The Role of Taboos in Understanding Culture

The topic of taboos in the workplace came up during the Thursday, April 9th #aopm discussion, more specifically, how to prepare new product managers  for dealing with taboos in the workplace.   Here are my thoughts:

Typically,  taboos are the result of  a value or belief system, and they are usually a sign of a broader cultural issue that goes beyond the taboos themselves.  If you understand the value or belief system that is behind the taboo, you  understand why the taboo exists and, more importantly, the broader cultural context.   For example, in France, it is considered a taboo in some circles to discuss the Algerian war.  If you explored this further, you would discover that the war between France and Algeria was a long and frustrating war and there continues to be a lot of resentment  among citizens on both sides of the conflict.  If you explored this even further, you would  find that the French have a  history of bloody wars on their own soil (WWI,WWII) and several painful wars over colonial possessions (Algeria, Vietnam).   So, this would raise the question as to whether the taboo is about  the Algerian war, war in general, or perhaps about something even bigger.  At any rate, I am not going to debate French belief systems  but I did want to show how a taboo can be an indication of something much broader that should be examined and understood if you really want to understand the culture.

To help prepare the new product manager for taboos, I would consider the following:  To  acquaint the product manager with a list of known taboos would be a good start; however, it would provide a  tactical approach to the problem.  To help the product manager understand the belief system or systems  that is behind the taboos would go much further and  provide a strategic approach to the problem. The advantage of the strategic approach is that it would help the product manager anticipate unknown taboos and other cultural challenges.  Moreover, a strategic approach would be particularly important if the company culture is complex, conflicted, or highly dynamic.

In my next topic, I will discuss specific techniques that would help communicate this information.


5 thoughts on “The Role of Taboos in Understanding Culture

  1. I like this as an introduction to an interesting conversation.

    I think that taboos come in several levels: taboos of the corporate culture in general, those particular to product management, and those to the particular brand.

    For instance, discussing Reeboks or sweatshops might be taboo in Nike culture, but not for a management position who deals with competitive analysis (in the instance of Reeboks) or ethics PR (in the case of sweatshops)

    1. Thanks for the feedback.

      Yes, there are taboos that associated with organizations, products, and brands. Most of my experience with taboos has been in product research, more specifically consumers. (e.g. “I will never touch a Chevy for as long as I live”) The funny thing is that sometimes consumers don’t know why they feel that way. It may have been a belief that was passed down from a parent, and they never questioned it. On the other hand, it may have been the result of a firsthand experience with the automobile. An interesting exercise would be to try to unravel the brand elements from the product elements. (e.g. Chevy the brand or the experience of driving the Chevy Camaro) This is just an example, btw, no slam against Chevrolet or GM for the matter.

      I have one burning question for you. How were you able to leave a comment? Several people including myself have tried to leave comments on my blog to no avail. Since you have WordPress blog, may be you can give me some tips.

  2. Neat subject. Taboos, as opposed to aversions, are deep-seated and not rational–that is, we may devise justifications for a taboo, but even if the foundations of the taboo is shown to be false, and we consciously believe that it’s false, it’s very difficult to overcome the taboo. A good example are food taboos–stuff that other cultures may find tasty but ours says is “unclean.” Earth worms are nearly pure protein, can be cleaned and safely prepared and cooked, but few Americans would willingly eat them. (I have by the way, baked into chocolate cookies (long story); very difficult getting the first one down. Probably wouldn’t have if it hadn’t been for the 15 or so third-graders I was leading expecting me not to! Wasn’t even drunk at the time, either.)
    The point is, aversions like not driving Chevys don’t cause the holder of the belief to be really offended if you inadvertently suggest they take a ride in your new Camero. On the other hand, if I offered you a dish of cooked worms, you’d likely turn me down, and could even feel physically ill at the suggestion. You’d likely think less of me or at least question how much I value our relationship if I didn’t know you well enough to not offer you something so disgusting.

    It’s one thing to design/produce products for customers who are your cultural neighbors…you probably share the same taboos and don’t even think of crossing that line. Quite another thing to export your products into a different culture. Probably prudent to assume there are some big, nasty taboos out there that make absolutely no sense in your own context, but could have a major impact on your business.

    1. @David

      I agree wholeheartedly. It’s hard to reach a level of absolute terror and other visceral reactions that food taboos bring about, when we’re dealing with brands.

      However, it’s not hard to imagine a different, possibly more refined, marketplace where brands are as different as the cultural differences you touch upon. Organics may begin to approach this level of reaction, as may technological niches(open source versus closed source). There is a certain ethical dimension to these brands that is neither trivial nor artificial.

  3. @Jonathan
    Spot on, especially with, say, medical devices. Can you imagine the revulsion in a Jewish or Muslim patient offered a replacement heart valve made from a pig valve? Any devote believer would probably opt to die if a pig valve was their only alternative.

    This is an interesting discussion topic, and one that I think has not been seriously considered by most marketing people. The few articles I’ve run across have treated negative reactions to products/services, based on deeply held religious or philosophical beliefs as merely strange quirks the marketer needs to work around.

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