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What do People Mean When They Refer to an "Elephant in the Living Room"?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 17, 2024
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An elephant in your living room would be difficult to ignore for long, much like a 400 pound canary. Each of these animals have been used to refer to an obvious problem or issue that everyone acknowledges but rarely discusses. An elephant in the living room is used figuratively to represent the issue being avoided. Everyone knows it's there, but no one feels like talking about it.

There are a number of reasons why people may have a figurative elephant in the living room. As another catchy expression points out, "denial is not just a river in Egypt." Exposing the elephant may create more problems than it would solve if not approached carefully. Family members of an active alcoholic, for example, may find it easier emotionally to downplay the damage his or her behavior causes.

Another reason for the "elephant scenario" could be personal guilt or shame. Parents and siblings of a morbidly obese child may choose to ignore the warning signs of overeating in order to protect the child's fragile sense of self-worth. The weight issue can easily become an elephant in the living room, since confronting the child directly about his or her eating habits could open up other unresolved family issues.

The unacknowledged elephant can also appear in other social circumstances. A friend's difficult spouse or a testy co-worker could easily become the elephant in a social circle. Everyone may be aware of this person's personality quirks, but no one wants to risk alienating the spouse or the employee completely. Instead, there is a tacit agreement not to bring up the subject in public. Insulting an elephant directly could have devastating effects on the living room furniture, so to speak.

There are those who believe that the best way to get rid of the elephant in the living room is to find out what he wants and give it to him. Perhaps the elephant will choose to leave the house voluntarily once he receives the attention he craves. If people continue to leave a serious issue unresolved because of fear or the risk of social embarrassment, the figurative elephant will only grow larger.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to WiseGeek, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By anon46624 — On Sep 27, 2009

This is not really about the article, it is about the writing. I truly appreciate people who go the trouble of saying "his or her" instead of the ambiguous and improper "their." Thank you.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to WiseGeek, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range...
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