Many years ago, my grandmother told me that polite conversation does not include politics, religion, or how much money a person makes. The topic of sex was never addressed directly, but it was understood that it was a definite no-no. My grandmother was a wise woman.
Polite conversation is a practice that has fallen out of fashion. In fact, the entire concept of keeping other people’s comfort in mind when conversing seems to be alien to our current culture. The rise of unfettered exchanges via social media has made few topics off limits be it with family, friends, coworkers, or complete strangers. Energetic, detailed discussions regarding everything from how well Viagra works for the man in your life to explicit lyrics as a status update to your uncommon hatred of a particular politician or political party reign supreme across the internet and frequently carry over into the workplace.
Social Media Backfire
While freedom of expression is a hallmark of American values and deserves a vigorous defense when challenged, the tendency toward unedited openness has significant drawbacks, especially at work. Imagine this scenario. You are in a planning meeting and the guy across the table is scheduled to present the marketing strategy for increasing you firm’s client base. His entire plan is predicated on making good, solid, communication decisions in each stage of the campaign. He has detailed graphs and a slide presentation with handouts. He is ready to lead! Or is he?
A few months back this fellow friended you on Facebook. Not wanting to give a coworker the cold shoulder, you accepted. No harm, right? Wrong. There you sit trying to concentrate on his detailed plan for moving the company forward and all you can think of is that video he posted of himself in his tighty-whities reenacting the Miley Cyrus VMA performance. Instead of gaining your attention through his professional abilities, he has singled himself out by way of a pseudo-Weiner event. Granted, personal choices and business choices do not necessarily reflect the same decision-making process, but it would be difficult to put your faith completely in this guy’s hands. After all, if he can’t manage his privacy settings, how well can he choose the right client development strategy?
Loose Lips Sink Ships
Face-to-face interactions is another area of communication where the rules of polite conversation no longer seem important. Believe it or not, the break room is not the set of a talk show and every topic should not be up for discussion. The who’s dating who in the office and tales of last night’s after-hours drinkfest can be lots of fun in the moment, but the impressions these conversations can convey may not be the ones you have been working so hard to develop. Being portrayed as the office gossip or the crazy party boy is typically not aligned with gaining more responsibilities, and therefore income, at work. Having the wrong person walk by and overhear your conversation can effectively remove you from the promotion list. Additionally, unless the people you are telling stories about are comfortable being the topic of conversation in the office, the damage to your working relationship can be significant should they find out.
Opinions Are Like … Everyone Has One
Your workmates are not you. That seems simple enough, but when you work alongside someone long enough, the awareness of the differences between you fade. Before you launch into your assessment of a political candidate or religion, be conscious of the fact that your opinion may not be theirs and the potential for offense increases the longer you talk. It is not in the least helpful to argue with coworkers about their beliefs, choice of romantic partner, or support of one cause or another. Employees are hired based on their skills set and experience, not their political views, religious beliefs, or Star Trek fanboy status. Bringing these potentially disruptive topics into the workplace can ruin more than your discussion opponent’s day. At best, you run the risk of offending someone and creating a difficult working environment for both of you. At worst, it can change your employment status.
Being Polite Can Improve the Bottom Line
As old-fashioned as it may seem, sticking to the polite conversation guidelines has a direct affect on team building and creative problem solving. When people feel secure in their work environment, they are better able to focus on the task at hand, share ideas, and allow others to do the same. If you feel that you must discuss politics, religion, sex or another potentially awkward topic at work, make sure that everyone participating understands that your comments are opinions and not an attack on another person’s views. The often repeated assertion that a company’s employees are ”just like family” is rarely true and even if it is, it does not excuse trampling the sensibilities of other members of the team.
So the takeaway here is to speak gently and for pity’s sake, get your privacy settings right!