what subjects are off-limits for work chat?

A reader writes:

I was recently part of a conversation about things that should never ever be discussed at work. People listed politics, religion, personal lives, alternate health, and money/health troubles.

I don’t know if I can fully agree all of these must be fully checked at the door. Making sure one is mindful of knowing one’s audience, realizing one is at work, and keeping things in check, sure.

So I thought I would bring the question to you. Do you think these are solid no-nos? Some but not others? Do you have any things you think are solid no-nos for workplace discussion?

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 322 comments… read them below }

  1. Fed Employee*

    The abbreviation G.R.A.P.E.S. can serve a person well. Stay away from these topics:

    1. sb51*

      The problem with including “sexuality” (rather than, perhaps, just “sex”) on there is that people will take “My wife and I went to the Local Sports Event” from a man as uncontroversial, but from a woman as “shoving your politics in people’s faces” etc.

      1. fine tipped pen aficionado*

        As always the tricky thing about politics is that some people’s very existence is politicized.

        (I am personally of the view that everything we do and are is always political, but some of us have the privilege of not noticing that in certain spaces.)

        1. Phony Genius*

          Regarding your last sentence, we had an employee who recently left that once got upset with somebody who had mentioned that he had gone to a concert. She explained that when the concert hall was built 60 years ago, her mother was displaced from her home so it could be built, and they were not compensated in any way. She made it clear that she did not appreciate anybody attending events there, which effectively turned it into a political topic.

          1. Vio*

            Definitely sucks for her mother but she’s definitely joined the Bananapants Brigade by taking her reactions to that level. People deliberately bringing up an issue they know will wind her up, fair enough if she gets wound up. People mentioning something vaguely connected to something 60 years ago that upset them without any reasonable expectation of their having the slightest clue… just a tad over the top.

      2. HailRobonia*

        A good rule of thumb is that it’s okay to talk about “who” but not “what”, as in “who you are partnered with (etc…)” but not “what you do with them in bed.”

        1. anon24*

          This! I had a co-worker call me and a few other coworkers homophobes because we complained about the fact that he constantly talked in explicit detail about the things he and his boyfriend did in bed. Nope, if it was you and a girlfriend we’d still complain because we didn’t want to hear those things while trapped at work. Tell me about your partner, tell me about your dates, sure, but once you get to the bedroom we can skip that part.

          1. Pies*

            Oh gosh, yours is so much worse than mine, but we have one person who just will not stop with the referencing her and her husband’s sex life references, even though it NEVER gets a response from anyone. It’s more subtle, like referencing conjugal visits and talking about her date nights like ‘it ended REALLY nicely ifyaknowwhatImean.’

            It’s just so weird.

            1. Maggie Perhaps*

              I had a coworker at an entry level bank job turn to me and tell me what her favourite sex position was and ask what mine was. We’d been talking about the weather. She was 18-19 and definitely not super professional overall but just… wow.

      3. Morgan Proctor*

        Yes, and to put it explicitly, we never want to discourage LGBTQ+ people from being out at work, and we never want to discourage workers from organizing DEI initiatives that prioritize LGBTQ+ issues.

        And banning talk about “economics” sounds to me, a unionized worker, like a sneaky way of discouraging people from talking about their pay. I know that’s probably not what we mean here, but still… something to be aware of. Unionize!

        1. New Jack Karyn*

          Yeah, ‘economics’ covers a lot of ground, and I’m not sure of the context in this case.

    2. Jiminy cricket*

      Yes and no. A lot of it depends on what you mean by “stay away from.” I’m a heterosexual cis woman. Let’s say I tell my coworkers I just got engaged to a man. Then my coworker — a man — shares that he has just gotten engaged to his partner, also a man.

      Both of us have shared about our sexuality. Is one of those statements off-limits? Is one of them inherently more political than the other?

      1. Vio*

        I would love to live in a world where both would draw equal amounts of attention. Unfortunately our society is full of double standards and although there’s been some progress in fighting against them, there’s still a good ways to go.

      2. STG*

        Yea, the man would be more likely to be viewed as ‘shoving sexuality in your face’ even though it has nothing to do with sex. I wish that wasn’t the case but our very existence is problematic for those people.

    3. Emoo*

      Unless you’re a SW or related, keeping explicit discussion of sex away from the office is a good rule.

      However, sexuality is fine – I’m going to talk about my partner just the same as anyone else, and the phobics will just have to deal.

      1. Czhorat*

        I completely agree on this.

        I have photographs of my wife and children on my desk. There’s zero reason that anyone else shouldn’t be able to do the same.

        The problem is that too many people still don’t see a wedding picture of a man and a woman as referencing sexuality while they DO see the same if it’s a same-sex couple.

        I agree that sex should be off limits, but sexuality is an entirely different ball of fish. We need to stop conflating the two.

        1. Bookwormgrl*

          I agree with this too. The only problem I have is when (my former coworker who I’ll call A) would discuss her sexuality and other people’s sexuality. She would say, “B is bi.” Another coworker, C, would chime in and say, “I totally get that. B gives me bi vibes.” I’m listening to this conversation and I’m like, “how does a person pick up on sexuality “vibes” of another. I personally don’t care.” Then A, who is bi, would talk about how she would want to date women but A would state that her friend would say that she looks too heterosexual to pick up women.
          Also, this same coworker talked about sex. Yuck.

          1. Vio*

            Speculating about other peoples sexuality is a dangerous topic and even if it’s well meaning it can very easily become a massive problem. People should be allowed to talk about their own sexuality but it’s a personal thing that everyone has to right to decide if they want theirs to be a topic of conversation or not.

            1. Despachito*

              Talk about their own sexuality in terms that they are dating a same-sex person – sure, everybody should be able to do that.

              Talk about their own sexuality in terms of being technically explicit, irrespective of orientation – NO, because there is also the right of the OTHER PERSON to not want to hear such conversation.

              I could very much do without the information in what weird places my coworker was, erm, getting physical with her married boyfriend.

              1. Vio*

                Agreed. It’s perfectly possible to discuss sexuality without discussing sex. Doesn’t matter if it’s gay, straight, solo or involving a dozen people I really don’t need or want to know the details of peoples sex lives. That they have a healthy and happy relationship, great, that’s wonderful! Beyond that is best kept just between the people involved and maybe a therapist or something.

        2. Jamie (he/him)*

          Yeah, for a lot of people, alas, “here’s a picture of a man and a woman getting married” means “aww, how beautiful!” whilst “here’s a picture of a man and a man getting married” means “which one of them does what when they have gay sex and why are they making me think about gay sex it’s not fair how dare they make me think about gay sex?”

          We queer people used to believe it was the novelty of the existence of queerness that made people do that. But it’s a subject referenced on everything from Sesame Street to the national news these days, so it’s hardly novel any more. Now it’s just a weird obsession some people have with what we do (or don’t do) in bed.

          1. Jessica*

            It’s funny how for a lot of straight people, straight relationships are about love while queer relationships are about sex.

            1. AMWF*

              Yeah. It’s like same race relationships are about love and interracial relationships are about politics and power dynamics.

            2. John Smith*

              it’s not just relationships they sexualise, it’s your very existence. I once asked my boss which engineer would be attending to some equipment (so I could distinguish them from the multitude of other engineers working on site and hope it wasnt the same engineer who worsened the problem rather than fix it last visit).
              I was told simply that he’s quite old and I robably wouldn’t fancy him.
              And my boss wonders why I lose my temper with him.

              1. Contrast*

                Well, yes but no. It’s about whether or not someone feels sexual desire (which I also don’t want to talk about with my coworkers). An ace person may or may not have sex–just knowing they are ace tells you nothing on that front.

                Plus, some ace (and aro, and aro/ace) people identify with a sexual orientation like gay or straight. So, really, knowing someone is gay/straight/pan tells you nothing expect who they partner with–you have no information about nature of the partnership. For coworkers, that is exactly how I like it.

          2. A*

            When a straight couple announces the woman is pregnant, it weirdly always makes me think about them having sex, and that’s super awkward. I also recognize this is a me problem, and I don’t go around telling them not to announce the pregnancy because that’s sexual. (though really, I think announcing pregnancy is waaay more sexual than mentioning the gender of your partner.)

            1. SpaceySteph*

              I’ve always thought of pregnancy announcements as more of a practical matter like “in X months I will be out of the office for Y time.” Would you rather people just never announce it and thus never give their coworkers time to prepare for their leave?

              1. New Jack Karyn*

                This seems a little unfair. A recognizes it’s a ‘them’ problem, and that their response is a tad outside the norm. They’re not really asking anyone to do anything differently.

            2. Contrast*

              “I don’t go around telling them not to announce the pregnancy because that’s sexual.”

              The thing is, you don’t actually know how the woman got pregnant. You can make some pretty good assumptions, but you don’t actually know. And, there is no need to make any assumptions. Even with a friend, it’s a little intrusive to let your mind start going there.

                1. Zzz*

                  You mean virgin birth, I think. Immaculate conception is the Roman Catholic doctrine that Mary did not have original sin.

                2. Seeking Second Childhood*

                  zzz well “today I learned” … explains why that particular religious iconography is so metaphorical.

          3. Vio*

            Some of it probably is just curiosity and the people asking may not even realise how it comes off (obviously there are also many who do intend to cause discomfort but I suspect that stems from their own inevitable discomfort over their own heads being stuck inside their own arses), much like the example given about asking a Jewish person about all their holidays and traditions every time one of them comes up… the kind of thing that should be obvious if they take the time to think about it, but is so often done impulsively that they don’t realise it.
            Regardless of intent though, everyone is entitled to having their privacy respected and even a well intentioned violation is still a violation.

      2. Isben Takes Tea*

        As a camp counselor, our guidelines around sexuality/odentity are “we can talk about who we are, but we don’t talk about what we do.”

      3. I Speak for the Trees*

        I am 100% with you on this! I am polyamorous and have two partners and don’t hide that. That said, most of what I say at work is pretty benign and always non-sexual. You know, stuff like, “C just graduated from Harvard in May” or “A just got a promotion at work.” Seriously, most of what everyone (regardless of gender expression or sexuality) says at work is more about repainting the dining room than what goes on in the bedreoom.

    4. boopnash*

      quietly chuckling to myself because I work in politics and that’s list is exactly what we talk about all day at work hahaha, it’s definitely not a normal work environment!

      1. Stretchy McGillicuddy*

        I used to work at place whose entire mission statement blended three of the hot topics into one, somehow extremely boring, raison d’etre. Whenever I have to bring it up in job interviews, I just preface it with, I am aware I’m about to delve into the three biggest NOs you can possible get into in a job interview, but I’m just going to focus on my tasks and accomplishments.

        Only once that I was made aware of did the interviewer proceed to project his entire life experience negatively onto my job. Most other people responded to my discussion with a combination of, wow you explained your role there really clearly, and also ,wow, I was expecting something else entirely but that org actually sounds really dry/boring/wonky/academic.

        1. Rainy*

          I do something completely unrelated now, but my genre specialties in my field of study included something with a very titillating name, and when people ask, I always say “I specialized in X and also in Y, which is not as exciting as it sounds”. I guess it helps that if someone continues to question me about it, I immediately go Deep Nerd and start talking about how the really *interesting* thing is that as a genre it survived for a single repeat of the genre cycle, and the historical, social, political, economic, and individual author personality factors that I believe made that possible and indeed inevitable. I have never actually made it through the entire explanation in casual conversation with a layperson, which is a shame because I find the topic endlessly exciting.

      2. Stretchy McGillicuddy*

        I am so glad this came up. I just returned to the workforce after a 10+ year SAHM absence and sometimes I feel like an alien. I don’t know what combination of norms changing and my office being extra conservative I’m looking at, but I have noticed sooo many things are now “off-limits” that had never occurred to me.

        For example (for context my manager and I are both women, and about the same age) I asked my manager where she got a dress she was wearing bc I loved it and wanted to wear something similar to an event I had coming up. She smiled and told me, and then whispered that you aren’t supposed to comment on other people’s outfits at work. I mean, I get where that rule comes from, but also, that’s a bit much?

        I also noticed that if I say something like, oh, I’m taking my kids to the beach next week, it shuts down the conversation, and I have eventually figured out nobody else talks about their families at all.

        Basically I work in an office where nothing is ever said, even in passing, that isn’t strictly work related. I guess it’s “safe” but also feels a bit weird. Is this the new norm?

        1. Modesty Poncho*

          Noooo that doesn’t sound normal at all. Everywhere I’ve worked you’ve been fine to compliment another person’s outfit and mention your kids.

        2. Chilipepper Attitude*

          I think some offices are like that. But not all.

          I feel like at my office, people barely even talk about work. We only email or online chat. And our offices are in a tight grouping. We just don’t talk!

        3. Your Computer Guy*

          I would not take that as the norm for all, or even most, offices. That’s pretty extreme. I don’t think I’ve ever been shot down like that for complimenting someone’s clothes, especially in the context of “where did you get it?” Same with general life chit chat. My team is mostly remote, so we actually try to get some light conversation going in our Teams chat so it’s not all just “work, work, work.”

        4. The Somewhat Average Gilly Hopkins*

          Your office sounds incredibly weird…. those seem like totally normal topics! In fact, I don’t have kids, and all my coworkers do, so pretty much every pre-meeting chitchat involves kids. It would never occur to me to suggest people shouldn’t talk about their kids!

        5. Jiminy cricket*

          That was absolutely not the norm anywhere I have ever worked. “Great shoes.” “Love that dress.” “Can I ask where you got those pants, because they’re exactly what I’ve been looking for.” That’s all incredibly safe. In fact, “Wow. I love your glasses” is my go-to small talk for the first awkward minutes on Zoom with new clients right now. (Because everyone is wearing great glasses these days.)

          On the other hand, I would never say, “That dress makes you look so slim” or anything like it, because that’s a comment on someone’s body, and that’s off-limits for me.

        6. Shirley Keeldar*

          Wow, that does sound super chilly to me. Personally, I like the rule of “only compliment things that are a deliberate choice”—so “Your eyes are such a beautiful color,” is definitely Not Okay at work, but “Hey, those are cool shoes!” is fine.

          I guess not at your workplace, though; sorry about that. But I do think it’s a good rule of thumb for most situations.

          1. Bookmark*

            agree with this, but I’d also add that it’s best to stick to complimenting the item/thing that is a deliberate choice (like your example of the shoes, or a dramatic new hair color or something) rather than the item in relationship to the person’s body (ex: “that dress is so slimming on you!” or “you look great in that color” can feel weird and uncomfortable to receive in a way that “what a cool dress! where did you get it?” doesn’t.)

        7. The Original K.*

          A few days ago my boss’s boss asked me where I’d bought the dress I was wearing. I was flattered and told her. It’s a totally normal thing to do in every place I’ve worked.

          1. Rainy*

            I am from the midwest originally, and if you ask me where I bought something not only will I tell you, I will tell you if I got it on sale, how much the sale was, and how often this place has sales, along with any tips I have in terms of coupon/discount stacking, how to wangle extra discounts, and whether I think the item was actually worth what I paid in terms of quality and longevity.

            1. Jiminy cricket*

              Anyone: “Love your dress!”
              The Midwest: “Thanks! It’s from Target!”

                1. Baroness Schraeder*

                  Haha, I usually lead with “Thanks! It has pockets!” because obviously that’s the most important feature of a dress, regardless of how good it looks or what it cost…!

                2. The Original K.*

                  Oh, if a dress has pockets I will ALWAYS announce it. What do we want? POCKETS.

        8. Rainy*

          Um…sounds like that’s normal for your current office, but it’s 100% not standard across all offices!

        9. Critical Rolls*

          Just chiming in to say that sounds very weird to me, too. The rule is don’t comment on people’s *bodies* at work, so not “that outfit is slimming” or “only skinny people could pull that off.” But saying “Great shirt” or whatever would be fine in most environments. And avoiding talking about personal lives to the point where a casual mention of weekend plans shuts down the conversation is VERY unusual.

          1. Caliente Papillon*

            One might even say bizarre. I would not want to work with people like that at all and it’s not like I gab all day.

            1. allathian*

              Yeah, I agree. It would feel oppressive, and I don’t do my best work when I’m feeling oppressed or anxious.

        10. Stormfly*

          I think the boundary is that you should talk about liking the outfit/hairstyle itself, not how well someone looks in an outfit, and, particularly if you’re a man, you should keep an eye on whether you comment on women’s appearance more than men.

          So, you can say to someone you like their tie, you think they’re looking very summery today, or their new hair colour is very cool, but you shouldn’t say that the dress is very flattering on someone, or that’s a very attractive haircut.
          Someone can be technically following the first rule, but breaking the spirit by constantly commenting on women’s appearances in a way they don’t with men, which makes women feel like their appearance is being scrutinised in a way that men’s aren’t. e.g. My male manager always compliments the guys on the team when they get a new haircut, so I wouldn’t bat an eye if he commented on mine. But if a male co-worker commented every other day on the top I’m wearing but not on any of the men’s, I’d start to feel uncomfortable.

          The part about not appreciating conversation about your personal lives sounds like something particular to your office culture. That would be a completely uncontroversial topic of conversation where I work.

    5. Jessica*

      I feel like the problem with this list is that the status quo is to treat dominant identities as “neutral” and marginalized ones as inherently “political,” “religious,” etc.

      On another post, General von Klinkerhoffen made the following comment, which I think gets at the problem:


      Funny, I’ve come here from a discussion elsewhere in which someone pointed out what “political” means in discourse.

      Two genders: male and political.

      Two sexualities: straight and political.

      Two religions: Christian and political.

      Two races: white and political.


      Obviously, explicit discussion of *sexual activity* has no place in most workplaces.

      But “sexuality” is a different beast. Straight people mention their spouses all the time, which is very much indicating their sexuality, but most people don’t consider a man mentioning his wife to be about sexuality. On the other hand, when queer people do it…

      Similarly, in terms of religion, someone saying they’re leaving work early to go to their kid’s school Christmas concert isn’t usually treated as “religious,” while someone saying they’re leaving early to go to a seder is. Someone wearing a Celtic knot necklace is doing it because they have Irish ancestry, while someone wearing a magen david is “religious.” But Jewishness is an ethnicity with a distinctive ethnoreligion, not just a religion, so the hegemonic identity (white, Christian) gets treated as neutral while the minority identity gets treated as “political.”

      And that doesn’t get into how if companies handle any sort of demographic data, they *have* to talk about things like race, religion, gender, and sexuality or they can’t address bias.

      Ultimately, while it might be comfortable and easy to just put a blanket ban on “political” topics, that’s a responsibility dodge that ends up reinforcing a biased and often bigoted status quo and treating marginalized identities as if there’s something wrong with them.

      1. the cat ears*

        But the fact that some people are bigots and misclassify people’s existence as “political” doesn’t negate the worth of classifying some things as political overall.

        It’s kind of like how bad-faith arguments about “free speech” from internet trolls doesn’t mean free speech isn’t an important principle to protect.

        People who argue in bad faith and are wrong about things shouldn’t be able to make it impossible to draw boundaries or articulate general principles.

        1. Jessica*

          My point is that I don’t trust the people with the power to set official boundaries to set them in a way that doesn’t just reinforce the status quo and further other marginalized groups.

      2. MEH Squared*

        All of this. You said what I wanted to say, but much more clearly and succinctly. When the powers that be have a vested interest (consicously or unconsciously) in maintaining the status quo, the results is the shutting down of minority voices.

        I am a minority in many ways and learned early on that only certain people were afforded the luxury of voicing their opinions as being ‘neutral’.

        I remember when the debate over marriage equality was happening. So many antis were bleating about ‘why can’t we keep the discourse civil?’ Because what they wanted to DO was uncivil, no matter how politely they worded it. They were being uncivil. Didn’t matter how many ‘I love you, you heathen sinner’ they threw at us. And that would definitely be something touted as political back in the day, though it’s really not (just like abortion. It’s been made political, but really shouldn’t be).

    6. Charlotte Lucas*

      I work at a government health agency. Some of these topics need to be discussed, but how they are discussed is very important.

    7. Lyra Silvertongue*

      Which is of course easiest for people who see their religion, politics and sexuality as the default.

    8. Never Boring*

      I work in an immigration law practice. These subjects are the meat of quite a few cases and are therefore just about impossible to avoid discussing entirely. It’s possible to do it in a way that respects colleagues’ beliefs, though.

      1. New Jack Karyn*

        I think there’s an implied difference between discussing topics relevant to actual work (e.g., ‘This administration’s policies affect our clients in X ways”) and water cooler talking.

    9. government worker*

      As a federal employee in a non-US country, my job absolutely *requires* discussing politics and economics with co-workers, and I’m curious about how anybody in a federal agency manages to avoid that. We need to anticipate what the elected government of the day (and the next one) might want, be ready to implement or advise on proposed measures and their economic consequences, and understand how political developments might affect our work.

      Obviously there is potential for trouble on these topics, if discussion leads to strife or undermines public faith in our ability to do the job we’re paid to do. But simply declaring them off the table is impractical; it’s more useful to think about *how* we discuss those topics.

      “Guns” seems like a US-specific prohibition; not that they’re never controversial elsewhere, but there’s a lot less heat in it, and when the topic does come up it’s more likely to be work-relevant. Some of my co-workers need to carry guns for specific work-related reasons, and obviously that requires discussion from time to time.

    10. The Shenanigans*

      The problem that there are people who think perfectly innocuous statements like:

      “I go hunting”,
      “I go to church/temple/mosque/Wiccan circle”,
      “I think bodily autonomy is a human right”,
      “I voted today”,
      “I read an interesting article on our industry today”,
      “My [samesex partner] and I…”

      are over-the-top inappropriate. This is both silly and possibly discriminatory. I think using critical thinking skills is the key here, as the OP says.

  2. Falling Diphthong*

    People are notoriously bad at judging what other people really find welcome… You should tread really carefully here, with a really high degree of sensitivity to where others might be coming from (which is not most humans’ strong suit).

    I think this is the heart of it. There’s a minimal version of many of these topics that can work with reasonable people in a non-hostile environment. “Okay at a level two, with one other person, where you can’t be overheard” doesn’t map to “… so obviously also okay at level 10, aimed at everybody, because otherwise we are not being LOGICAL and consistent.”

    If you’re excellent at reading people, situations, and subtle nuance, you can get away with things that don’t work for everyone.

    1. A Girl Named Fred*

      Agreed. I think a lot of people (myself included) mostly default to “let’s just not talk about X” because of how difficult it is to properly gauge how the conversation is being received among its participants AND its onlookers. So it’s just easier to say “don’t talk about X” rather than explaining all the nuance and hoping people’s radar for going overboard is properly calibrated.

    2. Prospect Gone Bad*

      “There’s a minimal version of many of these topics that can work with reasonable people in a non-hostile environment.”

      Exactly! A couple of us actually discuss politics at work. If I wrote out the power dynamics and such it would sound bad (people way higher than me with people way lower than me), but it works for us. In our particular case it’s because we’ve been doing it since maybe 2014 and the people doing it actually follow the topics at hand. But if you get someone chiming in who gets their opinions from snapshots on twitter, it doesn’t work and people get angry very quickly.

  3. Lace*

    I’m one of those people who hates any and all non-work topics being discussed at work (you don’t know me, I don’t owe you myself, and if you want it, pay me extra), but in general I think religion, and politics are the no-goes.

    1. Falling Diphthong*

      I thought Alison’s puppy example was pretty good. Most people will be pleased to hear that you have a new puppy, or at worst neutral about it so long as it is chewing up the charging cables at your home and not at the office.

    2. Cmdrshprd*

      “(you don’t know me, I don’t owe you myself, and if you want it, pay me extra”

      This seems like a very extreme stance, you are entitled to hold it, but I think you will come off as cold in many environments.

      The pay me extra part, I could see if it was coming directly from an employer and they were asking a lot of deeply personal questions.

      But generally getting to know your coworkers is not bad. I am not talking about a deep interrogation about their entire life story or personal beliefs. But more generally the surface level of “what did you do this weekend, what shows/books/movies do you like or are you watching now.

      1. Antilles*

        This is how I’ve always viewed it too.
        “What did you do this weekend?”, “how was your vacation?” and other similar work chat topics are just making some brief breezy chitchat. And that’s exactly how you should treat it in your answer too.
        The person asking the question neither needs nor wants some detailed long story, just a brief couple sentence answer of “met up with some friends at the pool” or “vacation was great, rented a mountain cabin and just relaxed” or so forth.

        1. DataSci*

          As it happens, this weekend I went to Pride. Which many people would consider either political or sexual (when in reality it was mostly convincing my kid that 20 packs of Skittles was enough, even if we DID have a nice new rainbow bag from the Episcopalians he could fill). I think mentioning that should be entirely okay.

      2. Jiminy cricket*

        It’s also very, very easy to hold people at arm’s length without ever explicitly stating it. “So did you do anything fun this weekend?” “Oh, yeah, I was out enjoying this excellent weather. Such a relief after the heat wave. I hope you did, too!” I’ve shared absolutely nothing with you about my life (maybe I was busy chaining myself to a government building in protest during this excellent weather!), but I didn’t shut you down.

        1. MigraineMonth*

          Or redirect the question back to the first person. “Not much, how about you?” As long as it’s friendly and completes the chit-chat exchange, you don’t actually have to share info.

      3. AMT*

        I’m wondering if Lace meant something less like “I refuse to make small talk about the weather in the elevator” and more like “I’m bothered by people’s constant demands that I entertain them or provide info about my personal life that I don’t want to.” Some workplaces are dominated by chatty, gregarious, socially oblivious people, and these coworkers tend to get away with it because most of their coworkers either enjoy their chattiness or aren’t bothered enough to say anything. If you’ve worked in a place like this, it does get old, and I can understand being exhausted by it at the end of the day and wanting to put up better boundaries on your time and energy so you don’t get sucked into long or intrusive conversations. I don’t think it’s completely unreasonable to want people to be a little more conscious of other people’s “don’t bother me, I’m working” signals, or to be direct with people who don’t get the message.

        1. New Jack Karyn*

          You may be on to something. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the folks who have Lace’s stance started off fairly neutral, if reserved. But too many office busybodies and/or oblivious coworkers have pushed them into this position.

    3. NeutralJanet*

      It’s funny, to me that’s such a strangely confrontational way of looking at the world. Do you really feel that people talking casually to you feel that you owe them something?

      1. Student*

        I have a co-worker like this. She is excellent at her job. She has a very strict work-life separation personal policy and will not be social at work, at all, unless she perceives it to be a de-facto job requirement. For example, the boss has mandatory happy hours, and she’ll participate but she sure doesn’t like it.

        It was initially a little off-putting to have her tell me, in so few words, that she would not be friends with me because I am a co-worker. After I got over my initial disappointment and surprise, though, I was glad she was upfront about it and didn’t make it personal. Now I know to keep discussions to business with her.

        I think in practice it’s not nearly as rough as you’re picturing. I think it also works best in jobs that don’t have a major social component to them. We’re in a very technical industry that is pretty suited to keeping social distance from your colleagues, if you want to do so. I imagine in more relationship-based jobs or service-heavy jobs, it’d be much harder to take this approach successfully.

        1. allathian*

          It seems to me that some people just don’t do casual acquaintanceships, everyone’s either pretty much a stranger or a good friend, although how they get to the friend stage with anyone is a bit of a mystery to me. But there are no acquaintances that they’re happy to pass the time of day with or talk about the weekend or the weather.

          I’m at a friendly acquaintances level with the vast majority of my coworkers (including managers), and I’ll find something casual to talk about with just about everyone I work with, in addition to any work-related chat. But my relationships with my coworkers are very transactional, I very rarely bother to keep in touch with any of them once they switch jobs (I’ve been at my current job for 15 years). A contributing factor to this is that I’m not on social media, so keeping in touch would require an intentional effort from me and I’m not really that bothered. I do network with a number of people in my niche field, and they’re the ones who could help me find leads to any new jobs if I wanted or needed to start looking again.

          1. UKDancer*

            Same. I have a lot of acquaintances at work who are people I am friendly with at the tea point, have a chat with in the corridor or will discuss a work issue over a friendly coffee. Very rarely do they become actual friends or people I keep in touch with once I or they move jobs. Although I do use Linked In to keep in touch with a lot of them which makes it easy to link up if we need to.

            I suppose being British the default safe topic is always the weather (special reference to it being too hot or too cold). I can discuss that with any of my colleagues to establish rapport pretty easily. The public transport system and how people commute is a close second.

      2. Kara*

        Well, I’ve run into more than a few, ah, conversationalists who seem to feel that I owe them their attention just because they want to talk. And so what if I’m in the middle of something.

      3. sundae funday*

        I have to assume that Lace has had bad experiences with prying coworkers or something? Because, yeah, when I ask my colleagues how their weekends were, I don’t really… care? I’m just being polite, lol. I would be very taken aback if I was like “hey, how was your weekend?” and my coworker was like “I don’t owe you anything.”

        …cool, never said you did, actually didn’t care how your weekend was, either…. I assume Lace has something more invasive in mind than what my mind went to, though!

      4. Courageous cat*

        Yeah, agreed. This seems to be a common stance on this blog but I’ve never heard of anyone say that/do that irl. It seems like people have no problem with a friendly stranger at a store talking to them, but because it’s coworkers, it draws a line.

      5. Anon for this one*

        Yes. Getting asked “how are you” during chemo was a minefield. Do I lie and say I’m fine to reassure them? Tell the truth and bum them out? I usually went with “as well as can be expected”. Which wasn’t always true but let me move on.

    4. Drago Cucina*

      But, what is religious talk?

      I’m not going to be preaching to co-workers, giving unsolicited advice, etc. I didn’t do that when I worked in a Catholic school.

      If you ask if we went away for a long weekend and I say no, ‘My husband was preaching at all the Masses.’ Is that off-topic religious talk? I would say it’s part of my regular life. I’m not living my life AT people.

      1. Pugetkayak*

        That absolutely would not be “religious talk.” Why can’t you talk about your husband’s job at work when other people can. I think it’s more debating religion, having deep discussions with other people about beliefs where other people can overhear, going over the top with things like religious quotes on emails, etc. Alison has done quite a few questions about religion and what is ok and not.

        1. MigraineMonth*

          Unfortunately, this probably doesn’t apply if your spouse is a sex worker or abortion provider. Some professions are still considered off-limits to mention.

      2. JSPA*

        No more a problem than mentioning that you were at Pride.

        But, “I was at pride, staffing the safer sex float, and I spent an hour doing broad pantomime to spread the good word about dental dams for anal” and “My husband was preaching at all the Masses as part of our lifelong commitment to spreading the word of our lord to the unchurched, young and wavering” are both needlessly problematic–and for some of the same reasons.

        1. they both assume your coworkers should and do share your views or appreciate your philosophy of life.

        2. They presume how comfortable people should be and are with personal topics such as sex or religion (in general).

        3. They presume how comfortable people should be and are with those topics, in the workplace.

        4. They put anyone who might disapprove in a state of intense discomfort, worsened by the fact that any pushback could give the appearance of being against LGBT rights or religious rights.

        In contrast, “I helped staff a float focused on good health practices” or “because we are very active in our faith community such that we budget our time to use one weekend in every month to give back, in some way” –those talk about you and your weekend, while neatly avoiding “talking about sex” and “talking about religion.”

        In both cases, if someone wants to seek you out for some additional details, they’d be able to do so…but nobody is going to be hearing, “I’m signaling that I find your worldview mistaken, if you don’t see life, human value and morality through the same lens that I do.”

        1. UKDancer*

          This so much. I’m quite happy with conversations on “I went to Pride and it was awesome” or “I went to the mosque then played cricket with my friends.”

          I don’t want to know exactly what you got up to if it was sexual and I don’t want to be preached at. Keep it bland and suitable for all audiences at work and avoid anything controversial. In return I promise to keep my lengthy digressions into what I did in ballet class to a minimum.

    5. Aquatic*

      “ I’m one of those people who hates any and all non-work topics being discussed at work (you don’t know me, I don’t owe you myself, and if you want it, pay me extra),”

      Ummm I’m sorry but what???

      This is not a normal way to go through life, full stop.

      1. Peanut Hamper*

        Well, it’s certainly not normal for you, and it’s not normal for me, but it is, apparently, normal for Lace. And we should respect that, even if it is unusual. I don’t think it’s necessarily harmful.

        1. Stuckinacrazyjob*

          yes it’s kinda a quirk. I do some non work small talk but I can run out of energy to do it so I might seem a little standoffish…

        2. allathian*

          Not necessarily harmful, but in many offices a person like Lace would seem standoffish and cold. This would be case even in Finland, and we’re known for generally tolerating silence in social situations better than most people. Apparently we share this cultural characteristic with the Japanese.

          Whether being seen as standoffish and cold would harm someone’s career or not depends on the field and organizational culture, and on a bunch of other factors, possibly including gender (I strongly suspect that an older man who sticks to strictly business at work is viewed differently than a younger woman would be, as annoying as that is).

          Granted, for many extremely introverted people, any connection with other people requires some conscious effort, and many of them choose to limit social chat at work so they can actually get their work done. I’m a chatty introvert who enjoys people, even if it’s draining. I’m usually peopled out after a normal day at the office to the point that I rarely see people outside my immediate family after work on the days that I go to the office.

    6. Firefighter (Metaphorical)*

      Ugh I feel you, Lace. Learning to do work chat has been the least rewarding and most annoying part of my career, but I have to do it because of the roles I am in, where it’s important to facilitate communication with people who do not feel the same way as me and need small talk to function effectively. So they do in effect pay me extra for it (or at least it’s part of the work I am paid to do).

    7. The Shenanigans*

      It depends on how it’s said. If someone says, “I am going to church,” in response to being asked about their weekend plans, that’s obviously fine. Pressure to attend with them is obviously not fine.

      My problem with a blanket ban on politics is that too many people take any statement that shows them the world is full of people who aren’t like them as political. E.g., complaining that someone is being “political” by talking about their same-gender partner. Too many people also think that any discussion of human rights is political. E.g., police shouldn’t shoot Black men just because they can. Those discussions belong everywhere, as they affect everyone all the time.

      Yes, this is difficult to navigate. Blanket bans are easier. Blanket bans also never work and lead to inequality. A better, more grown-up solution is to use empathy and critical thinking to read the room. I know it’s not easy, but the way to get better at anything is to practice.

  4. fine tipped pen aficionado*

    Would love to see more philosophizing going into noticing and respecting boundaries than trying to divine what they might be and never approach them.

    In tabletop roleplaying we have this practice called Lines & Veils. A line is something you don’t want to ever come up in the story and a Veil is something that can be referred to but you don’t want to go into detail about it. You lay them out at the beginning of a game and you never question someone else’s or push that boundary.

    It’s a really useful practice and I would give my left arm to see more articles about that kind of thing than about what you shouldn’t bring up in the first place.

    1. Emoo*

      I really like this concept, and especially the way the name makes me feel like I’m a magical druid or something :’D

    2. Nobby Nobbs*

      Oh, for a world where it would be practical to have a “session zero” with every new coworker to hammer these things out.

      1. ian*

        Theoretically, that’s what new employee orientation/training and a well-written employee handbook are for.

        In practice, I’ve found that the people who most need to pay attention to said training are the most likely to ignore it or treat it just as a box to check.

    3. Indubitably Delicious*

      lines and veils is an incredibly useful concept in this context. thanks for bringing it in!

    4. Everything All The Time*

      I had to re-implement the YIKES card for a similar reason. “hold up the yikes card to move on from a surprise uncomfortable topic if the lines and veils didn’t cover it”

    5. Nina*

      I would love to be in a game you were DMing. That sounds excellent. Much unlike the last DM I played with, who actively encouraged That One Douchebag to have his character r*pe another player’s character because ‘it’s contributing to the story and all the rest of y’all want to do is boring!’

      1. Stormfly*

        Oh wow. That’s possibly the most toxic DnD anecdote I’ve come across. PCs betraying other PCs is pretty universally considered to be toxic gameplay, and and having a PC rape an NPC would be taking the toxicity up past 11 at most tables, and this is a sickening combination of both. I’d have quit immediately and warned everyone against ever interacting with that DM or PC again.

    6. MigraineMonth*

      Unfortunately, the GM of Life has been really bad at respecting my boundaries. I keep telling them I don’t want there to be any SA or harm to children, but they don’t listen.

  5. Nobby Nobbs*

    So, I just backspaced a few comments that would probably get deleted for lacking civility. I’ll just make it generally known that I object to a few of these and let somebody politer explain why.

    1. Nobby Nobbs*

      Oops, meant to make this a reply and not a top- level comment. I guess it works either way, though.

    2. Kara*

      Right now your comment isn’t actionable; perhaps you could just share the topics that you feel should be allowed in the workplace? Write it down as a simple list, perhaps? Right now the politer people you’re hoping to speak for you have nothing to work with, because the topic(s) could be anything.

  6. KHB*

    I agree with Alison that sex is the biggest no-go – and I’d define that topic quite broadly. We had an incident years ago where a bunch of guys were hanging out in the hallway (within earshot of people trying to work) having a loooooonnnnng drawn-out conversation about which actresses they found most attractive, which had kept their looks the best as they aged, etc. None of their language was crude or anything like that, but it was all very male-gazey, and they just kept going ON and on and on. As a (young at the time) woman, I remember feeling really uncomfortable.

    I wasn’t the one who complained about them, but apparently somebody did, and they got in trouble, and they were peeved about it for years afterward. “But all I said was that I thought Sandra Bullock was an attractive woman!” No, my dude. That was not all you said.

    1. Gary Patterson's Cat*

      I’ve heard many women talk like that about men (usually actors and such) at work too, so it’s not just a guy thing.

      1. KHB*

        Surely you realize that it’s not an exact parallel, though? Women struggle to be taken seriously in the workplace in ways that men do not, and the wider implications of men’s sexualization of women and women’s sexualization of men are not the same.

        Even so, if the genders were exactly reversed in the incident I’m describing (i.e., a bunch of women talking at length about hot male actors within earshot of a bunch of men trying to work), and one of the men complained that the women were acting inappropriately, I’d be inclined to agree with him.

    2. JayNay*

      Ha, it’s like the one-two punch of sexist behavior. First they objectify women and when they got called out they complained about it for years? So embarrassing.

    3. SoloKid*

      Agreed. I (female) didn’t care to hear my female coworkers enjoy the days when “the hot buff guy from the mail room” made his rounds.

    4. The Shenanigans*

      Yeah, the closest workplace conversations should get to talking about sex is “I’m/my partner is pregnant!”. Though the workplace should be careful not to entertain complaints about a woman mentioning a date with another woman, discussions of pronouns, pictures of queer families, etc.

  7. Not Tom, Just Petty*

    OP’s list is pretty much, “not work.”
    Anywhere a group of people come together, they have to create their own variation, their own dynamic.
    It’s hard. I wish there was a list of dos and don’ts.
    I don’t think there is an overarching, one size fits all answer, any more than there is equivalent to proper dinner conversation, proper party conversation. Even if everyone has the same political view, has the same background, has the same life experience, there will still be a line.
    That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t communicate with people you work with all day.
    It just means that people have to put in some effort to make a functioning eco system in their office.

  8. GiantPanda*

    I’d add nutrition / diet and weight to the list.
    Appropriate only if everybody (including listeners) welcomes it.

    1. Caramel & Cheddar*

      This is a good one. I almost never want to hear anything about nutrition/diets/weight at work.

      1. Slow Gin Lizz*

        I never want to hear anything about diets and weight pretty much ever, except when I proselytize about how BMI and “calories-in, calories-out” are both complete and utter nonsense (and in the case of BMI, absolutely racist). But I only bring that up when someone else does first.

      1. rayray*

        I am sick of it too, I couldn’t care less that you “can’t” eat an apple because whoever made up keto said so.

        (disclaimer – I am not being totally serious here…it’s annoying but I am not actually implying that I think this is actually inappropriate)

      1. La Triviata*

        I will sometimes comment that someone’s lunch looks/smells good; I might ask them where they got it, but that’s about it. Otherwise, I usually avoid discussing food and I always avoid diets.

        1. Kelly L.*

          This is ok once in a while! I’ve had a few co-workers over the years who do that about every lunch, every day, no matter how mundane (i.e. it doesn’t really smell that interesting every time) and I start to feel a bit on display. Like it’s either a social cue to eat somewhere else or to eat less.

          So you’re probably good if you don’t do it every day to the same person lol!

    2. Good Enough For Government Work*


      I once had to go to HR (*HR!!!*) to get a manager to take down her extremely detailed (and WILDLY unhealthy) weight loss goals, which she had pinned to the team noticeboard like it should be a group endeavour.

    3. The Prettiest Curse*

      As someone who has food allergies, I am sick of hearing other people’s opinions about food allergies. Some people just won’t be willing to believe that anyone could have a severe allergic reaction to anything unless someone actually goes into anaphylactic shock and dies in front of them – and even then they’d probably try to find another way to explain it. I don’t want to hear what you think about my food allergies unless you are an allergy specialist who is giving me medical care, thanks.

      1. Slow Gin Lizz*

        That reminds me of the time I complained at a campground about the yellow jackets building a nest near the bathroom because I’m allergic and the campground manager said, and I quote, “Well, they’re probably not the same kind of yellow jackets you’re allergic to.” Um, what????

        But at least I only have to worry in the summer and if I see a wasp, not every day and each time I need to eat. Sorry, Prettiest Curse, that you have to deal with those people and their stupid opinions.

        1. The Prettiest Curse*

          Fortunately all my current colleagues are great about it, but alas much of my family are not.
          I will keep my fingers crossed that every wasp in the universe gives you a wide berth!

          1. Slow Gin Lizz*

            Thank you! So far so good, no stings since my original reaction 20 years ago. Hope to keep my streak going for as long as possible.

      2. ClaireW*

        Ugh yes, I will never understand why some folks just cannot grasp people having food allergies, especially if the allergy isn’t something common like peanuts… I have a citrus fruit allergy, and even after 11 years I’m pretty sure my mother in law still thinks of it as just “really not liking” citrus… Plus so many people react with “Can you even be allergic to that?” or “But I’m sure a little bit wouldn’t matter”

        1. Calpurrnia*

          OMG someone else has a citrus allergy!!!! Mine is probably technically more of a “sensitivity” than a true allergy (I mostly get nausea from the smell/flavor, or if I eat it my body gives me a food-poisoning-like gastro reaction and sometimes my mouth gets itchy or numb… but I’m not going to go into anaphylactic shock and suffocate) but I call it an allergy as shorthand to avoid going into detail. But it is ASTOUNDING the number of people who just straight-up do not believe that citrus is a thing you can be allergic to. “What do you mean? You need the vitamins to live!” “How come you don’t get scurvy?”

          I think most people these days would understand if you asked them to refrain from eating peanuts in the same room as you because of an allergy. But if you ask someone to stop peeling an orange during a work meeting because the intense smell carries and makes me nauseous, they get *incredibly* defensive and self-righteous about it as though I’ve told them they aren’t allowed to eat anything for the rest of the day because it personally offends me.

          (And then there’s the people who think lemon is a garnish that can be added to whatever and doesn’t count as an ingredient. I spent literally decades thinking that fish made me sick. Turns out it’s just because so many restaurant fish recipes add lemon juice for no reason whatsoever, and don’t even bother to mention it in the description. I actually quite like fish that’s cooked without lemon juice.)

          Sorry that this is kind of off-topic; I’m just excited to commiserate with someone who actually gets it.

    4. fine tipped pen aficionado*

      I supported this one long before I learned about fat justice and disordered eating if only because hearing about someone’s diet is one of the top 5 most tedious conversations in the world. It is SO deeply boring. My instinct is to say it’s the most tedious topic, but I try not to deal in absolutes.

      1. Slow Gin Lizz*

        AGREED, it’s unbelievably boring to listen to, I also felt that way long before fat justice. But now that I’m a lot more aware of fat justice, I also am more vocal about expressing my displeasure at diet and weight talk.

      2. Anon for this one*

        TW: nutritionist, weight gain

        It hasn’t come up yet, but if it did I’d be happy to talk about how the oncology nutritionist told me I needed to put on 5-10 pounds to get “underweight” off my chart, and go into detail about what she recommended.

    5. Fizzy Lifting Juice*

      Everything deserves context, this kind of diet-talk-policing has been weaponized against a non-work workplace group I’m a part of. We have a powerlifting support group and when enough of us are in office we meet at lunch and discuss powerlifting and everything that goes along with it. Our discussions around food are super helpful and most of us have a history with disordered eating so we as a group act as accountability partners for each other to make sure we’re not slipping into old or new bad habits. We got reported to HR for discussing macros and timing among ourselves at lunch. The lunchroom is two floors of an entire building and hasn’t been full since the pandemic began. We were mostly away from others and there were many other places to sit if people were bothered by our topic. Work has used publicity off some of the group members charity lifting events so HR backed off really quick after they tried to bring us in for a conversation and realized what had happened. One of my coworkers is disabled and she has many horror stories of being policed and reported to HR over discussing her dietary requirements and restrictions on request from curious coworkers and party planning people. The workplace is never going to be fully free of discussions of diet as we all eat. There are many valid reasons to discuss food and diet in the workplace and holding a bit of grace for each other and starting with open conversation is a much better path forward than a hard ban-list and peer police structure.

      1. Hans Solo*

        Seems excessive on the part of that person, but it sounds kind of like you guys are holding each other accountable and acting as support about this and that shouldn’t be in earshot of other people. It’s deeply triggering to other people.

      2. Caramel & Cheddar*

        Sharing dietary restrictions and requirements with someone tasked with providing food for a party isn’t really the issue being brought up here. “You shouldn’t eat so much of X,” “That’s unhealthy,” “Here’s how many calories I eat,” or “You’re going to get fat if you keep eating that!” is really not the same as “Please ensure there’s a vegan option for Jan at the staff lunch.”

      3. Eater of Cupcakes*

        For the record, it doesn’t really matter that much that “there were many other places to sit if people were bothered by our topic.” I’m not gonna say what’s appropriate or not to talk about in the lunch room, but I’m saying that if something actually is inappropriate to talk about then it’s not other people’s job to move.

    6. sundae funday*

      I agree, but with a caveat. If someone comments about what another person is eating (or not eating), then that person is allowed to talk about their diet.

      If someone asks me why I’m not eating a donut, I’m going to say I’m trying to eat less sugar.

      1. allathian*

        Yup, I agree with this exception. Although I’d probably also wistfully say something in that person’s hearing like “I just wish people’d stop commenting on what others eat or don’t eat…”

    7. Festively Dressed Earl*

      I was wondering why this wasn’t on the initial list. Diet culture isn’t exactly alternative health, since it’s so pervasive, and the pressure can be unreal. At two different workplaces, I worked with people who would try to get the whole department to go on a ‘diet’ or a ‘cleanse’ they’d gotten off an eating disorder website, and a lot of people invariably got sucked in.

  9. Jaunty Banana Hat I*

    I think overall, those are good topics to avoid, especially if you’re new to your workplace.

    Some of those topics can be discussed sometimes in some situations with some coworkers, but a lot of people who think they are good at knowing when/what is okay to be discussed about those topics are actually really terrible at making that kind of discernment. Thus the recommendation to just avoid those topics.

    Above all, if you are discussing any of them, you should NEVER assume that everyone agrees with your take on the subject, and you should be prepared for people to disagree with you. If you can’t handle that, then don’t try to discuss it. And if someone says they don’t want to discuss something non-work-related, do NOT force it.

    1. Melissa*

      100% liking your statement: “Never assume that everyone agrees with your take.” We all do that and we need to rein it in!

      I go to a very progressive church, and it has happened so many times that people will be standing around talking about XYZ current issue, with a tone of “Obviously we all feel the same way.” And I often don’t feel the same way! I’m progressive too, but that doesn’t mean I voted for every single candidate and every single referendum the same way that my neighbor did. It’s even way more fraught in the workplace, since obviously I could change churches easier than I could change jobs.

    2. Momma Bear*

      Agreed. You need to know where the line is and if you don’t know yet, err on the side of caution. Many jobs are fed-adjacent and talking at least somewhat about the goings on in the government is “work” in that it affects your job and funding. But there’s a difference in discussing a continuing resolution and discussing actions of individual politicians. It can be a very fine line sometimes, like the recent letter where the LW was pregnant and worried about state laws affecting her on work travel.

      1. Transit worker*

        Yes to this point about politics being part of work sometimes. I work in public transit, and many agencies around the country are facing fiscal challenges as federal pandemic funding runs out. The people who will decide on future funding are typically state and local politicians. Talking about these issues, or how things might change if X or Y person is elected in the next gubernatorial cycle, is part of some people’s jobs.

        It doesn’t mean that everyone wants to hear your opinion of every national political news story, though.

        1. MsM*

          And even on the stuff that is work-relevant, I don’t necessarily want an emotional venting session on everything that’s wrong with the policy we’re trying to change right now, even behind closed doors or after hours. It’s hard to keep communications professional and stay focused if I’m feeling too angry or hopeless about the work for that.

    3. A Girl Named Fred*

      I agree with your last point and might also add that depending on the coworker and other context, giving people a sign up front that you are a reasonable human being who will drop the conversation if asked can go a long way to help the non-confrontational among us who are nodding along and hoping the topic changes. I’m getting better about this with practice, but I have a colleague who will explicitly say, “Please tell me if you want to change the subject,” or “please tell me if I’ve gone too far,” and it makes it easier both to engage and to redirect because I already know they’re going to respect what I request rather than possibly explode.

    4. Antilles*

      And if someone says they don’t want to discuss something non-work-related, do NOT force it.
      Yes, and along with this, pay attention to their signals and response. A lot of people won’t directly say “I don’t want to talk politics”, but will visibly look uncomfortable or not really respond. Treat that lack of interest as a sign to change topics to something else.

  10. Jane Bingley*

    My current and previous jobs are both religious organizations, so religion didn’t really apply – we talked it about a lot and often prayed together. My current job has people of different sects of the same faith working together, and it’s literally part of the job description to engage in conversation about it – we serve one particular sect but feel it’s done best if we’re learning from one another and breaking down barriers between sects.

    That being said, politics was an open topic at my last job but not this one. I think it’s partly culture – the other organization had a lot of room for conflict and people were good to engage in friendly ways without letting it get out of control – and partly a post-COVID world. I have colleagues who think COVID was a scam and others (myself included) who are still taking significant precautions. It’s far easier to let it lie as much as possible and not fight. (We’re mostly remote, so the issue of office rules is thankfully not relevant.)

  11. Good Enough For Government Work*

    Hmm. You know, I think I disagree that sex is 100% totally off-limits as a work topic, although I do agree that the approach needs to be very careful.

    I used to run our org’s LGBTQ+ network, and we ran a few events that touched on the topic at different times and for different reasons – for example, we ran events and workshops that raised awareness around monkeypox (not spread by sex per se, but) and AIDS/HIV. We also ran some LGBT+ History Month events that talked about Ancient Greece and Rome, showing photographs of some very racy ancient art, etc. I even ran a work-sponsored movie screening with a humorous scene in which some of the main characters brandished dildos, howling with laughter! (Bonus points if you can guess which movie…)

    But we did this by making sure everything was opt-in, establishing at the start that we’d be touching on some adult topics and expected everyone present to discuss them in a mature and sensible way, etc. In the case of the movie screening I made sure all attendees werw aware of the film’s rating, etc. Senior staff members attended, a good time was had by all (exception: monkeypox and AIDS awareness-raising…), no complaints were ever raised!

    1. rayray*

      Sure, but sounds like your particular role and the situation are a rare exception.

      If I am working at my desk and coworkers are chit chatting, it’s not really appropriate to be laughing loudly about “pearl necklaces” (an actual thing that happened at my workplace)

      1. Jackalope*

        Yes, this. I had one job where it was occasionally very appropriate for me to discuss sex at work – I was putting together a sex ed curriculum for some youth we were working with as a part of my job. But for the most part it’s not something I would mention at work.

        1. Jim Dandy*

          Right, but in your case there was a specific work-related context to the conversation. Also, it did not open the door to talking about ALL THE SEX ALL THE TIME. There is a huge difference between, “Barbara, can you order 100 more copies of the Condom Safety brochure” and “Hey, everyone, take a look at these pics from my Tinder hookup last night!”

    2. the cat ears*

      I’m curious what the context of this LGBTQ+ network is, what the larger org was, but it sounds like you were discussing these topics at dedicated, opt-in events. That means the only people seeing them were specifically interested in discussing or hearing about them.

      If you’re talking about Everything Everywhere All at Once…I would feel super weird watching that film with my coworkers, but again, assuming it’s opt-in, adults get to decide they’re up for that.

      For either of these, if I were required to attend the event as a “team building” exercise, or if people were loudly discussing the topics from those sessions/the dildo scene next to my desk when I’m trying to work, or going into a lot of detail on them in what I expected to be a casual water cooler conversation — yeah, I’d be upset! I think Alison’s comments about how it is potentially ok to discuss certain topics one-on-one with someone you’re sure is ok with it apply here – but there’s also a greater risk of someone feeling harassed when you’re alone with them, I think.

      “I or someone I know did this and it turned out fine” is not necessarily general proof that it is ok to subject everyone to the thing you did.

      By contrast – if I were discussing something like how I went to a board game night last weekend or that I’m training for a marathon when someone asks how I’m doing, I would not expect them to get upset or ask me to be more discreet or tell me I’m being inappropriate. One reason for declaring certain topics too sensitive for work is so that people can be reasonably confident they’re not offending people when they *don’t* discuss those topics, or if they are it’s a problem specific to the offended person somehow.

      1. just some guy*

        As an avid board game player, I’d generally be comfortable talking at the level of “I went to a board game night”, but there are specific games I’d be wary of discussing in the workplace without knowing people’s boundaries. Pandemic and Puerto Rico come to mind, for very different reasons, even without getting into stuff like CAH that’s *intended* to push boundaries.

    3. Pickles*

      No complaints that you heard. Would you have noticed my quiet boycott of your dildo-waving movie – presented to you as an an unfortunate schedule conflict – and increased job search?

      (I have no idea what this movie is, but based on that description alone, definitely not something I’d participate in with coworkers.)

      I’m not trying to be mean here, just advising additional caution since people may not be comfortable speaking up.

      1. Pickles*

        The Cat Ears said it better before I finished typing, but to clarify my above comment about the job hunt, I would absolutely be factoring in that data into whether the organizational culture is for me.

      2. New Jack Karyn*

        The post clearly says, “But we did this by making sure everything was opt-in, establishing at the start that we’d be touching on some adult topics and expected everyone present to discuss them in a mature and sensible way, etc. In the case of the movie screening I made sure all attendees werw aware of the film’s rating, etc.”

        It really sounds like this was not a ‘mandatory fun’ thing, or ‘Hey, let’s have the whole team attend a session of the LGBTQ+ network to show support’. I think that anyone staying for the whole movie had a good idea of what they were getting into.

        1. Pickles*

          Sure, and if that’s your cup of tea, great! Waving dildos around feels different to me as a description than LGBTQ+ support. The overall offerings tell you something about the overall culture, too, and people factor that into their decisions. That’s all.

          1. New Jack Karyn*

            My point is that it wasn’t a “let’s go show support” thing. It was specifically labeled as opt-in, with everyone knowing the film’s rating. I think that anyone going to that showing knew what they were in for. Watching the movie, and then turning around and saying it’s the reason you’re looking for a new job seems off to me somehow.

      3. Good Enough For Government Work*

        Why would you job search as a result of your entirely voluntary decision to stay after work to come watch a movie with LGBTQ+ network members? Because that’s what it was. Entirely opt-in, ‘hey we’re running this movie and a discussion session afterwards for LGBT+ History Month, tell us if you’d like to come’.

    4. PhyllisB*

      Even in church people don’t always discuss topics in a mature and sensible way. In our Wednesday Bible study we are currently studying the writings of Paul, and there was scripture referencing circumcision.
      At the end when the pastor asked if anyone had any questions or comments you would have thought it was a class of 12-year-olds. (Won’t say just boys, the women were just as bad!!) I was sitting there cracking up.
      The next week when he asked that question, he said he was doing it hesitantly after what happened the week before.
      Luckily, we are all friends, and no one took offense.
      P.S. When I shared this with my husband, he shook his head, and said, “how do you think I feel when this topic comes up in class?” He teaches 5th and 6th grade boys on Wednesday nights.

    5. Madame X*

      What you were describing falls on the exception that Alison spelled out for people who work in the sex health-education of role or organization.

      1. Good Enough For Government Work*

        It was not! And I haven’t heard of that one, actually – is it any good?

        1. New Jack Karyn*

          Well, I haven’t seen it for many years so I’m not sure it holds up. But my goofy young lesbian self loved it when I saw it in the 90s!

      2. allathian*

        Oof, just how many dildo-waving movies that aren’t classed as porn are there?

        I might watch one of those with my good friends or even my husband, but not with coworkers. I like most of them as people, but… nope.

        1. Good Enough For Government Work*

          To be fair, it’s only a very brief scene; the movie as a whole is rated 15, and (since it was after work hours), one person even brought her teenage daughter along.

          (Also, since it looks like nobody’s going to get it — the movie in question is Pride (2014). It’s based on the true story of an LGBT activist group from London who supported a Welsh village during the 1980s miners’ strike. It’s actually a very sweet, funny and occasionally very emotional film.)

        2. Contrast*

          Everything, Everywhere All at Once had such a scene (I saw it with coworkers and died a little bit inside).

    6. anon for this*

      I worked in a government agency that handled personal data, including on sex, gender, and relationships. In order to understand the nature of that data and make sure we were collecting and interpreting it appropriately, we *needed* to discuss sex-related and LGBTQIA+ related topics in the workplace.

  12. Melissa*

    I think one of my rules is that I’ll only discuss those topics with someone who brought it up first. I realize that if we all did this, it wouldn’t work, but it does work for me.

    I had a co-worker (and work friend) at my last job who was an open book and shared EVERYTHING about her life. When she was going to be out for cosmetic breast implants, she told us all about it, with full descriptions of what her husband liked, etc. So, upon her return, I gave her some soaps from Etsy that looked like breasts. Now, is that a “work-appropriate gift”? Definitely not, and I would never give such a thing to anyone else. But I knew she’d enjoy it (and she did!).

    1. Peanut Hamper*

      I think what made it work was that not only was she a co-worker, but also a “work friend”. That’s a different dynamic.

      That said, I have had a few work friends and there are still some things I don’t bring up with them just because I know we are opposite sides of the fence.

      1. amoeba*

        Yeah, I’ve definitely had work friends with whom I’ve discussed all kinds of generally workplace-inappropriate things! Would not do the same with random coworkers now though, that’s for sure.

  13. CheesePlease*

    One thing that always made me uncomfortable is people sharing too much about their family that probably crossed that family member’s boundary. For example, an old coworker and his wife were undergoing IUI and then switched to IVF. I did not need to hear about her upcoming ovulation. It was her personal medical information!! is she ok with her husband sharing this with his boss and coworkers? It was always just oversharing. It was never just “I will be out one day within the next two weeks, it’s just hard to predict with the medical treatments my wife is getting. I will let the team know with as much notice as possible”. It was always a play-by-play of how everything was going. Just. please no.

    1. b-reezy*

      Oh god, as someone who went through that entire process, I’m HORRIFIED by this. I am open about having gone through the process in that I don’t shy away from mentioning that I dealt with infertility and its treatments, but I DO NOT go into detail ever unless someone reaches out and asks. And I would be horrified if my husband was telling people details and stuff, ew.

      1. CheesePlease*

        I was horrified for his wife!! I understand that infertility can be isolating, the medical procedures are exhausting and expensive, and the whole process can be demoralizing at times. I get that people are excited when they are cleared to go to the next step. But this is what friends are for – not your coworkers and ESPECIALLY not sharing about SOMEONE ELSE’S PROCEDURES!!!

        1. Slow Gin Lizz*

          I’m actually more horrified that you had more insight into the schedule of your coworker’s sperm-capturing schedule, tbh.

        2. Shan*

          My friend told me, in far too much detail, every detail of their IVF journey and even eight years later, one of the first things to pop into my head when I think about her husband is his sperm count. I can’t even imagine being stuck with that kind of information about a coworker.

    2. WellRed*

      I have a coworker who began over sharing the numerous medical problems of his aging parents at the Weekly Team Meeting! I dont know why he thought that was appropriate every week and I don’t know why management didn’t put a stop to it. I finally spoke up one day and to his credit, he stopped.

    3. PhyllisB*

      Sympathy cringe. I had a friend who was newlywed and decided they just HAD to have a baby right away. (She was 17, what was the hurry?) It was bad enough when she regaled ME with all the details of what they were doing, but then we were at the mall and she started telling THE SALES CLERK everything. That poor girl just stood there saying umhm and nodding her head. I wanted to sink through the floor. Don’t think I ever went shopping with her again.

    4. J*

      As an admin, this was so so so common and so very TMI. If you can’t be here on x afternoon, just mark it off on the calendar like everyone else. If you want to take me aside and say “hey, you’ll probably notice more frequent absences in the afternoons in the weeks ahead, there’s just some personal stuff going on and I’ve got John acting as my backup if you need to reach someone during that time” I will love you. I had an attorney who did this and was so vague that when he shared the pregnancy months later, I did not realize the two were connected (and I’m the kind of admin who knows attorneys are pregnant before they tell me based on catering orders alone). But I still think of a few attorneys and still remember their very detailed medical issues and it’s so weird to know they just shared everything with everyone.

  14. Liz the Snackbrarian*

    Anyone’s sex life. Multiple times I have had coworkers try to tell me about their sex lives. One was outside of work so I didn’t really feel like I could do much, another I shut down immediately.

    Also, be wary of asking coworkers what medications they’re taking! I once mentioned I wasn’t thrilled about an outdoor task because I am prescribed something that can cause me to overheat. I was promptly asked what it was. This from one of the sex life sharers. Yikes.

    1. soontoberetired*

      Yes, sex lives is number one. I urged people to go to HR about someone who was always talking about her fetish conventions (yes she really talked about it!) and they were afraid to tell her not to because of who she was friends with. their boss was even afraid. but I knew HR would act regardless of her friendship with our division head. and they did. We’ve been sued before over stuff like this and there was no way HR was going to let it go on.

    2. CB*

      +1! Also, please, please don’t go into detail about how you are ‘trying for baby’. Announcing a pregnancy is different, but I don’t need to know that you’re having unprotected sex to completion every chance you get and how you need a flexible schedule to accomodate that.

      Please keep the rest of us out of your sex lives! If I talked about the same things that happen in my personal life, I’d be in hot water with HR.

      1. Liz the Snackbrarian*

        Agree. Especially since it can be triggering for those experiencing infertility or miscarriage/infant loss. There may be cases where someone who has gone through it is commiserating or supporting someone who’s undergoing it, it’s just good to practice mindfulness.

  15. Warrior Princess Xena*

    Some of this is really going to be dependent on the workplace too – a law office and a downtown health clinic are going to have some VERY different boundaries.

    I think a lot of topics on this list for one of two reasons. 1: it’s something that’s no one else’s business (religion, dieting) or 2: it’s something with a lot of potential for conflict (politics, economics, sexuality). The things on the first list are going to be pretty universal; the things on the second list are going to be more office dependent and should probably only be brought up once it’s determined that it won’t cause a row/make your environment unsafe.

    1. Jackalope*

      The lines aren’t as clear cut as you might think. Religion is something that many people don’t in fact consider private; in fact, part of the reason it can be a concern is that some people will use work as a place to proselytize. I personally would consider sex to be much more in the “private” category than religion. (I.e., I’m fine with people being open about who their romantic partners are or very generally what their sexual orientation is, but I really don’t want any more detail than that for my coworkers.)

      1. Warrior Princess Xena*

        And that is why I include religion on list 1, because no one wants to hear the proselytizing!

        1. Hans Solo*

          I mean, are you against people talking about what they did over the weekend, talking about being out for a religious holiday, etc? that’s really extreme.

      2. just some guy*

        And some folk don’t even recognise their own religious observations as religious. There are a lot of workplaces out there that would tell you they’re religion-free zones but which do Christmas decorations and parties every year.

        Ramadan is one that sometimes does need to be discussed in a workplace. One of my co-workers was an observant Muslim, and when we had a planning event that coincided with Ramadan, my boss made sure we had a meal break scheduled at sundown. In summer, depending on the nature of the work and the local climate, it might be important to know if you have employees who aren’t drinking water between sunrise and sunset.

      3. amoeba*

        I also find religion as an abstract thing not inappropriate at all – I’m not religious at all but I’m happy to learn from my Muslim coworker how they celebrate their holidays or some funny stories that happened on the church board from my Christian colleague! If we’re actually having a discussion and I’m asking, I’m also happy to learn new things (customs, traditions, whatever). That’s not the same thing as being proselytized to, though.

        (Also, I guess hereabouts it’s less of a problem anyway, because society seems to be a lot more secular in Europe. So religion is just not as “hot” or controversial a topic as probably in the US, somewhat similar to guns, I assume…)

    2. jobbyjob*

      I’m sorry, but if mentioning the gender of my spouse causes a “row” then that is their problem not mine. I refuse to self censor for bigots.

      1. Warrior Princess Xena*

        Oh, I absolutely agree with you! The only reason I include it on list 2 is that, sadly, there are places or people for whom it is unsafe. Which is unfair and unjust and all of use who do have the privilege and power of being safe need to change it as soon as we can by not being bigoted jerks to our fellow human beings. But it is sometimes the case.

    3. DataSci*

      Members of some proselytizing religions would very strongly disagree that their religion is “nobody’s business”, and they are a big part of why religion is on this list.

    4. Dahlia*

      Religion is not inherently “no one else’s business” though!

      A: “What did you do this weekend?”
      B: “Oh, I had a busy weekend. Lunch out with mom, went to Temple, mowed the lawn.”

      That’s a normal conversation!

  16. Richard Hershberger*

    To add: there is no real line between many of these topics. I took last Friday off work. Ask me what I did over my long weekend and the (truthful) answer is that I was a delegate from my church to the annual synod assembly. So religion has just entered into the conversation. Ask me how it was and the (again truthful) answer is that the biggest item on the agenda was a resolution that the synod “expects” (a loaded word) its rostered clergy to undergo training on trans and non-binary people. (It passed with a large majority, but was not unanimous.) Ask me about my family? I will tell you about my son, who was my daughter until about two years ago. These simply are not discrete topics.

    On the “everything relates to 19th century baseball” side of things, the first interracial game involving an important White club was played in 1869. It was controversial. An interesting way this controversy manifested was that many of the papers that disapproved simply did not report the game. At the same time, the most radical response from the pro-civil rights papers was to report the game straight: mention that one club was White and the other “colored,” then tell us what happened on the field. The mere act of reporting the game or not reporting the game was political. This isn’t something we can opt out of.

    1. Elitist Semicolon*

      I think you’re raising an important point here with these two examples. A lot of folks define “politics” as “affiliated with a particular party” rather than referring to power and exclusion and therefore they don’t realize/notice that the comments and choices they make can end up affecting who is/isn’t allowed to have a voice or who is/isn’t negatively affected.

    2. Turquoisecow*

      I think there’s a difference between “I went to a church meeting,” and “let me preach the word of Jesus to my coworkers who are a captive audience,” just like there’s a difference between “I went to an event with my spouse,” and “I had sex with my spouse, let me tell you all about the details!”

      Some people will always see the first examples as “sharing too much,” but I disagree.

  17. GreenShoes*

    Am I the only one that finds these lists sad :(

    I feel like we’ve lost all ability to A: Self moderate (as in knowing not to pontificate), B: Walk away from things we disagree with, C: Agree to disagree, D: Function outside of echo chambers, and E: Not try to change anyone’s mind or opinion or convince them of anything

    We’ve lost the ability to say “Huh… well I don’t agree with that but you do you and leave me out of it”

    Now the above doesn’t mean that I think all conversations are fine for the workplace. I generally enforce a “PG13/Don’t be an asshole” rule with a side of “Maybe that topic is better off for after hours”.

    1. ecnaseener*

      Well, B is the kicker in a work environment. You can’t always walk away from your coworkers. Ergo, we have an obligation to tread more lightly at work than we do in a social situation.

      1. Stuckinacrazyjob*

        Also in a social situation your livelyhood isn’t really bound up so sure people might tease you because you haven’t played a good crunchy game of Terraforming Mars but no one is going to not give you a promotion for not fitting the culture or whatever

      2. Turquoisecow*

        Yes and if two coworkers are loudly discussing religion or sex next to my desk I don’t have much choice but to listen to it.

    2. fine tipped pen aficionado*

      I don’t think those are abilities that have ever been common. I would argue that, in the US at least, society has never had these abilities because we violently ejected dissenters and enjoyed the illusion of harmony that behavior brings.

      One of the growing pains of more people living authentically in public spaces is that everyone has to figure out how to share space with people who are very different from them and not apologizing for it. We also can recognize that there are many people out there still trying to violently eject people they think are different and none of us really know who those people are until they do something unhinged.

      People are complicated. Even your “don’t be an asshole” rule doesn’t work if you have a different perception of what it means to be an asshole! There’s a whole reddit community about figuring that one out.

      1. Richard Hershberger*

        This. It is easy to have an unfraught discussion of religion if the range of possibilities runs all the way from Baptist to Presbyterian by way of Methodist.

      2. sundae funday*

        Exactly, people have always talked about subjects that are inappropriate for work at work. It’s just that people in minority positions just kept quiet so as not to rock the boat….

      3. kiki*

        Yeah, I think it’s worth questioning whether this is something we’ve actually gotten worse at or if workplaces have become less homogenous and awareness is growing that certain discussions make lots of people uncomfortable.

        I’m originally from a small, rural, homogenous town in the Midwest. A lot of people there say things like, “Oh, you can’t say anything anymore. You used to be able to just express yourself and everyone was fine.” This was not true even in that small town. There are four whole churches that are the results of potluck-related schisms.

      4. Seeking Second Childhood*

        Late comment… re: “ejected dissenters” See Anne M. Hutchinson

    3. Nobby Nobbs*

      The problem with this view is that for many people, just existing in the world gets classified as “pontificating” or “trying to change anyone’s mind.” Most of the examples that have been discussed already are about sexual orientation, so I’ll bring up religious garb for some variety: a Muslim woman coming to work in a hijab, for example, shouldn’t have to agree to disagree with someone who thinks her presence in the office is shoving religion down their throat. She might have to for safety, of course, but that’s bullshit and is worth getting angry about, not a tolerant ideal to strive towards.

    4. Jaunty Banana Hat I*

      I mean, if people could just do A and E, I think it would go a long way towards not needing lists like this. But because people don’t do A/E, and at work you’re subject to not being able to B, the lists are sadly necessary.

      1. GreenShoes*

        That was kind of my point… by and large all of these things seem to be not common anymore and that’s what is sad.

        1. ian*

          can you point to an actual time when these things were common? I can’t think of any, personally.

          1. Aelfwynn*

            Agreed. I don’t think this is a new phenomenon. The phrase “people don’t __ anymore” are often referring to some idealized version of the past that actually never existed.

        2. Falling Diphthong*

          I would question whether the attitudes were common, or if instead people were more likely to both live a relatively silo’ed life interacting with similar people (as far as they knew, since people avoided hot topics), and agree that things like “existing while gay” were obviously not okay for polite conversation because that would make people uncomfortable.

    5. Jessica*

      I get reactions like this whenever I’m like “don’t hit on people at work.”

      The problem is, you can’t always just walk away at work.

    6. RagingADHD*

      Not to sound like An Old, but I really believe the rise of social media has killed or severely hampered a lot of people’s sense of boundaries, privacy, and context. Sure, there have always been *some* people who overshared or were nosy, and creepers being creepy is a constant. But social media encourages and rewards oversharing, intrusiveness, and argumentativeness. And it is deliberately used more and more to foment divisions and aggression.

      These days, it seems like a lot more ordinary, well-meaning people struggle with navigating what professional warmth and chit chat look like. It’s either telling everyone all your business all the time, or obnoxiously getting up in other people’s business and airing your unasked opinions, or keeping everything so tightly buttoned up you appear to be a robot.

      It wasn’t always this hard for the average person. And I’m not talking about the 1950’s or something. I’m talking about like, 2005. We knew who was gay and didn’t care. We knew that trans people existed and (mostly) didn’t care, at least not at work. We knew how to talk about the new puppies and the potluck recipes and whether the weather was going to spoil the family picnic this weekend.

      But social media is so ingrained now, I don’t know how to get back from where we are. Maybe we’ll just collectively get sick of it.

      1. Queer and now out*

        I respect your opinion, but disagree. As a queer person, my existence in public was much more tenuous and “up for debate” in, say, 2005 than it is now (though now is still problematic, depending on geography and context). You likely didn’t know who (all) was gay and many did in fact care. It wasn’t until 2015 that same sex marriage was legalized across the U.S., and there continue to be *many* who object to that. Today I am out to virtually everyone I come into contact with, but that was *certainly* not true eight years ago–and I suspect many queer people would agree.

        In many ways, social media has helped those with marginalized identities feel less alone and more comfortable/confident in expressing all facets of their identity. As an example, I have friends of mixed race, who grew up as one of very few kids of color in their community, but who’ve found peers, allies, guides, and role models through social media. For every person who thinks social media is a problem, I think there is another who says social media has been a help.

      2. Contrast*

        “I’m talking about like, 2005. We knew who was gay and didn’t care. We knew that trans people existed and (mostly) didn’t care, at least not at work. We knew how to talk about the new puppies and the potluck recipes and whether the weather was going to spoil the family picnic this weekend.”

        You did not have a universal experience. Many people very much did not know to keep work conversations around new puppies and the potluck recipes and whether the weather was going to spoil the family picnic this weekend. It wasn’t that hard in 2005 bc fewer people were speaking up and shutting inappropriate comments down.

    7. Risha*

      In some jobs, if you agree to disagree that will be held against you. At one job I had about 10 years ago, everyone (including the manager and director) were all in the breakroom talking about something very controversial that I personally do not support nor agree with. One coworker kept asking me what my thoughts are on the topic and insinuating I would most likely agree with them because everyone else there supported the topic. Usually, I mind my own business, no matter what others are talking about, but they kept asking and asking me.

      At first, I tried to answer, saying I don’t really want to get involved. They kept pressuring me to give my opinion, including the director! I can’t just walk away from her, so I gave my honest opinion on the topic then said something like, “I guess we’ll just agree to disagree on this, because I don’t agree with it at all.” They all looked at me like I was picking my nose at the table or something. Then the director shut down the topic.

      After that day, I was their target. I was the only one in the office that didn’t agree with the topic being discussed, and it was held against me. They all stopped talking to me unless it was work related, they wouldn’t look at me or even return a greeting. A few months later, I was fired for “falsifying documents”, which of course I never did. I was a great employee up until I disagreed with the controversial topic.

      I know my example is extreme, but it does happen, especially if you’re the only one that doesn’t agree with the topic. Some people are so spiteful, and will punish you because you don’t feel the way they do. Because of people’s inability to respect other’s opinions, I think it’s best to just not discuss at work (unless you know for 100% certainty the other person agrees with you).

    8. constant_craving*

      I think the list is guidelines that don’t necessarily have to be strictly followed. But at a starting point is very helpful for many people- if you’re neurodivergent or don’t have a background that allowed you to develop a sense of professional norms, for example.

  18. Csethiro Ceredin*

    There will always be grey areas based on your workplace and your relationships with the other people in the conversation (both personally and in the workplace hierarchy). And of course mentioning you’re a specific religion or whatever is different from talking about it constantly.

    But I think the thing you absolutely can’t do is try to recruit or convince people of your views, and you can’t make derogatory or dismissive comments about other people or their views.

    I have been guilty of sending out emails reminding people it’s important to vote (we close early on election days to make that easier for staff) so I’m not sure if I am breaking my own rule, though. Obviously I don’t tell them HOW I think they should vote.

    1. Qwerty*

      I think you are breaking your rule. If your political party/views are known, then it can come off as an implicit message to vote your way. And every single “reminder” I have received has been from the same specific party, so even if you aren’t explicitly saying your party at work, perception could end up lumping you in with that crowd.

      The only way I feel is appropriate at work to remind people to vote is to treat it the same way as reminding people of other office time off. So if you were a person who normally sent out “Reminder we are closed Monday for Memorial Day” then they also send “Reminder that the office will be closing at noon on Tuesday to give everyone time to vote”. Maybe also someone dropping a bland message in a slack channel “FYI next Wed is the deadline for registering to vote in this November’s election” Stuff that is less of a push and more just a general fact.

      1. Csethiro Ceredin*

        Thanks, that makes sense.

        I’m in Canada so the party affiliation isn’t as clear cut – even if someone knew my politics there are multiple parties (3-4) I could vote for.

        But your wording is cleaner and I’ll use it next time. :)

  19. Event coordinator?*

    Allison points something out that I think is really important here – the captive audience. When talking about “sensitive” topics in a public space where people can’t leave, the talkers need to be respectful of the people who are not in the conversation yet have to hear it. That’s a big reason some people love WFH. Less interruptions, both directly and indirectly.

    1. EvilQueenRegina*

      My one coworker would tell the same story over and over again every time someone new walked into the room, so while one person might get the rant about the contents of her ex partner’s Facebook once, I’d get it eleven times, and probably a few more the next day when she saw anyone who hadn’t been there that day. Captive audience was about right as I had to sit there and take calls, and it wasn’t that easy to get up and walk away every time she started that spiel.

  20. Some Dude*

    I think politics should be avoided period. Like politicians, the ones with the worst views are usually the loudest. If they have a private conversation with a coworker or two that agrees with them, they’ll think their view must be commonplace. Then they figure it’s fine to just blurt out their trash opinions to individual coworkers or even on group calls.

    1. Peanut Hamper*

      You do realize how much of your own privilege is wrapped up in that comment, right?

      If you are anything but a cishet white male, basically everything you do, from the way you wear your hair to what you eat to what you wear to the language you speak with friends and family to where you shop, is political, because the cishet white men are in charge and want to be able to control everything, even if it’s none of their damn business.

      So the concept of “politics” definitely varies according to the color of your skin, your gender, your sexuality, or any of a number of any other things that privileged decide is “politics”.

      1. the cat ears*

        For those of us that are not cishet white males, we want to be able to focus on our jobs without being subjected to news of the latest injustice distracting and distressing us. The idea that it’s somehow “privileged” (and therefore bad) to avoid discussing politics at work really ignores how upsetting it is to feel like you can’t escape some awful event or topic even when you’re trying to concentrate, get things done, and maintain good relationships with our colleagues.

        1. Peanut Hamper*

          I get what you’re saying, but this is something different. There are plenty of examples of what I’m talking about in the commentary.

      2. Prospect Gone Bad*

        Housing, homeless policy, transportation, education, local taxes, etc. are political and politicized in major metropolitan areas so there are definitely are topics that pertain to 100% of people that should still not be brought up at work if the goal is to go on a rant about how the system is corrupt because the party you don’t like did something.

        So yes, many things are indeed political for everyone but that doesn’t mean “feel free to discuss them constantly at work”

      3. Some Dude*

        I’m the only liberal on a team of conservatives (or self-proclaimed “moderates”). The only political talk I’ve heard at work is people being complaining about black lives matter, protesting black athletes, complaining about Teams adding pronouns and maybe they should set theirs to “she/her” to confuse people, “but someone would probably be offended”, how we should give people time to grieve instead of talking about gun control after mass shootings, etc. If there’s good political talk out there happening in a work place, I guess I’ve just been unlucky.

        To quotes Dark Helmet “I’m surrounded by assholes.”

    2. Queer and now out*

      I also have to wonder what counts as “the worst views.” Like, someone may think that a Jewish person wearing a Star of David is pretty awful, or being trans is just the worst, or on and on. To me, this way of thinking can be inherently skewed.

  21. Student*

    This is all a very “know your audience” and “know your industry” thing.

    I’ve had cases for each of these subjects where talking with co-workers was either helpful or neutral from a work/career perspective. I’ve also had cases for several of these subjects where I wanted to flee the conversation screaming, with my hands over my ears.

    One thing I know for sure: when someone else tells you that they think politics, etc. should be off-limits at work – then you should stop discussing that subject with that person at work, and respect their personal boundary. You don’t need to take that one person’s personal preference as an absolute law or workplace policy, generally, but do take it to heart as important to that specific person. It’s okay for us all to have different levels of comfort with these topics at work – we just need to try to figure out ways to co-exist around each other peacefully.

    I’d advise that if you do want to talk about these subjects at work, make sure you start out by listening more than you talk. Hearing someone out, even if you have a different position that you advocate for, will earn a lot of leeway when talking about anything sensitive.

  22. LTR FTW*

    How about conversations about racism and race? I was witness to a *very* uncomfortable office happy hour where a white guy shared his experiences/opinions on race and for some wild reason thought it was okay in that context to use the n word. He got fired the next day, and I swear he didn’t understand why!

    1. Pierrot*

      I feel like a blanket rule against conversations about race/racism isn’t a great idea, because in an ideal environment, people of color shouldn’t be actively discouraged from speaking about their lived experiences or confiding in other colleagues about discrimination/microagressions in the workplace (and in general, people shouldn’t be discouraged from addressing instances of racism in the moment when they occur at work, though in an ideal setting there are channels like HR that can address racism with more authority). Also, I think it depends a lot on the specific setting- in my work, race/racism comes up a lot because it is deeply connected to the work we do. The setting of a DEI training or event about race is another area where race should come up.

      It’s hard for me to articulate, but I think the issue you’re speaking to is people giving “opinions” about race/racism in the workplace and conversations that are plainly in the hostile work environment territory. If the person’s intention is to provoke an argument or they’re dismissing the lived experiences of others, that’s inappropriate. I can also think of circumstances where a person who believes they have good intentions brings up race in an inappropriate way that could cause more harm than good. To give an example, if a white coworker brings up the video of George Floyd’s murder out of the blue to their black coworker when their coworker is just trying to get through the work day and doesn’t have the emotional capacity or desire to talk about a deeply upsetting event.

      1. UKDancer*

        I think it depends on the context. We had a session in my company about privilege and what different people had or didn’t have. One of my Black colleagues related his frustration at being followed around shops by unsubtle store detectives and how annoying it because to him that he was being profiled for being a 6 foot black guy with dreads. It was appropriate in that context to cover this. If we’d been discussing the autumn llama grooming season coming up and someone had tangented into a discussion of racism that wouldn’t have been really appropriate because it would have been irrelevant to the subject.

        I’ve another BAME colleague who avoids any of these sessions and discussions like the plague because it makes her miserable to be constantly having these discussions and she wants to forget it while she’s in the office and not be viewed through the lens of her skin colour.

        I think it’s contextual and depends on the situation, who is around and what type of conversation it is.

  23. Rescue me please*

    I think this is a matter of degree and it’s advisable not to go into detail about ANY topic with someone who did not agree to the conversation and can’t easily get away. Whether at work or at a neighborhood BBQ, I don’t mind hearing that you went to a gun show or your nephew’s confirmation over the weekend, but I don’t particularly want to be subjected to your 2nd amendment rant or be asked if I’ve accepted Jesus as my savior. Don’t even ramble on about your snowman figurine collection for 30 minutes unless I’m asking questions and showing interest.

    1. Prospect Gone Bad*

      Using the gun example, one is political and one is not. For me, it also falls under the umbrella of “don’t pontificate on topics you know nothing about.”

      Granted for me this usually comes up in the context of economic discussions. Oftentimes someone will throw in comments about “record profits” and meanwhile in the real world, the company has lower profits or issued lower guidance and is not doing particularly well (though the stock is holding up). And then I am confused about what they’re even talking about, and surmise they want to virtue signal about corporations or paying fair share or something, but oftentimes the premise is based on false notions.

      Then I am left with a big question: do they think like this about actually work topics, at work? Maybe I should double check their work

  24. Peanut Hamper*

    This reminds me of the story I heard on NPR about a woman who moved to France. She worked right next to someone for seven years before finding out this coworker had children. The concept of privacy varies a lot from one culture to another.

    1. amoeba*

      Eh. This would be very unusual in a European workplace as well, though! (Have never worked in France but my French colleagues were no more private than the German, Swiss or others…)

  25. Theon, Theon, it rhymes with neon*

    Unpopular take: we need to move toward a society in which sex isn’t so off limits as a discussion topic.

    The relevant concept here is “taboo”: it’s off limits because it’s off limits. Stating “I don’t want to hear about it” or “it’s private” or “it doesn’t belong at work” and the like are just restating the fact that you feel discomfort at the violation of a taboo. If you had grown up in a society without this taboo, you wouldn’t feel this discomfort. (There’s neuroscientific evidence that for a lot of these types of things, the neurons in region of your brain that generates discomfort fire first, and then the linguistic part of the brain activates to rationalize why your discomfort is correct and whatever made you feel uncomfortable is incorrect. This accounts for a *lot* of homophobia, for example.) American (and I say this as an American) culture was heavily influenced by puritans, which makes the taboo even stronger.

    The reason we need to do this: the taboo around sex leads to discomfort around sex, which leads to shame around sex. And shame is a huge part of why sexual trauma is *so* traumatic. There is a silence around talking about even consensual, socially acceptable sex, and the effect of that is that if you were traumatized, good luck bringing it up, using other people to get a sense of whether what happened to you was okay or not, getting validated, etc.

    And I can hear people saying, that’s not relevant to work, your coworkers are not your therapists, etc. But the reason sex is so off limits at work is because it’s off limits in society. So good talking to your family or your bartender about it either. Good luck deciding that you need to go to therapy. Good luck talking to your therapist about it. I know so many people who were sexually abused who can’t talk about it even with their therapists. So many children who couldn’t bring up what had happened to them to an adult when it happened. So many children who lived with a sense of shame. And abusers *use* that shame to reinforce the conspiracy of silence.

    Case in point: I was traumatized as a five-year-old by being dragged into water over my head when I was too young to know how to swim, and being left there with a gym teacher watching and acting like it was my fault and my job to get out, then refusing to take responsibility when my mother called her on it. I have told this story at work, and not one person batted an eye. They made appropriate “omg” noises, and we all moved on. In fact, one coworker replied with a story about how he had once ended up in water over his head as a kid without being able to swim. Years later, I had a boss talk about his diving experience and how his instructor made a series of mistakes that caused him to black out under water and only barely make it to the top alive. And we all made appropriate “omg” noises.

    This wasn’t therapy, this was just exchanging interesting stories at work and going, “Yeah, as a result, I never learned to swim and still have a drowning phobia.”

    And a society in which we can talk about these things and get “omg” noises is a society in which we can get validated, get sanity checks, talk in more detail to the people whom it’s appropriate to talk to in more detail, and don’t feel that shame caused by taboo violation (which quickly gets rationalized into having something to do with objectively correct things like professionalism or morality). And guess what? I may be afraid of drowning, but I don’t have nearly the same deep-rooted psychological issues as most of the people I know who were sexually traumatized at the same age. I was traumatized, but I wasn’t *as* traumatized, because I could talk about it.

    I see a lot of advice on this column that if a coworker is experiencing domestic violence, you should reset their idea of normal by saying, “Ooh, that sounds alarming,” or “My husband would never do that,” or something like that. No one is advising that you become their therapist. Now imagine if a coworker, in addition to saying “I have to get my husband’s permission to go out” could say, “I have to get my husband’s permission to go out, and I also have to have sex even if I’m not in the mood.” You could respond in the same casual “that’s not okay” way, and leave therapy to the appropriate parties.

    This taboo is harming vulnerable people the most. Treat sex like swimming, and it will become like swimming. Yeah, there would still be things that we wouldn’t consider appropriate to bring up. But if I can bring up that I’m moonlighting as a dishwasher to make ends meet, and my coworker can’t bring up that they’re moonlighting as a sex worker to make ends meet, there’s a double standard here. And if we had a single standard, we would discuss things that were okay to bring up and not okay to bring up with sex the same way as anything else. And a lot of what you’re probably imagining wouldn’t come up in this society: so much of the desire to shock people by talking about sex, the existence of puerile jokes, etc. come from the fact that it *is* taboo. The fault is with our society, not with talking about sex.

    Now, given that we live in this society, yes, there will be repercussions for talking about sex at work. But I would prefer to see people like Alison use their positions to say something like more like “Talking about sex is like talking about your mental health issues: you shouldn’t have to deal with this, it’s just about reinforcing a stigma, but you live in a world where this stigma exists, so you need to read the room” than treating it like something objectively wrong with mentioning sex. As a society, we got to where we finally allowed women to wear pants, even though the shape of their legs used to cause most people huge amounts of discomfort; we’re on a path to allowing women to not have to wear a bra, even though the shape of their nipples causes some people discomfort; we’re on a path to letting people talk about mental health and neurological issues at work; I would like to see us get to the point where we can talk about sex, even if right now it causes people huge amounts of discomfort.

    Vulnerable populations are more important than discomfort. People have legs, people have nipples, people have sex. People go swimming.

    1. LTR FTW*

      “I would like to see us get to the point where we can talk about sex, even if right now it causes people huge amounts of discomfort.”

      I bet you are a dude.

      1. Jessica*

        *sighs hard in ace*

        Why does supposed sex-positivity always end up being “and that’s why I should be able to override other people’s consent to be hit on, hear details about my sex life, etc.”?

        1. Dahlia*

          Seconding this. Also ace, also don’t want to hear people talking about sex at work.

      1. Peanut Hamper*

        Yeah, while I agree with the basic idea that we should have fewer taboos over basic biology, I go to work to pay the bills, not get therapy.

        1. MsM*

          And I don’t want to feel pressured to share my therapy sessions and outcomes in detail at work, any more than I want to have to say more about my physical ailments than that they exist and I may need certain accommodations as a result.

        2. Czhorat*

          We also need to acknowledge that the taboos *are still here* even if we don’t want them to be.

          Pretending that they aren’t is going to make lots of other people uncomfortable as you violate them. Is there a way to move society? Maybe. Is pushing past the boundaries of a captive audience in your workspace a reasonable or even effective way to do so? ABSOLUTELY not

      2. UKDancer*

        Definitely. There’s a time and a place for everything. When I’m with my friends we get bawdy, we make jokes and we sing rude songs (including the one about the wizard’s staff having a knob on the end). None of that is appropriate in the workplace because I don’t know those people that well and we’re there to do a job.

        I also really prefer not to think about my colleagues in that light and prefer they don’t think of me that way.

    2. Peanut Hamper*

      Yeah, except the Puritans weren’t all that puritanical, so your basic thesis is unsupported. They were not against enjoyment, but against an excess of enjoyment.

    3. Box of Kittens*

      I don’t necessarily disagree with you and actually think we are making great strides in being open about sex in general as a society, but it’s still a personal topic that should really be discussed among friends/family/social connections – ie, people that are on relatively equal social footing and can therefore consent to the conversations and feel comfortable backing out if needed – not work connections, where the power imbalances that are inherent to capitalism make it extremely difficult to allow people to truly consent or safely back out of any sex conversations, even in a society that views sex as completely not taboo.

    4. nonprofit writer*

      Theon, my personal views about sex align with yours. I belong to a religious community (Unitarian Universalist) that teaches comprehensive, evidence-based sex ed in Sunday School (it’s a great curriculum called Our Whole Lives–check it out!) A huge piece of what we are teaching kids is that sexuality is a natural part of life.

      But I think what Alison is saying that in an office, we have to make room for multiple perspectives, including those of people who feel that sex is a very private topic (and also people who think sex is taboo or shameful or whatever, even if you and I don’t agree with them). I also think there’s a big difference between talking about sex in the abstract (as in some of the examples listed above of workplaces where they hand out condoms or provide safer sex education etc) and talking about your own personal sex life to people who have not consented to hear about it.

      1. Lurker Cat*

        I grew up in the UU church and went through that program. Absolutely great for learning about myself and my sexuality. Still would not be comfortable with any level of detail about sex lives at work or what my coworkers find to be attractive.

        On the other hand I am able to discuss those topics with my close friends, unlike many of my non-UU classmates.

    5. Generic Name*

      As a woman who has been subjected to sexualized comments and felt uncomfortable hearing off-color “jokes”, all I will say to you is: No thank you.

      1. Jessica*

        Yup, and then “stop talking about my body” becomes “you’re repressed and puritanical.”

      2. UKDancer*

        This so much. I work in a male dominated field and the last thing I want to do is remind my colleagues and the suppliers that I’m female. I prefer to keep things as general and worksafe as possible.

        I’m not prudish in my personal life but I don’t want to work somewhere where people make off colour jokes because I think there’s a time and a place for everything. So I stick to safe subjects like the weather and mild leisure activities.

    6. AReally*

      No, just no. While I agree with some of the broader strokes of needing to de-stigmatize conversations about sex, I honestly just don’t need to know about my coworkers’ sex lives. I don’t need to be the sounding board for what is “ok” for them or not. I don’t need to hear about their habits or proclivities and moderate my reactions to them. Especially because those conversations can so easily slide into sexual harassment territory. Most of my friend groups have really open, honest conversations around these topics, and I can agree that those can be illuminating and helpful. But the workplace is not the appropriate venue, especially with so many potential power differentials.

    7. Nina*

      Wow that is a lot of comment. Fortunately I’ve heard almost all of it before, mostly from the male (yes, all male) engineers I used to work with, mostly as reasoning for why they were calling a particular piece of hardware the ‘[vehicle’s] c-word’ and referring to taking inspection photographs of another piece of hardware as ‘upskirting’ and using THAT fit tolerance chart (iykyk, but iydk, fit tolerance is the relative sizes of two parts that need to slot into each other, an ‘interference fit’ is when Tab A is physically larger than Slot B, and yes, in that chart, interference fits are captioned with variously graphic descriptions of anal sex).

      There is a difference between feeling huge discomfort because someone is existing in the only body they have (most of your examples) and feeling huge discomfort because someone is using needlessly explicit language to describe things that don’t need to be described at work.

      People should not need to work through huge amounts of discomfort in order to do the job they need to do to have things like A Home and Food! They just should not! There is a time and a place for working through huge amounts of discomfort and unless you ARE a therapist, work is not it.

    8. Firefighter (Metaphorical)*

      I agree with you in general but also: talk about sex can BE sexual (in fact this is part of how flirting, grooming, and actual happy healthy consensual sex all work), in a way that talking about swimming can’t be… watery. So I basically agree about the aim but maybe not the way to get there.

  26. Rachel*

    If you have to discuss this stuff at work, be extremely mindful of body language, tone, and the neutral comments people make when they are trying to get out of a conversation.

  27. FairweatherAdventures*

    I’m not completely sure I agree about not talking about money – though that’s partly because talking about money IS my work. It’s about degree – someone talking about the fact that childcare is really expensive and they’re struggling might mean they get told about schemes to help them with that cost. I think the overall rule should be “don’t talk about anything so much that it gets in the way of work and don’t talk about things that are highly likely to upset or offend someone.”

  28. Lizzianna*

    I feel like what we need to be careful about is that some topics only become “controversial” when involving someone outside of the majority/dominate group.

    Going to your (mainstream, dominate religion for your area) church’s fall festival is just a fun thing you did this weekend, attending a Samhain ritual is “bringing religion into the workplace.”

    Similarly, I’m a cis, heterosexual, monogamous woman. Talking about my husband and kids is just idle chit chat. If my male coworker starts talking about his husband and kids, now he’s talking politics.

    A book about George Washington is “history,” a book about Martin Luther King, Jr. is “black history,” “politics,” or “race.”

    All of that is to say that we need to be careful to not use societal norms to maintain current structures of power and privilege.

    1. Lizzianna*

      Additionally, the societal norm against talking money/pay is part of how pay disparity is allowed to persist, and has historically been used to prevent collective bargaining and unionization.

    2. Peanut Hamper*

      Yes to all of this. “Othering” things is how the cishet xian patriarchy maintains control.

    3. goducks*

      Yes, there are a lot of times that the comfort of bigots is prioritized over the actual lives of their coworkers, and that should never be allowed to stand.

      1. Peanut Hamper*

        I saw a bumper sticker the other day that said “I will not be quiet so that you can be comfortable” and I think that’s a good general principle.

        1. Prospect Gone Bad*

          Do you think that is a good modus operandi for the workplace? You also need to take into consideration that different people have different priorities. For example, one is laser focused on environmentalism, another on housing. If you “make someone uncomfortable” to get them to agree with you on something they don’t register mentally, then all they see is you making them uncomfortable

          Also, the whole question of whether something is work appropriate

          1. Peanut Hamper*

            Yes, because that is how I learn.

            Provided of course, that those views are not of the “this kind of person shouldn’t be allowed to exist” type.

          2. Peanut Hamper*

            Also, note that I said “general” principle. It may be appropriate in some situations at work, but not in other situations at work.

        2. kiki*

          I think it’s important to keep in mind, though, who you are making uncomfortable and why. Because it’s one thing to say, “I will not be quiet about the pay gap in our workplace just because the male leadership team doesn’t like to hear it.” vs “I will not be quiet about the details of my sex life just to make my coworkers comfortable because I want to talk about it to somebody right now and they are here.”

          Not to say you were encouraging the latter, Peanut Hamper. It’s just a somewhat common thing I see where people forget make certain they have a real, meaningful purpose behind the discomfort they’re causing.

    4. MEH Squared*

      100% agreed. Who gets to say what is political or controversial? Nothing happens in a vaccum. We are influenced by societal norms so we have to take that into account when making these kinds of guidelines.

  29. Yes And*

    “It’s fine to offer your co-worker who has a cold some echinacea tea.” Your co-worker who has a cold should not be at work. There should be robust paid sick leave and coverage of essential duties so that your co-worker who has a cold does not need to be at work. Coming to work with a cold is how sloppy work gets done, and more to the point, how more co-workers get colds. Have we learned nothing from the past three years?

      1. Peanut Hamper*

        Most colds don’t last that long for most people. But I wonder if they would last longer for you if you could just stay home and rest for 2 or 3 days and not have to worry about coming back to an absolute mess.

        Also, it’s unrealistic to try to create effective policies based on outliers.

        1. nnn*

          You should google that! I just did and found “While the average time that cold symptoms last is 7 to 10 days, they can go on for as long as 3 weeks.” Even 7-10 days off isn’t realistic for most people who need a paycheck and PTO for other things.

            1. Dahlia*

              When I worked with kids, I only got sick maybe once a year, but it was always with something that would just take me DOWN. Two or three weeks of being “actively” sick, ear or sinus or some kind of infection that would need antibiotics, and then a couple more weeks of, like, a lingering cough.

              And the thing is my immune system is actually pretty good. Just those bugs you get from being around kids a lot are brutal.

              I don’t… I don’t know a lot of jobs you get a month of sick time a year for a cold XD

        2. Kara*

          Just as a heads up, the common cold has been found to still be infectious for up to two weeks.

    1. afeeblefox*

      perhaps we say “It’s fine to suggest echinacea tea to your coworker with a cold working from home”
      or “It’s fine to suggest a cough remedy to the coworker who has a bad cough from a cold two weeks ago but is no longer contagious”

    2. Elitist Semicolon*

      Well, yeah, you’re not wrong, but the lack of robust paid sick leave is a separate issue that exists whether or not you offer echinacea tea to your coworker who seems to have a sore throat.

    3. connie*

      The idea that you shouldn’t offer your coworker something that might cause them momentary relief of cold systems because of the existence of systemic problems that are out of their ability to solve isn’t a great argument.

  30. SpaceySteph*

    Its definitely weird in many offices if you don’t discuss ANYTHING personal ever. And a lot of these other topics are part of personal lives…

    “What did you do this weekend?”
    – Went to protest/rally/etc.
    – Had a religious holiday
    – Kids dance recital

    Obviously don’t belabor any point but I a passing mention is pretty normal where I’m from.

  31. Rutherford B. Crazy*

    I think it’s important to avoid discussing these topics due to the imbalance of power between a boss and employees, not even counting the other problems! It can leave subordinates trapped in uncomfortable conversations with bigots where they can’t stand up for themselves because it would be seen as talking back to their boss and can’t really bow out of the conversation because the boss has trapped them in it.

    It’s one thing when it’s a couple of coworkers discussing something on an equal level or casually, but as soon as a boss decides they want in on the conversation, there’s no way to shut them down even if they’re saying some serious bullshit. It’s better to avoid giving a boss an opportunity to step in with bigoted opinions.

  32. SMB*

    one time, I overheard a newer hire talking with a male coworker about my breasts. Yes, definitely out of bounds. Thankfully, that toxic person resigned, after I reported them and some others for crappy behavior.

  33. nonprofit writer*

    Others have said this but context really matters. I worked at an HIV/AIDS org for many years so sex was an integral part of our work. And while people were mostly professional about it, it did lead to some blurred boundaries. I (a straight woman) remember talking with a group of female friends, not from work, and I don’t know how it came up but I said something like “Oh yeah, my coworker [a gay man] was saying he kind of regrets that he never had sex with a woman, just so he could know what it’s like,” and my friend who works in finance gave me a horrified look and said, “You guys were talking about this IN THE OFFICE?” It took me a minute to realize oh, yeah, I guess that’s kind of weird. This guy actually was very unprofessional in other ways that wound up getting him fired, but this conversation (which was between him, me, and another woman he knew pretty well) wasn’t totally out of place in our environment.

    1. Courageous cat*

      I think it’s (hopefully) implied we can all tell the difference of when your company/organization is an obvious exception to the rule, though. I used to work at a sex toy store, it goes without saying that sex was clearly ok to talk about to some degree there. Doesn’t change the fact that I think we can largely agree in that in the majority of work settings, these things should be off-limits.

    2. amoeba*

      Also, if you’re actually good work friends (and obviously in a private place, not in the middle of the open plan office), I think the rules change anyway. I don’t have that many close work friends at my current job, but still some with whom I have absolutely no problem discussing more private and/or controversial things. Doesn’t mean I’d bring the same things up with a new colleague during our intro coffee chat!

  34. Turingtested*

    Like everything else it’s a matter of degree. For sex, mentioning you have a child implies you’ve had sex at least once but isn’t inherently sexual. If you’re dating and someone asks about your weekend “I went out with a really nice person, hoping to do it again soon” is fine “I went out with a really nice person and that 3 pack of condoms wasn’t nearly enough” is a bit much.

    I try to follow the “older relative I’m not super close with” as a guide, if I wouldn’t say it to them I don’t say it at work.

  35. Katherine*

    Surely they must have meant sex to be covered by not talking about your personal life, they couldnt have left that out, right?

    If anyone brings up ear candling around me, at work or otherwise, theyre going to be treated to me telling them how many people have been harmed by it (I dont mind if you want to waste money on stuff that does nothing, but dont risk hurting yourself too!)

  36. justcommenting*

    One thing I’d add too is while I think the ideal is not feel uncomfortable due to discussions of non-imminently contingent topics at their jobs, particularly with the recent and louder push for DEI, unionization, and equity in the workplace (though these issues are not at all new or “trendy”), I think it’s good to calibrate that you likely will and even /should/ feel noticeably uncomfortable at the workplace.

    This is not just for the context of privileged groups who may kneejerk bristle at having to reexamine both personal and structural biases that they perpetuate, but also for marginalized groups who will have to bear the brunt of transition and actually assess if their workplace is changing for the better. These kind of efforts will always cause discomfort and feel overly political because they are political, but I think being committed to improving equity means accepting that. Workplaces will often weaponize politeness to stifle needed discussions, cultural shifts, and organizing, so I think generally, it’s good to allow for more nuance when it comes to discomfort at the workplace.

  37. Extra anony*

    There is a difference between talking ABOUT a topic and having the topic arise in the context of another discussion. I feel like people are conflating the two.

    Mentioning you went to church this weekend? That’s talking about your weekend, not really talking about religion, in the way that getting into a debate about religious views or trying to convert someone is. Mentioning you went to movies with your wife if you’re a lesbian? That’s talking about your family, not talking about sexuality as a topic in general. I think it’s an important distinction.

  38. Put the Blame on Edamame*

    While I generally agree with all this ‘ I am in the UK and have been at work for the last three or so Prime Ministers resigning, so you bet we all discussed that!

    1. UKDancer*

      Oh absolutely. We had a lengthy amusing discussion about whether Liz Truss would outlast the lettuce because regardless of political views it was just such a funny situation. My company isn’t political but that was too funny for words.

      For non UK readers – a certain newspaper ran a poll on whether Liz Truss’s short premiership would last longer than the lifespan of a lettuce. Spoiler – the lettuce lasted longer than Liz Truss.

  39. Birch*

    Quite apart from not wanting to get into controversial discussions, how about avoiding topics that are likely to be distracting, upsetting, or triggering for people, and getting a firm opt-in when sharing those things. Death, assault, trauma, accidents and injury, betrayals, etc. (Coming from experience of an otherwise really sensitive colleague who one day let us know that they were upset because of a personal situation but then blurted out the details and it turned out to be way too close to my own personal tragedy, which they knew about and which I was trying to ignore at work). Share feelings if you need to but let people opt-in for the details.

  40. One and Done Mom*

    This is adjacent to sex life…I’m a new mom, and I wish people would stop asking when “the next baby” is coming. I’m one and done on having kids, partly due to personal preference (and I’m an only myself), but solidly so after a traumatic birth with life-threatening complications that would likely recur in a future pregnancy. And, in instances where I have answered that we are not having any more babies, I get “but you HAVE to give her a sibling!” I deal with this outside of work, too, but why do coworkers think it’s ok?? It’s so frustrating.

  41. CLC*

    The list of never says for me are sex, religion, diets/weightloss/bodies. I work in public policy so we can’t not talk about politics in general, and my direct team is pretty much aligned on person politics, so while I wouldn’t get into it with people I know it wouldn’t horrible or unheard of to mention something in the news without getting into it too much. Money is interesting because I believe employees should openly talk about compensation. When it comes to personal financial situation, you may not talk about dollars and cents but I think it’s impossible to avoid entirely—if someone mentions their beach house, ski trip, boat, even what town they live in it’s basically a financial conversation.

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