Allochthonia: Taboos

How do you talk about what you can’t talk about?

How do you explain, or even refer to, something you’re not supposed to know? How do you ask someone else not to discuss such a thing? What do you do if they are not supposed to know the thing, but are referring to it anyway?

All Terran cultures that I’m aware of have taboos and secrets. Natives of the cultures will navigate them relatively smoothly1. One of the purposes of child-rearing, after all, is taboo acculturation.

That nausea you feel – that’s not an instinct; that’s a conditioned reflex. Your mother didn’t have to say to you, ‘Mustn’t eat your playmates, dear; that’s not nice,’ because you soaked it up from our whole culture – and so did I. Jokes about cannibals and missionaries, cartoons, fairy tales, horror stories, endless little things. But it has nothing to do with instinct.
—Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein

But many subcultures also have their own particular prohibitions and references in addition to (or in place of) the dominant one. And they can be hard to explain, particularly if the subculture in question isn’t recognized as distinct and important.

Audi in-car wifi logo

The seed of this post is the question of how a net-savvy employee of Audi might have persuaded the company’s publicity department not to use their current logo for in-car wifi. Would it be possible to do so without explaining one of the aboveground2 internet’s great taboos, one of the huge mimetic leakages from the subterranean web where we keep our non-worksafe ideas and dark secrets? How far does “trust me, you don’t want to know” take one among curious people, and what do you do when that approach wears out?

And of course, not all taboo violations are unwitting. Knowing that there is one, and deliberately violating it (or complaining about its existence) is a genuine form of communication. If the subculture with the taboo is less powerful than the one violating it, the message is You don’t matter. And if the roles are reversed, it can be an act of rebellion.

Taboos and taboo violations will form a part of any meeting of two cultures, whether its human/alien or alien/alien with the human visitors serving as mere onlookers. Nor will all taboo violations be explicable or explained; not everyone is capable of, or comfortable with, detailing why certain things offend or upset them.

So it’s important to remember that humans and aliens will make one another uncomfortable, and they may never understand why. And subgroups of aliens will cross one another’s lines in ways that baffle human observers. Whether it’s deliberate or not, this will add tension and diminish cooperation. Taboo violation can be a real character motivation factory in alien-contact fiction: it can start wars, drive people into unlikely alliances, break up working partnerships, and give characters reasons to act against their own rational self-interest.

It just needs to be discussed carefully, which is to say, subtly or not at all. After all, we readers of fiction have our own taboos, including the one about not telling what you can show.

  1. I explicitly include people with Aspergers Syndrome here. Aspies have a far richer, more complex understanding of their native cultures than an alien, human or otherwise, would.
  2. I always think of the internet as being a bifurcated entity, one half above the ground of our shared standards of acceptability, one underneath it.

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47 Responses to Allochthonia: Taboos

  1. TexAnne says:

    ObSF: “Toes, with green toenail polish!” is one of my favorite child-compatible oaths.

  2. MacAllister says:

    oh…dear. I hadn’t seen the Audi logo — disgruntled designer employee taking silent revenge on management, perhaps?

  3. Serge Broom says:

    Ah… Taboo-breaking, and from within… How many SF nerds have often done something that is met with disapproval and they ask “What did I do wrong?” I guess that’s what learning to be human is. Up to a point.

  4. Urk! It took me about a minute to figure out what you were referring to, and then I wished I hadn’t. I’ve spent years trying to forget my first and only encounter with the original image.

    Good question, though.

  5. Serge Broom says:

    Dave… You found Jimmy Olsen’s bowtie that traumatic?

  6. Mary Aileen says:

    Okay, I’m curious, but abi and Dave Trowbridge between them have convinced me that I *really* don’t want to know.

  7. TexAnne says:

    Mary Aileen, 6: It strongly resembles goatse, which you must on no account google. Or if you do, go for the Wikipedia entry; it’s worksafe.

  8. Mary Aileen says:

    TexAnne: Thanks.

  9. Marc Mielke says:

    Mac; Naw, I can see how they could arrive at the image innocently. It does, after all, combine the concepts of ‘wifi’ and ‘driving’, if you can see the hands as the hands on a steering wheel, the ‘wifi’ image also resembles a steering wheel. It’s only the really net-savvy who can see it as something else.

  10. heresiarch says:

    Oh. That. Yes, hmm, yes. I see the problem.

  11. TexAnne says:

    Getting back to Abi’s point…other than Hellspark, the only book I can think of that gets taboos right is This Star Shall Abide, which had an enormous impact on eight-year-old me. What am I forgetting?

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  13. Dan R. says:

    Inadvertent taboo violation is an important plot driver in Life, the Universe, and Everything.

  14. Michael says:

    I guess I can see the goatse resemblance, though I think it’s a lot of work to reach it. It looks more like an Indy car steering wheel to me.

  15. Once the, ahem, resemblance is explained it becomes hard not to see, though I had not thought of it before it was pointed out.

  16. bartkid says:

    One old, old memory I have of SF handling taboos was a collection of short stories about some mad/absent-minded professor continually inventing things which met the letter, but not the spirit, of request he was given. For example, the army had him invent humanoid rabbits who would serve as soldiers. The professor provided them the rabbits, but he was only able to provide female rabbits, making them ineligible for military service. I read this collection in the mid- to late-seventies, and the book must have been from the fifties. For the life of me, I wish I could remember the name of this book.

  17. Fade Manley says:

    I recall a science fiction book that I read many a year ago, the name (and most of the plot) of which I have since forgotten, except for an instance in which a group of humans was imprisoned by a group of aliens. And at one point one of the humans that knew the alien culture better than his friends did stood up and dramatically decried the conditions they had been kept in: why, they hadn’t even been given enough privacy to eat without being seen by each other!

    And all the aliens were shocked (or ashamed) as appropriate, the man responded by switching to the more polite euphemistic phrases for referring to eating, and the three men were moved into cells with properly private cubicles for eating. At which point the man who had arranged all this spoke quietly and seriously to all of them that they had damn well better go do all their eating in privacy now. It was a way to make sure the aliens thought of them as civilized, and thus worthy of proper treatment, even as a prisoners, and not horrifying beastly aliens.

    Now I’m wondering if this was one of the books mentioned above as doing it right; it’s been so long since I read it, I really can’t remember anything else from the book but that particular sequence, which apparently made quite the impact on me at the time.

  18. OtterB says:

    Fade Manley @17, that’s Heinlein’s Space Cadet. I was going to cite that as a work that I think got it right – other places in the text the cadets, from many human cultures, are shown re-learning what it means to be “polite.” Then add in the aliens.

    But yeah, Hellspark.

  19. Fade Manley says:

    OtterB @18: …huh! I hadn’t thought I’d even read that particular Heinlein novel, which goes to show how much the rest of it dropped out of my consciousness. I’m tempted to go pick it up and reread it, now, though I’m a little worried by how much the rest of the story may have been visited by various Unfortunate Fairies since my last reading.

    I tend to write all-human fantasy, not science fiction, myself. But there’s still taboo clashes in there, ranging from bemused mockery (“Their adults wear clothing styles we only dress children in!”) up to shock and revulsion (“Have you heard about their funeral practices? They bury entire corpses! In the ground!”). I’m not sure I could wrap my head around truly alien aliens, and how vastly different their taboos would be, but that’s okay; I kinda prefer my aliens to be bumpy forehead types, anyway, so long as they’re not Planet Of Hats about it.

  20. Leigh Kimmel says:

    The problematic WiFi logo is an interesting example of how taboos tend to expand onto things that only superficially resemble the actual forbidden thing. Words are a great example — think how any word that has a phonetic shape that suggests the n-word has become shameful, not to be heard in polite society, even if it comes from completely different historical roots. Or the 19th-century expansion of the taboo on certain body parts until almost everything except the head and arms were unmentionable, and even objects that suggested the forbidden body parts could only be described by euphemisms and the support structures of various items of furniture were shrouded by little lacy covers lest they suggest the forbidden human leg and thus the even more unspeakable parts to be found where it joins the torso.

    This sort of taboo-expansion can lead to taboos that make no logical sense, that seem to be completely arbitrary, even silly to outsiders (just think how many laughs have been had in the 20th and 21st centuries about the extremes of Victorian prudery). But for someone who still has a connection (even subconscious) with the actual source of the taboo, the matter is so fraught that any discussion of the validity of the taboo, even obliquely, becomes profoundly threatening. As a result, taboos have a very strong potential to become the Elephant in the Middle of the Living Room, especially in periods of rapid societal change.

  21. Leigh Kimmel says:

    Serge Broom @ 2: Ah, yes, to do something that you thought to be completely innocuous and suddenly have the Hammer of Adult Authority brought down upon your head, and when you respond with bewilderment, have it brought down again for “making excuses.” Because, unfortunately, a certain kind of manipulative malefactor will pretend that sort of bewilderment in order to get out of punishment, so authority soon decides to assume everybody knows the rules, even the unspoken ones.

    The converse is the Fishing Expedition, in which a dysfunctional authority figure suddenly and arbitrarily brings down the hammer, and tells the recipient that they know perfectly well what they did wrong. The idea is to bring out secret disobediences — or at least whatever the recipient has a guilty conscience about — but can create a situation where somebody falsely confesses to something they didn’t do in hopes of getting the arbitrary punishment to stop.

  22. Leigh Kimmel says:

    oops, should’ve been @3.

  23. I agree that the wifi logo is not the most goatse-looking thing I’ve seen published by an actual company recently.

    That would be the cover of Laurell Hamilton’s Swallowing Darkness. I had to make it a little brown-paper cover while I was reading it, the idea of holding the cover with my hands and knowing what was on it made me so uncomfortable. Now I feel silly recounting it, but it was strong at the time. :->

  24. Serge Broom says:

    Leigh Kimmel… Or the accidental breaking of the taboo is assumed to be just that – an accident – but you nevertheless need to be taught a lesson.

  25. Serge Broom says:

    I am rather surprised that this discussion of taboos and SF has yet to mention Philip Jose Farmer.

  26. Serge @25:

    Unpack, please? I’ve read very little Farmer.

  27. OtterB says:

    Fade Manley @19, you’re probably safe to go reread Space Cadet. I haven’t reread it recently, but have as a couple of times as an adult. It’s my second-favorite Heinlein juvenile, after Have Spacesuit, Will Travel. As I recall, it’s pretty sexist, in that the cadets are all male and women are something “other” you go looking for while on leave (but not so much objects, as something desirable but incomprehensible). And OTOH the Venusian aliens are matriarchal. If you do reread it, I’d be interested in hearing if you stumble over anything else.

    On a completely different line, I’m thinking that I have read at least one book or story, and probably more than one because I’m thinking of it as a bit of a cliche, that follows this path: there’s a conflict between humans and aliens, the humans think the aliens have an irrational taboo and they are free to violate it as long as they aren’t seen violating it, and the taboo turns out to be based on some real danger.

    But I can’t think of a single example. The examples I can think of are not taboos, per se, but superstitions of some kind.

  28. Serge Broom says:

    Abi @ 26… Oops. For one thing, Farmer broke SF’s taboo towards Sex, with his novella “The Lovers”, in which a man had intercourse with an alien. That was in 1952, long before the Sixties..

  29. Serge @28:

    I think there’s an interesting distinction to be made between the ways that SF&F has violated the taboos of the society in which it was produced, and the ways that the characters within a given story may violate one another’s taboos.

    Think of it as the difference between Kirk kissing Uhura onscreen (an interracial kiss: the first on American TV, but not controversial in the 23rd century) and Christine Chapel making Spock a bowl of plomeek soup (“It is undignified for a woman to play servant to a man who is not hers.”)

    I confess I was thinking more of the latter when I wrote this post, but as a literature of ideas and what-ifs, written substantially by intellectuals and (let’s be honest) Aspies, SF&F has also managed to do a lot of the former. And I think that’s pretty cool.

  30. Serge Broom says:

    Good points, Abi. In Farmer’s case though, “The Lovers” broke taboos on both levels. One is that F/SF in those days was quite prude about sex. The taboo is also broken within the story’s culture, because the human comes from a VERY puritanical Earth, which doesn’t take too kindly to interspecies romance, and not just what looks like a very beautiful woman has of the insect inside of her. He also did this in “Dare”, which posits that the Roanoke colony had been snatched away to an alien planet, where some of the humans were changed to have some bestial attributes even though they were humans, and the locals didn’t care much for the mixing.

  31. Serge Broom says:

    Another taboo, within the story’s culture… TVs with ‘off’ switches in “Max Headroom”.

  32. Russ says:

    I clearly remember being told by a friend in Junior school (so I would have been somewhere between 8 and 11) that holding up certain combinations of fingers – in this particular case, two – was offensive. I have no idea how *he* discovered it, but it seemed so patently ridiculous that I decided I was being wound up, and of course got into trouble trying it.

    I don’t think I even knew the word that gesture is (typically) translated to at the time. And I don’t think anyone knows why it means that even now.

  33. heresiarch says:

    Russ @ 32: You mean holding up the pinky and the index finger, aka throwing the horns? That’s the only taboo two-finger combination I can think of.*

    * That doesn’t involve other actions as well.

  34. heresiarch @33:

    The alternative is the V-sign with the back of the hand facing the viewer, which is highly offensive in Britain and many Commonwealth cultures.

    (I work with an Italian, by the way, who really does make the sign of the Horns to avert bad luck. He has been tempted to grab his crotch when truly unfortunate possibilities are discussed, but won’t do so in my presence. He’s otherwise entirely unsuperstitious.)

  35. heresiarch says:

    Oh, my Amero-centrism is showing again. Funny how a twist of the wrist can so transform that gesture, isn’t it?

  36. Serge Broom says:

    If there’s anything that “Are You Being Served?” has taught me, it’s that, in England, the two-finger gesture done a certain way is not the Victory Sign.

  37. OtterB says:

    heresiarch @33 … I can tell I was raised a Texan. It would never have occurred to me to interpret that gesture as anything other than “Hook ’em, horns!” (for the University of Texas Longhorns), and offensive only to Aggies…

  38. Russ says:


    Abi and Serge have it. And apparently *my* anglo- (or possible euro-) centrism is showing, because it never would have occurred to me that the gesture was not offensive in the US. That, and the meaning-changing wrist twist that you mention just go to demonstrate exactly how local and seemingly arbitrary a cause of offence can be.

    If you’re not familiar with the gesture, you’re probably also not familiar with the (discredited) explanation that it was invented at Agincourt by English bowmen, to demonstrate to the French they were still capable of killing them with a longbow. Where it actually comes from I have no idea.

  39. Paul A. says:

    I don’t know if net-savvy would have helped. Perhaps it needs a particular kind of net-savvy. I say this because the logo of my internet service provider bears the same unfortunate resemblance.

  40. Russ@38: I don’t know if you watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer: the opening credits for several seasons featured one particular character making that gesture. I assure you that it went right over the heads of most US viewers. Even for my part, I know intellectually that it’s offensive but I don’t feel it (the way I would, say, an extended middle finger).

  41. Russ @38:

    Anglocentrism. The Dutch have no notion of it, and are generally bemused when my British colleagues and I explain.

    I always thought the Agincourt explanation was a little overly cute, but do you have a link to its disproof?

  42. Russ says:

    David Goldfarb@40: I don’t know if you watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer

    Oh yes. All of them*, some several times**. I never picked up on that though – I either didn’t pay attention to the right credits, or skipped them, I guess.


    I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that my source for debunking the Agincourt explanation is probably a QI episode***, making it no more reliable than claims to the contrary.

    A chap references the Oxford Dictionary of Folklore on the QI talk page, and there is a Snopes entry which points out how unlikely it would be for medieval French soldiers to take bowmen prisoner in the first place****, but that’s all I got.

    * Buffy, Quantum Leap and ST:NG are the series I can proudly say I have seen every episode of. I have now idea why there is pride associated with this “achievment”, but there is, so there.

    ** Do I get to call out my top three? I’ll take Hush, Once More With Feeling and Dopplegangland, please, in no particular order.

    *** More and more I find myself spouting a random fact only to be met with “yes, I saw that QI episode as well”. I do wish my brain would learn to tag trivia with its source more often.

    *** Although, presumably due to transatlantic drift, the story Snopes addresses concerns the middle finger gesture rather than the v-sign.

  43. The notion of which taboos are “instinct” and which are “conditioned reflex” also varies over time (and among different authors). With humans, it seems that some preferences and orientation are in our firmware– that is, pretty much present from the start, and not easily overridable, and some are in app-space– that is, installed by culture, and overridable in the same way.

    For instance, sexual orientation for most humans seems to fall more into the “firmware” category than the “app” category (though not everyone starts with the same firmware, and for many it’s somewhat context-sensitive). On the other hand, the supposed “natural” subservience of low-status ethnicities (or of women) is pretty clearly cultural, even though it’s often been considered “instinctive” or essential by folks for whom that doctrine was convenient.

    Some authors write under the assumption that all behavior is purely conditioned, and end up creating unbelievable characters and actions. Others assume that the current cultural norms of their society are really essential and instinctual, and their stories come off as unbelievable and dated when those norms eventually change. When you’re writing about the distant future, or about alien cultures, it can be a tricky job to write your characters in a way that’s both plausible, and believable by your readers.

  44. albatross says:


    Taboos *feel* like firmware. That makes it extremely hard to distinguish between real elements of human nature, and taboos that exist culturally. OTOH, characters in a story are typically stumbling around in the dark just as we are, wrt taboos vs nature.

  45. heresiarch says:

    OtterB @ 33: Ever since I discovered the hook ’em horns/devil’s horns identity, I’ve fantasized about running a faux-Fundamentalist Xtian protest of a UT game on the basis that supporting the Longhorns is disguised Devil Worship and witchcraft. Or, better yet, convince some real fundies to do it. Maybe some Aggies.

    John Mark Ockerbloom @ 43: “With humans, it seems that some preferences and orientation are in our firmware– that is, pretty much present from the start, and not easily overridable, and some are in app-space– that is, installed by culture, and overridable in the same way.”

    I feel that a very important aspect of being human is the fact that when it comes to what we think and feel, everything is overridable. What’s more, whether it’s easily overridable doesn’t correlate well with any apparent inculturated/inherent distinction; or from another point of view, our definitions of what is biological and what is cultural are as much determined by whether we judge it overridable as vice versa.

  46. David Harmon says:

    Chiming in a bit late here… one of the big differences between humans and other “higher animals”, is that most of our instincts have been “demoted” to prepared learning. (The most prominent exceptions are the infantile instincts, and certain social patterns.) Note that prepared learning is explicitly not a blank slate — the stimulus has to be vaguely appropriate to trigger the embedding — but it does have some flexibility, and a given choice tends to be passed down to each successive generation.

    To address one example above — the supposed “natural” subservience of low-status ethnicities (or of women) is pretty clearly cultural… well, sort of. The particular choice of underdog is certainly cultural — but forming a dominance hierarchy is instinctive, and in this respect we’re quite similar to other mammals. That “subservience” is part of that instinct, because the whole point of having a dominance hierarchy is to avoid continuous fighting over social status, property, mating opportunities, and so forth. Accordingly, once someone is established as subordinate, not only will they themselves tend not to challenge that, but if they do, “everyone” joins in smacking them down, including their fellow subordinates. Rearranging the hierarchy is possible for humans, precisely because we specialize in seeing “how things might be different” — but it’s not easy, because we’re still mammals underneath. And eliminating the hierarchy… I don’t think that’s possible. When it’s been tried, what we see is that it just goes undercover. Everyone may be equal in name… but some people get listened to more, or are just better at getting their way, or control resources that give them more pull.

    As far as that wi-fi logo, I didn’t think of goatse, so Abi’s hinting had me wandering “gripping jail bars? Maybe something about black power? what haven’t I heard about?”

  47. heresiarch says:

    “but forming a dominance hierarchy is instinctive”


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