If you want to be respected at work, never talk about these 10 things

Posted 15 Jul 2023, by

Brendan Brown

I hate office politics, but I’ll be the first to admit that if you want to get ahead in the workplace, you have to play the game.

As much as you might want to bury your head in the sand like the proverbial ostrich, there are certain social conventions that you’ll be expected to obey at work.

This means that there are things that you’ll need to do, such as making small talk with your colleagues about their plans for the weekend or networking at events to make new connections. But it also means there are things that you shouldn’t do.

A lot of workplaces talk about openness and encourage employees to think of each other as friends or even family members, but there are things that you can talk to your friends about that you should never talk about with a colleague.

Trust me, I’ve learned this from experience.

That’s why in today’s article, we’re going to take a look at 10 things that you should never talk about at work if you want to be respected by your co-workers.

Let’s get started.

1. Politics

This is the obvious place to start, and for several good reasons.

The first is that politics is a divisive subject. It’s not like talking about, say, coffee, which we can pretty much all agree is a good thing. Politics causes arguments as people from different parts of the political spectrum come to verbal blows about their beliefs.

Then there’s the fact that few of us are quite as well-versed in politics as we might like to believe. Taking on a colleague in a debate on gun control can make you look dumb if you haven’t done your research, especially if they have.

Ultimately, talking about politics at work is pointless, because you’re not going to change anyone’s mind but you might just antagonize the people you work with.

It’s just not worth it.

2. Religion

Religion and politics go hand in hand as the two topics that you should never discuss, period. You shouldn’t talk about them at work, but you shouldn’t talk about them at home, either.

And the reasons why you shouldn’t talk about them are pretty much the same. Religion is divisive, and people tend to be passionate about their beliefs. If you meet a devout Christian and try to explain why you’re an atheist, you’re not going to change their minds.

Talking about religion is particularly risky in today’s environment, because we live in a multicultural society where people of all faiths (and none) come together to work towards a common goal.

If you talk about religion, no matter what you say, you’re going to make more enemies than friends. It’s better to avoid it altogether.

3. Medical problems

Health problems suck, especially when they’re chronic ones that plague you on an ongoing basis. Trust me, I’ve been there myself.

The problem is that if you start to talk about them at work, people see you as being incapable of doing your job. 

In an ideal world, your medical problems would make no difference to your work life and people would judge you on the work you do.

In practice, I was side-lined for people who were less experienced than me, and it was they who were given the raises and taken to the pitches. Often, I’d do the groundwork and develop the ideas and the presentations, then they’d take the credit for it.

This all applies to mental health issues, too. Remember, this article is about making sure that you’re respected at work, and not about the inherent discrimination that people face in the workplace.

That’s a totally different issue!

4. Financial worries

Interestingly enough, a lot of my issues with anxiety came from my precarious financial situation, which is something else that you should never talk about in the office.

Yet again, regardless of whether or not it’s fair, people will look down at you and disrespect you if they think that you’re struggling for money. They’ll make (often incorrect) assumptions about your ability to manage your finances responsibly and to save up for rainy days.

I can give you another example of this kind of unfairness.

When I used to work at a marketing agency, my colleagues used to judge me when I said that I didn’t have enough money to go out drinking with them. That was because most of them still lived with their families and didn’t pay rent, whereas I had to cover rent, council tax, food bills and goodness knows what else.

5. Drugs and alcohol

This should be an obvious one, but you’d be surprised by how often people forget about it.

To repeat myself from earlier, the people that you work with are your colleagues, not your friends or your family members. That means that you need to remain professional at all times, and remaining professional means not telling people about how wasted you got during spring break or at your best friend’s bachelor party.

Note that it doesn’t matter whether the drugs and alcohol are legal in your region.

The point isn’t that you may or may not have done something illegal, but rather that it’s not professional to share stories about yourself being intoxicated.

6. Gender and sexuality

Again, we’re talking about something that should be allowed but isn’t.

Most of us can agree that it’s fine for people to identify as whichever gender and sexual orientation that they want to. The problem is that not everyone does, which is why it’s not a great idea to talk about sexuality and gender politics at the office.

Part of the reason for this is that your gender and sexuality shouldn’t come into play at the workplace because it probably has nothing to do with your actual work.

7. Salaries

We can count this as another one of those things that you should be able to talk about but which it’s nevertheless considered socially unacceptable to tackle in the workplace.

In my view, the best way to handle salaries is to share and compare your salary anonymously on third-party websites like Glassdoor, where you don’t have to have one-on-one conversations with your co-workers about how much they’re earning. You can also compare how you stack up to the national and international average for the job you have.

With that information in hand, you’re better placed to have a conversation with your manager about whether you’re being paid enough.

Just don’t talk about it with your co-workers because if someone discovers that they’re doing the same job as you but for more money, they’re going to respect you less.

8. Conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theories are an obvious no no, because talking about your favorite conspiracy theory is a great way to make people think you’re crazy.

This underscores a basic truth about being respected at work, which is that workplaces promote societal norms. In other words, you’ll be expected to agree with mainstream science and to chat about popular culture instead of going down whichever rabbit hole you’re currently passionate about.

When you put all of this together, the general idea is pretty simple. If there’s any risk of you sounding crazy because you think Elvis isn’t dead or the British royal family are lizards in people suits, it’s better to keep quiet.

9. COVID-19

This builds on that last point because today’s conspiracy theorists are particularly keen about talking about microchips in the COVID-19 vaccine or denying that the virus exists in the first place.

Not only is this factually incorrect, but it’s also downright hurtful to people who’ve lost friends and family members.

But it’s not just COVID conspiracy theories that you’ll want to avoid. Wherever possible, it’s a good idea to avoid talking about it in general, because people are sick of the pandemic and they’re trying to move on with their lives.

Talking about COVID is sometimes unavoidable, especially if you’re planning events or travel and you need to mitigate the risks of COVID spreading. But when it comes to general conversation, if you can avoid talking about COVID, you should do so.

10. Other employees

Last, and by no means least, you should try not to gossip about other employees – for obvious reasons.

In particular, you’ll want to avoid badmouthing people, and your superiors in particular.

Sure, your manager might suck, but save complaining about him for when your partner asks how your day was. Don’t chat about it with other employees because it might make it back to your manager – and even if it doesn’t, it can cause people to lose respect for you.

But gossiping and talking about other employees doesn’t end with being negative.

I once worked at an office where one of the employees broke the news of another employee’s pregnancy – without their permission. As you can imagine, that didn’t make him many friends.

And even today, I have a lot less respect for him than I once had.

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