Breaking bad social norms

by Jackie Roman / Beacon Staff • January 15, 2014

There’s an aphorism that says it is a bad omen to talk about politics, religion and sex. These are the three conversation topics that make the lunch table fall silent and dinner parties tense. So to avoid the awkward confrontations or demise of social gatherings, we try to keep small talk light and (let’s be frank) vapid. Except in the back of our minds we continue to grumble about these same taboo topics. Social norms tell us that it’s best not to push the boundaries too much in conversation. But unless we begin to talk about subjects that are labeled off-limits, we may never quit our griping. 

Societal expectations can be beneficial in that they serve as a means of governing people’s behavior. They operate as a sort of checks and balances system, drawing a line between what is prohibited and what is acceptable. However, the power these guidelines have when they are viewed as sedentary fixtures can be dangerous. When people do not view norms as things that are ephemeral and that can be adapted with the changing times, then they leave no room for social progress. Until some of us break away from the standard, things will remain at a stand still. 

I realize it may never be ordinary for a donkey and an elephant to become the best of friends in the animal kingdom of politics. But under the current condition of silence, members of both parties might not even know why they dislike each other. The multitude of opinions within a political party cannot be wholly represented by a debate that focuses on only a few sensational issues. If we avoid having in-depth conversations about our stance on politics and the reasons why that position was taken, then we avoid insight. The Today Show ran a feature in November about social gathering etiquette saying that these occasions are for “building relationships, getting to know people better” and “this isn’t a time to be divisive.” But in actuality, the understanding that grows out of breaching these subjects could do more to build relationships than silence does. Listening to a political opinion completely different from your own can only widen perspective and even assist in the enhancement of your own argument. 

This especially holds true for conversations about religion. Through our spiritual relationships comes bonding, support and connection, most frequently with family. For this reason, faith feels so intimate to us that candid discussion about its intricacies creates great discomfort. However, shying from discussion only perpetuates ignorant notions about beliefs that are unlike our own. This ignorance is what fuels harassment and religious violence. It is natural to fear what we do not understand, but it is also unfortunate that we are so willing to misunderstand something that could be so eye-opening. It would benefit us to live in the religious space New York Times op-ed contributor Eric Weiner imagines. One that “celebrates doubt, encourages experimentation and allows one to utter the word God without embarrassment.” 

Now for the real embarrassment.  Let’s talk about sex. Considering we all have a sexuality and have sex, it doesn’t make sense that we get so bashful at the mention of these things. Psychology Today asked the question plainly enough: “How did a perfectly natural acceptance of sex - going all the way back to the cave man - suddenly go awry?” Too much turmoil is felt by children that discover their orientation isn’t the standard and their sex-life began too early to talk about. If we encourage open conversation about these topics, then we will finally be able to spread understanding, tolerance and acceptance. The opportunities that ostracized sexualities are cheated of are not only an injustice to their human rights but to our country’s advancement. And the difficult situations many teens are in because they cannot talk openly about  safe sex also cause us to lose out on their contribution to the betterment of our world. But hey, at least we avoid the awkward bird and bees talk.

Next time you go on a date, break away from social norms. Try talking about your religion. Maybe even name drop a politician. And if things are going well, feel free to finish the conversation with sex.