Over the top antics are great for pop icons and provocateurs. But if you want to be a rock star in the intercultural world, you need to be mindful of cultural taboos.
What is a taboo and why should you care?
The word taboo comes from the Polynesian word tabu (also spelled tapu), and is generally defined as a prohibition against a particular activity. Usually rooted in moral or cultural beliefs, a social taboo tells people what’s proper behavior and what’s not.
A taboo is a big no-no. Think “verboten”, “forbidden” and “not allowed”.
Taboos are important because they help us get along. Without these rules and prohibitions, we’d just be a planet of 7 million individuals doing whatever we wanted.
What happens if you break a taboo?
At the very least, breaking a taboo can result in some awkward moments.
Remember when George W. Bush gave Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, a neck rub?
Bush’s impropriety didn’t exactly earn him any brownie points for statesmanship.
And Representative Joe “You Lie!” Wilson didn’t fare much better when he dissed Barack Obama during the 2009 State of the Union address.
Sometimes, people mutually agree to flaunt the rules. And that’s when you end up with a movement (did somebody say “Free Love”?) or even a revolution (Arab Spring, anyone?)
What about taboos in other cultures?
When it comes to cross-cultural dialogue, you need to be taboo-savvy.
Do the wrong thing and you risk looking like a fool at best. Or like an insensitive rube at worst.
The trick is to learn what’s taboo and then make sure not to do that. “When in Rome…,” as the saying goes.
Sounds simple, right?
Except for one thing: There are 200 countries in the world and countless cultures, each with their own taboos.
Here’s a list of cultural taboos from around the globe:
Never leave a pair of chopsticks sticking upright in a bowl of rice. (Japan)
Never use your left hand to eat, wave, point or shake hands. (India, Nepal and other Muslim countries)
Don’t use your forefinger to point. (China and many other Asian countries)
Don’t point the soles of your shoes (or bottom of feet) at anyone. (Middle Eastern countries)
Where do taboos come from?
Dig back far enough in a culture’s history and you’ll likely find a logical explanation for some taboos.
The prohibition against eating with your left hand—that’s about personal hygiene.
Other taboos—like the one about the chopsticks—can seem silly. Unless you happen to be Japanese or have intimate knowledge of Japanese culture.
And even then you might not be able to explain the chopsticks taboo.
That’s because we’re culturally conditioned to follow the rules but we often don’t know why.
Ask someone about a taboo, and you’ll probably hear “I don’t know” or “That’s just the way we do it here” or “Just because.”
How can you learn about taboos in other cultures?
Here are three ideas to help you get a handle on taboos:
1. Do your homework. It’s impossible to learn all the taboos, so break them down into chunks and focus on the “do’s”. Learn the proper way to greet someone, or read up on suitable topics for small talk, for example. Or try this interactive culture quiz.
2. Watch and learn. Not sure what to do in a particular situation? Mimic what your host is doing. And smile a lot. Trust me, a friendly smile and a genuine desire to show respect can often make up for any cultural missteps you might make.
3. Get a grip on your gestures. Do you talk with your hands a lot? Beware of using gestures that may have different, even offensive meanings in other countries. For example, forming the “okay” sign with your thumb and index finger is fine in the U.S. but in other countries that gesture means something completely different.
Try these suggestions and be mindful of cultural taboos.
Why? Because I said so.