Look below and choose the five most useful questions below and five least useful questions (in terms of being taboo or not really starting a conversation) for situations in which you might really meet foreign people.
(Have you) been busy?
Are you (originally) from (around) here?/ Where are you from?
Are you married?
Are you new here?
Are you okay?
Are you thinking of changing jobs?
Can I help you?
Can you cook?
Did you get much done this week?
Did you have a good weekend?
Did you have any trouble getting here?
Did you hear the weather forecast (for today/ tonight/ this weekend/…)?
Did you see the match (last night)?
Did you see/ hear about…?
Do you do any sports?
Do you drink?
Do you follow (the news/ football/ any team/ any Spanish teams/…)?
Do you have (any) children?
Do you have any plans for the weekend?
Do you know/ work with (name of person)?
Do you live/ work near here?
Do you mind if I sit here?
Do you need any help?
Do you smoke?
Great/ Terrible weather, isn’t it?/ How’s the weather (outside now)?
Have you ever been to (place)?
Have you heard from (name) recently?/ How is (name)?
How are you (today)?
How are you feeling?
How are your family?
How long have you been… ing…?
How much do you earn?/ How much money do you make?
How old are you?
How was your flight?
How was your journey?
How was your trip?
How was your week?/ How has your week been?
How was your weekend?
How’s your family?
How’s your love life?
Is it going to rain/ snow (do you think)?
Is it your first time here?
Is there anywhere good to eat around here?
Is this your first time in (name of place where you are)?
That sounds like a difficult/ hard/ tough job!
That’s a nice… How much did it cost?
That’s a nice… Where did you buy it?
What (exactly) do you do?
What are you doing here?
What are you working on (at the moment)?
What does your company do?
What is it like, working for…?
What’s your favourite food?
Where is your family from?
Who do you work for?
You look stressed/ tired.
You’re looking good/ healthy/ tanned/ well. Have you…?
Try some of the questions with your partner, then discuss if you’ve changed your mind about how suitable any of the questions are.
Do the same, but this time extending the conversations.
Do the same from the beginning of the conversation, dropping the questions in.
What topics are generally good and bad for conversation with someone who you don’t know (well)?
Without looking below, rank the topics which your teacher gives you from 1 point (= easy topic even with strangers) to 5 points (= very difficult or completely taboo topics), without showing your cards to each other if possible. The topics on one card are all supposed to have the same ranking. Note that some topics mean mentioning those things about yourself rather than asking the other person.
The topics are ranked by how British people traditionally feel about those things. Does that change your mind about the ranking?
Check your rankings then discuss any surprises and cultural differences that you find, including what you know about other countries.
Discuss some of the 1 point topics, then do the same moving up the points level.
Taboo topics challenge game
Choose a number of points that you want to try for and your partner will ask you a question about a topic of that level. They will then reward you points up to that maximum (e.g. zero, one, two or three points for a three-point question) depending on your answer.
I’d rather not answer that (if you don’t mind). I’m sorry, that’s rather personal.
I’m afraid we don’t really talk about that in my culture.
Rank and discuss the easy and taboo topics game
(Recent) movies and TV programmes
Cars (e.g. something on the TV show Top Gear)
Celebrities (= famous people)
Complaints about a place you both work or live
Complaints about politicians
Complaints about transport
Free time/ Hobbies
How busy you are
International news stories
People who you both know
Places you have and haven’t lived/ visited
Precise job title and what exactly you do (= details about your jobs)
Sightseeing in this/ your area
The room or building which you are in
Travel (e.g. to the place you are now, commuting, or travel abroad)
Your bad points
Bargains/ How much you saved (for example in the summer sales)
Complaints about your children and husbands/ wives
Gay people who you know
Relationships between your countries and their closest neighbours
Relationships between your countries and their former colonies
Which school/ university you went to
Sports teams which you support
Start a conversation with a taxi driver
Start a conversation with the bar staff (if you are sitting at the bar)
Vegetarianism (= not eating meat)
Which newspaper (or newspaper’s website) you read
Young people nowadays
Complaints about the police
Domestic news (= news about your own countries)
How good-looking (or not) men and women are in your countries
Property prices in your country/ area
Publically owned broadcasters (BBC, ABC, NPR, NHK, etc.)
Scandals/ Negative news involving your companies
Start a conversation at the bar with another customer
Start a conversation at a bus stop
Suggest splitting the bill
The food that you are both eating
The history of your countries
Where you buy your clothes
The death penalty
Complain about the food to a waiter
Great things about your country
Discussing business/ Negotiating during drinks after work
How you really feel
Independence movements in parts of the country (e.g. Scottish independence)
Political extremism in your countries (= far right and extreme left)
Poverty (= poor people)
Previous political leaders of your countries (Tony Blair etc.)
Stand up and introduce yourself
Start a conversation on the bus or train
The 2008 financial crisis
The royal family
The sex industry (hostess bars, “massage parlours”, etc.)
Unions/ Industrial action
What areas you live in
What your houses cost
Which political parties you are against
Complaints about the other person’s country or area
Complement each other
Expensive things you have paid for
Health problems/ Medical problems you have had
Marital state (= married, single, divorced, etc.)
Parenting (= different ways to bring up your children)
Plans to have (more) children
Social class (working class, middle class, etc.)
Start a conversation with someone sitting at the next table in a bar or restaurant
Terrorism/ The war on terror
Trade pacts your countries belong to or could join (e.g. the EU)
Welfare payments (unemployment benefit etc.)
Which political parties you support
Your personal experience of the sex industry (strip shows etc.)
PDF version for easy saving and printing: taboo topics new version Feb 2014
Updated version of this in Teaching Social English: Interactive Classroom Activities