Somewhere in Job Whisperer History, there is detailed mention of the Dreadful D-words, from which it may be that poor Debbie Downer’s name derived. The D-words are the things you don’t talk about in casual, polite, or business conversation. Let’s review them.
1. Death. There are no exceptions to this, strange though it may seem. If you have a role in the writing of the obituary, or you are speaking at a funeral service, or you have been invited to attend a wake, you know that celebration of a life is the point of those. A conversation about death is a serious matter and is conducted among people who have agreed to be in the conversation in advance, are not at a network event or party, and is focused, sensitive, and important. You don’t have to be the one to mention that so and so passed away, unless it is your job to notify others. Under those circumstances, your form is prescribed in etiquette reference books.
2. Divorce, yours or anyone else’s. Impending, final, amicable, ugly, or simply inconvenient, the subject should not be uttered. Don’t learn this the hard way–any mention of anyone’s divorce, including your own, will cast you, and casting should be controlled and intentional. Let’s say the divorce is yours and you intend to reinvigorate your career, now that you have resolved issues you felt were constraining it. Bringing up the divorce distracts from career as the more relevant subject–why talk about anything that isn’t forward-looking and active? Use your energy to stay on subjects that attract interest in you but not gossip about you.
3. Diet. We don’t care, and raising the subject makes everyone wonder about their own hips, chins, muffin top, and underarm flab. There is nothing to say about a diet in response to anything you might mention. If you needed the diet, good for you, but if someone says exactly that, you say and think what? The same is generally true of food allergies, health matters that necessitate food limitations (“I have bloodwork in the morning so I’m fasting” which actually violates number 5 below as well). If your meeting is in a restaurant, call ahead to find out what menu selections are right for you–and have a back-up plan in emergencies. If you requested a special meal, discuss this with the wait staff, not the table guests. If someone else raises the subject, change the subject. And never comment on what anyone else is eating, ever, whether you think it is enviably delectable, or positively nausea inducing. It isn’t on your plate, so you need not concern yourself.
4. Despair. Unless you require immediate mental health treatment or attention from a professional, and I am not minimizing that possibility, your angst over a personal matter is not for broad consumption. Leading with your problems, or answering the question “How are you?” too honestly may lead your prospective supporter(s) to realize that you are not stable enough to endorse, that you make questionable decisions, that you have a narcissistic streak, or that you put your discomfort front and center routinely. They don’t know you well enough to conclude otherwise.
On this one, there is another issue. Reciting your pain makes it stick around and intensify; it becomes an affirmation. Take page from Pollyanna–find the good or the fascinating and stick with that for conversational moments.
5. Disease. Whatever it is and whatever part of you it affects, whether it’s yours or someone else’s, it’s not party talk. That includes allergies, broken things that require visible alterations, and labels–like arthritis, migraine, and pain. HIPAA was enacted for a reason and when it comes to stuff that aches, makes you icky, causes people in the vicinity to blush, could cause one of the other D’s, or can’t be pronounced, best to stand down and talk about a documentary you saw on the Smithsonian Channel or Modern Marvels. Or a Super Bowl commercial about kitties making the Facebook rounds. Anything.
If it seems to you that if you avoid these topics there is nothing left to talk about, it’s time for you to develop highly intentional talking points to guide your thinking about how you want to be perceived. Imagine you have only a few minutes to make your best first impression (because that is exactly the case)–do you want to be remembered as the divorced person with the bad back who is trying to lose twenty pounds on the South Beach diet, or the one who is well read, active in the community, and interested in others and their interests, and knows interesting things.