Taboos vs. Empowering Transparency


Taboos make us powerless. Transparency frees and empowers us.

How can we connect with others? And what does transparency have to do with it? The TED article “It’s not politics or religion separating humans from each other; it’s shame” suggests that we can start by questioning “all of the conventions, institutions, technologies and mindsets that keep us apart […]”, because they come with “internalized obstacles to [human] connection” which trigger our feeling of shame.

An example is the social convention not to talk about money. Thankfully, the complexity of our world today – and the hard choices that come with this complexity – make us open up when it comes to how much things cost or how much one earns, if only to avoid getting screwed over. I wrote about this in my article about whether trade is an individualistic act or one that connects us as human beings. Nevertheless, this taboo is still deeply embedded in most of us: even when we do open up and become more transparent in money matters, we are painfully aware that it isn’t something we should be talking about, so we often feel shame.

However, being driven by shame gives all the power to superior institutions, as the TED article describes: “The social convention of hiding one’s wealth or lack of it has less to do with protecting one another’s feelings than protecting the power of our superiors.” This power arises from the threat that information can be used against us, whether exerted by “religions, cults, governments or social media platforms.” At the prospect of exposure, we feel shame and so we comply with secrecy.

Secrecy separates humans and only tends to serve the big capitalist institutions. As the TED article “Why you should know how much your coworkers get paid” describes: “Secrecy is a sneaky way for companies to save a lot of money. Keeping salaries secret leads to what economists call ‘information asymmetry’.” The company has all the information on all the salaries of all employees, while one employee only knows one’s own salary. That is a breeding ground for feelings of unfairness. Consequently, people are “actually more likely to feel underpaid — and even discriminated against”, which isn’t surprising since pay secrecy makes it easy to hide discrimination, such as a potential male/ female salary gap. Salary negotiations become a game of getting as much as possible without getting screwed over.

If all of this seems quite obvious, then why do we play our roles in keeping this system of secrecy
— either as superiors perpetuating this culture or as subordinates keeping our mouths shut? The first answer is shame, which we have been socialized to feel when we talk about taboos, such as money. The other answer is that we don’t know any other way. We fear that “if everybody knew what everybody gets paid, all hell would break loose at work, there’d be arguments and complaints. Some people might even quit” (TED article).

However, studies show that transparency is beneficial for companies in the long run as it increases “the feelings of fairness and collaboration inside a company.” This leads to people working harder to improve their performance, as they know what impact that will have on the company and their own salary. Furthermore, Frederic Laloux writes in his book “Reinventing organizations” that loyalty cannot be bought, but is based on transparency and fairness. A company’s most valuable asset is its loyal employees, because they are autonomously motivated to do good for the company. Autonomous (as opposed to controlled) motivation is not dependent on external rewards. Making pay scales transparent, building a sense of fairness and making employees feel appreciated increases employees’ self-confidence and autonomous motivation.

After all, transparency helps connect humans by solving the “information asymmetry”. By opening up and putting information out there, we display vulnerability, which helps us connect with others. Sure, at first we might feel shame, but then we realise we’re taking the power away of those who want us to feel shame. Then comes the feeling of awe at owning up to what is and connecting with others. Isn’t that feeling worth overcoming the initial shame, leaving us feeling more empowered than before?

No matter what the short-term inconveniences are, I think to #Saywhatis is the only way we feel truly connected with others and also with ourselves. That is why I would like to end with the TED article’s call to action:

“For those of you that have the authority to move forward towards transparency: it’s time to move forward. And for those of you that don’t have that authority, it’s time to stand up for your right to” – and open up!

How do you choose to act when you feel shame regarding opening about a tabooed topic? Have you experienced that sense of aw that comes with showing vulnerability? I am curious to read about your experiences in the comments below or in my inbox 🙂

Written by Julia Heuritsch | Last edited: 30th October 2022

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