Learning about cultural taboos

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Did you know that it’s taboo in Arab countries to show the soles of your feet in public? Pointing or showing one’s foot is offensive since Arabs consider the feet as the dirtiest body part. On the other hand, in Malaysia, touching someone’s head is taboo. It’s disrespectful because they believe that the head is the most scared part of the body so it’s not supposed to be touched.

Cultural taboos are boundaries that shape the way people behave within a particular society. These can cover many aspects of life. There are taboos regarding food, religion, and social customs.

Understanding cultural taboos is essential as they play a significant role in our social interactions in a multicultural society like Canada. It is important for fostering mutual respect and avoiding unintentional offense. When we respect these unspoken rules, we strengthen connections with people from different backgrounds. It promotes harmony and ultimately fosters a more inclusive society.

What exactly are taboos?

Taboos are the unwritten rules that guide individuals on what is considered appropriate and what is frowned upon within a cultural group.

It is a type of norm. Norms are unwritten rules of behaviour shared by members of a group or society. This is why some taboos can be hard to know. Individuals belonging to the same culture instinctively know them as these are taught by their parents or society.

Another difficult aspect of this norm is that a taboo in one culture can be acceptable (or is the norm) in another. For example, slurping food is taboo in Western countries but is accepted, even expected, in some Asian countries. Meanwhile, making eye contact is respectful in Western countries but is considered disrespectful in some Asian cultures.

This is why developing cultural sensitivity is essential in our increasingly globalized world. It’s important to observe, be curious, and ask questions. Respect is also key when dealing with taboos. Many taboos will not make sense to an outsider. This does not make it okay to disregard them and be disrespectful.

Some cultural taboos in Canada

  1. Being late

    Punctuality is highly valued and expected in Canada. Just like in other low-context cultures, Canadians regard time as fixed, meaning that time that has passed will not come again. This is why time is considered precious. Arriving late to appointments or social gatherings is considered disrespectful. Read the guide What’s the big deal about being on time? Why do you need to be punctual in Canada? to learn more about the cultural concept of time.

  2. Being loud and aggressive

    You already know that Canadians value polite and reserved behavior. Being excessively loud or aggressive can be perceived as disrespectful. Courteous and diplomatic communication is expected in most settings. A good way to communicate effectively is to use “softeners” in your language. Here’s a great guide to learn more about Canadian communication: Speaking with kindness: 5 tips for effective communication.

  3. Talking about your health, religion, sex, money or politics

    Extremely personal topics are not welcome in general conversations. It’s extremely rude to ask about a person’s age, weight, salary, religion, or who they voted for. You are also not expected to share details about your sex life or ask others about theirs. So what do Canadians talk about? Great small talk topics include general subjects like the weather, sports, or travel.

  4. Personal space and privacy

    Being private extends to physical boundaries. Personal space and privacy, both within homes and in social settings, are integral parts of Canadian culture. Most prefer their homes to be sanctuaries, where individuals can retreat and enjoy a sense of solitude. Canadians also maintain a comfortable physical distance during conversations, respecting the need for personal space. Invading someone’s personal space is considered a breach of social etiquette. It would be safe to keep at least an arm’s length of distance when talking to someone.

  5. Equating Canadians with Americans

    Most Canadians do not appreciate being equated with Americans. Even if Canada and the United States share a border, assuming that Canadians are the same as Americans is offensive. Canadians have a distinct cultural identity. Acknowledging this uniqueness demonstrates respect for their heritage.

Can you share a taboo from your home country?
Sources: Manners and etiquette in Canada, Canada Guide; Taboo, Anthroholic; and 65 examples of taboos, Dr. Chris Drew. Accessed November 17, 2023.

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