This phenomenon is so common that I would imagine most of us encounter it on a daily basis. It is part of our upbringing and our lived reality. It is the elephant in the room. It is the emperor’s new clothes. The “open secrets” we live with but dare not speak.
For many years, my own country of Ireland struggled to talk about sexual abuse, the role played by the Catholic Church, gender, racism, domestic violence, religion and so much more. They were all taboo. It upset people. The fact that countless tens of thousands were suffering so that people wouldn’t be upset didn’t seem to matter.
Most of these have now thankfully been at least partly dragged into the public domain and yet they are simply being replaced by other “open secrets”. By a failure to talk about a fractioning sense of society, an increasingly angry population, a sense of entitlement but no sense of duty, our individual responsibility for climate change, a shattered media landscape, our collective values and how to restructure our politics and our society.
As George Carlin, comedian and philosopher, and someone who was never afraid to tackle taboos said:
“Nobody seems to notice, nobody seems to care.
Nobody seems to notice, nobody seems to care.”
Ask Yourself: What Do I Allow Myself to Say?
- How many of society’s open secrets do I discuss?
- Am I willing to question taboos? With friends? Family? At work?
- Do I feel free to say whatever I want whenever I want? To whomever I want?
- When given the opportunity, do I say what I think or what is expected of me?
My experience is that we all self-censure for a host of reasons. For starters, most of us don’t want to hurt others. We don’t even want to upset them. We want to blend in and not have others think we hold uncomfortable opinions. We don’t even want to have “uncomfortable” conversations.
We not only self-censure around societal issues but also around a whole series of more personal topics. Topics we’re hesitant to discuss even with those closest to us. For example:
- What do you not discuss with family and friends?
- What do you hold back from saying at work?
And yet, this self-censorship eats away at us and those around us. I don’t mean to imply it wouldn’t have some cost. Some people may get upset, annoyed and even angry. And yet, avoiding that also carries a heavy price.
It maintains the status quo. It stops us from building healthier and more sustainable societies, organisations, teams and families. It is okay to disagree with others. For them to disagree with us. To hear their point of view and think “Wow, I never thought of that“. To change your mind. But that only happens when we start having real dialogue.
My challenge is this:
- What conversation might you have today in which you say what you feel needs to be said?
- What is the worst that can happen if you do?
- What upside might there be?
Questions in the Image:
- What is taboo?
- Who is allowed to say what?
- What am I allowed to say?
Want to Read More Around This Topic?
The Elephant in the Room: Silence and Denial in Everyday Life by Eviatar Zerubavel (link to Amazon.co.uk). This book delves into the sociology of silence and denial, exploring why certain topics (“open secrets“) are off-limits in various societies and communities. Zerubavel discusses the powerful role of collective denial and the societal norms that enforce silence.
Nurturing Curiosity – Daily Practice: This is part of the Nurturing Curiosity series of tools, insights and questions designed to help nurture curiosity as part of our daily practice. In point of fact, every interaction we have is an opportunity to question what we are observing and how we and others are seeing the world. Also remember that questions come in many forms throughout our day. After a busy day and a short sleep, the question “Where might I get more rest today?” is floating around me. I normally curate my days such that I get plenty of rest and sleep but there are days when other priorities get in the way. And yet that was yesterday. Today is about finding that balance once more.
What Thoughts Would You Like to Share? My name is Tom O’Leary, and I envision a world in which curiosity shapes leadership. In this world, leaders aren’t boxed in by traditional thinking or established playbooks. They are open to fresh ideas and diverse perspectives, fostering a culture of exploration and learning. My mission is to shift leadership focus from authority, over-measurement and control to curiosity, learning and innovation, empowering leaders to prioritise the essential. My journey, lived in a number of countries and through various languages, has always been driven by a profound sense of curiosity. In fact, life has taught me that possibility lies not so much in seeking answers but in learning to ask better questions – the ones that help prioritise what is truly essential. I welcome your thoughts, feedback, or personal experiences related to these questions or any insights they may have sparked.