A Guide to Conversational Etiquette

Allen Faulton
7 min readOct 2, 2019

A Modern Survival Guide Interlude

You’re reading the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook for navigating and interacting with the modern world. This essay is an interlude, an article that talks about a tip for modern living. This isn’t a philosophical insight, or a deep discussion of human impulses, or an explanation of some major phenomenon; it’s just something people might want to know. And frankly, everyone ought to know the basic rules for conversational etiquette.

That being said, it’s perfectly reasonable if you don’t know them yet. Etiquette isn’t high on our list of formal educational priorities right now, so it just kind of gets left off for people to figure out on their own.

We should try to make this easier! I’ve stopped counting the number of things I’ve had to figure out on my own; it’s way easier for someone else to provide stuff like this in a neat, serviceable package. I’m here to help.

Make no mistake, being able to maintain etiquette in conversation with your fellow humans is very much a survival trait. It makes every goal of our serious conversations easier to achieve — making friends, finding mates, staying connected, finding work, etc. It’s often not what you know, it’s who you know that gets you ahead in life. Who you know is usually determined by who you talk to. What they can do for you is often determined by the degree to which you have avoided pissing them off. Remember: politeness costs you nothing and can buy as much as your life.

There are a handful of things to keep in mind if you want to have a polite conversation. If you don’t want to have a polite conversation, that’s OK, but there are situations in life where you should definitely have polite conversations. First dates, job interviews (insofar as those two things are different), chats with your priest, conversations with your boss, talking to people you respect… stuff like that.

With that in mind, here are some rules to follow to keep your conversations within the bounds of proper etiquette:

Don’t Interrupt

I put this one first, because one of the most annoyingly rude things you can do is to interrupt people while they’re talking — especially with verbal tics.¹ It signals a total lack of respect for their opinion and/or their reason for speaking, which equates to a lack of respect for them. Lack of respect is typically returned with interest. So don’t interrupt if you can help it.

Listen When Other People Speak

This seems simple. It is not. Active listening is a skill, and it’s a skill you should learn and practice. The difference between active listening and normal listening is simple, obvious, and yet very difficult for many people: when you are actively listening to someone else you are not thinking about what you are going to say next. You are simply absorbing their message. It’s important to note that this is often immediately obvious to the person who is speaking, and is usually interpreted in a very complimentary fashion.

Practice the Queen’s Rules

I know it’s hard in this modern age of “oh my God the world is on fire,” “let’s talk about sex, baby,” and “share your salaries for labor equality,” but… try to avoid talking about politics, sex, or money in polite conversation. This is a good way to start a fight, make people uncomfortable, or simply make people dislike you. You should also be aware that once one person in a group violates the Queen’s Rules, the floodgates are open — these topics are now on the table and you may not like what comes from that.

Think Before You Talk

It is better to spend a few moments in consideration before you open your mouth, rather than opening your mouth and immediately inserting your foot. Some things that might cross your mind:

  • Is the other party sensitive to a topic you are about to introduce? It might not be a good idea to discuss your work problems with your unemployed friend, or chat about your awesome Tough Mudder marathon with a friend who has a history of depression and severe back pain. Try to tailor the conversation to the individuals present.²
  • Do the other parties in the conversation have enough knowledge to talk comfortably about the subject you want to talk about? It’s best not to choose topics that deliberately exclude people due to lack of knowledge.
  • Are you adding unnecessarily detail or embarrassing bits to a story? Don’t waste people’s time or make them uncomfortable for no reason.
  • Are you exaggerating or one-upping? Not every story has to be the greatest story ever; not every description has to include Trumpian adjectives.

Be Tactful

There’s a difference between being untruthful and not being hurtful. Learn it: lying is the act of voicing an untruth, whereas being tactful is the art of not drawing attention to other people’s problems. Avoid saying things like “you look sick” or “you look tired,” especially to women. Try not to draw public attention to things like clothing stains or other potentially embarrassing situations.

Bring Topics to the Conversation

It’s never a bad idea to have a small stock of conversational topics ready to go. That being said, small talk is boring. Don’t talk about the weather unless you’ve got absolutely nothing else to say. Remember your audience, remember the other rules on this list, and then figure out some topics you can raise to get people talking without creating issues.³

Be Considerate

Make sure to include quiet people. Asking “What do you think?” is a perfectly good way to help others feel included and valued. It’s also sometimes necessary to change subjects to keep the peace (especially if someone violates the Queen’s Rules and people are visibly uncomfortable). Last but not least, if someone else gets cut off, it is polite to steer things back their way and let them finish their thought.

Learn When to Stop Talking

Don’t try to dominate a conversation. Don’t try to hijack other people’s topics. Sometimes the best thing to do is to say your piece and then be quiet. And sometimes the best thing you can do is to let the conversation end.

Incorporate Respect

In any formal setting, remember to use “sir” or “ma’am” as appropriate. Remember to say “please” and “thank you” when asking for or receiving things. And if someone has a title which is appropriate for the situation, use it. When in doubt, be polite.

Practicing Etiquette

You may have noticed that some of these entries were less instructional advice and more in the flavor of “go out and learn how to do these things.” That’s because conversational etiquette can only be taught up to a point — after that it must be practiced. Fortunately, we live in a world with a lot of people upon whom we can practice the conversational arts.

Practice makes perfect, so here are some drills you can try:

  • Get in an elevator with another person. By the end of the ride, see if you can get them to smile as a result of a quick conversation. You may not talk about the weather or the local sports teams.
  • The next time you’re in a group of friends, say as little as possible. Just watch and listen. Pay attention to who is dominating the conversation, who else is being quiet, and what is being discussed. Then try to figure out why one person is dominating the conversation, and why another person is quiet. Pay particular attention to people who speak up after periods of silence.
  • The next time you’re with a group of friends, try to steer a conversation to deliberately include different people in the group. But try to do it so subtly that no one notices.
  • Go a full day deliberately incorporating respect into your speech. Use “sir” or “ma’am” every time you talk to someone. Say “please” and “thank you” every time you ask for something.
  • Try to go an entire day without interrupting another human being. That’s a hard sell for a lot of people.
  • Last but not least, try to go an entire day deliberately focusing on what every other person you meet has to say — and how they say it.

Practicing conversational etiquette is how you get good at it, and being good at conversational etiquette is a very good way to maintain friendly relations with your fellow human beings. Being a good conversationalist usually isn’t sufficient to get you anywhere. But it is necessary for an awful lot of life situations.

¹Verbal tics are involuntary exclamations such as “uh huh,” “eh,” “like,” “mmhmm,” and the worst one of them all — “uhhh.” We should all strive to remove verbal tics from our speech in general.

²I’m sure that at this point, some folks are muttering things about “snowflakes” and how people need to toughen up. As per normal in this series, my mantra is simple: don’t be an asshole. Part of being a functional adult human is not being an asshole on a regular basis. Showing zero disregard for the feelings of others makes you an asshole and disqualifies you from being an adult. Don’t be an asshole. Be an adult.

³Personally I’ve always found that science journals are a rich source of material. It can be fun for many people to talk about new gadgets and new developments.