Etiquette Questions, Answered: Tricky Conversations
Q: How do you get a friend to stop talking incessantly about her perfect kids, her awful ex, or any other given topic?
A: Just about everyone has pet conversational subjects that he or she returns to again and again, though the reasons can vary. For example, you probably already know that my husband, Josh, was a foreign-exchange student in Japan during college. No? Then clearly you have never met him. Josh tells everyone he meets—folks at parties, at the office, in the bleachers at our daughter’s lacrosse games—about the year he spent there. And he does that because the trip was one of the most important formative experiences of his life. Similarly, a friend who talks nonstop about her children’s impressive standardized-test scores and brilliant violin recitals is telling you that being a good mother is a crucial part of her personal identity. You can’t truly be her friend unless you accept that and are willing to celebrate it—to a certain extent, anyway.
However, when a friend compulsively revisits a sore subject—rehashing the terms of her divorce settlement, bellyaching about her weight—it means she is wrestling with something. It’s as if she has a cavity that she’s worrying with her tongue. It’s there, bothering her, and she doesn’t know how to make it go away. So she talks (and talks) about it. While she may sound whiny or obsessive, she is probably just trying to express her underlying anxiety or fear.
But even if your friend has a good reason for bringing up her favorite topic, you may not want to be held hostage to it. So try one of these strategies to get your conversations to take a different turn.
Change the dynamic by inviting a third person to join the two of you. What to say: “Jane, meet Ellen. She saw that movie I told you about. You’ve got to hear what she thinks of it.” Your friend will probably not want to ramble on about her personal business in front of a stranger.
Ask your friend about the third-rail subject yourself, but encourage her to be succinct. What to say: “First, Jane, give me the quick lowdown on your children. Are they up to anything I haven’t already heard about?” Hopefully, exhorting her to focus on breaking family news only will nudge her toward brevity.
Validate her feelings, then immediately follow up with a non sequitur. What to say (after she moans about her ex-husband): “I know your ex is a hard person to deal with. But when you’re feeling down, remember how much better things are now than during your marriage. Which reminds me, have you ever thought about taking a spa vacation? You deserve it.”
And if you happen to be married to a man who was a foreign-exchange student in college, there’s one more thing you can say. After one of his monologues about the beauty of the Japanese countryside, I’ve found it very effective to lean over and interject, brightly, “Wait—you lived in Japan? I had no idea!”