Taboo topics are sacred or prohibited based on morals, religion or social norms. Learn how to respond to taboo topics and the significance of context when it comes to taboos. What’s considered taboo depends on the time in history, the generation, the person, the setting, even the medium. People seem to feel more comfortable reading or listening and less comfortable talking about taboos!

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CONTENTS

  • Summary
  • Resources
  • Transcript

TABOO SUMMARY

talking taboo topics

DEFINITION of TABOO

  • Taboo topics are “unacceptable,” “prohibited,” “disallowed,” and/or “forbidden.”
  • Taboos are words or behaviours that are sacred or prohibited based on morals, religion, or norms.

CONTEXT IS KEY FOR TABOOS

What’s considered taboo depends on the time in history, the generation, the person, the setting, even the medium.

  • Time in history: Consider how racism evolved from being a taboo topic altogether, to being something that is commonly and explicitly discussed. (Other previously taboo topics: living together or having a child outside of marriage, phone calls after 9pm, girls wearing pants, tattoos, sexuality and particularly LGBTQ+,…)
  • Generations & people: Consider what’s sacred to talk to our kids about vs what’s sacred in conversations with our parents.
  • The setting: Consider what’s sacred to talk about at work versus what’s sacred in conversations at the dinner table.
  • The medium: We might feel more comfortable reading or listening, and less comfortable talking about taboos

20 COMMONLY REFERENCED TABOO TOPICS

1.      ABORTION

2.      BODILY FUNCTIONS & EXCREMENT

3.      CANNIBALISM

4.      CO-WORKERS

5.      DEATH & DYING

6.      FOREIGN POLICY

7.      GOSSIP

8.      INCEST

9.      JOB-CHANGING

10.   MARITAL ISSUES 

11. MEDICAL/HEALTH PROBLEMS

12. MENTAL HEALTH

13. MONEY

14. PROFANITY 

15. POLITICS

16. RELIGIOUS BELIEFS

17. SALARIES

18. SEX & SEXUALITY

19. SOMEONE ELSE’S SPOUSE

20. SUICIDE

 

4 RESPONSES TO TABOO TOPICS

  1. Smile and nod…
  2. Call it out
  3. Listen and learn
  4. Change the subject! 

RESOURCES

Talk About Talk Podcast Episodes on Taboo Topics

 

Other Taboo References

 

Dr. Andrea Wojnicki & Talk About Talk


TRANSCRIPT

Can you guess what the most common communication-related topic is that I get questions about from Talk About Talk listeners? This is kind of a trick Q, since this is the TALKING TABOO episode.  But No, it’s not taboo topics. It’s confidence! I guess that’s not surprising. People are keen to learn tips to help them elevate their confidence.  They want to learn how to get rid of the jitters and appear more confident and credible. 

 

But here’s the interesting thing. When I check traffic to the talkabouttalk.com website – there’s a different story. According to Google Analytics, the number one page on the talkabouttalk.com website for organic hits – that’s where people are most likely to land when they come to the talk about talk website? It’s a page called TALKING TABOOS. It’s a link to a newsletter I wrote just over 2 years ago, focusing on taboo topics.

 

Obviously Taboo topics are something that people want to read about. They want to learn about taboo topics. But nobody ever asks me about taboo topics. But they don’t really seem to want to talk about taboo topics.

 

Well, that’s exactly what we’re going to do today. We’re going to talk about taboo topics.

 

Greetings and welcome to Talk About Talk. I’m your communication coach, Dr. Andrea Wojnicki (please call me Andrea!).

 

Whether you’re an ambitious executive, looking to catapult your career by improving your communication skills, or maybe you’re a podcaster?  Either way, if you have a strong growth mindset – you’re always looking to learn and improve your communication skills, then  you’re in the right place. 

 

At Talk About Talk, we focus on communication-skills-topics like personal branding, listening confidence, and storytelling. This is the critically important stuff they don’t teach you in school. It’s what takes you from a B+ to an A+ in whatever it is you do.  And if you check out the TalkAboutTalk.com website, you’ll find online corporate training, 1-on-1 coaching with me, online courses, the free weekly communication-skills newsletter, and, of course, the archive of this bi-weekly podcast. I really hope you’ll go to the website and sign up for the free weekly communication skills training newsletter. But you can choose what works for you !

 

Welcome to Talk About Talk episode number 81!  In this episode! In this episode, we talk all about taboo topics. As in what is taboo, how taboo topics change over time and across contexts, what topics are considered taboo and why, And perhaps most importantly, for our context of thinking about communicating effectively at work… We’re going to talk about what to do when people start talking taboo at work. Yes! It happens. And we have to deal with it. You’re going to learn how.

 

OK – let’s get into this. As always, you don’t need to take notes, because I do that for you. I simplify and summarize everything for you at the end of the episode And you can always access the episode shownotes on the talkabouttalk.com website. So just keep doing whatever you’re doing – driving or walking or housework, or whatever.

 

Let’s start with the basics. What is taboo? And what is it about taboo topics that makes them so… alluring? So enticing? Why is that the Talking Taboos page is the number one hit on the TalkAboutTalk website?

 

The word TABOO comes from the Tongan TAPU, the Fijian TABU, or the Polynesian TABU, (spelled TABU) and it translates to “unacceptable,” “prohibited,” “disallowed,” and/or “forbidden.”

 

Taboos are words or behaviours that are sacred or prohibited based on morals, religion, or norms.

 

Sacred or prohibited. Got that? And based on moral or religious grounds. Or norms.

 

Of course, we have morals. Morals that guide us in our behaviors. And yes, morals that guide our words. And certainly, there are religious principles that guide different groups in terms of what is acceptable to do and to say – and what is not. Then there’s also norms. Norms and mores vary by group, by person, by context.  Perhaps that’s in part why taboo topics are so provocative. They reveal differences between groups and between individuals.  Sometimes critically important differences.

 

This definition of taboo means that what we consider to be a taboo topic varies across countries, across religions, across cultures, and over time.  So, what is taboo in one context may be completely acceptable in another. 

 

Context is HUGE when it comes to taboo topics. Context cannot be overemphasized here.

 

Consider for example how different generational cohorts talk about – and don’t talk about – certain taboo topics.

 

As Tom Megginson so eloquently stated in episode #71 focused on Personal Branding, Authenticity & TMI – too much information –  we code-switch across generations. We talk differently to our grandparents than we do to our kids.  Not just because of their age, but also because of their generational cohort.  The NORMS that are established for that generation. And of course, those norms include the definitions of what’s taboo.

 

If there’s any question about this, consider this list of 9 socially acceptable things that used to be taboo. Are you ready?

  1. Visible bra straps
  2. Girls making the first move
  3. Living together or having a child outside of marriage
  4. Keeping your maiden name
  5. Asking a lady’s age
  6. Phone calls after 9pm
  7. Girls wearing pants
  8. Tattoos
  9. And, of course, there’s referencing, never mind being anything other than straight, heterosexual. There wasn’t even a word for that.  Now it’s LGBTQ+, and the term is referenced all the time.

 

Consider the Silent Generation. Interesting label, right? Their our grandparents, the ones born in about 1925-45, they’re called The Silent Generation, in part because they were born during the depression and wartime.  But that generation can also be defined in terms of resistance to talking about many taboo topics, right?  Think about it – they’re actually called the silent generation.!

 

Fast forward through the cooler but conformist Baby Boomers (they’re the ones that started talking about sex, right?),  then the cynical Gen X’rs, the protected Millennials, and now the inspiration- and validation-seeking Gen Zs. And it’s these younger Millennials and Gen Z’s who are calling people out (even CANCELLING people!) for violating norms around taboos.

 

For previous generations, talking about racism or sexism may have been taboo.  Now, being racist or sexist is taboo, and if you violate that norm, you stand a chance of getting cancelled.  Wow.

 

The younger generations are encouraging us to talk openly about other critical, previously taboo topics, beyond racism and sexism, such as mental health, money, menstruation, death and dying, and more.

 

SO what topics ARE considered taboo? I did a little research for us. I created an alphabetical list of 20 taboo topics, according to several sources that I checked – including published lists of taboo topics in Canada ??around the world ?, and at work ?:.  This list is by no means complete, but it’s an interesting reference of 20 common taboo topics. Alphabetically, then We start with A, which of course is

 

  • ABORTION
  • BODILY FUNCTIONS & EXCREMENT
  • CANNIBALISM
  • CO-WORKERS (this could be anything from gossip to harassment and everything in between. We’re not supposed to talk about the person whom we may be competing against for a promotion!)
  • DEATH & DYING
  • FOREIGN POLICY
  • GOSSIP
  • INCEST
  • JOB-CHANGING
  • MARITAL ISSUES 
  • MEDICAL/HEALTH PROBLEMS
  • MENTAL HEALTH
  • MONEY
  • PROFANITY 
  • POLITICS
  • RELIGIOUS BELIEFS
  • SALARIES
  • SEX & SEXUALITY
  • Anyone’s SPOUSE
  • SUICIDE

 

I’ll include this list along with some of the resources for where I found these topics in the shownotes, if you’re interested.

 

This is a pretty diverse list.  Everything from excrement to money to spouses.  Wow.  But the topics on this list all have some things in common.  All these topics are things that some people may have strong opinions about.  Not surprising, remember in the definition, I highlighted that taboo topics are grounded in moral, religious beliefs of norms?  People definitely feel strongly about these things.

 

And all these topics are things that people can get offended about.  Whether it’s the topic in general, or a certain stance, people can get offended.

 

When I look at this list of taboo topics, I think about stand up comedy.  You probably don’t know this about me, but I’m a huge fan of stand up.  I admire comedians.  They’re clever! And I love thinking about how they create their schticks too. How they decide what to talk about.  But here’s the thing, much of the low-hanging fruit for stand-up comedians comes from this list of taboo topics.  How many times have you heard comedians talking about poop? Or marital issues? Or sex?  And of course, they like to shock us with profanity.

 

When I look at this list, I also think about “click-bait”. Right? There’s gossip. There’s money, there’s profanity.  Again, these are the things that people might want to read about.  Whether they want to talk about them openly is another question.  Of course some people do, in social media, for example.  But it can be polarizing, and therefore risky.

 

Many these topics are also things that the younger, more recently generations seem to be encouraging us to talk about more.  There are relationship-related topics, health-related topics, or work-related topics here for example, where people are encouraging dialogue. Healthy dialogue.

 

There’s one clear exception to this though, and that’s the topic of POLITICS. While many of these other topics are being encouraged, the topic of politics has seen a resurgence in terms of its taboo status.  Of course, that’s due to the extreme divisiveness, the bi-polar nature of our politics these days.  You’re either red, conservative, and republican, or you’re blue, progressive/liberal, and democrat.  There’s no in-between, and there’s certainly no discussion. At least not in polite company, am I right? Such a shame.

 

Speaking of polite company… let me talk about Profanity.  Profanity is on that list. I had the privilege of interviewing am amazing linguist who teaches a university course on rap lyrics, Professor Darin Flynn.  I’ll leave a link to that episode in the shownotes, I was a bit nervous about this episode. When I mentioned that I was planning this interview to a few respected friends and colleagues, I heard two distinct responses:

  1. “AWESOME!  Can’t wait to hear it and learn about profanity!”
  2. “YIKES!  Really?  You’re going to edit the swears out, right?”

 

So, do you know what I did?  I released two versions of that episode – one unedited, with all the swears, and one edited, the PG version.  Lots of bleeps.  And lots of thanks to my sound production engineer, also my brother, Brian Campbell for that one.  Gawd bless him. That was a crazy episode to edit!

 

Anyway, I learned so much in that interview with Professor Darin Flinn.  For example, Darin shared that there are personality differences between people who swear and those who don’t. Research shows that sweariness (I ❤️ that word) is correlated with extroversion, with riskiness, with dominance, with being disagreeable and non-conformity….  So if you swear more, you’re more likely to be an extrovert, risk-seeking, dominant, disagreeable and non-conformist. I’m thinking those traits are also consistent with people who may generally question or violate other taboos too.  Think about it.  If you’re someone who violates taboos, you might be more likely to be an extrovert, risk-seeking, dominant, disagreeable and non-conformist.  Makes sense. Hmm.

My favourite point from that whole podcast was  Darin’s point that these days, the most profane, the most offensive words in the English language are the ones that are derogatory to minorities.  In fact, those are the profanities that Darin himself refuses to say. If you listen to the unedited version of that Profanity podcast, you’ll hear us – swearing – like truck-drivers, as they say.  But Darin refuses to ever say the N-word.  And he points out that we should feel optimistic that we live in a society where the worst possible things you can say, the most profane, taboo expressions, are derogatory towards minorities?  I love that. ❤️

 

And here we are, by the way, now we’re talking about two taboo topics – profanity and racism.  It’s a double whammy.

 

Alright, so we’ve already covered a lot here. We’ve defined taboo, we’ve covered how taboo topics vary across contexts (across groups and over time), and we’ve listed and covered various taboo topics. What about advice on what to do when taboo topics comes up?

 

Say you’re at work and someone says something about a taboo topic in a meeting?  Or you’re at a dinner party and someone starts talking taboo? You know that awkward silence? When everyone stops dead in their tracks? Or maybe everyone in the room pauses except that one person who’s rambling on about gossip or sex or someone’s spouse – whatever the taboo topic is.  Whatever the context and whatever the topic, you noticed people’s response, and you realize a taboo-topic has been broached.  What can you say or do?

 

Here are four suggestions:

  1. Smile and nod
  2. Call it out. As my teenage son does so well, He exclaims, AWWWWk-ward !!!”Ask, “is everyone is ok talking about this?”  Talk about the fact that it is taboo, as opposed to talking about the taboo topic itself This is a great way to diffuse things.
  3. Listen. If the conversation is going full-tilt and no one seems to want to change the subject, play a game with yourself.   Challenge yourself to fully understand others’ perspectives.  Keep it objective.  Ask Qs.
  4. Change the subject – Be the catalyst who changes the subject! Talk about this podcast! (Hey, that reminds me, I just listened to this great podcast episode on Taboo topics. Th podcast is called Talk About Talk.  They talked about what to do when taboo topics are broached in conversation…”

 

I have to tell you a quick story to illustrate some of these techniques. 

 

On November 9, 2016, my family was on a short vacation. (Yes,  the date is relevant.  I bet you too can think of where you were on that date!) Anyway, we were on vacation and  our hotel hosted a party in their ballroom with big screens playing the results of the U.S. election. One of my kids dressed up as Donald J. Trump – his Halloween costume from the week before.  People thought this was hilarious. He was even interviewed on TV by a local newscaster!

 

A woman I met at the party started engaging with me in SMALL TALK, asking where we were from and all about my kids.  She even asked for a photo with my son. I said, “Sure! My son’s been imitating Trump and all his shenanigans since Halloween!”  She stopped dead in her tracks, a look of horror and shock on her face.  “Wait, what?!?  You guys aren’t Trump fans?”

 

Oopf. I crossed the line.  Yes, it was a political party, but political affiliations are a taboo topic, remember?  And guess what?  I offended her. So, what did I do?  Let’s review my options:

  1. Smile and nod…
  2. Call it out.
  3. Listen and take it as a learning opportunity
  4. changes the subject! 

 

Can you guess what I did?  I went straight for options 1 and 4.  I smiled and nodded, and then I changed the subject. I vividly remember looking her in the eye and slowly nodding my head.  Then I said, ”So where did you say you were from again?” 

 

In retrospect, I wish I was a fly on the wall and I could see my own facial expression when I realized she was a Trump fan and thought my son was too. 

 

So I encourage you to memorize and then depending on the context, strategically choose which response is ideal when someone around you brings up a taboo topic.  And of course don’t just think about yourself, think about others in the room too.  Then deice whether you should

    1. Smile and nod…
    2. Call it out. 
    3. Listen and take it as a learning opportunity
    4. change the subject! 

 

 

And that’s it. That’s it for our talk about taboo topics.

 

We covered lots here, in a short time.

 

We covered the definition of taboo. The term taboo is derived from “unacceptable,” “prohibited,” “disallowed,” and/or “forbidden.”

 

Taboos are words or behaviours that are sacred or prohibited based on morals, religion, or norms.

 

We also covered how what is considered taboo varies significantly by context.  Context is key! What’s considered taboo – and why – depends on the time in history, the generation, the people, and the situational context.

 

There’s time-based context. Consider the list of things that used to be taboo – that are no longer. Remember when the topic of racism used to be taboo?  Now we talk about racism ALL  THE TIME! So yes, taboos change overtime.

 

There’s people and generational-based context. Consider what’s sacred to talk to our kids about vs what’s sacred in conversations with our parents.  Hmm.

 

There’s situational-based context. Consider what’s sacred to talk about at work versus what’s sacred in conversations at the dinner table.

 

There’s also what we might feel comfortable reading about (or listening about, as youre doing right now), which might be different than what we’re comfortable talking about. Isnt that interesting?

 

So clearly context is key. Context is critical when it comes to talking about taboo topics.

 

I also shared a list of 20 topics that are considered taboo and I noted how these are frequently referenced in stand-up, perhaps for shock value. And also how these 20 topics are frequently used as click bait. It’s fascinating to me that people generally seem to want to read about taboo topics, but not talk about them.

 

And last, perhaps most importantly for our context with Talk About Talk and our communication skills, I shared 4 responses that we can all consider when taboo topics are raised.  Considering the impact on not just ourselves, we can choose to:

    1. Smile and nod…
    2. Call it out. 
    3. Listen and take it as a learning opportunity
    4. change the subject! 

 

 

Alright that’s it!

 

Again, you can find a printable version of this episode including a summary, the transcript, plus a list of storytelling resources all in the shownotes. Just go to the talkabouttalk.com website, click on PODCAST and SHOWNOTES. While you’re there, I really hope you’ll sign up for the Talk About Talk newsletter, if you’re not already! This is your chance to get free communication skills coaching from me every week in a simple to digest email. I promise no spam and no more than one per week. Just go to talk abouttalk.com to sign up or email me directly and I’ll add you to the list. You can email me anytime at [email protected].

 

I love hearing from you. Let me know if you wanna talk more about taboo topics. Thanks for listening. And talk soon!

 

THANKS for READING – and Talk soon!

 

 

 

 

 

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