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Etiquette column: Medical history is best kept out of small talk

Friday, October 19, 2012 - 12:01 am

Times may have changed, but courtesy never goes out of style. In today's world sometimes it's complicated to figure out how to do the right thing. Local etiquette expert Karen Hickman answers your questions or helps solve your dilemmas on Fridays in The News-Sentinel and at news-sentinel.com.

Q. Karen, I was at a social event recently and sat next to a woman who told me her entire medical history when she found out I was a nurse. Could you please address this issue? I think people assume because someone is in the medical profession they are eager to hear all of their medical details. When I am away from work I feel as if I am entitled to a break. Am I wrong?

A. You are not wrong. Any professional — nurse, physician, lawyer, etc. — in any discipline is entitled to take a break from day-to-day routines when away from work. An occasional question or comment is probably OK with most people, but engaging someone in conversation and subjecting him or her to your medical history, especially at a social event, is in poor taste and quickly becomes tiresome to those who have to listen.

Health issues are at the top of the list of what not to talk about in making polite conversation and small talk with people. If you have something obvious, such as a broken limb, or even an acute cold, it's okay to mention the point, briefly, and move on. No details are required. Most people don't want the detailed answer to the question, “How are you?”

It's also important to consider the other side of that equation. Asking about someone's health, if you are not a close friend or confidant, especially if he or she has something seriously wrong, and expecting details about the person's status is equally rude.

The next time you are tempted to share your medical history, pause and remember that it is not as interesting to everyone else as it is to you. You want to be remembered as a person, not a disease or disorder.

If you want professional advice from someone, make an appointment with him or her in the office. That individual will appreciate it and the chance to enjoy his or her evening out.

Karen Hickman is a certified etiquette/protocol consultant and owner of Professional Courtesy LLC. Do you have a question for her? Email clarson@news- sentinel.com, and we’ll forward it to her.