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The 5 Manners of What Not to Ask at a Christmas…or Any Party

Christmas Party Conversation Tips -

By: Maralee McKee, Manners Mentor

I find that friends often have friends a lot like themselves. Because of this, we probably have quite a bit in common with the people at the parties they host.

Meeting friends-of-friends is a great way for us to make new friends ourselves.

At least it is if we step-out on the right foot and manage to keep the other one out of our mouth!

None of us mean to say the “wrong” thing, we all want to leave others with a good impression of ourselves; however, it happens to everyone. We ask a question without realizing the impact our words had on the other person. It seemed innocent to us, so what’s making the other person emotionally back away suddenly?

The answer: We asked one of the five questions most often asked of someone we’ve just met that should be saved for people we already count as friends. Without knowing it, we’ve gone too far, too fast.

Most of us have been asked these five questions a lot. So they might come as a surprise that they aren’t considered “polite” conversation for parties and other first encounters.

In the list below, I share the “why” not to ask them. Knowing why helps us remember what not to ask.

And while the questions might not bother you or me at all if someone were to ask, keep in mind that good manners aren’t about only your or my thoughts, feelings, and opinions about something. It’s the bigger picture. It’s not my personal standard that constitutes good manners and it’s not your personal standard, either. It’s the Gold Standard.

What’s the Gold Standard

The Gold Standard is something that author Andy Andrews lays out in his book, The Noticer Returns that says living by our own standard means we aren’t really living by a standard at all. A “standard” by definition means that it’s an agreed upon norm. The one’s that make it into the etiquette books, (and etiquette blogs!) in my opinion, automatically can be considered having met the Gold Standard.

Before we begin, there’s one thing we need to know about how friendships are born:

Friendships are formed on common ground. And while the cliche’ “opposites attract” is well known. It’s more the exception than the rule in relationships of any kind. The more you can find in common with someone the faster you’re able to say, “I like that person.” And why wouldn’t you? What’s not to like? They’re a lot like you!

Here’s the most commonly asked and lesser known things that have been agreed upon as the Gold Standard of what not to ask when first meeting people because of the effect (sometimes subtle and sometimes not) it can have on the person and their opinion of us.

The 5 Manners of What Not to Ask at a Christmas…or Any Party

1. What do you do for a living? This is usually the first question asked of us, and our answer shouldn’t impact the future of our friendship with someone, but the sad truth is…it does. If surgeon Bob is having a great conversation about fly fishing in Georgia on the Toccoa River with car tune-up assistant mechanic Alex, and then Bob changes the subject to ask what Alex does for a living, the difference in income level, job status, education and such is going to suddenly make them aware of the many things that separate them. The two of them haven’t walked on enough common ground together, yet, and one of the two will more than likely excuse himself.

Also, in our current job market situation there are lots of people who have been laid off and can’t find new jobs or who are underemployed. The topic would be one of sadness and frustration for them. Neither of which are going to help him or her enjoy the party. (If you’re talking to someone you think would be a good contact for a possible job make sure to get their email address. A day or two after the party send them an email quickly sharing your job situation. More jobs are found through personal connections than through searches, forums, and services combined!)

2. Is your spouse here? I’d love to meet him/her! While this question seems like a great way to expand a friendship it’s one that can backfire. I know three couples now in various stages of separation and divorce that still wear their wedding rings. The first rule of etiquette is: never assume.

Also, as a young widow, I didn’t remove my wedding ring until Kent (my current husband) and I started dating. Even though my late husband lived in Heaven and I lived in a suburb of Orlando, I didn’t feel any less in love. My wedding ring was my most intimate outward sign of having been joined with him, and I wore it with love and remembrance.

In all these cases, asking about spouses is going to make things awkward. If someone does mention their spouse at a party, then you can certainly ask about him or her.

3. Do you have children?  Infertility issues, miscarriages, teen children who are in trouble, young adult children who have lost their way, not all any families are a Norman Rockwell illustration. Mention your child or children (if you have any) and then if the other person mentions a child it’s a great subject of conversation. However, only talk about the child they’ve mentioned. If they have other children they want to talk about at the party, they’ll bring them up at some point.

4. Do you mind if I take this call? Nope! Nope! Nope! Please….it’s a party, turn your phone off. If you need to check it, or make a call home to see how the kids are doing, take care of it after you’ve excused yourself from the conversation. Ask the host or hostess if there’s a private room you can use, (or weather permitting, step outside) check your phone and make any calls…if you must. But honestly, unless there’s a major illness of a loved one or some such thing, you need to be able to attend a party without consulting your phone for the duration. And besides, you deserve the break from the interruptions and possible frustrations (work emails, arguing children, late bill notices and anything else you can think of) that our phones deliver right to the palm of our hands.

5. You’re a insert job title/position here. May I ask you a question? It’s great finding out that you’re talking to a lawyer when you have a question about a contract you’re about to sign. It’s wonderful chatting to a chiropractor when your back hurts. It’s great luck to discover you’re deep in discussion with an interior designer when you’re wondering what color you should paint your dining room.

The fact is, answering your questions is how these people get paid. Asking for free advice of someone you’ve just met, and while they’re enjoying a party (free time!) none-the-less, isn’t the type of person I think you want to be.

Since you’ve met them at your friend’s party, you can ask your friend about their work before you make a call and be pretty certain that you’re getting a good recommendation. Maybe if your question takes just a minute or two on the phone they’ll answer you for free, but a workman is always worthy of his wages. Paying for good work and quality advice is the norm.

Now that you know what not to ask, join me next Monday for, The 5 Best Conversation Starters at a Christmas…or Any Party! I’ll share with you what to say to find common ground quickly and enjoy savvy, sincere conversations. 

Until then…may you have a wonderful, grace-filled, and blessed week!


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What Next!

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  • Brittainy S

    This is a good article! I especially like number 5! My Husband deals with this constantly as he is a manager of a Car Parts retail store and is known to be mechanically inclined. Most of the time we don’t mind helping, but it can be very frustrating when we are on a date, or really just trying to relax!!

    • Maralee McKee

      Hello, Brittainy! Oh goodness, I feel you! My brother is a car mechanic and he’s asked things all the time. Like your husband, he’ll answer when he can, but like he says, “It’s really hard to tell what’s wrong with a car without seeing it.” The noises people make trying to sound like the car, and the sound the car is actually making is also often very different from one another!