a gathering where someone tells a joke that is definitely not appreciated?
There may be a few nervous chuckles, then a shifting of the eyes, then awkward silence.
Cut the silence - and the discomfort the group may be feeling!
You might acknowledge the moment by saying, "Well, let's leave the awkwardness behind and discuss this fabulous signature cocktail we're enjoying. Does anyone know what's in it?"
If the tension is simply too strong to be broken, it may be prudent to leave the conversation. Do your best, and encourage others, to remain as civil as possible.
Are you familiar with "Foot in Mouth Syndrome"? You make what seems like an innocent comment, perhaps even a compliment, and it turns out you were way off base. The person you are speaking to is offended, or maybe he just doesn't share your perception of what you said.
It happens to us all. And the only thing you can do is apologize and attempt to move the conversation forward or redirect it, if appropriate.
In her book, New Manners for New Times, Letitia Baldrige tells of her unfortunate brush with crossing conversation boundaries.
At a dinner party, she met a man about whom she knew nothing. Noticing his wedding band, she asked the man to point out his wife so she might meet her as well. He informed Ms. Baldrige that his wife died some months back.
Her reply to him was the only one available. "Oh, I'm so very sorry."
Then, to alleviate the tense silence that followed, she went on, "I imagine these last months have been very hard for you. Do you have people - children perhaps - who are helping you cope?"*
This is a perfect example of apologizing for the gaffe and continuing the conversation, but redirecting it so that her conversation partner could focus on a positive aspect of his experience.
You never know when you may be the target of a prying question or witness an uncomfortable situation. Conversation boundaries even tend to slip up on us sometimes.
Lean toward forgiving when folks step over the line, remain calm during those situation, and rescue your conversation partners from awkward moments. Also, apologize when you need to and show compassion always.
The same courtesies will be returned to you many times over.
* Letitia Baldrige (2003). New Manners for New Times. New York: Scribner. 605.