As the old saying goes, there are some things best left unsaid. And now it turns out, some people think there are several categories of things that should never be discussed.
Not because those topics are impolite. Because they’re boring.
“This American Life,” the always interesting NPR show, recently gave new life to boredom with a segment titled “The Seven Things You’re Not Supposed to Talk About.”
In that segment, correspondent Sarah Koenig highlighted the conventional wisdom of her mother, Maria Mathiessen. Maria was raised in England and has a European sensibility of what is proper.
According to Maria, some subjects are so inherently uninteresting that is rude and insensitive to talk about them, especially at a party or around the dinner table.
Maria and her French friends say the seven deadly conversational sins are: how you slept; what you dreamt; your period; your health; money; diet; and “route talk.”
Are they right? It’s worth considering, since we still have two more months of winter and many social gatherings ahead of us.
Let’s start with the easy one. Menstrual cycles can be, in mixed company at least, somewhat boring and somewhat dicey to discuss. Certainly the men in the room will be happy to see the topic go unmentioned. And for those of us in the post-menopausal phases of life, it’s pretty much irrelevant anyway.
Score one for Maria.
As for “how you slept,” it doesn’t merit more than a sentence or two. Even with the nightly travails of parents who have an infant, we don’t need to know who got up when to feed the baby, and whether it was 3 a.m. or 4:30.
“What you dreamt” is more problematic. We’ve all suffered through lengthy recitations of friends’ dreams, and it doesn’t take long until we start to wonder when we can change the subject.
The ability to interpret dreams, however, can make all the difference.
It’s boring to hear in detail about how someone dreamt of endlessly riding a horse through a dark forest and then got off the horse in a brightly lit town. But if the horse is seen as a symbol for her demanding and controlling father – and the town represents the community that cherishes her as she is, and not as her father wanted her to be – well, then, that’s a worthwhile insight.
Which brings us to talking about health.
“Nobody ever cares about other people’s health,” said Maria, who it must be noted is a bit of a hard ass. “I mean, if it’s something serious and it’s a friend, obviously you want to hear about it. It’s the common colds, the aches and pains. It’s really tiresome.”
Thirty years ago, I would have agreed with Maria. I had little interest in older people’s health concerns.
At this point in life, though – when my friends are getting new hips and planning ahead for pacemakers — talking about our aches and pains seems so much more interesting.
Pretty soon, my friends and I will be discussing the intricacies of shuffleboard.
Maria asserts that talking about money is both boring and vulgar. She has a point. We don’t really want to know how much our friends made on their Apple stock.
But the topic of money has been in the closet for so long that talking about it seems a bit edgy, and therefore interesting. I’m always curious to know what people paid for their house and how much their parents made.
When it comes to talking about diet, let’s face it: Maria is just wrong. “Locavore” didn’t get to be a recent “word of the year” because it’s boring to talk about diet. If it were boring, we’d have little to say to our friends at Shaw’s or the co-op.
Eating local, eating vegan, how much weight someone lost and how – it’s all kind of interesting. I wouldn’t rank it up there with talking about sports and the weather. But everybody eats, and so what and how we eat is not boring to talk about. (Sorry, Maria.)
Which brings us to Maria’s crown jewel: “route talk.”
She defined this as “when people tell you how they arrived, or how they came, how they got on the road, which road, how long it took. That is the top of my list for what you don’t talk about.”
To make her point, Maria recounted an episode in which Robert Redford visited her house on Long Island:
“He told us how he came from New York all the way out here. ‘Then I got lost in Shirley. And then I asked the cop. And then he recognized me and asked me for my autograph.’ And the whole thing, which takes two hours from New York, took two hours for him to tell us.”
Gotta say I can’t side with Maria on this one. I would find it extremely interesting for Robert Redford to visit my house — even if all he did was read from the phone book.
These days, I’ve been talking a lot to our friends about what’s boring and not boring to talk about.
I’ve been talking about it so much, in fact, that my partner has added an eight thing to the list.
When we get together with friends, she now forbids me to talk about the seven things you’re not supposed to talk about. She says it’s boring.
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