Cultural Taboos: Manners and Cultural Norms Around The World

The three wise monkeys. In the western world, both the proverb and the image are often used to refer to a lack of moral responsibility on the part of people who refuse to acknowledge impropriety, looking the other way or feigning ignorance. 'Turning a blind eye' to evil.
by Mike Corthell

Every society on Earth has different norms for social behavior. Friendly greetings are expected; eating with your hands is frowned upon (but in many places it is not). Failing to follow social norms will make you stand out, but you will probably be left alone by most people, that is unless those norms are serious taboos.

What is a taboo? A taboo is a very strong prohibition of a particular action based on the belief that such behavior is either too sacred(only God or a god should do it) or too evil for a good human to participate in. These prohibitions are occur in all human societies and some animal species.

“Here, by the grace of God and an inside straight, we have a personality untouched by the psychotic taboos of our tribe - and you want to turn him into a carbon copy of every fourth-rate conformist in this frightened land! Why don't you go whole hog? Get him a brief case and make him carry it wherever he goes - make him feel shame if he doesn't have it.”
― Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land

Social norms rise to the level of taboo are considered fundamental to social system's identity, they go beyond just table manners and social etiquette. Marriage ceremonies, breeding or sexual practices, what foods that can be eaten, hygiene and even peeing and pooping, plus the treatment of the dead are all areas where acting outside the cultural norm risks breaking a cultural taboo.

Taboo behavior can be considered to be very offensive and/or embarrassing. A taboo breaker can become a town's black sheep, but the offender can suffer public humiliation, imprisonment, and even death when a taboo is broken.

Why do taboos within a society develop anyway? Why are certain behaviors deemed wrong?
Because certain behavior disrupt society's order. Abstaining from behaviors considered wrong(taboos) protects social constructs. Society exists to maintain order, much like a family unit, and taboos threaten that order.

What are some examples of cultural taboos? Here is a fairly benign list of a few around the world:

Taboos and Manners

  • In Vietnam, point with your whole hand, not just one finger.
  • In South Korea, stay quiet on public transportation. Noisiness is considered very rude.
  • In India, you are expected to refuse your host’s first offer of a drink or snack. You will be asked again!
  • In Germany, use utensils, not your fingers, to eat—even with foods like pizza and fries. The one exception is bread. It can be eaten with your fingers.
  • In Afghanistan and throughout the Muslim world, eat your food with your right hand, not your left. The left hand is reserved for bathroom hygiene so using it for eating is considered unclean.
  • In Indonesia, while eating, keep both hands on the table at all times.
  • As a dinner guest in Kenya or Germany, finish everything on your plate, or the host will be offended and think you didn’t like the food.
  • In China, if you clean your plate, the host will be offended because it is a sign that you didn’t get enough food. Likewise, in Afghanistan and India, leave a little food on your plate when you are full because an empty plate will be filled again!
  • If you are invited to a Danish home, be punctual!
  • In Kazakstan, you will be served tea, but only half of a cup. A full cup is a sign that the host wants you to leave! Later in the meal, when you have had enough tea (or broth), turn your cup over to show that you are finished.
  • A superstition in Azerbaijan is that spilled salt means you are about to quarrel. Sprinkle sugar on the salt to counter this.
  • In Kuwait, when the host stands, the meal is over.
  • In India, do not wink or whistle in public.
  • In Vietnam, do not touch someone’s head or shoulder. Also do not pass things over someone’s head.
  • In Brazil, avoid purple lipstick as it is associated with funerals. Purple is fine for clothing and accessories, though.
  • In numerous countries like Libya, Slovakia, and Norway, greet a colleague with a handshake. But in Russia, do not shake hands or conduct business over a threshold—step all the way in or out of the doorway.
  • In China, it is bad luck to let your date borrow your umbrella to go home. This is because the word for umbrella in Chinese sounds like the word for “to break apart.” Instead, take the time to walk your date, with your umbrella, to the door—a gesture that goes a long way in many cultures!
  • In Pakistan, arrive about 15 minutes after the scheduled start time of a meal, and up to one hour after the start time of a party.

    Taboos are generally agreed upon negative behaviors that are strongly discouraged and to be avoided. Culturally peoples morals and values are different, hence the variety of taboos. Thus, it is hard to agree on many universal taboos. Genocide, cannibalism, and incest taboos are considered the only taboos that might reach the level of universal condemnation.

    There are taboos on every subject that vary widely the world over. The common thread howeveris the quest for the knowledge of good and evil, right and wrong. (See the Garden.)This quest links people of all races and all ideologies in an attempt to protect themselves and create a morally just human race.

    ''In the high school halls
    In the shopping malls
    Conform or be cast out
    In the basement bars
    In the backs of cars
    Be cool or be cast out
    Any escape might help to smooth the unattractive truth...''

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