Avoiding taboo words/subjects in the classroom

What is taboo? According to Wikipedia: “A taboo is a vehement prohibition of an action based on the belief that such behavior is either too sacred or too accursed for ordinary individuals to undertake, under threat of supernatural punishment. Such prohibitions are present in virtually all societies. The word has been somewhat expanded in the social sciences to include strong prohibitions relating to any area of human activity or custom that is sacred or forbidden based on moral judgment and religious beliefs. “Breaking a taboo” is usually considered objectionable by society in general, not merely a subset of a culture.”

As a teacher of English, while teaching structures, new vocabulary items, listening or watching something or reading passages, I like sharing about my own lifestyle, habits and customs; and again while doing this, in order not to upset or embarrass our students, we -the teachers- need to be very careful.

Although I am mostly teaching English to Turkish students, sometimes I teach English to foreign students as well such as Korean, Arabic, German, Iranian etc. If I start teaching to foreign students, firstly I ask about certain gestures or words that can be inappropriate for them, because what is considered an appropriate conversational material in my country may be considered rude, insulting or even bad luck in their country.

Religion, politics, sex, historical conflicts can be considered as the main taboo subjects.

Also here are some main taboo gestures: touching students, swearing, chewing gum, standing too close to students, pointing them etc.












I think this chart can be helpful if you are teaching to foreign students:

Country Topics and behaviour to avoid Helpful notes for travelling teachers
  • Students may not maintain steady eye contact with you when you are talking to them. Try to be respectful of the culture by not holding eye contact with a single student for too long.
  • Punctuality is important in China. Make sure to begin and end your classes on time, even if there are students looking for help with homework.
  • Try to avoid putting your hand near your mouth or biting your fingernails. This is considered rude.
  • Never wave someone over with your finger. Wave them over with a hand and fingers pointed down. This is also the way to hail a taxi.
  • If your students give you gifts, know that it is customary not to open it in front of them.
  • The student/teacher relationship is generally formal in nature.
  • You may think that your Chinese students are unhappy or disliking your class because they don’t smile as much as other students. However, Chinese students often repress their emotions because this is part of their culture.
  • Be careful not to mix up the history or culture of Asian countries or assume that things are the same in all of them.
  • Avoid discussions of jobs, and financial success or wealth. This is often considered the greatest taboo in France.
  • Avoid talking about immigration.
  • In France it is considered taboo for foreigners to introduce the topic of the European Union as a political and/or economic power.
  • The American sign for OK (making a circle with finger and thumb), which teachers often use to show that a student has done something correctly or perfectly means “nothing” in France.
  • Maintaining eye contact is not customary between strangers. If you hold eye contact with someone on the street or in a store you are suggesting you want a relationship with them. Refusing eye contact, however, suggests that you think you are of a higher status than the other person.
  • Students will cover their mouth with their hands to gesture that they have made a mistake.
  • It is considered very rude to be even a few minutes late.
  • Never chew gum in public or in class.
  • The American sign for OK (making a circle with finger and thumb), which teachers often use to show that a student has done something correctly or perfectly refers to female private body parts in Germany.
  • Avoid discussing how much money people earn.
  • If you are dining out with others, it is considered rude to start your meal before everyone has received theirs.
  • It is considered bad luck to wish a German person a Happy Birthday before the actual date.
  • Avoid discussing the relationship of India with Pakistan.
  • Avoid discussing religious beliefs.
  • Avoid discussing poverty.
  • It is rude to point directly at someone.
  • Standing with your hands on your hips is seen as a sign of aggression.
  • Never touch people with your shoes or feet, and apologize immediately if it happens accidentally.
  • Avoid discussing the marriage tradition of dowries.
  • For any teachers who may be travelling or teaching with their romantic partners, be aware that showing affection in public is considered taboo in India.
  • It is considered rude to chew gum in public and to eat as you walk.
  • In Italy, placing your hand on your stomach (which is a sign of hunger in many countries) means that you dislike someone.
  • When first being introduced to a group of people you should take the time to shake everyone’s hand rather than just offering a communal wave.
  • It is quite normal for Italians to stand close to one another. You may also get bumped or pushed in line-ups or public places.
  • Teachers should not touch their students (e.g. hand on shoulder, high five).
  • Take steps not to say or do something that would cause a single student to feel embarrassed. Japanese people are more likely to feel ashamed and insulted rather than innocently embarrassed.
  • The American sign for OK, which teachers often use to show that a student has done something correctly or perfectly means “money” in Japan.
  • Be discrete about blowing your nose in the classroom.
  • Avoid discussing World War II.
  • Be careful not to mix up the history or culture of Asian countries or assume that things are the same in all of them.
  • Avoid discussing politics.
  • Avoid discussing personal family matters.
  • Avoid discussing the relationship between North and South Korea.
  • Provide criticism in private.
  • Avoid pointing or beckoning someone with your finger
  • Be discreet about blowing your nose.
  • If you are very animated when you talk, you may want to try to tone your hand movements down.
  • Many people wear surgical masks in public if they have a cold to avoid spreading germs.
  • Be careful not to mix up the history or culture of Asian countries or assume that things are the same in all of them.
  • Avoid discussing pollution.
  • Avoid discussing illegal immigration.
  • Avoid discussing religion.
  • Don’t make comparisons between Mexico and the U.S.
  • Avoid discussing sexuality.
  • It is considered very rude to take the Lord’s name in vain in Mexico. If you are the type of person to use a form of the phrase, “Oh my God,” in your everyday conversation, you may want to practise eliminating it from your vocabulary.
  • It is considered rude for men to keep their hands in their pocket.
  • It is helpful to be aware of the taboo in Mexico for young people to live alone or with a girlfriend/boyfriend before getting married.
  • Mexican people tend to stand very close to one another when engaged in a conversation. It is considered rude to move further away.
  • Mexican people often make the sound “pst pst” to get someone’s attention. This is not considered rude behaviour.
  • Place the money for payment directly into a person’s hand rather than on the counter.
  • Avoid talking about politics and the relationship between Taiwan and Mainland China.
  • Western men should not extend their hands to Taiwanese women in a greeting. A nod of the head is appropriate.
  • Taiwanese people appreciate plenty of personal space.
  • Save criticism for private occasions before or after class.
  • Never purposely embarrass your students.
  • It is common for Taiwanese people to expect each other to read between the lines. You will rarely hear an actual “no” for an answer.
  • Be careful not to mix up the history or culture of Asian countries or assume that things are the same in all of them.
  • It is considered rude to look directly at someone for more than a few seconds.
  • Don’t point your foot at someone (especially their head!).
  • Don’t pat students on the head (in Thai culture this is where the spirits live).
  • If teaching children, don’t crouch down beside them with your head lower than theirs.
  • Don’t discuss or criticize the monarchy.
  • Avoid talking about national security.
  • Be careful not to mix up the history or culture of Asian countries or assume that things are the same in all of them.
  • Teachers are expected to dress conservatively. This usually involves wearing a necktie.


As you can see in the chart, taboos vary from culture to culture. If we have to deal with one of these subjects, we need to ask ourselves why? “Is it because they support your aims for the class better than other material, or just because they are taboos?”

I am not totally against using taboos in our classes because using taboo topics to teach language can be highly productive, as they often generate high levels of interest and involvement in learners.

I just want to give an example:

I was teaching to B2.2 level students this year and according to our syllabus we had a speaking topic which was about the relationships. As you may guess, we talked about love-getting married and suddenly our topic turned out to abortion-which is still avery hot topic in Turkey because of the politics. In my classroom there were many students from different political views so I felt a bit anxious as they started to talk about this topic. At the beginning of the debate, I only warned them about being respectful to their friends’ ideas and surprisingly it was great. Actually I wasn’t expecting such a brilliant debate.

Anyway, as I said before we need to be really cautious while presenting these topics. I’m sure we don’t want to face any problems in our lessons.

Aysun 🙂



  1. Fascinating stuff… and if we consider language about communication then we have an expanded topic in which we understand that behaviors communicate no less than words. I was surprised to learn (at a recent financial literacy conference) that the use of piggy banks would be very inappropriate and offensive in some cultures. I would note on the flip side, however, that in working with elementary aged children, a good deal of their literature uses what I would call “poor grammar.” The explanation I get is “we want the learning to be based on a realistic perspective–that is the way people talk.” I both get this and don’t. I would suggest that sometimes accomodating “culture” is counter intuitive to effective learning.

    1. Thanks for this great comment;) As you stated, I was suprised to learn many other taboo subjects in my classes from different students from different ethnic groups. The important thing is to handle them successfully during the lessons.

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