Breaking Taboos – Good or Bad?

March 2011

If you teach English overseas you may encounter a fair bit of expatriate indignation at perceived rudeness in the native culture. You might hear comments, or even make them yourself, about the locals having no manners, asking personal questions, being backward socially, and just not ‘getting it’. Of course this is unfair and much of it falls into the category of what psychologists call projection – a trait of human nature whereby we magnify our own failings in those of others.

One of the first things that pampered visitors to China complain about is the spitting, most not knowing that until about fifty years ago spitting was fairly widespread on the streets of Britain, which is where the onomatopoeic and derogatory term ‘oik’ for working class people comes from. As the Swiss philosopher Elmar Holenstein observes, if you find something strange or bad in another culture, you can usually find something similar or worse present somewhere in your culture too.[1]

There are very general East-West differences regarding directness and indirectness and like it or not, it is often westerners who are naturally ‘ruder’ and more intemperate than their more diplomatic and seemingly intransigent eastern counterparts. The real issue here is the existence of taboos – that every single culture on earth has taboos and that these differ often arbitrarily from one culture to another. This is where the problems are caused. When Chinese people enquire about your income or marital status, hard as it may be to accept, it is not because they are being deliberately rude, it is because these issues are not big taboos in their culture. At the same time, westerners’ tendency to talk politics unnerves Chinese people and provokes odd reactions because to them it is such an odd topic – a tainted thing loaded with uncomfortable historical connotations, the details of which are of little relevance except to the few who take an interest. Of course neither viewpoint is intrinsically right or wrong. They just affirm the truth that

Different cultures have different taboos.

I think the important thing to remember is that if both we and our students want to be more competent international communicators and business people, then we had better study taboo so that we avoid breaking them. It is in breaking taboos that relationships get broken. Polite small talk is the mainstay of conversation and small talk is not, as some see it, a mere waste of time, but an important skill for social bonding that needs to be practised and learnt. The old classics of weather, sports, entertainment, news and gossip will always come up but perhaps we need to remind ourselves that the actual meaning conveyed is sometimes less important that the social act of participating in an exchange. Small talk is not an academic discipline – it is personal and therefore taboos can be less easily broken.

We know that it is healthy to break taboos in theatre, literature, music, art and film. Breaking them in the media generally moves us towards a more open-minded, tolerant and creative society. Not many taboos get broken in the North Korean media for example. There’s no room for John Lennon or Vivian Westwood-type mould breakers there, and what an economic desert it is for the lack of them. So probably the obvious conclusion is that in entertainment it is positive to break taboos while when relationships are at stake it is has a detrimental effect.

1. The nos-quoque rule (4)