Elephant in the room

If there’s an obvious truth that no one wants to talk about, then there’s an elephant in the room. This idiom refers to an issue or situation that everyone is aware of, but chooses not to publicly acknowledge. 

To get a true sense of what this idiom means, picture an elephant standing in a room with a bunch of people who are all pretending that it isn’t there. The elephant represents the difficult topic that is apparent to everyone. When there's an elephant in the room, it means that a topic is being intentionally ignored because it would be awkward or uncomfortable to discuss it openly in that social setting. However, ironically, it can sometimes be equally as awkward to actively ignore the elephant in the room.

This expression can be used informally in both personal and professional settings. For example:

  • My aunt and uncle recently got divorced but she’s not ready to talk about it yet, so there’s kind of an elephant in the room whenever we see her at family gatherings.
  • It was hard going to social events right after my mom passed away because no one wanted to ask about her death in case it upset me. It always felt like the elephant in the room.

A. Did you hear that Marcus got fired?
B. Really? What happened?
A. I’m not sure. We just had a staff meeting but management didn't acknowledge the elephant in the room: his absence.

Did you know? Although the elephant is supposed to represent an enormous problem, this expression can also be used to refer to small-sized issues, too. For example, imagine that a person is giving a public presentation and has a noticeably large piece of spinach in their teeth. Audience members may want to notify the speaker, but may choose to ignore it so as to not cause them further embarrassment.