The concept of "taboo," be it about behaviors, categories or simply topics of discussion, is all about boundaries. Respecting boundaries is a key component of being a considerate human being. This life skill is essential for a work setting, where an awareness of and a sensitivity to taboo topics is necessary for being both a better coworker and employee.
"For my money, __ is the best candidate. She knows what she's doing."
How you voted, where you stand on immigration, abortion, healthcare... When it comes to taboo topics, there's nothing quite like politics to spark the most vicious of disagreements. So save your rants for your Facebook posts (if you must rant, at all), and leave your coworkers out of it.
"Well, I believe __ is a sin."
Potentially just as polarizing as politics, discussing your personal religious beliefs is another almost universally taboo topic in any social setting. Religion is so very deeply personal that airing your own beliefs can quickly rub up against someone else's. This can lead to arguments or, just as awful, making some coworkers feel alienated and threatened if their own religion doesn't fall in line with yours.
"I met up with this really hot Tinder date the other night and..."
Unless you write a sex advice column, the bedroom and the boardroom need never meet. Not only is discussing sexual preferences or escapades way too much information, it's also incredibly unprofessional. Even if your office environment is in general pretty relaxed, playing it safe and keeping yourself buttoned up is the far safer route.
"I want to get this done under deadline. I need that bonus!"
There's transparency, and then there's fixation. Companies in general should be above board about their pay grades and systems of raises and bonuses. Asking your coworkers about the financial benefits of different positions is also fine. But hunting up specific individuals' earnings, or worrying incessantly over your own pay or the state of your bank account? Not great. Money is one of those taboo topics that isn't just about boundaries. It's also about behaving in poor taste.
"My partner is being such a jerk!"
Friends or not, your coworker is not your therapist. Sure, you each might vent a bit at lunch, but you need to know that there are limits as to how involved other people want to be in your personal affairs. There's a difference between a work friend and a real friend, after all, and it pays professionally to keep this in mind.
"This rash just won't go away..."
The rash is for sure a no-fly-zone topic of discussion. But shouldn't there be a space to acknowledge your mental health inside the office? Yes and no. While creating a safe space is necessary, there should still be boundaries. Your boss or someone in HR is someone worth seeking out to discuss issues affecting your work. But the person sitting next to you may not be interested and isn't the most appropriate person with whom to discuss some very private concerns.
"I can't stand Sarah. She said that I..."
A bit of gossip and yes, venting, is natural at any job. However, there's is a line you just don't want to cross, especially if your gossiping or carping pertains to a situation with another coworker. Ally-seeking is unprofessional and can also backfire. Trying to win people over to your "side" might just turn the general consensus against you.
"Look, the fact is, if you do __ then you're a __."
Beware airing your opinions, period, but be especially cognizant of the fact that your opinions are not facts. Be they political or religious, declaring opinions on something to be morally right or wrong will only inevitably alienate you from at least some of your coworkers. Because not everyone is going to be of the same opinion or world view, and they will come to resent you slapping them in the face with your thoughts.
"Ugh, I'm so glad I have an interview tomorrow. I hate this place."
This is something to keep fairly mum about more for your own well being than to respect your coworkers' sensibilities. After all, what if that guaranteed job offer falls through? You'll be stuck in an office you made clear you wanted to leave, with egg all over your face. Another layer to this is the fact that, if you're in a management or leadership position, airing your desire to jump ship can have a terrible effect on morale.
"This place sucks so much."
We all have days when we just aren't as in love with the world as we usually are. But being a perpetual moaning machine at work is bad form, and it can have serious consequences not only on your work environment but also on your job status. If you really are unhappy where you are, don't take it out on the people around you. Do something about it.
Taboo topics in the workplace mostly exist purely for reasons of professionalism. After all, you're there to work, not air your grievances, wave banners or overindulge in sharing personal details. You were hired to fulfill a role as an employee, and you need to respect the environment in which you agreed to work. Over-sharing or broaching taboo topics can disrupt the flow of work, make your coworkers uncomfortable, create bad blood or foster a negative, toxic vibe overall.
Respect and sensitivity are important when you're thrown into a place with people you don't know, who come from backgrounds and situations that might differ drastically from your own. Haranguing the break room with your thoughts on what the president tweeted this morning, or launching into a tirade about the state of your company, is a slippery slope. Because sure, some of your fellows may agree with you. But others won't. And either way, it's a pretty fair bet most of them will take your behavior as a sign of immaturity and poor professionalism. Adhering to the cultural guidelines of your workspaces and avoiding taboo topics can keep you from becoming the office pariah.
Because maybe at your last job everyone talked about dating, their periods and their birthing experiences. It was just that kind of estrogen-happy zone where women were free to talk about their bodies and their personal lives. While that's a very cool thing to have experienced, whenever you start a new job it's important to remember that you need to pay just as much attention to the culture of the office as you do to the dress code. Every company has its own social values and norms, and not being able to read the room and fall in line can make things pretty sticky for the new gal.
Look at entering a new workplace essentially as traveling to a new country. You know very little about the society, the culture and its rules of comportment. So, you don't know how to speak, behave or even dress in order not to cause offense. To navigate all these unknowns, simply behave, dress and chitchat conservatively. Don't lead a conversation with your thoughts on the current administration or mention your most fundamental religious beliefs at your very first board meeting. Focus on learning how to be a good citizen.
Having that little anthropologist in your mind so that you pause and consider before you speak is a lifesaver. Maybe even a job saver. Because beyond what may be explicitly stated in your employee handbook, you're not going to know what's taboo until you've watched and learned from the naturalized citizens of this new country in which you find yourself. So proceed with caution, keep it PC and take careful note of what topics are deemed safe and which are definitely taboo.
Different cultures consider different topics, behaviors or relationships to be taboo in very specific settings. Some taboos relate to social conceptions of cleanliness, others to propriety. Regardless of their details, or even which society you care to examine, social taboos mostly revolve around categories of belonging, so that the basic equation of "This __ [behavior, topic or person] doesn't belong __ [in this place, at this time, with this other person]" can generally be applied.
Many conceptions of taboo are related to what is or isn't considered polite and proper behavior. Violating someone's sense of what should and should not be included in a particular environment can make them extremely uncomfortable. And while it's easy to equate "taboo" with National Geographic and cultures completely foreign to your own, remember that you don't have to travel far to encounter someone with a completely different value system. That could be as easy as looking to the person seated next to you at work.
So, when it comes to navigating a work environment (and other shared spaces), respecting the fact that other people's boundaries differ from yours is the first step toward being a good citizen of your office's sovereign "nation." Learning to avoid taboo topics is, then, a must.
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