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Wise Words - Tabuthemen

Schlagwörter: Tabuthemen Smalltalk, Smalltalk, wie Smaltalk auf englisch, OWAD, Business English

Should we avoid taboo topics in small talk — and if so, how do you decide what is really taboo?

Should you clean up your small talk according to PARSNIP principles?A parsnip (in German, der Pastinak) is a kind of root vegetable that is popular in the UK, especially roasted. In small talk however, it takes on a very different meaning. If you ignore the PARSNIP principles in your smalltalk sessions, you might end up getting roasted yourself. I’ll explain why below.

The acronym PARSNIP stands for Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, Isms (such as communism), and Pork. These are the topics that are often banned in publications for English-language training for instance. Authors and editors are told to avoid them, as they are considered controlversial, particularly in certain markets such as the Middle East or China.

By implementing self-censorship in the production phase of the publications, publishers seek to avoid state censorship at a later stage, which would mean their books could be banned from that market. It’s a question of principle whether companies decide to implement such policies. PARSNIP topics can therefore be a minefield, whether you talk about them or not. Although this practice is often viewed as extreme “political correctness,” it’s widespread in the industry.

From normal to business?

But what has all this got to do with small talk? The very same PARSNIP topics are often considered taboo in international business settings as well. While these are frequently the topics that produce the most lively, insightful and entertaining conversations in our “normal lives,” they can also lead to some of the most heated arguments.

In discussing such topics, you could end up offending and alienating people. It’s an acceptable price of an honest debate and open society, but in some business situations, it’s often a high price to pay. The goal of small talk is usually to create a better working relationship, not to bare all to your partners.

The PARSNIP topics are not only considered taboo in certain cultures, they are generally avoided in smalltalk situations across cultures and even within the same monoculture in one office. And it doesn’t even stop at these seven topics. Add the following three for the perfect ten taboos: personal finances, appearance and health issues.

Instead, safe topics usually revolve around the following: the weather, hobbies, and the weather again. Sounds boring? Actually, there are ways to introduce more controversial topics, but it can be tricky.

Building intercultural awareness

If you are visiting a business partner in another country, or a client is visiting you, some PARSNIP topics could actually help you gain a better intercultural awareness of your partners and the place in which their company is based, or the culture that forms the basis of their working environment. How do you best tackle the topics? Start with these four basic rules:

1. Use common sense

Obviously, certain cultures will not be open to discussions about alcohol, narcotics or sex. It goes without saying that you should know which cultures they are and how this will affect your business and your small-talk conversations. Do your research before you do business. It should be common sense.

2. Don’t appear critical

This actually belongs to the common sense category as well. However, it’s so important that I’ll spell it out here separately. Whatever you learn about your business partner in a small-talk situation, don’t make wholesale judgements about it based on your own culture. Such differences frequently have deep historical roots.

3. Don’t ignore the culture!

Each culture will have taboo topics even within the topics that are generally considered safe. Do your research before you travel or welcome guests from other cultures. The goal is to show understanding to your partners.

4. Understand the faux pas

If you do make a faux pas, such as forgetting someone’s religious beliefs, it’s best not to spend too much time on it. Apologize sincerely and move on quickly to another topic.

Not ignorant, but interested

Most cultures do allow considerable leeway even within PARSNIP topics. In certain situations, it would even be crazy not to mention them.


Clearly, if the country has just had an election or is about to have one, it will be hard to ignore this topic. Direct questions about political affiliations are obviously taboo, but you can keep the conversation on a general level. Will the election results change anything? To get more information on the culture, ask an open question such as: How does the system work here?


If the country is famous for certain alcoholic drinks, alcohol is definitely a good topic. Scottish whisky, Irish stout or French wine, to name just a few. You might be surprised to learn that the English are proud of their wine, and the Greeks of their craft beers. A simple question can get the conversation off to a good start: What do the locals drink?


Religious holidays are a good excuse to learn more about a culture, but avoid getting too personal. Keep it general with an open question that invites your partner to talk about the topic as they wish, without getting into awkward territory: What will you do during the holidays? How is the day celebrated?

Sex and narcotics

These are probably best avoided unless you’re in the business of sex or pharmaceuticals!


This can cover so many topics, but they all refer to strong belief systems. It’s difficult to define a moment when they could be covered in small talk. They are simply too tied up in personal opinions.


Well, it’s hard to see why you would really need to ever discuss the pros and cons of eating pork during small talk, which is why it’s not usually an issue. International publishers tend to avoid it mainly so they can sell their material in countries where pork is considered “unclean.” However, perhaps this category could serve as a reminder that the topic of food can be a tricky one, especially in the days of vegetarians, vegans, Paleo and obesity! Remember rule two from above… just don’t be judgemental.

On the other end of taboo

What do you do if you’re asked about a topic that is taboo for you? The first reaction should be considerate. It’s best to assume your partner has the best intentions and not the worst. Then choose one of the three reactions below:
1. Ignore the question and change the topic.
2. Feign ignorance and change the topic.
3. Smile and change the topic.

As you can see, you can react very differently, but the goal should be the same, which is to change the topic. And if you’re business partner starts using these tactics, then you’ve gone down the wrong road. Be sensitive to such reactions and maybe go back to the safest topic of all: the weather. You might be surprised how animated some conversations about the weather can be, especially when you kick off with this question: “Is this weather typical for the time of year?”

Schlagwörter: Tabuthemen Smalltalk, Smalltalk, wie Smaltalk auf englisch, OWAD, Business English

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