“Mom, that lady is fat.” A four-year-old grabs his mother’s hand and deliberately points to the obese lady in her unflattering sweatpants and an overly baggy shirt. The “fat lady” pretends not to hear, but it’s obviously too late. Her face is red and she is trying to look the other direction, avoiding embarrassing stares from bystanders. The mother instantly scolds her child. “Shh… Don’t say that! It is rude.” Trying to smooth things over, she apologizes for her child’s simple observation. The child, reinforced by his mother’s reaction, understands that he did something wrong.
As children we learn to communicate using words. We are operantly conditioned by our society to learn norms. Through reinforcement and punishment we learn what is appropriate to say, and more importantly we learn what not to say. Alas, we descend into words that are Taboo. Curse words, body parts, sexual words are used to be offensive and shocking. As we age, these words change into topics of discussion. How many times have we been told not to discuss politics or religion at work? Heard a parent dreading the “birds and bees” talk (because no one wants to say “the sex talk”) with their child? The controversial education of sex in high school or college? How many times have you been told not to express your emotions? If asked what you shouldn’t talk about on a first date, how many answers instantly pop into your mind? Finances? Personal problems? Past relationships? Family problems? The list continues.
Taboo seems to be ubiquitous. It is in our individual lives, our communities and even our government. The positive side of Taboo words is that it keeps everyone comfortable. No one gets offended. No rife of contention threaten communities. Taboo words illustrate emphasis during communication. The difference between your boss saying “Why did you spill the coffee?!” compared to “Why the *Fuck* did you spill the coffee?!” is very different, and very distinct. Even in our own lives “O’shucks!” just isn’t the same as “Oh Shit!” Taboo words have their place in our common language. They keep everyone at ease and allow us to communicate more effectively.
Despite the positive connotations with Taboo words and topics allowing our societies to function with ease, there are negative consequences. The most glaring example is sex. Sex is a natural progression in the majority of human lives, yet we treat it as a mystical unicorn. Sex education is protested. Parent’s dread the birds and the bees talk. Society yells abstinence until married, all in an effort to avoid having to talk about sex. The drawback is adolescents feeling the uncomfortable vibe, conditioning avoidance of educational conversations. Why is this bad? Teenagers are dealing with new-found hormones. They often find themselves in situations they are unprepared to deal with and no one to talk to. Teenagers can not get birth control on their own, unprotected sex leads to risk of sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies. Opening up these Taboo topics for educational conversations can provide the tools to properly deal with and prevent real life events.
Taboo words are a daily part of our lives. From learning as a child what we should or shouldn’t say, we build on centuries worth of society norms. We learn when and where to discuss topics or bite our tongues. We keep the peace by avoiding Taboo words and topics. Nonetheless, complete avoidance creates complications in real life. Events occur that are outside social norms, but by opening up Taboo conversations we can facilitate resilience to traumatic events and the natural occurrences of life.