Religion, politics, sex, off-colour humour: these are the four conversation topics you’re most warned to avoid. And anyone who has been involved in a conversation where these topics emerged will know that each is a minefield, and can offend. Obviously, offending is not one of the more useful conversation skills, since alienating your conversation partners means they will probably want to avoid talking to you in the future (obvious maybe, but it doesn’t stop some people talking about these things)
These topics give offence for different reasons: in the case of the latter two, it’s a matter of comfort zones. Some people are totally uninhibited when it comes to talking about sex, while others need to know the person they are talking to quite well, and still others feel totally uncomfortable discussing the topic at all. The reasons for these preferences are unimportant — they have to be respected, and the surest way of doing so is not to raise the subject at all until you know that you are not going to tread on anyone’s toes. You do that by getting to know them, of course.
Jokes about sex and bodily functions fall into the same category, with the added aspect that senses of humour differ, and it may simply be that your conversation partner finds no humour in the subject matter, rather than being actually offended by it. If that is the case though, they will simply mentally label you as a person trying hard to be amusing and failing, which, again, is not an impression you want to leave. The conversation tip here is to simply steer clear, unless you know your audience shares a similar taste in jokes.
Politics and religion, on the other hand, do not offend because of taste or comfort considerations. They cause discord for the reason that people tend to identify their beliefs with their identity, whether those beliefs are religious or political. The beliefs we adopt align us to a tribe. When our beliefs come under attack, in our heads, so does the tribe we belong to, and, by extension, our very identity. So we go on the counter-offensive, defending what we believe even when it is illogical to do so, and finding reasons why the person we are talking to is wrong. And, put simplistically, our response to such attacks is to either back away and become very quiet, or to go on the offensive and defend the tribe we belong to. The result then, of course, is an argument. In extreme circumstances, the result is a fight. The result is rarely what might be termed a pleasant conversation.
There are only two safe ways to introduce religion and politics into a conversation, and they are 1) discussing political or religious belief systems that neither you nor your conversation partner ascribe to or 2) discussing political or religious belief systems that both of you agree on. That way, in theory at least, no one will take anything personally, and the conversation will have a smooth outcome. But that cannot be guaranteed.
To sum up, as a general rule, these four areas should only be explored with people you know well, and who you know will not be offended. If you’re still working on your conversation skills
and techniques, just steer clear of them.