Changing The Topic

Friendly conversations do not have a set agenda: if they go on long enough, it is accepted that at some point you may want to change topics, perhaps multiple times, and that you may also circle back and visit a topic already discussed. But this is not done randomly or abruptly. If you simply introduce a topic you prefer before the others in the conversation are ready to move on, you aren’t just signalling a lack of interest in the previous topic, you are showing a lack of consideration for the other speakers.


Contributing to an On-Going Topic, Even if You’re Not Interested

Typically, when someone introduces a topic into a friendly conversation, you have to make at least a contribution or two on the topic before you attempt to change it; otherwise, you show a lack of solidarity with the person who introduced it. (Of course, your contributions will still show a lack of solidarity if all you have to say is “I’m not interested in that.”) Note that you don’t have to know anything about a topic to be interested in learning about it, and sometimes we may be bored of the topics we know best! So even as you think about what the others already know about the topic, to help you figure out how much to say, you still need to do a separate calculation of how interested they appear to be in the topic (which can vary dramatically from occasion to occasion).

Showing too quickly and too obviously that you’re not interested in what someone is talking about is highly face-threatening, so we try to be indirect and more subtle, while still hinting that we’d rather talk about something else.

Things you can say to express polite (dis)interest:

  • Ask a closed (simple, factual) question that doesn’t require much elaboration. E.g. “Was (so-and-so) there?”, “When was this?”, “You mean X or Y?” etc. [If you then look satisfied with the answer to your question (saying “Hm,” and/or nodding) and don’t ask more, this conveys, “you’ve answered all my questions on the subject, so we can move on now.”]
  • “Huh. I didn’t know that.” [With no evident interest or enthusiasm, this hints “I didn’t need to know it, and I don’t want to know more.”]
  • “Hmm, I wonder if (so-and-so) knows about that.” [Hints: “This is a topic you should be discussing with (so-and-so) rather than with me.”]
  • Offer an evaluative summary, like “That’s messed up” or “That’s great,” but make sure that you say it with no obvious excitement or enthusiasm. [As discussed below, summaries like this are generally  recognized as potential topic transition points, so this hints that you’re ready to move on.]

Most people can distinguish between feigned interest (which is a polite way to show lack of interest) and actual interest (in which listeners show not just increased active listening, but enjoyment of the discussion: quicker, more animated replies, more genuine smiles and laughs mixed with the fake social ones (if appropriate for the topic). Someone who is not really interested in the topic but still wishes to be polite will reduce gaze and other active listening cues, have only fake (social) smiles, and will begin to display other signs of boredom, more subtly at first, but increasing over time.

A good conversationalist will notice when others are expressing a lack of interest in the topic, and will not continue it for long. They will begin to use phrases to indicate that they recognize a topic transition is due (“One more thing about….,” for instance, or “I just wanted to add that….”), or simply begin trailing off, showing that they, too, are done on this topic. If you do not notice that your listeners are bored and are simply indulging you, and you do not show willingness to allow a topic change, they will begin to feel that you are holding them hostage.  (See ending a conversation.)

Disinterest vs. Discomfort

Note that there is a big difference between not being interested in a topic and being uncomfortable with it. If someone is trying to make you talk about something too personal, or something you are supposed to keep secret, you do not need to be nearly so subtle: just say “I’m sorry, I’m not comfortable discussing this.” If you see signs that you have made somebody uncomfortable by disclosing something too personal or asking them questions that are too personal, back off right away!

Negotiating the Boundaries of a Topic

If you tell a story about a baseball game, what exactly is “the topic” of the conversation? That particular game? Baseball in general? (The current season? Or the entire history of baseball?) Sports in general? You, and your love of the game?

Whatever you say, you introduce several different roads the next speaker can go down, without anyone perceiving that the topic has changed, as long as each turn directly relates to the one that came before it. You can actually travel a long distance over the course of a conversation, ending up far away from where the conversation started, without anyone ever explicitly “changing the topic.” Many friendly conversations meander in this “step-wise” way (as opposed to professional conversations, which tend to be more tightly focused and linear, heading towards a defined goal). We all have had many conversations that meandered so far, we ended up laughing about it and trying to retrace our steps: “How did we get from talking about brands of cat food to a discussion of marriage customs in South Africa?!”

If you have some topic that you really want to introduce into conversation, you can be on the lookout for anything anyone says that you can relate to your topic. It’s like building a bridge: showing people that your topic isn’t just of interest to you, but it should be of interest to them as well, since it relates directly to a topic they introduced. Sometimes speakers will negotiate over the topic, going back and forth: e.g., you tell a story about baseball, I tell a story about football, but then you go back to baseball to show me that I interpreted the topic too broadly. If I don’t take the hint, you might make your interpretation of the topic explicit: e.g. by saying,“Yes, but we’re talking about baseball now, and in baseball…..” At this point, if I wish to talk about something other than baseball (or whatever the named topic may be), I have to explicitly change the topic.

Changing to an Unrelated Topic

Pauses

If participants have shown a lack of interest in a topic (which they must eventually do – even if the topic is initially exciting), eventually the current speaker will finish or trail off, and no one will jump in, leaving a longer-than-normal pause. This is the time when anyone can attempt to change the topic. If you do not wait for these moments, you will be seen as cutting off a conversation before others are ready, ignoring their needs. If you try to change the topic while people are still invested in it (especially if they’re expressing emotion and/or doing self-disclosures), you will look like a jerk. Even if they just have mild interest in a topic that is not personal or emotional, they will be annoyed at inappropriate topic changes, and if you are perceived as constantly “hijacking” the conversation, people may not want to talk to you at all.

Summaries

In addition to pausing, people will generally try to “wrap up” a topic before moving on, by providing some sort of summary (often evaluative), e.g. “yeah, so, it’s all messed up,” or “Well, I guess we’ll never know!” or “We’ll just have to agree to disagree.” (These are very similar to the coda of a story — showing that the story is now over.) A summary followed by a shared pause indicates a communal willingness to change topic.

Transition Phrases

These phrases clearly mark the intention to introduce a new topic that is significantly different from (not an outgrowth of) the old topic. Essentially, you’re making a sudden “left turn” in the conversation, and you need to use your turn signal. (To continue the metaphor: Even if you do use these phrases, if you do so outside of an appropriate potential transition point, it’s like you’re cutting through several lanes of traffic to make your left turn, cutting off all the other drivers.)

  • “Soooo….” (“so” with elongated vowel)
  • “ANYwaay,….” or “ANYhow” (or more playfully, “anyhooo”)
  • “I forgot to tell you….”
  • “Oh! Did you hear about….?”
  • “Before I forget….”

Several of these may be used together, e.g., “So… anyway… Did I tell you that….?”

If anyone has not finished with the old topic, they will typically cut off your transition phrase before you have gotten to the point of specifying the new topic. This allows the old topic to resume until it appears to die out again (another potential transition point), at which point you can try another transition phrase to introduce a new topic.

Uptake of New Topic

As soon as anyone else has engaged with the new topic, answering a question about it or adding their own comment, it now has the privileged position as “the topic” and the whole “dance” begins again, with everyone needing to comment and signal their level of interest. Note that topics that have been dealt with formerly in a conversation do not have a privileged position once a new topic has been accepted; if you want to go back to an old topic after the uptake of a new one, the old one has to be introduced all over again.

Scholarly Sources

 

  • Drew, Paul & Elizabeth Holt. (1998). Figures of speech: figurative expressions and the management of topic transition in conversation. Language in Society 27: 495-522.
  • Howe, Mary. (1991). Collaboration on topic change in conversation. In Ichihashi, Kumiko & Mary Sarah Linn (Eds.), Kansas Working Papers in Linguistics 16: 1-14.  https://kuscholarworks.ku.edu/dspace/bitstream/1808/421/1/ling.wp.v16.n1.paper1.pdf
  • Sacks, Harvey, Emanuel A. Schegloff & Gail Jefferson (1974). A simplest systematics for the organization of talk in conversation. Language 50(4), 696-735.

Recommended Reading

  • Burbach, Cherie. (2013). How to gracefully change the subject. About.com. http://friendship.about.com/od/Keeping-Friendships-Strong/a/How-To-Gracefully-Change-The- Subject.htm
  • Maletta, Zoe. (2013). How to change the topic without being rude. GlobalPost International News. http://everydaylife.globalpost.com/change-topic-being-rude-14402.html

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