10 Tips For Great Conversation Etiquette


10 Tips For Great Conversation Etiquette

Knowing how to talk to another person respectfully seems as if it should be a basic skill – but it’s an art. So is effective communication. Unfortunately, the subject of conversational etiquette is not a simple one. Nuances built into conversation through socialization or different cultural practices mean that conversational etiquette is not one-size-fits-all. 

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So let’s break it down: we are all socialized differently. Whether due to culture, class, family or the circle of friends we ended up hanging out with as we were developing our social skills, we are all different communicators. Add context to that – Are we talking about a personal conversation? A professional one? – and we end up with a very complicated set of behaviors.

We can make it even more dense – How do you perceive the way somebody is communicating with you? While you may be accustomed to conversations in familiar spaces going a certain way, you may be suddenly thrown off by someone who has been socialized differently than you or doesn’t communicate exactly like you. A lot of communication breaks down due to internalized biases associated with our own socialization.

Communication is Not One-Size-Fits-All

The reality is that the ideals of what is proper or deemed ‘normal’ conversational etiquette in North America (and in most of Western society) often fail to include the vast cultural landscape and class systems that impact how many others communicate and express themselves. Conversational etiquette needs to be reinvented. Instead of looking for a set of hard and fast rules to communicate the right way, what you could do is create space in yourself for conscious negotiation of cultural diversity. Why should you do that, you ask?

Here’s one reason: When you impose conditions on others about how they should behave conversationally, what you are doing is demanding that someone conform to your own personal socialization. Not only is this dismissive of other cultures, classes and norms but it is also connected to a dominant cultural “fragility.” In essence, it suggests that you feel you have a right to claim feeling attacked and offended when someone doesn’t communicate the same way you do.

Be Mindful of Tone Policing

Tone policing can be an element of xenophobia, classism, and racism. As such, it can be an extension of how colonized mindsets still demand dominance through “acceptable” social and behavioral norms. Anything that doesn’t fit within those norms is deemed inappropriate or, even worse, aggressive.

Dominant conversational etiquette norms have been set throughout most of the world via colonization and are often connected to British standards. This version of conversational etiquette revolves around being soft spoken, polite and composed. Essentially, it sees heightened emotion and passion as inappropriate or “too much.” If someone ever tells you you’re being too much, you can be pretty sure this is what they mean. 

As someone who was raised in a Portuguese household in a community primarily filled with immigrant and working-class people, I was surrounded by other kids who were socialized just like me. From Italian and Croatian to Jamaican and Polish kids, the similarities in our behaviors all seemed connected to our culture and class. And working class “Canadian” kids behaved the same as we did. That is, we were loud, rowdy and passionate – and this extended into our adulthood, during which many of us have had to mute these vibrant and expressive parts of ourselves to fit into workplaces and social circles that showed discomfort with our words, volume or tone.

As I finally came to understand that society was attempting to align me with a colonized mindset of behavioral norms, I realized that my identity was struggling. So I said, f*** it, and started to behave unapologetically, demanding space for my own socialized norms. Authenticity can bring loss – for me, it actually ended a long-term relationship. But it also brings a whole new world of friends that allow you to be who you are, and a space where everyone feels a sense of safety in how they express themselves.

10 Tips For Great Conversation

Keeping all of the above in mind, let’s all remember, though, that some things do not need to be unpacked and are essential tools to maintain conversational etiquette.

  • 1. Listen! It’s easy! Active listening is harder and takes practice, but you can start by really trying to focus, rather than simply waiting them out so you can speak yourself.
  • 2. Put away your phone. No, you do not need to check your Instagram comments when you’re in the middle of conversation.
  • 3. Don’t comment on someone’s appearance. Ever. To my Portuguese aunties who liked to tell me I was fat every time they saw me: this is not a cultural norm, it’s fat phobia. Stop it.
  • 4. Be authentic. Disingenuousness is a conversation killer.
  • 5. No tone policing! Allow people to speak the way they speak. Some people are loud and passionate. Others are quiet and subtle.
  • 6. Don’t be toxic, bro. No racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, fat phobia. Just…no.
  • 7. Share and don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. I know this is one rule that most people go against. The idea of “oversharing” is seen as a conversational faux pas, but it can also establish trust and help you, in turn, be trusted.
  • 8. Don’t share other people’s secrets. Keeping private information private is another great way to instill trust.
  • 9. Don’t tell people to calm down or “chill.” It doesn’t feel good on the other end, much like it wouldn’t feel good to be accused of being repressed because you’re a little quieter than the norm.
  • 10. Be kind in all you say. Conversations are how we all find a way to each other. Speak, and listen, with kindness.
  • Bonus: Don’t correct someone’s grammar. Unless they are having trouble communicating and ask for help, don’t interrupt someone to correct their grammar. A lot of people speak multiple languages or communicate with different dialects or vernaculars. Even if well-intentioned, interrupting to “correct” someone’s speech is a bad move.

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