IN INFORMAL CONVERSATIONS, it is easy to forget who you’re talking to, and what topics are safe. The freewheeling nature of the exchange may lead to a subject best left unmentioned, at least with this particular person. Virtual chats are specifically perilous as one tends to overlook who are in the conversation, especially those with videos turned off.
Certain topics need to be studiously avoided. Politics and religion are on top of this list. They can also cover money, like how much someone makes in his job or how heavily another is abusing her credit card. Entangled relationships of other people are dicey in any conversation. A subject can loom up like a sprinting bicycle in the next intersection, if conversation were a street. A slight swerve is needed to avoid a collision, maybe a detour to a side street is where this one leads to. Harmless topics are not exempt from the taboo. A casual mention of a movie seen together can prove to be a speed bump too — maybe you took somebody else to that one… I haven’t seen that movie.
(It is clear here that people with simple lives have less topics to avoid, if any at all.)
In the corporate setting, there are taboo topics too, especially when bumping into the boss. Unless it is specifically in the agenda during a performance rating discussion, the matter of compensation and how much more you deserve (and how someone less worthy is getting a better car) is not a topic to bring up when riding the elevator with the CEO. (This is not a subject for an “elevator presentation.”)
Short and enforced intimacy such as random moments in the elevator or escalator for that matter, require no conversation at all. A bow of recognition or deference is all that is appropriate. (Can I see you at the office?)
Bumping into a former partner with whom one had a long liaison ending in a noisy door-slamming (I want to burn down your house and I will always hate you with a smoldering rage.) can sometimes be a case of bad timing. (You thought she was in another time zone.) Not even a nod of recognition to acknowledge previous intimacy, including the location of a tattoo (a vineyard of grapes, fermenting), is allowed. It is best to avoid even a casual greeting — so, is your wedding taking place in October, after the vaccine? No eye contact, please.
Skirting certain issues apply even to those one is currently in good terms with. Maybe, some relational typhoon in the past had almost caused the partnership to be blown off with the roof. It is foolhardy to bring up such a memory over coffee — how did you really feel that time? Even a movie being watched together over Netflix portraying a somewhat similar situation relating perhaps to a gambling addiction, infidelity, or the shabby treatment of relatives can bring out a past subject that has already been stored in the most inaccessible memory attic, along with clothes that no longer fit.
Certain irritations and elbow-digs at the most unexpected moments can be traced to a taboo topic still rattling around in the mind. Psychologists and counsellors may advise you to confront any subject head-on, rather than studiously avoiding discussing it at all. Still, summoning a radioactive topic can only lead to a chain reaction leading to critical mass.
As in Pandora’s box, which was really a jar, opening a topic already closed by mutual consent, can release evils that cannot be controlled: rage, pain, and vengeance. In the myth of Pandora’s jar, the one at the bottom was hope. But this last item never got to be released and had no chance to work its magic.
Taboo subjects that can only cause hurt and pain are best left unsaid. When it is clear one refuses to discuss a certain topic, the best course of action is keeping the lid on. Even just another day of peace seems worth the effort of avoiding taboos. There are so many safe topics to talk about like leftover food, climate change, and the future of the performing arts after the pandemic.
After all, even an expression of gratitude “Thank You” is routinely met with the plea for moving on — Don’t mention it.
Tony Samson is Chairman and CEO, TOUCH xda