A taboo is an action that is frowned upon and considered inappropriate to practice or even talk about within a cultural group. A synonym of taboo is prohibition.
The word taboo stems from the Tongan word tabu or tapu, which roughly translates to ‘forbidden’. Captain James Cook learned about taboos on his 18th Century exploratory trips through the pacific and brought the term back to England.
While some taboos are legally enforceable, others are simply considered to be poor taste. In fact, most taboos are enforced not by governments but by subtle social signals that demonstrate disapproval of taboo behaviors.
This makes taboo very difficult for new immigrants to a society. They have to learn taboos that are often not explicitly taught or discussed, making it difficult to know what is and is not considered appropriate within their new society.
The 3 Types of Taboos
There are 3 Types of Taboos: cultural, religious, and food.
- Cultural Taboos – A cultural taboo is something that is considered inappropriate to do or discuss within a specific cultural or sub-cultural group. Cultures such as the Tongans, French, Brazilians, and Native Americans all have their own taboos. So, too, do Americans.
- Religious Taboos – A religious taboo is something forbidden by a religion. Many actions and thoughts are banned by sacred religious texts such as the Torah, Old Testament, and Quran.
- Food Taboos – A Food taboo is a restriction on what foods are considered appropriate to eat, as well as appropriate ways to eat foods. This can also apply to drinks. Some food taboos are enforced by religions and cultures.
Cultural, religious and food taboos are not mutually exclusive. Some cultural taboos get their cues from religions that are dominant within a cultural group. Similarly, food taboos are enforced in many religious texts.
Below, I’ll provide examples of each type of taboo.
Cultural Taboos (List)
A cultural taboo is something that is considered inappropriate within a cultural group. While this overlaps with religious taboos, some cultures are governed more by cultural norms than religious norms. For example, western culture has a diversity of religions, but a unified set of cultural taboos.
Examples of Cultural Taboos
- Failure to Tip at a Restaurant (USA) – While tipping is not considered customary in nations like New Zealand and Australia, it is considered highly rude in the United States of America.
- Pointing at Someone’s Chest (Global) – Many nations around the world accept general pointing. However, pointing directly at someone (particularly their chest) is considered rude and provocative.
- Showing Someone the Bottom of your Feet (Asia & Middle-East) – Many nations in Asia and the Middle East find the bottom of feet (or even pointing with the foot) to be highly offensive.
- Eye Contact with Authorities (Aboriginal Australian) – While eye contact is encouraged as a sign of active listening in the west, Aboriginal Australian cultures often consider this to be a sign of defiance.
- Swearing (Worldwide) – Most languages have curse words that are considered inappropriate. Curse words are considered taboo in business and formal settings. Cursing in private with friends may be more normalized, depending on the friendship group.
- Standing too Close Together (Western Nations) – Personal space is highly prized in many Western nations. Walking too close to others or standing too close together in conversation can be considered excessively intimate or an invasion of personal space.
- Burping and Flatulence (Worldwide) – Burping and flatulence are considered inappropriate in nearly all social settings in most nations.
- Discussing your Wealth or Income (UK) – Discussing your wealth and income is particularly frowned upon in Britain, but also in many other nations.
- Discussing your Sex Life (Worldwide) – Across the world, it’s generally considered taboo to talk about who you’re having sex with, what you do, and how often.
- Eye Contact with the Opposite Sex (Arab Cultures) – Making eye contact in Western cultures is seen as a sign of respect and honesty. And while this can be true in many Arab cultures as well, excessive eye contact between men and women is also considered to be flirtatious in some circumstances.
- Leaving the Office Before your Boss (Japan) – Japan is famous for its tiring corporate culture. For lower-ranking employees, leaving the office before your boss is taboo and may harm your promotion prospects. (Interestingly, my sister in Sydney Australia says she feels this pressure, too!)
- Asking a Woman’s Age (Western World) – In Western cultures, youth is prized, and some women feel uncomfortable about getting older. So, asking them their age may come across as highly offensive.
- Being late for an Appointment (Germany & Singapore) – Being punctual to appointments is very important to several cultures, while somewhat less important to others (such as Mexico). If you’re late, call ahead to avoid offending your counterparts.
- Talking Back to or Questioning Authority Figures (Conservativism) – As a general rule, the more conservative the culture, the less you are allowed to question authorities. This spans nations, but some nations like Korea strictly frown upon questioning of authority figures such as teachers.
- Bartering for Price (Some Western Transactions) – Bartering for price is very common in some cultures, while less common in more developed economies. Bartering for price on personally made white-glove goods is often frowned upon, while bartering for second-hand trinkets is more common.
- Couples Disagreeing in Public (Worldwide) – While all couples argue and disagree, most of the world expects couples to hold a united front when in public situations. This may have a gendered component in some more conservative cultures where the man may feel shame if their wife questions them publicly.
- Refusing a Gift (Worldwide) – Gifts should be received gracefully in most cultures. Telling someone you don’t like the gift or would like to exchange it at a store can offend the person who picked out the gift for you.
- Men Wearing a Dress (Western Cultures) – Gendered clothing exists in most cultures. A man wearing a dress will get many sideways glances in the West, while dress-like traditional clothing in some other cultures is expected. One Western exception is Scotland where traditional Kilts. More recently, blurring of gender norms has seen more Gen Z men wearing dresses.
- Photographing Strangers (Worldwide) – Taking a photo of a stranger without their permission is considered an invasion of privacy and may even be against the law in some circumstances. If people are identifiable in the background of your pictures, it’s polite to blur their faces before sharing the images.
- Yawning in Public (Worldwide) – Yawning is considered rude because it makes you look bored of a conversation (and may also look gross!).
- Bribery (Worldwide) – While some cultures (particularly in Latin America) have widespread issues around bribery of public officials and police officers, it still remains taboo to talk about even within those countries.
- Theft (Worldwide) – Theft is not only taboo but also illegal worldwide.
- Sexist and Racist Jokes (Worldwide) – Sexism and racism are generally considered taboo worldwide. Increasingly in the Western world, we see even comedians being frowned upon for the use of politically incorrect jokes that were widely made in comedy sets just decades ago.
- Public Displays of Affection (Worldwide) – Public displays of affection between couples are considered poor taste, particularly in more conservative cultural groups. While ‘free love’ and public affection are more common in Western Europe and Latin America, conservative areas of America and the Middle East frown upon hand-holding and kissing in public.
- Putting your Hands in your Pockets – Depending on the situation, having your hands in your pockets can be seen as too relaxed. When around people you are doing business with or important people, try to keep your hands out of your pockets. When conversing with friends, putting your hands in your pockets is okay because it’s a relaxed atmosphere.
- Wearing Shorts (Morocco) – In some cultures, like Morocco, men are generally expected to wear long pants even in the heat of summer. While you can get away with wearing shorts generally, it is considered to be too relaxed when out in public.
- Showing your Shoulders (Many Arab Countries) – Similarly, women are generally expected to dress conservatively in many Arab countries. Western female travelers to Morocco often wear shawls over their shoulders to be respectful to their host culture.
- Head Touching (Some Asian Cultures) – In many cultures, the head is considered a sacred spot of the body. (In fact, this is why so many religions cover the top of their head). eDiplomat suggests Singapore is one country where you should not touch the head of a child.
- Wearing Shoes Indoors (Most of the World) – While Anglo cultures such as Ireland, the UK, the USA, and Australia tend not to be strict about this policy, the rest of the world tends to remove shoes before entering the home. If you enter someone’s home with shoes on, it’s considered poor form.
- Spitting – In many cities, it’s illegal to spit. Interestingly, this is rarely enforced around the world by police. Nevertheless, spitting in public is frowned upon by most people, so it is more enforced culturally than legally around the world.
- Public Nudity – Being naked in public is, by and large, very shocking and taboo. If you’re seen walking around naked just about anywhere in the world, expect people to walk in the other direction, and the police to show up!
- Polygamy – While polygamy has historically been accepted by many religions, it’s become taboo in most modern cultures.
Religious Taboos (List)
A religious taboo is something that is banned by a religion. They usually stem from the religion’s founding documents (such as the Bible, Torah, or Quran) and include rules designed to protect civil behavior and hygiene.
In Islam, things that are banned are called ‘Haram’. Similarly, in Judaism, ‘Kosher’ guidelines dictate how food should be prepared.
Examples of Religious Taboos
- Working on the Sabbath – In Exodus 35:2, Jews and some Christians are warned that “you shall have a Sabbath of solemn rest”. Generally, we accept that this means you should not do any work on one day of worship per week (usually either Saturday or Sunday).
- Homosexuality – Several of the major religions have rules against homosexuality.
- Abortion – Most religions continue to forbid abortion.
- Adultery – Prohibition of adultery is one of the ten commandments. People who commit adultery usually keep it a secret because their actions are taboo.
- Bestiality – Bestiality is taboo in all religions that I know of!
- Eating Pork – Pork is banned in Judaism and Islam.
- Displaying your Hair as a Female – Some branches of Islam continue to consider female hair to be taboo. Women cover their hair with hijabs, niqabs, burkas, chadors, and khimars to cover their hair.
- Birth Control – The Catholic church continues to forbid birth control for practicing Catholics.
- Premarital Sex – Most religions ban premarital sex.
- Interfaith Marriage – Some strict religious adherents ban interfaith marriage. People who marry Catholics often have to consent for the child to be raised Catholic.
- Celebrating Birthdays – The Jehovah Witness religion forbids celebrating birthdays because of the pagan origins of this practice.
- Menstruation – Some religions exclude women from many activities during menstruation. For example, Leviticus 15:19-30 considers women to be unclean during this period of the month.
Food Taboos (List)
A food taboo is something forbidden or considered inappropriate in relation to food, drink and eating. They are often dictated by religious or cultural beliefs about what is okay and what is not okay.
Examples of Food and Drink Taboos
- Eating Horse or Dog (Western Countries) – While eating a horse or dog might occur in parts of China, Western countries consider them to be off-limits. In fact, there are rules in many parts of the world banning the eating of animals that are considered protected pet species.
- Placing your Elbows on the Table (Western Countries) – Placing your elbows on the table is seen as poor manners in Western nations. According to Southern Living, ‘no elbows on the table’ is an old-fashioned rule designed to prevent the outbreak of fights. Today, we continue to adhere to this largely redundant politeness.
- Drinking Alcohol (Conservative Arabic Nations) – While alcohol is celebrated in most of Europe, some conservative Arabic nations consider it to be a morally questionable activity. This likely stems directly from Islamic beliefs.
- Taking Drugs (Worldwide) – Nearly all countries in the world ban drugs that are not medicinal.
- Chewing with your Mouth Open (Worldwide) – This is taboo that is mostly enforced socially. It’s not illegal, of course! But, chewing with your mouth open doesn’t look very nice, so we teach our children to chew with those lips together!
- Halal – Halal relates to many regulations in Islam (including tourism and personal hygiene). But, it is most commonly associated with the appropriate preparation of food that is consistent with rules set out in the Quran. Halal meat needs to have been slaughtered following a set of religious laws.
- Kosher – Like Halal, Kosher is a set of rules about what Jewish people can and can’t eat, and how they can eat. For example, meat and dairy cannot be consumed together.
- Using a Fork instead of Chopsticks (Several Asian Nations) – Western tourists in some Asian nations are laughed at for the fact they cannot proficiently use chopsticks. Some people in Asia will choose not to use a knife and fork in a restaurant because it’s associated with lacking dexterity.
- Leaving Food on the Plate – If you leave food on the plate, it can be a sign that you did not like the meal. Check the country for the rules of that country!
- Not Leaving Food on the Plate – In contrast to the previous taboo, this one is the exact opposite! In some countries (like Paraguay), it’s best to leave some food on the plate to show that you are full and satisfied.
- Sitting at the Head of the Table – In formal settings, the head of the table is reserved for the host or boss. In a business meeting, the chair of the meeting will sit at the head of the table.
- Eating with your Fingers – In formal settings, eating with your fingers is considered very rude and low-class. However, in more working-class settings or for certain meals like pizza and wings, eating with your fingers is encouraged.
- Chewing Gum in Public – Chewing gum can be seen as low-class. It can also be associated with dirtiness because gum often ends up spat out on the streets.
- Talking Business at Dinner – When at a social dinner, talking about business is considered inappropriate. People want to enjoy their time eating and socializing rather than thinking about business.
- Discussing Politics at Dinner – Political discussions can get very heated if you all don’t agree. So, it’s generally considered inappropriate to bring up political matters at dinner. Without politics, people may feel more at ease around one another.
- Discussing Religion at Dinner – Like politics, religion causes a lot of disagreements. In many social situations, religion is seen as a topic that is off-limits. Discussing religion at work is similarly frowned upon in many situations in order to ensure an inclusive environment.
- Eating Before Everyone is at the Table – It is generally expected that you do not eat dinner until everyone has arrived at the table. If the host is serving the dinner, you should wait until the host has finished serving and is sitting with you at the table before you eat.
- Eating Before Everyone has their Food – At a restaurant, it is usually polite to wait until all the food has been served before you start eating. There are exceptions if the food will get cold fast. In these cases, you can often ask your dinner party if you can eat early so your food doesn’t get spoiled.
- Eating Before Saying Grace – This food taboo is also clearly a religious taboo. If you are eating with a very religious family, you should wait until the host says grace before you begin to eat.
- Offering to Split the Bill – While many cultures expect people to split the bill, some like Thailand generally expect the host to pay the bill. Offering to split the bill may offend.
- Not Offering to Split the Bill – Unfortunately, different cultures have different rules. Guests in some cultures customarily offer to split the bill, even if they expect the host to decline the offer. For example, on a first date, the woman may offer to split the bill while the man may insist it’s his treat.
Unfortunately, cultural, religious and food taboos are different around the world. While some are almost universal (like moral taboos like cheating and stealing), others are very specific to countries or regional cultural groups.
The best thing to do is to research in advance before you go somewhere so you know what the cultural etiquette rules will be before you arrive.