There is not a person alive who does not meet others for the first time occasionally. Some of us meet several new persons every day, some may only meet one person a day or even a week.

But meet we will, and when we do that first meeting can bring mixed emotions into play. Some are great at starting conversations with total stranger, while others would rather avoid doing so like the plague. This article is for both. Those that are great at staring conversations may learn to better their approach, and those that are having difficulty will find it is really quite easy once you know a few rules to follow.

I have never met a stranger. No, really, I think of everyone that comes into my proximity as an opportunity to find a conversation that may be enjoyable, or at worse I will learn something new from the experience. I win either way and I try to make enjoyable an educational for the other person as well. No matter which type of the personalities I mentioned in the first paragraph, this will work well for you, as well. If you set your mind to your first meetings with others to be both enjoyable and educational as your baseline, then it becomes quite easy.

This week I attended a conference hosted by Universidad Internacional (UNINTER) The Center for Linguistic & Multicultural Studies and the Government of the State of Morelos. The purpose of the conference was to discuss the Study Abroad and the Interplay of Culture and Tourism in Morelos Mexico.

The conference was attended by officials of the State of Morelos, the City of Cuernavaca, UNINTER and other language schools in Cuernavaca. Guest press were flown in from around the world and included the Guardian Newspaper of UK, the Dallas Morning News, Houston Chronicle and local writers as well. Educational guests included universities and colleges from the Bahamas, Belgium, Canada, Japan, Korea, United Kingdom and the United States of America.

I believe that I spoke with everyone at the conference at one time or another over the two days. And, even though I was surrounded with highly educated individuals, I found myself having to divert many conversations away from the very things that we should not have been talking about.

During the initial morning talk, the subject was steered towards the notion that Mexico was a dangerous place. While this has been reported in the news within the United States and the stories that were printed were picked up the press that in their desire to promote sensationalism in order to sell papers and advertising, it simply is not true. However, safety is a concern when the universities are sending students abroad and for tourists as well. One of the underlying goals was to show our guests how safe Mexico really is.

As the conversation continued about violence and was obviously taking up more time than necessary, I took to the microphone to address the congregation. I explained how I had been traveling and living in Mexico my entire life and had not experienced the dangers that have been reported. Yes, violence exists throughout the world, but one is 4.6 times more likely to be the victim of a violent crime in Austin, Texas (a very liberal and laid back community the size of Cuernavaca) than in Cuernavaca, Mexico.

My brief speech led many members of the conference to approach me over the two days in an attempt to discuss the dangers of Mexico and I was able to quickly turn the conversation around and move onto more important issues.

During a 30 minute conversation with Jorge Morales Barud, the Mayor of Cuernavaca and his wife Maria Teresa, the subject of violence again came up and I quickly explained how with a $17-trillion debt, the United States of America was only interested in keeping their citizens from leaving the country and spending their money abroad. And then we moved the conversation over to how Jorge and his wife attended the University of Texas in Austin and still have a home there. We found many more commonalities and mutual friends to discuss that were more important than something neither of us has any control over. And, we set up a meeting in which I would be able to assist the city with tourism efforts.

While, there will be moments during first meetings that the conversation is steered in the wrong direction, the object is go get it back on track as quickly as possible. What should we not discuss?

First, there is a list of things that one should never speak about during a first meeting. Most are obvious, but I can honestly tell you that I have had more people attempt to steer the conversation toward one or more them all too often. Including any of these in a conversation has the potential to offend the other person.

Obviously, being offensive is one of the least conversational skills, since alienating the other person means that they will probably want to avoid speaking with you in the future. During a first meeting you should avoid mentioning the following and I will place them in alphabetical order:

Ex-spouses or friends
Gossip of any kind
Negative statements
Off-color humor

There are exceptions to these. If for instance you were to have the meeting while attending a fundraiser for a politician, it might be safe to assume that both individuals have at least that in common and there might be a mention of the politician interjected into the conversation. It would be best to move on to other subjects as quickly as possible until you get to know the other person better. Or, if you are both attending a financial management seminar there might be the inclination that you have this in common, but it would still be best to avoid discussions of personal or business finances, keeping the conversation limited to the seminar and again moving on as quickly as possible.

These topics give offense 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 humor differ, and it may simply be that your conversation partner finds no humor 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.