Cultural Curiosities: Taboos


What do you think when you hear the word ‘taboo’? The word alone conjures images. They vary greatly from person to person, but the impact is the same. We push back and think, “Oh, no, that I cannot do, or see, or say.” It’s the line we draw. Taboos are the socially or culturally imposed restrictions that often act as our compass. These steer us away from things we shouldn’t say, places we ought not to go, food we must avoid, and even inappropriate gestures. But have you ever wondered whether, if it is taboo to me, is it taboo to you, too?

A taboo is defined as “a social or religious custom prohibiting or forbidding discussion of a particular practice or forbidding association with a particular person, place, or thing” or something that is “prohibited or restricted by social custom.” Taboos can be found everywhere around the world and some may be more familiar than others. Here are a few:

Cultural/Religious Food Taboos

  • Orthodox Jews are forbidden to eat pork, as well as shellfish.
  • Muslims are also forbidden to eat pork.
  • Hindus consider it taboo to eat beef. This is not to say they worship cows, which is a common misconception. Rather the cow is revered as the source of food and symbol of life. Therefore, the cow should not be killed.
  • When dining in Japan, you must never place your chopsticks vertically in your bowl. Chopsticks placed vertically in a bowl signal an offering to the deceased. You must also take care not to point at someone with your chopsticks, as it is considered very rude and impolite.
  • And then there is cannibalism. Rare, but still practiced today, this is probably the greatest known food taboo. The reasons for cannibalism vary depending on tribe, region, ritual, and belief. In Varansi, India, for example, for the Aghori Babas, the greatest fear is of their own death. They believe it is the greatest fear of all people. This fear creates a barrier between them and spiritual enlightenment. And what better way to overcome one’s fear and achieve enlightenment, then by confronting it? The solution? Ritually consume the dead, thus breaking down the barrier.

Gesture Taboos

Every culture has assigned meanings to body language and gestures. Here, we have ‘the one-finger salute.’ You’ve seen it, maybe in rush hour traffic? (Not by you, of course!) We KNOW about that one. However, when traveling abroad there are some that we wouldn’t think twice about using, and you probably should. To us, these gestures seem innocent enough, but in other parts of the world, they are anything but innocent.

  • In the UK, raising two fingers in a “V” shape and palm inward means the same thing as raising our middle finger. So, if you want to shoot someone the peace sign, be sure to keep your palm facing outward!
  • In Asia, especially Thailand, never pat someone’s head or pass anything over a person’s head, especially that of an elder. A person’s head is deemed sacred. This is considered the ultimate insult.
  • In Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, the left hand has only one use: personal hygiene. Therefore, it is unclean to use it for any other purpose. That means you can never use your left hand to shake another person’s hand, write, or even eat. My sincere apologies to all the lefties out there.

Are any of these taboo for you? Cultural curiosities remind us that what is true for us, may not be true for others, and our differences are fascinating! Never before have we had such exposure to cultures different from our own, and we believe our lives are richer for it.