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The Social Impact of Discussing Taboo Topics

Research reveals how first impressions are impacted by conversation topics

Key points

  • Self-disclosure topics during initial interactions can influence social, physical, and task attractiveness.
  • When social norms regarding appropriate conversation topics are violated, people are less satisfied from interactions.
  • People who make us uncomfortable may have engaged in taboo topics in the past.

You are getting to know a new acquaintance. The conversation is fun and easy as he tells you about his last job, his hometown, and favorite sports. It turns out you both grew up in small towns with no airports, graduated from out-of-state universities with winning football teams, and are now laughing about the long drives you both had returning home for summer break. But suddenly, the relational momentum comes to a screeching halt, when he crosses a line. “Thank God we have public transportation here. With the amount of time I spend behind the wheel, I can’t afford to get another DUI. Have you ever been pulled over for drunk driving?” Regardless of what the answer is, your interest in continuing the conversation is likely over.

Many relationships never take flight because they are grounded early on by inappropriate questions. Questions that perhaps would be appropriate once relationships have been formed, but not beforehand. Research explains how this happens.

First Impressions and Conversation Topics

Hye Eun Lee et al., in a piece entitled “Effects of Taboo Conversation Topics on Impression Formation and Task Performance Evaluation” (2020),[i] examined how taboo conversation topics impact impression formation and task performance.

Their experiment included 109 women who interacted with a female research confederate, believed to be another study participant. They found that when the confederate performed well and discussed appropriate topics, participants were more likely to form a more positive impression and a more positive evaluation of her task performance. Lee et al. note that when social norms regarding appropriate topics of conversation are not followed, people are less satisfied from the interaction, and may evaluate the task performance of the norm-breaker more negatively.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
Source: Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

When People Talk Taboo

What topics are appropriate, and what topics are taboo? Lee et al. note that past researchers believed that within the first two hours of conversation, the list of inappropriate topics included income, personal problems, and sexual behavior. People are not likely to evaluate others positively when they violate this expectation. They note that appropriate conversation topics include current events, culture, sports, and good news, where inappropriate or taboo topics include sex, money, religion, and politics.

In their own study, Lee et al. tested some of these findings, having the appropriate conversation partner confederate reveal personal information and ask the study participant about their hometown, major, classes they were planning to take next semester, and what they like to do in their free time. In the taboo topic condition, the confederate revealed personal information and asked about the cost of the participant’s outfit (shoes or earrings), as well as questions about her income, romantic status, weight, religion, and arrest history (“I was out partying this weekend and the police stopped me! I thought they were going to arrest me or something. Have you ever been arrested?”)

Lee et al. found that self-disclosure topics during initial interactions can influence social, physical, and task attractiveness, as well as satisfaction with communication, and perceptions of task performance. Not surprisingly, the confederates who discussed appropriate topics were rated more favorably on all measures.

The Way You Make Me Feel

Most people can think of friends or acquaintances they feel most comfortable being around; they can also think of those they don’t. Someone who makes us uncomfortable simply by walking into the room has probably engaged in inappropriate behavior or conversation in the past.

Research appears to corroborate practical experience in noting that particularly when strangers becoming acquainted, conversation topics matter. As noted succinctly by Lee et al., “some topics are, in fact, taboo.”


[i] Lee, Hye Eun, Catherine Kingsley Westerman, Emi Hashi, Kyle B. Heuett, Stephen A. Spates, Katie M. Reno, and Erica W. Jenkins. 2020. “Effects of Taboo Conversation Topics on Impression Formation and Task Performance Evaluation.” Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal 48 (8): 1–11. doi:10.2224/sbp.8322.