It was the year 1814 when Ivan Andreevich Krylov, a Russian poet and writer, published a fable titled “The Inquisitive Man.” In it he was referring to a man who walked through a museum and noticed all kinds of small details but, amazingly, did not notice an elephant.
That interesting idea did not die there. Fyodor Dostoevsky took it up again in his novel “Demons” when he wrote: “Belinsky was like Krylov’s inquisitive man, who did not notice the elephant in the museum…”. Although it was Mark Twain who best outlined the concept in “The Theft of the White Elephant”, referring to the ineptitude and lack of logic that underlies this behavior.
The New York Times later picked up the phrase, which later became a popular expression used to refer to something obvious that goes unnoticed or that no one wants to take care of. The expression indicates an obvious truth that is ignored, although it may also be a problem that no one wants to discuss or a risk that no one is willing to take.
Since it is impossible to ignore the existence of an elephant in the room, people feel forced to pretend that the elephant does not exist, avoiding dealing with the enormous problem it represents. However, the truth is that ignoring its presence usually ends up generating even bigger problems.
How to detect the elephant in the room?
Most people think that if they had an elephant inside their room, they would notice it immediately. However, this is not always the case, especially in the elusive field of interpersonal relationships. In fact, the bigger that elephant is, the greater our tendency to ignore it because the more complex and sensitive the problem will be.
A common example of this phenomenon occurs when a friend is diagnosed with a serious or terminal illness. Some people do not know how to react and their way of being “careful”, so as not to hurt the sensitivity of others, consists of avoiding the topic. These people begin to act as if they are walking on mined ground, they change their behavior and the relationship that was previously relaxed and natural becomes tense and artificial. They stop being the friends they were, to become the friends who avoid the most obvious, pressing and difficult problem.
The elephant also usually sneaks into relationships. A classic example is when both are aware that the relationship is no longer working and they have no reason to be together, but they do not address the issue, hoping that the other will be the one to bring it up and take responsibility for the breakup.
This avoidant behavior can also be seen in parents whose children have a problem, whether it is a physical disability, a mental disorder or any other illness. Since reality is very hard to accept, parents avoid talking about it and deny its existence, which imposes a “law of silence” among friends and family, who find it very difficult to help them and usually end up accepting the presence of that elephant in the room.
Of course, this phenomenon is also appreciated on a social level, especially when it comes to a taboo topic, such as race, religion, homosexuality, mental illness or even suicide. In these cases, people simply assume that it is more “polite” to avoid the topic.
In general sense, any problem can become an elephant in the room if we do not address it and prefer to ignore it. It could be a delicate issue that could hurt the sensitivity of others, a big problem that we don’t know how to solve, or a conflict that requires taking a risk that we are not willing to take.
In these cases, an implicit consensus is reached, according to which all the people involved decide to ignore the problem, although it continues to float in the environment, like a black cloud that thins the air. Obviously, ignoring something doesn’t mean solving it, which is why the problem grows.
Why isn’t it a good idea to ignore the elephant in the room?
A series of very interesting experiments carried out on racial prejudice shed light on the elephant in the room phenomenon. In these studies, it was found that when people try to use “politically correct” words to avoid offending someone because of the color of their skin or ethnic group, they can be perceived as colder, more distant, less empathetic, and even more racist.
The problem is that these people try to consciously activate what is known as “color blindness,” but this only has the opposite effect, activating racial stereotypes even more. They are then forced to fight against these prejudices and search for the “correct” words, which generates great anxiety, which ends up making them seem less authentic and more racist. That way, avoiding the elephant in the room reinforces its existence.
Denying reality won’t make it go away. When there is a basic problem or conflict, if it is not resolved and its causes are not sought, it is likely to end up growing, in turn generating new difficulties. Therefore, the later the problem is addressed, the more difficult it will be to solve since the greater its ramifications.
On the other hand, this avoidance will cause interpersonal relationships to become distorted. When we have to walk on a surface full of sharp crystals, we will have to think and choose our words carefully, so the relationship will lose its spontaneity. Then we are victims of what we intended to avoid since it is likely that we ignored the issue so as not to damage the relationship, but in the end it ends up breaking down.
We must also keep in mind that avoiding the elephant in the room is usually a process that requires great cognitive and emotional effort. The repression of certain content, especially when it is emotionally significant, causes great wear and tear that ends up taking its toll on a psychological level.
How to get the elephant out of the room?
Addressing sensitive topics is often difficult. But we must do it. It is impossible to relate in a natural, authentic and relaxed way with a person when such an important issue separates us. How to do it?
1. Choose the right moment. There are times when it is necessary to wait a while until the other person is ready to address the issue. You can test the waters by making a slight reference, and if the other person isn’t ready to talk about it, give them a little more time. Sometimes the simple act of unmasking the “elephant” is enough to dilute the tension it generated in the environment. It’s like giving a knowing wink that says: “I know we have a problem, when you’re ready we’ll talk about it and try to solve it.”
2. Calibrate your expectations and arm yourself with patience. Difficult topics do not usually have an easy solution, so it is important that when addressing the problem you do not have too many expectations. In fact, it is common for the other people involved to refuse to address the issue, make excuses, or not be open to your suggestions. It’s normal, it’s a defensive attitude. To resolve the issue you will likely have to approach it several times from different perspectives. So arm yourself with patience.
3. Be honest, speak from the heart. It is not necessary to practice sincericide, but in delicate topics, honesty is usually the best asset. Express your feelings and opinions in the most direct way possible, without harming the other, but without giving too much thought that could lead to misunderstandings. And don’t forget to propose what, for you, could be the best solution or, at least, an alternative to the current situation.
4. Use sense of humor. Humor is usually an excellent strategy to reduce the drama of situations and create a more relaxed atmosphere, making others lower their guard and not become defensive. However, you should avoid overusing it, so that it seems like you are belittling the problem. Use humor intelligently, to introduce the topic or punctually in the conversation, to reduce tension.
5. Manage emotions. Complicated topics become elephants in the room precisely because they touch our most sensitive chords. This means that approaching it can generate authentic emotional tsunamis in the people involved. You must be prepared to deal with these emotions, which can range from deep sadness to anger. And of course, you will also have to be prepared to manage your own disappointment or frustration.
Whenever possible, try not to have too many elephants wandering around your life. They are big problems that break relationships and shatter your emotional balance.
Norton, M. I. et. Al. (2006) Color Blindness and Interracial Interaction Playing the Political Correctness. Psychological Science; 17(11): 949-953.
Shelton, J.N. et. Al. (2005) Ironic effects of racial bias during interracial interactions. Psychological Science; 16: 397–402.
Richeson, J.A. & Nussbaum, R.J. (2004) The impact of multiculturalism versus color-blindness on racial bias. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology; 40: 417–423.
Crandall, C.S. et. Al. (2002) Social norms and the expression and suppression of prejudice: The struggle for internalization. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; 82: 359–378.