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What's a word for this? I thought of taboo (or from MW - taboo). But I'm not sure that this is the right word. Examples of this kind of topic include:

  • money
  • sex
  • other people not present

Is there a specific name for topics like this?

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  • if not taboo, surely they're unmentionable?
    – Erich
    Commented Mar 22, 2015 at 6:50
  • -- It's "rude"; "bad manners", "impolite"; to talk about a person's sex life. (Not necessarily an expression or awkward topic is taboo).
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Mar 22, 2015 at 11:29
  • 11
    What?? You don't talk about those things?? What DO you talk about??
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Mar 22, 2015 at 12:38
  • Tacky, or if you want to get fancy about it de classe. Commented Mar 22, 2015 at 19:02
  • Hot Licks: "Don't drink, don't smoke—what do you do? (subtle innuendo follows) Commented Mar 24, 2015 at 8:50

9 Answers 9

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Yes, it's called a taboo subject/topic.

What other things might be considered taboo depends on the social situation. It's not always that the subjects themselves are taboo/unmentionable, but their tendency to foment heated, divisive, or even disruptive discussions (or awkward, embarrassing moments), so they are avoided in certain circles. For example, a couple might set certain house rules.

A less loaded term: off-limits.

Some other topics usually considered off-limits — (This is not meant as an exhaustive list, but it covers the most common ones in USA.)

  • politics (among some people, it's not even safe to mention the President's name, lest you stir up a hornet's nest.)

  • religion (nobody agrees about this, unless all present are of the same denomination)

  • your or anyone else's salary (especially sensitive subcategory of the "money" topic you mentioned)

  • any woman's age

  • a person's weight or fatness, or a woman's dress size

  • other people's drinking or drug use (except jokingly, among fellow users)


So what does that leave as "safe" topics? Here are a few:

  • sports, recreation, hunting & fishing (at least among most guys)

  • cars (among guys)

  • the weather

  • one's kids (but it's considered bad taste to either complain too much or brag too much about your kids)

  • hobbies

  • wives (in men-only groups, although not wise to mention sex))

  • husbands (in small female groups; ditto)

  • Fashion (mainly among women-only groups)

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  • I would say "size" or "dress size" rather than fatness. Although "fat" is in itself almost a taboo word nowadays!
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Mar 22, 2015 at 11:25
  • Exactly. That's why I listed it under "off-limits"! But I'll add "dress size". Commented Mar 22, 2015 at 12:06
  • @BrianHitchcock - very interesting and informative lists! Women's age is not taboo in UK as a point of discussion at all, and 'cars' are talked about often by women here, but there is one subject that seems top of the taboo list (or so I thought) throughout most of the West, including the UK - ill health, or sickness generally, and death/ mortality. Any mention of the latter creates immediate discomfort and actual shuddering... is it not the same in USA? And I'd enlarge 'husbands' to 'men' and 'wives' to women!
    – bamboo
    Commented Mar 22, 2015 at 14:52
  • @bamboo No, in the US we are more loose about health. Altho it's bad taste to talk too much about dead loved ones, it's usually ok to ask about other people's health or how somebody that's in the hospital is doing or whatever.
    – bjb568
    Commented Mar 22, 2015 at 20:51
  • @bjb568 Well, sure, a bit. But as someone I'm also from the U.S., and I think you'd probably agree that, if the person you're talking to has anything more serious than the flu, you shouldn't mention it unless they bring it up, and even when that subject does come up things get very awkward very fast (because what on earth do you say to someone who's gravely ill, besides "I'm sorry that's happening to you"?). Commented Mar 24, 2015 at 23:22
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This could also be referred to, variously, as examples of a social indiscretion, impropriety, or gaffe

indiscretion noun:

1: lack of discretion: imprudence

2 a: something (as an act or remark) marked by lack of discretion

b: an act at variance with the accepted morality of a society see, Merriam-Webster indiscretion

impropriety noun: plural noun: improprieties

a failure to observe standards or show due honesty or modesty; improper language, behavior, or character. See, Google impropriety

gaffe noun:

1: a social or diplomatic blunder

2: a noticeable mistake. see, Merriam-Webster gaffe

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You've already had unmentionable in the comments. Consider also unspoken. If something is in the background of a conversation but not directly mentioned because it's a too sensitive topic then you might even call it the elephant in the room.

Some topics are considered unsuitable for conversation - traditional dinner party etiquette says to avoid religion and politics. Others add money, bodily functions and body odours - the phrase for this is that such topics are not to be discussed in polite conversation or are not for polite company.

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You don't want to make a "faux pas". Which according to Wikipedia:

... is a socially awkward or tactless act, especially one that violates accepted social norms, standard customs, or the rules of etiquette.

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I think that you are referring to behaviours that are considered normal or usual within a community. Taboo probably has a too strong connotation.

I think custom or consuetude may fit the context:

  • a usual or habitual practice; typical mode of behaviour
  • (Sociology) the long-established habits or traditions of a society collectively;

    • convention: custom dictates good manners.

(TFD)

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If we confine the question to the topics you use as examples, then polite or taboo may be suitable labels. However, if you extend the range of conversation to topics such as corporate profit margins, The President's home phone number, how much money you made last year, or the combination to your home safe, you probably would classify these as private, prohibited, or privileged topics.

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This may be a little too specific, but my favourite phrase for the subject that everyone is aware of but no-one dares talk about, is "elephant in the room."

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You could call them private matters, since they're usually discussed only with those concerned instead of just anyone.

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Uncouth is a word I often use to describe how I feel discussing money owed to me by friends or family. Like I feel “tacky” “trashy” or the opposite of classy, asking “hey when are you going to be able to pay me back for that $___ (which is usually in the hundreds of dollars, not just $20 here or there) I lent you __ months ago?” Does anyone else feel this way discussing money in general? enter image description here

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  • Uncouth doesn't really work as a description of a taboo topic, since topics don't have manners. Commented Nov 12, 2020 at 12:00
  • This answer would be helped by either replacing the image or adding to it with an inline quote and a link to the source.
    – Skooba
    Commented Nov 12, 2020 at 12:41

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