When someone is avoiding a topic of conversation by sidetracking or using other evasion techniques, it may be said that they are trying to beat around the bush. It is a way of saying that someone is avoiding a problem. It usually involves trying to indirectly work towards a subject, without coming right out with it.
Beating around the bush is called a figure of speech, or an idiom. An idiom is a phrase that cannot be literally translated in a way that makes sense. The meaning has to be taken figuratively. Idioms usually stem from a more literal translation of the phrase that used to be relevant in people's lives. The phrase "beating around the bush" came from an old hunting technique. Hunters, especially those hunting boars, or wild pigs, would beat at bushes and trees to get boars to run out of their hiding places. This was safer than confronting them straight on, due to the razor sharp tusks. Beating around the bush saved hunters from being injured by dangerous animals.
There are many reasons why a person might choose to beat around the bush. Most commonly, it is done when a topic that needs to be discussed is unpleasant. For example, if a young woman has decided to break up her long-term relationship with her boyfriend, she may not come right out and say "we're through." She is more likely to discuss taking her life in a new direction, any personal changes she has experienced, or even the benefit of dating several different partners before marriage. This allows her to more gently bring up the subject, and may even get her boyfriend to initiate a conversation about breaking up before she does.
Another time that someone may beat around the bush is when they are asked a question that they don't have a good answer for. An alcoholic may resort to beating around the bush if he or she is asked about the amount of alcohol they regularly drink. A compulsive spender may do the same when asked about his or her finances. This avoidance technique attempts to answer a question without giving a direct response.
Avoiding getting straight into a discussion about something important by trying to beat around the bush can have negative consequences, especially in the workplace. Not being able to get right to the point when discussing major business moves can make employees appear to be unprepared for the meeting. Parents have a harder time teaching their children discipline when they beat around the bush, and couples who cannot openly discuss problems they may be having will have a hard time staying together. While there are times that tactfully beating around the bush may be appropriate, it is generally better to be able to come right out with the matter at hand, instead of trying to indirectly hint at it.