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None of Your Beeswax! Understand Social Distance

Picture of Angela Guido

Angela Guido

Understanding Social Distance is your key to confidence in any professional networking event situation – even when you are outside of your own culture.

Networking and interacting with people who come from a different cultural background can be challenging. We tend to assume that everyone has the same boundaries we do, and that these apply to professional relationships. But it is generally wise not to take those boundaries for granted. For example, in some countries, discussing topics such as salary, marital status, family relationships, or age is appropriate when you first meet someone. In others, these subjects cross the line of cultural sensitivity and are very strictly taboo.

Let’s talk about American cultural norms in a professional context.

Take a look at our Professional Social Distance Circle below.

The Inner Circle of Social Distance

Stay outta here when talking to strangers if you want to make sure not to cross any boundaries or create awkward moments.

In any culture, the rules of appropriate social distance follow the boundaries of personal privacy and identity. In the United States, issues of well-being are considered the most sacred and personal. This includes anything to do with the body—health, sexuality, and other issues related to someone’s physical person—as well as anything to do with personal finances and income.

Although work is indeed on the outermost—and, therefore, “safe to discuss”—circle, income is not considered part of work. Money, finances, and earnings are much more personal in American culture and are therefore off-limits.

The innermost circle also includes beliefs, such as religion, spirituality, politics, and other ideas about which people tend to have very deeply held convictions. You have probably heard that discussing religion or politics at social gatherings is rude, and this is why: it’s considered deeply personal and intimate.

And of course, it might also lead to heated debates that polarize instead of connecting people!! Whenever someone’s beliefs are open to discussion, people tend to take the conversation personally. So it is generally a good idea to avoid these topics entirely, a little professional distance.

As a best practice, don’t inquire about Inner Circle Subjects unless someone else invites a conversation about them.

And even then, tread carefully.

The Second Circle of Social Distance

Best steer clear just to be safe.

Likewise, someone’s marital or parental status (i.e., their personal relationships) should not be the first thing you discuss.

Conversations about romantic partners, kids, parents, and even someone’s working relationships with colleagues and superiors could be fair game for a second, third, or fourth conversation, but they should probably not be assumed to be common ground to be discussed in the first.

Relationships are on the Second Circle of social distance, which means many people will feel uncomfortable discussing those matters with complete strangers. Wait until someone else brings up those subjects before engaging on them.

The Outer Circle of Social Distance

Keep Your Conversations Here!!!

Of course individual boundaries vary widely, and you may indeed encounter a senior executive who only wants to talk about his colonoscopy or what is happening in the mid-term elections.

But when you ask questions and initiate a conversation, the onus is on you to avoid topics that might make someone feel uncomfortable or put them in an awkward position.

Therefore, topics that are generally safe to inquire about are work, hobbies, and taste.

Most people enjoy discussing food, films, and fun. The nature of someone’s work and pastimes are also great topics to choose.

Questions about hobbies focus on recent, past, or ongoing activities and give you the chance to discuss shared interests.

Questions about taste, on the other hand, allow you to discuss opinions and ideas. You could find yourself in a playful debate about the best Korean fusion food truck in town or the importance of French cinema in the history of film. Opinions differ from beliefs because they do not relate to profound and personal issues such as what happens after we die or how the government should preserve the well-being of its citizens. They simply relate to pleasure—what we like and what we don’t like.

That makes all these topics safe to debate in the public mixed company of strangers at a networking event.

One caveat

This post is not about hard and fast rules. We’ve all had the experience of connecting with someone immediately and moving on quickly to discuss very intimate topics in the first conversation.

Great!! Sometimes deep connections move fast.

The Social Distance Circle is only meant to be a reference point for times when you want to play it safe in your social interactions. And of course, we certainly hope you won’t always play it safe!! Life is meant to be lived!!!

Take a social distance risk and let us know what happens in the comments section below.

But, to be sure to avoid awkward networking moments, uncomfortable silences, and offended conversational counterparts…

  • Stick to the outer circle.
  • Let others take the first step to discuss Second and Inner Circle subjects.
  • And only follow the conversation as far as you are comfortable doing so…

Have fun!!

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