EHÖK Taboos beyond borders

Taboos beyond borders


Checkmate. You are struggling and you find yourself in the impossible position of not being allowed to talk about ‘it’, with friends, family or in public, which can feel suffocating. A natural response is, even though we won’t like to admit it, to fall into the good old “the grass is always greener at the neighbors” trap. Understandable, because it is unthinkable that such an existential and humane need as talking, would be forbidden, discouraged or even have life-threatening consequences. Yet the ancient concept of taboos goes beyond borders, it is an age-old struggle to a worldwide extent.

If we talk (or rather not talk) about taboos, these could range on a scale from risking your life and freedom to feeling highly uncomfortable discussing a certain topic, and everything in between. When coping with a problem, or walking around with a ton of questions and not being allowed to ask them, it can weigh as a heavy burden on your shoulders. Reasons to not talk about it can be that you risk your reputation within your community or village, because religion doesn’t allow it or the government forbids it to a national degree.

Talking with international students about taboo topics opened a new door to understanding their culture, way of life and view on the world.

Many, too many, topics were listed as dangerous conversation material from which sex, politics and religion were the most mentioned one... In every country raising these topics could either place you in a very unfortunate situation, or worse.


Luckily the young adults I spoke with, all foreign to the Hungarian culture; coming from 13 different countries to Pécs, were willing to open up and tell me about the unspeakable issues in their homeland.

Students from Brazil, Jordan, Belarus, Palestine, Russia mentioned it is not acceptable to discuss politics in public or with acquaintances.

In my country, The Netherlands, politics is not really considered as a taboo yet we rather wouldn’t discuss it, only perhaps with close friends and family. Similar to the Hungarian views, it’s not common to raise this topic other than in situations in which you are certain everyone has the same political beliefs. In other words, avoid discussion and opposite opinions or arguments.

Resembling an answer I got from a student from the USA, as the restrictions of being ‘politically correct’ become tighter and tighter, basically every serious topic becomes a taboo. We seem to find ourselves in a bubble of agreement; surrounding ourselves with people who (seemingly) all agree with our own opinions and thereby shielding ourselves of opposing views.

We touched upon the fact that in the American culture you are either rich enough to make sure you avoid things that you disagree with, or you are too poor and/or uneducated to even have these arguments with people.

Religion still has to be mentioned as one of the biggest taboos in the world, from not being allowed to raise questions in Pakistan, forbidden to criticize the Catholic Church in Mexico, believing in a minority religion in Russia or simply expressing mistrust in the Church is to be punished by law. Even though religion itself isn’t a taboo in Brazil, admitting you are atheist is not acceptable, neither in Hungary for that matter. But religion spreads an even wider taboo, for example abortion and euthanasia are matters people feel uncomfortable discussing. Furthermore divorce is shameful and a taboo in countries such as Pakistan, Jordan and Palestine.

Even though divorce isn’t considered a taboo in Hungary, it could ruin your reputation, and whereas it is embarrassing not to be in a stable relationship, it would seem that it is implied that it is better to be in an abusive relationship than in none at all.

Religion plays a massive role in the discussion of sexual matters as well. In a shockingly large amount of countries sexual education simply doesn’t exist, such as Belarus, Pakistan, Algeria, Nigeria, Palestine, Ukraine, or these topics are only allowed to be discussed for the male part of the society, as in Jordan. Homosexuality and same sex marriages are unfortunately an even bigger taboo, in most countries it is strongly judged and even referred to as a mental disease on the Russian television, but even closer to home; neither in Hungary it is accepted to be part of the LGBTQ community. Taboos seem to fade slightly in the sight of bigger, more accepting cities, but also in The Netherlands it can be dangerous to be openly gay in the suburbs or towns on the country side.

When mentioning mental health issues like depression or OCD the most occurring answer would be; “Get yourself together, stop making a fuss out of nothing and be normal”.

These struggles are not considered a real health issue, visiting therapy or seeing a psychologist is a taboo, also in Hungary it is socially shameful and misunderstood. Discussing monetary issues or asking someone about their salary is considered highly disrespectful, though I have to add that Hungarians are characteristically curious, so even when it is not accepted to ask, they would try to figure it out.

Living in a world where there are so many topics off limits, inevitably people start to search for answers to their questions in other places, for example online, which fortunately gives chances to get outside their cultural boundaries. Hopefully in time this will also open up possibilities to talk about it more, within a safe environment. Cities are changing fast, people are developing, breaking through walls of stereotypes and taboos. Education and travelling are key to this oh so important development, so let’s make these steps ourselves as well, and use this as an opportunity to talk to our nearest about the unspoken. 

Written by Romy Jüch