Sun, K. and Slepian, M.,“The conversations we seek to avoid” (2020). Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 160, 87-105.
Background & Theory:
Studies have shown that working adults participate in conversations with their coworkers very frequently. In fact, these conversations encompass approximately one-third of the average adult’s workday. The professional atmosphere of many workplaces make certain topics of conversation off-limits. But what happens when a coworker brings up a topic of conversation that others are uncomfortable talking about? This study examines and dives deep into what topics of conversation most workers wish to avoid talking about.
Research was conducted to answer the following questions:
- What are the topics of conversation people most want to avoid at work?
- What emotions and reactions occur in response to these conversations?
- What are the motivating factors that underlie the desire to avoid these conversations?
- What is the effect of these conversations on one’s personal feelings of authenticity in the workplace?
This research came to fruition due to a number of studies that were conducted. The first study included reaching out to 1000 participants via Amazon Mechanical Turk and asking them to list five topics they seek to avoid talking about with friends, family, a romantic partner, and coworkers. The participants were then asked two additional open-ended questions: (1) How would you feel if any of these topics came up in a conversation? and (2) What might you do if any of these topics came up in a conversation? R statistical software was used to analyze the data. The second study included asking questions about the 10 solidified topics from the previous study to 49 participants. The questions revolved around gathering data of their individual experiences with these topics.
The third study included surveying 1005 participants, randomly assigning them one of the ten topics, and asking them to write about the reasons for which people would not want to talk about the topic with family, friends, romantic partners and coworkers.
The fourth study included surveying around 300 people in the field and online about the topics to test hypotheses on the relationship between the motivation to avoid uncomfortable topics and the emotional response to these conversations. Studies 5 and 6 both had samples of around 200 and they asked survey questions on motivation in experiencing discomfort in conversations and feelings of authenticity.
Participants in the study found the issues of politics, money, personal issues or problems, work, religion, family, romantic relationships, sex, the past, and friends to be the top ten topics people avoid talking about. When these topics were brought up in conversations, participants reported experiencing negative emotions like anxiety and annoyance. Additionally, they reacted by staying quiet, attempting to change the topic, or leaving the conversation.
By employing a machine learning algorithm, researchers discovered two broad motivations that underlie why people want to avoid unwanted conversation topics: concerns of privacy and concerns of creating a conflict. Concerns of privacy predicted one would stay quiet in the conversation through inhibiting emotions such as being uncomfortable, nervous, uneasy, awkward, embarrassed and anxious. Concerns of creating a conflict predicted one would leave the conversation through activating emotions such as being angry, irritated, annoyed and frustrated.
In terms of feelings of authenticity, it was found that when concerns of privacy were brought up, authentic self-focus occurred. In other words, enhanced self-focus due to privacy concerns was not felt as less authentic. Conversely, when concerns of creating a conflict were brought up, an enhanced focus was brought on others in conversation, which seemed to feel inauthentic. This is likely the effect of not sharing one’s true opinion.
What We Can Learn:
Looking over this research, we can take away these key insights:
- The top ten topics of conversation that people want to avoid include the issues of politics, money, personal issues or problems, work, religion, family, romantic relationships, sex, the past, and friends.
- The desire to avoid these conversations likely stems from a concern of privacy due to inhibitive emotions (such as anxiety, uneasiness, awkwardness) and the concern of creating a conflict due to activating emotions (such as anger, frustration, annoyance).
- The study found that not engaging in an uncomfortable conversation due to concerns of privacy does not leave one feeling less authentic, whereas not engaging out of concerns of creating a conflict can leave one feeling inauthentic.
For Consultants: Workplace conflicts can easily arise from coworkers not establishing boundaries of comfortable conversation with each other. Recognizing the topics that lead to discomfort and the reaction of individuals in response to these conversations is helpful in creating healthier work environments.
For Everyone: Being immersed in uncomfortable conversations can feel intrusive. Recognizing whether this discomfort comes from a concern of privacy or concern of creating a conflict with others may help with finding ways to feel more authentically yourself in avoiding these conversations.