Talking About Taboo Topics in English
In every country and/or culture there are subjects which are considered taboo. These include religion, politics, sexuality, poverty, historical conflict and relationships between countries. Oftentimes we are accustomed to or an open topic of conversation in one culture is viewed at as taboo in another culture. We will take a further look at taboo subjects in the dialog below.
The dialog below is an example of how to approach taboo subjects in the Western culture.
In the process of teaching her E.S.L. class the students had some general questions for teacher Jenny about American culture, which turned out to be a great teaching opportunity.
Teacher Jenny: Okay, class. Let’s begin! Today we are going to talk about describing people and their personality. This is a great subject because everyday we meet people and we may or may not like them, however, it’s great to be able to put into works what we think of them or what we have observed about them. Can anyone give me an example?
Student 1: You can describe someone by their religious beliefs.
Teacher Jenny: That’s right, but we don’t, because it’s considered to be a taboo. We can describe someone’s personality by using adjectives like “kind” or “loving”. We can describe someone’s physical appearance by using words like “tall” or “short”. However, we would not talk about their religious or political beliefs. We would not talk about their wealth or sexuality and so on. Does everyone understand that?
Student 1: So taboo means topics that makes people uncomfortable?
Teacher Jenny: That’s right! That’s a good definition.
Student 2: Is walking under a ladder a taboo?
Teacher Jenny: Good effort! However, that is a superstition. Can anyone tell me what a superstition is?
Student 3: They are beliefs or practices that aren’t based on fact, experience or reason.
Teacher Jenny: Perfect! That’s exactly what superstition means. Now can someone give me an example of a taboo?
Student 2: Okay. An example of a taboo subject is someone’s sexual preference. Right?
Teacher Jenny: That’s a great example. Yes. To make sure that we have a good grasps or understanding of what taboo means; could someone give me another example?
Student 4: How about an open conversation about race?
Teacher Jenny: That’s right! It is inappropriate and socially unacceptable to speak openly about race. The foundation for that is because we are human beings first. Any questions?
Students: No! (in unison)
Teacher Jenny: Great! Well done today everyone! Tomorrow we will finish covering describing people and their personality. See you all tomorrow…
Have a conversation or role play with a family member or friend about some taboo subjects in your country and another foreign country. If you have immigrated, then have an open discussion about taboos in your country of birth and the country you immigrated to. Use the outline below as a guide.
You: In my country/In ____________ (give country name), __________ (say subject) is taboo.
Your friend: Why is it considered taboo?
You: It’s taboo, because __________ (explain). What are some taboos that you can come up with?
Your friend: Let me think… In my country/In ______ (give country name), ____________ (taboo subject) is taboo.
You: Why is it a taboo subject?
Your friend: It’s taboo because __________ (explain).
You: Very interesting/That’s great!
Great job today!