Most people know what topics are fair game if you want to make polite conversation (the weather, traffic, hobbies) and which ones can be a landmine in the wrong setting (politics, religion, the state of your love life).
But there's one topic that falls in the middle-ground that can be tricky to navigate, especially going into the holiday season: how things are going at work.
That's because the state of your employment, or possibly lack thereof, veers into the territory of discussing your personal finances, which even more so than your political outlook is something "we hold most personally and have the greatest assumption of privacy about," says Daniel Post Senning, etiquette expert with the Emily Post Institute.
Talking about work can be especially challenging if you've recently gone through a layoff or are experiencing job insecurity. Here, Senning offers some tips on how to discuss, or not discuss, your work woes this holiday season.
What to say if you don't want to talk about work
First, let's say your layoff is fresh and you're still processing things. Or, maybe you're burning out from your job hunt and just want to leave work stress behind for a few days.
If you don't care to divulge the details with the uncle you see once a year, you could prepare a simple script that lets people know what's going on with you and how you're responding to it.
Senning says the framework could be as simple as: "This happened. I don't really know how to feel about it, and I don't want to talk about it right now."
Your friend or family member is probably asking you how work is going out of concern or because they want to help. If that's the case, you can thank them for their thoughts and say that the best way to support you right now is to keep those conversations to a minimum, or that you'd just rather focus on celebrating and spending time with loved ones.
What to say if you do want to process your layoff
Let's say you actually do want to vent a little but don't want to bring down the mood of a holiday gathering.
A good way to test the waters is to essentially ask for permission to have the layoff conversation. Senning recommends wading into things by saying something like, "Hey, you know, something that's been tough for me that I've been wanting to talk about is XYZ. Do you mind if I talk about it?"
Asking for permission gives you an idea whether the other party is ready to engage. It's also a chance for you to be explicit about what kind of response you're hoping for. Do you simply need a place to vent and process things? Are you seeking emotional support? Or do you need help with your resume and interviewing skills?
Be clear about your intent in sharing the details, and your friend or family member will have a better idea of where you're coming from and how to respond.
If you feel awkward or vulnerable asking for support, remember this, Senning says: "Helping someone feels really good, and when you ask for someone's help, you're giving them that opportunity to do the thing that makes us feel the best in the world, which is to do things for each other."
"Friends and family are the best place to turn to for that," he adds.
Ask for help in the right way
You don't necessarily want to turn a social gathering into a networking event, so if you're asking for direct job help, be tactful about it.
Again, be explicit with your friend or family member about what kind of help you're looking for, like an intro to someone they work with. Explain why you think they might be of assistance — because you're applying for a job directly at their company, because you work in similar fields, or because you're inspired by a recent career move they made, for example.
Then, make a point to come back to the conversation at another specific time.
Make sure to frame your ask in a way that doesn't put undue pressure on someone in the moment, "so you're not asking for that just as the turkey is getting carved, or right at kickoff with a bunch of Cheeseheads," Senning says.
Ultimately, the holidays are a time to come together and celebrate, but that doesn't mean you have to feign happiness or act like everything is OK when it's not.
Just remember to read the room and be considerate of other people sharing your space. When you're sharing tough news, find the appropriate times and places to do that so you don't overshadow other people and their life updates.
Celebrating and acknowledging hardship can live in the same space, Senning says: "Whether sharing good times or facing hard times, connection is fundamentally important. We all need help and support in our life and we all want to share our excitement and our joy."
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