Topics and Taboos or: The Principle of Meaningful Communication

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One of my basic teaching or training principles and aims is to create a situation in which ‘meaningful communication’ takes place. What is meant by ‘meaningful communication’? This is one of my main tasks – and sometimes challenges – in every class, and the main thing to find out when getting to know new groups and new students: what are they interested in as individuals and what are their interests (and needs) in respect to the context in which or for which they intend to improve their language skills – in companies their respective jobs. In short, what is meaningful in any given situation.

This question leads to another one: what do I expect from my students? To be able to create a classroom situation fruitful for everybody (or almost everybody) it is of essential importance that the participants communicate their interests. Some do this directly in that they bring something to class occasionally (I love that). Others convey their interests simply by communicating and contributing to the classroom discussion. I have had many session in which intensive discussions developed without us ever touching the material – text or whatever else – I had prepared. I always learn additional details about ‘my students’ whenever they actively participate.

In order to be able to follow up on topics of interest, it is of utmost importance – at least for me as my active memory capacity is limited – to make notes after class. The after-class reports are the most important part of my lesson preparations. Sometimes this is difficult, e.g. when I have to rush off to my next meeting or when a session is very late and I forget to make notes the following day. It is amazing how things get forgotten. I have had situations where I thought: this discussion was so interesting, I will never forget it…

I read somewhere that details of a conversation, lecture, anything oral, get lost after 24 hours.

The title of this post is topics and taboos. In general, I would carefully claim: there are no taboo-topics for me. Once a group, or the relationship in a one-to-one situation is established, I am willing and able to talk about everything and anything that comes up.

I am, of course, aware that there are culturally related taboo topics. There are lists of things people from certain cultural backgrounds don’t talk about, or avoid talking about. ‘Taboo topics’ are one of many topics in the field of Intercultural Communication. People from different countries and different cultural backgrounds avoid different topics for different reasons. But here, as with all matters concerning culture, it is easy to generalize, but difficult to assess the value and truthfulness of any generalization, and to determine how much or how far each of us as individual is influenced by a general cultural background (whatever that may be), a sub-culture we belong to or identify with, our social class – real or imagined – or our individual upbringing, personal experiences, number of siblings, month of birth, and so on.

Be it as it may, discussing taboo topics is a very interesting theme for any group. Asking people about taboo topics in general (what they believe people avoid talking about, in their culture, in other cultures etc.) and their personal taboos specifically has often led to discussions on exactly that topic which had been considered taboo.

Are there any topics I avoid? Not really. I tend not to speak much about myself, only if anyone asks me something personal, which doesn’t happen too often as the focus of an English class are the participants, not the teacher. I understand my role as moderator of communication and provider of input and any kind of material necessary to trigger communication, and – when need arises – specific language practice or reflection and focus on form. On closer inspection, I can safely say I have only one absolute taboo topic, but I guess everyone has that one – it’s so taboo I won’t even mention it here, but there really is no need – its so private that it does not come up in any group situation – especially not in companies (exception: little anecdotes from the latest Christmas Party).


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