Taboos as predictors of future behaviors
Updated: Apr 7, 2019
A few years ago, I was given a fascinating professional challenge: trying to identify the future taboos of our society and the underlying triggers of transgression.
It may sound daunting, but I mostly felt lucky to work on such a powerful topic.
The notion of taboo is quite mesmerizing. Taboos rule all forms of existence: they existed since the appearance of Mankind. They exist in all countries, continents, cultures, genres, ages, ethnicities. And they will exist for as long as we do. It probably comes across as too definitive and assertive of a sentence. But I believe it's mere logic.
The word "taboo" derives from the Polynesian word "tabu". Its grounding is very primal (and primal, we still remain): long story short, "taboo" refers to something considered too sacred (with an underlying sense of danger and dark consequences if one were to come too close to it) to be approached by Man.
The word wouldn't carry much emotional charge if the "sacred" dimension in question was not somewhat aspirational, or at the very least intriguing. So taboo does not equal "disgusting". Put differently, saying that something is taboo means "Yes, I know, you may want to see what's in there. But it's off limits, okay? Our rules, culture and society prohibit you from going there. And if you do, there will be serious consequences: for everyone". It's a bit like Death. We're raised with this idea that something really scary might happen if we venture there (which we all do at some point), but we don't get much feedback from people who have actually tried. So let's see taboos as a form of scary tales we tell kids for them to behave, to conform to certain rules that we deem key for general order and peace.
If I ask you to name one or two taboos, chances are your mind will take you to obvious places (and again, primal ones): incest could be one for example.
But in this professional case, I was not asked to describe the obvious taboos. Sexual taboos feel very "been there done that", and are essentially "light taboos" in my opinion as they are not that thought-provoking.
What's more, I wasn't not only asked to describe the current, but to anticipate the new taboos likely to emerge in the years to come.
Hopefully, a key observation came to my mind pretty early into the project and really helped making sense of all this:
Yesterday's taboos are today's norms.
Let's first stop on what this sentence means:
There is a link between taboos and norms. Ok, that's a given. The definition of a taboo is that it directly attacks/ challenges/ threatens a norm in place (be it cultural, social, behavioral). So they are intertwined and always operate as a duo. If your culture tells you that the Dead are sacred, you know you shouldn't play with corpses. (but this prohibition also makes you wonder - in a very deep and dark place inside of you - what would happen if you ever did)
Taboos and norms are not static. They evolve in flux and keep on reversing over defining periods of time.This sentence also means that there is a pattern. And in understanding this pattern, we can get a pretty solid shot at predicting future social, cultural and behavioral trends.What this sentence does not tell you but that is worth highlighting is that taboos and norms are not direct neighbors. There is a wide spectrum of actions and behaviors between a norm (dead people are sacred) and a full-on taboo (playing with corpses). Our societies have strong buffers in between those two extremes: "is it okay not to attend someone's funerals?" is a question that could fit right in between.
Ok, back to what I identified. Let's look at graphic 1 to have a clearer picture.
Yesterday's taboos are today's norms.
Today's taboos are tomorrow's norms.
Conceptually, it looks something like this. You see that in a given area of life (say "religion"), each "era" is defined by a norm (that makes everyone behave in a similar way to ensure order), and by its matching taboo (the thing we really shouldn't do, otherwise - or so we're told - everything will collapse).
Let's take a concrete example.
The best way to crash-test this thought is by taking a specific area of life. So here, I had a shot at looking at the norms and taboos that have surrounded the notion of family and education over the past decades.
My parents grew up in the late fifties. Being a kid in this generation, authority was king. Regardless of social class, a kid was not allowed to challenge a form of authority (parents, adult relatives, teachers, institutions). It was prohibited to speak at the table. And you had to ask to be excused. It was very common for kids to do heavy house chores at an early age.
Logically, something that would have totally shocked this generation would have been a very cocky and bossy kid challenging their parents' authority in public. Or making demands. It was the taboo in place.
Moving to the next generation or era, we see a reverse. The mid 90s saw the emergence of the King Child. Society seems to have woken up one day thinking: "God, we've been so harsh on them. Let's try something completely different". Of course I am doing massive shortcuts here and generalizations. But yes, the 90s were populated with the mass idea of buying luxury/ premium fashion clothes and toys for their kids. Letting them make scenes in public. Or letting them decide what everyone should have for dinner.
As for before, the taboo adapted: overnight, it became "okay" for children to disrespect their teachers or swear in class. And this taboo became so strong that it became illegal for teachers to talk back to misbehaving kids. Teachers had to show respect and consideration to their pupils, not the other way around. You'll also remember that the gentle slap on the cheek went from a common habit that most of us grew up with to now being a full-on crime.
And to prove it's not a one-time reversal of the taboo-norm duo, I looked at the next phase: tired of this non-sense, society silently agreed to try something new: "let's try and make ourselves respected again". This is Super Nanny, the World's Strictest Parents. Or today, the trend of "Tiger parenting" (老虎妈妈) books.
What's interesting is that it's not a simple "cut and paste". We didn't go back to parenting the way it was in the 50s. The sentiment remains the same (bringing structure to your offspring and getting respect), but manifestations evolve (otherwise, we wouldn't know progress).
If you're still doubtful, we can have a quick look at this pattern for the topic of female beauty and related ideals.
Museums are packed with amazing paintings and sculptures presenting curvy and voluptuous females - the way a traditional body often looks like if you ask me: with shapes and flaws.
This has been the norm for female beauty for a very long time. Part of it is due to the fact that being voluptuous meant being rich and healthy (as in "well-fed"). Thanks to the food industry and its many hidden ingredients, obesity is now primarily associated with poverty, as it costs less to eat fat and sugar-packed products. And it costs a lot of money to eat healthily in developed countries.
It was hard to date (as these things are very gradual) but I chose the 70s for the reverse of norms and taboos. Fitness galore, super fit women and giant billboards selling magical beauty products ("Maybe she was born with it, maybe it's Maybelline" - a 90s example which shows this trend at its peak/ maturity). This ideal may have been easier to achieve then than today as the world hadn't been invaded by junk food yet. But things did get harder very quickly with pre-made products and heavily processed food. The promise withstood by the norm became harder and harder to achieve. Meanwhile, the stigma of being voluptuous (read "fat") embodied by the new taboo became more and more suffocating.
Third chapter: the model wasn't working. Society wasn't rewarded enough by this duo of norm/ taboo. Enter the era of "the real me", "everybody's beautiful", "all shapes and sizes are desirable", "I'm flawless". This third era is sneakier as the new taboo (the idea that you should conform to "perfection", whatever that means) remains strongly leveraged in marketing and pop culture - and can, one way or another, still be seen as aspirational.
This is why the tables will turn again. Keeping in mind that the sentiment will remain, but the manifestations behind it will change. And so I predict that the next chapter for the norms of female beauty will again be under the umbrella of what I called "frugality". "Frugality" is a proxi. I put rigor and effort within it. So what could be next? Bodies and features enhanced through technology could be one way to envision it. Robotic beauty maybe? Well... we just saw a first glimpse on this potential trend with Shudu (below), the first animated top-model with her own instagram account.
For those of you who have read me until the end, I want to close by bringing your attention to an element of each graph that I haven't commented on: the "value switch".
For me, "value switch" is an invitation to try and identify the predictors that are announcing the reversal of norms and taboos. In the previous case of parenting, Internet was clearly a strong trigger that paved the way to a switch of values. Because as a tool, it empowered overnight a lot of kids to make up their own minds in brand new ways, connecting them with far more individuals, and making them realize in a hands-on fashion that there were many people out there expressing things that were going against their parents' instructions - so why not try?
Taboos easily play with our minds. So don't be shy and play with them before they play with you.
Freelance Strategist: Brands + People + Culture