Culture Question:

What are the taboos in Western countries?

(posted: Sep 2010)

What follows is a partial list. There are other ‘Do’s and Don’ts’ but these are some of the major ones. I will focus on North America and the UK as I address taboos.

Generally in North America it is taboo to ask someone their age, particularly a woman, as the culture values youth. On those same lines you should not ask someone what their weight is. It is okay to comment on someone losing weight (this would be considered a compliment), but it is not okay to comment on someone gaining weight.

Another area which is considered private and should not be asked about is salary. You can ask what someone’s job is and what their job title is, but it is considered impolite to ask how much they are paid.

Until you get to be close friends with someone you should also avoid asking them about their ‘love life’. There are people who like to talk about their romantic life and if someone brings up details about the affairs of her/his heart you can ask further questions, but tread carefully.

In addition, you should not diss (put down, speak badly about) someone’s home country. This is considered bad manners.

A taboo gesture in the West is sticking up your middle finger. This is considered very offensive; it is as though you have sworn at someone.

Do not give white lilies in Britain as they are associated with death there. Also in Britain, it is okay to be a few minutes late, but you mustn’t be early.

Body fluids are generally taboo in the West. Do not spit in public. Cover your mouth if you sneeze or cough. Chew with your mouth closed (so the partially chewed food and your saliva cannot be seen). Do not pick your nose in public. Flush the toilet after you have used it. And, for men, make sure your pee lands in the urinal or toilet. On a related note, try not to burp or fart in public.

Source:

  1. World Education Information. “Taboos in America”, 13-Mar-2009 (http://www.wei.moe.edu.cn/article.asp?articleid=4200) 30-Sep-2010

  2. Axtell, Roger, “Do’s and Taboos Around the World”. (http://www.wpelz.de/studpraes/taboos.pdf) 30-Sep-2010

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Further Reading:

What are some Cultural Taboos in America?
Do’s and Don’ts (Taboos) in England
Local Do’s and Taboos in London

For a look at more serious taboos:
What Are Some American Taboos?