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How to Talk About Sensitive Subjects in English

Image representing students learning how to talk about sensitive subjects in English

No matter what language you are speaking, whether it is your native tongue or a foreign language, there are some topics that are very hard to talk about.

When you discuss things like politics, religion, personal relationships or other subjects that can make people feel emotional or angry, you have to be very careful about the words you choose, and how you phrase questions, disagree or contradict what someone says.

This is called being “tactful” or “sensitive” and, of course, expectations will be different depending on the culture of the country you are in. Some people might prefer not to risk talking about certain things at all. But if you really want to learn about a culture and to deepen your relationship with new friends, or you feel uncomfortable about something that a person believes about your own culture or views, at some point you will probably have to talk about difficult subjects.

In English, there are many phrases you can use to make sure that you always sound polite and tactful. This helps to make sure that the other person does not think you are confronting or attacking them.

For example, if you want to start a conversation or ask a question that you are worried might make the other person uncomfortable, or you don’t know how they might react, you could start by saying something like:

“Do you mind if I ask you a question?”

“Can I ask you something?”

“I hope you don’t mind me asking this, but…”

“There’s something I want to ask you, and I understand if you would rather not answer, but…”

“You don’t have to answer this, but…”

These phrases “soften” what you are about to say and show that you do not want to offend your friend or acquaintance.

If you disagree with what the other person says, you can also do this in a polite and tactful way. If you can, it’s often helpful to turn this into a question rather than directly contradicting someone. For example:

“But don’t you think that…”

“I see what you mean, but don’t you agree that…”

“But what about…”

“But you can’t deny that it’s also true that…”

You could also ask the other person to explain themselves a little bit more. For example:

“But why do you think that…”

“Okay, but what do you say that…”

“I’m not sure what you mean by…”

Or, you could try to explain things from another perspective to show why you see the situation in a different way. For example:

“I suppose it’s difficult for me to understand, because where I grew up…”

“You see, in my country…”

“The way we look at it in my religion is…”

“In my family, it’s very important to…”

“Where I live, the biggest problem is…”

Finally, if you feel that things are getting too emotional, the other person is getting aggressive, or it feels more like an argument or fight than a conversation, it’s a good idea to calm things down. You can do that by trying to find something that you agree on, for example:

“Okay, well I think we both agree that…”

“Perhaps I didn’t explain myself very well. I just mean that…”

“I’m not trying to argue, I just want to understand your views better.”

“I understand why you feel that way, I suppose I just see things a little differently.”

Or, try and end the conversation in a friendly way, for example:

“I think we should agree to disagree on this point!”

“I don’t think we will see eye to eye on this issue. Let’s talk about something else.”

“Okay, I think I understand your point. Anyway, shall we talk about…”

… And then change the subject to something light hearted!

Lastly, try not to raise your voice or get angry, and keep smiling and asking questions! No matter where you are in the world, this is usually the best way to avoid falling out with someone when your opinions are different.

Do you get frustrated when you try to explain complicated ideas in English? Take a look at our range of courses at www.Eurocentres.com and start improving your language skills today!