The word taboo originates from a mealtime in 1777 when British explorer James Cook invited a Tongan tribe to sit down with him and enjoy the food. The tribe refused, telling Cook it was ‘tabu’ for them to do so. A startled Cook, probably feeling a little taken aback, asked what tabu meant, and after a little time with some help from the tribesmen, he found out it meant something that was forbidden, inviolable, or even cursed. Today we all live with our own cultural taboos. For example, the average American is not likely to make a steak out of his dearly departed grandmother, but for the Korowai tribe in Western New Guinea, consuming the carcass of the deceased is not a social faux pas; it’s a rite. Today we are going to explore our cultural differences in this episode of the Infographics Show, Taboos Around the World.
Let’s start by traveling to the USA and looking at a controversial taboo that persists today. Having an intimate relationship with our own family member is seen as an immutable no-no in just about every culture, not only because we deem it unethical, but also because the offspring of such a relationship is at risk of being genetically flawed. In the USA, one famous incestuous relationship happened quite recently, and that was with The Mamas and Papas band leader John Phillips. He started having an intimate relationship with his own daughter, Mackenzie. This was quite a shock when the story came out in 2009, especially as his daughter told the press she had aborted his baby. In most US states that would be a crime punishable with a prison sentence, although in New Jersey an incestuous relationship is legal. Marriage for the couple is not. Speaking of genetic flaws, the author of ‘On the Origin of Species,’ Charles Darwin, married his first cousin. They had ten kids together, and three of them died very young. In the UK, incest is illegal, but only for close family. What Darwin did then would be legal today in the UK.
Staying in America for a moment we know that when the index finger is pointed at someone it is almost universally seen as rude, and that’s probably due to the export of Hollywood films. Outside of the USA it’s more complex. In Asia holding up the forefinger and index finger with the palm turned inwards is seen as a sign of cuteness, but in the UK it’s liable to get you into a fight. This is because it was the sign English archers of the past showed to their French rivals to prove they still had the two fingers. The French would cut them off if they captured the archers so they couldn’t use them again to pull the string on the archer’s bow. The sign now in the UK is the equivalent of giving the middle finger in the U.S.. In most parts of Asia don’t point at anyone as it’s seen as impolite, while a thumb-up gesture in Israel, where hitching rides is common, is offensive. It’s the same throughout much of the Middle East. Imagine giving the finger to every car that passes you.
Let’s now look more at Asia, where taboos are perhaps more prevalent. In some parts of Asia pointing at the soles of your feet at someone is seen as extreme rudeness, and could easily get you into trouble. This is also true in Russia as well as parts of the Middle East. That’s why when George W. Bush almost took a shoe to the head from an angry Iraqi journalist it was more symbolic than it was an act of violence; the shoe was a dirty weapon aimed at the highest and most esteemed point of the body. In countries such as Thailand and China putting your feet up on a chair, and certainly any place near to where someone might put their head, is seen as very disrespectful. The foot in most of Asia is viewed as dirty, and the head is seen as sacred. If you are planning to travel to Asia bear this mind, lest you rankle the locals.
Ok, so the rude American may have upset his Asian host with his filthy big feet, but what about the noise that guy makes when he eats! Most cultures accept that eating quietly with your mouth closed is just plain good etiquette if you are older than 3 years old. Not so much in China, where eating at a restaurant can sound like a chorus of cows chomping down on wet grass. Well, to the Chinese the sound emitting from your mouth is a sign of how much you appreciate the food. It’s like saying that’s delicious without the words. The Chinese slurp and the Filipinos often smack their lips. If it bothers you, just remember someone is having a good time.
In Asia how you eat, what you wear, your body language, and even how you write has to be taken into consideration. In parts of Asia be careful when you write something down for someone as writing in red ink is seen as a curse. This is because in some Asian cultures red ink was reserved for messages applying to the deceased. Filling in an official form in red, maybe even an arrival card, in countries such as Taiwan, Korea, Japan or Thailand, is seen as bad form and perhaps a very bad omen. Red is reserved for the dead in an official environment.
As for what you eat, some Asians chow down on animals that are strictly taboo foods in the west.
While cannibalism is downright taboo pretty much everywhere in the world, there are certain animals cultures put on the table that cause outcries in the western media.. The most infamous is the consumption of dog meat, something it’s thought around 5 to 30% of South Koreans have done. According to one BBC story a bowl of dog soup will set you back about 10 dollars in South Korea. Dog is also eaten in China, Vietnam, Nigeria and Indonesia. In 2014 Newsweek reported “Hundreds of thousands of people in Switzerland eat cat and dog meat”, adding that it’s a specialty dish at Christmas. The French have a penchant for cooked horse, the Thais have been known to eat chicken embryos on a stick, and deep fried guinea pig as a specialty has moved from South America and is now eaten in the USA. For around 45 dollars you can try some at the Urubamba restaurant in New York. If cute rodent isn’t your thing, the restaurant also offers Veal Heart, Cow Foot Stew and rabbit.
Taboos don’t only relate to what you eat, but how you eat. In many western countries it’s polite to clean your plate of food, even if you are not so keen on the cuisine. Leaving food might mean you didn’t like it, and it’s also seen as being wasteful. Well, if you do that in China, India, or Afghanistan, one thing is going to happen. Your plate will be refilled. It’s seen as polite to always leave a little, and a bit greedy or expectant to clean your plate as it’s saying GIVE ME MORE. This has certainly led to situations in which polite westerners have made themselves almost sick by politely eating-up what’s offered, only for their guests to think they are absolute gluttons but obliged to fill the plate again.
Do some taboos carry across every culture? Insulting someone’s mother or father is taboo pretty much worldwide for obvious reasons, but in some cultures even mentioning parents in a negative light can get you into trouble, or even killed. In Russia a curse with a parent in it is seen as the worst thing you could possibly say. In Madagascar children belonging to the Antandory tribe are not even allowed to call their father by his name. In some Hindu families even the wives of husbands are not permitted to call the man by his name, although progressive Hindus see this as antiquated and patriarchal. Some westerners may find that strange, but in most western countries it’s taboo for children to be on first name terms with their parents. The curse mother+expletive is almost universal in language.
Surely public pooping is universally taboo? In developed nations yes, but the BBC reported in 2015 that open defecation in India was still a problem mostly due to the lack of toilets. French philosopher Michel de Montaigne upset his fellow high-brow intellectuals because he liked to discuss flatulence, aka passing gas, farting, cutting the cheese. He even wrote a treatise on farting and other bodily functions, once saying, “Kings and philosophers defecate, and so do ladies.” In spite of his entreaties to help make the human race comfortable with such bodily taboos, public farting doesn’t go down well in most cultures. Well, apparently if you are invited to eat in an Inuit household you can show your appreciation for the meal by letting one rip post-prandial. Even though we fart on average about 14 times a day, we are usually discreet about it. Not so much for the Yanomami tribe in South America, who are said to fart as a greeting.
Taboo or not taboo, that is the question. We might do well to remember that our way of living is not the right way, but a way. Montaigne believes we should be curious about our taboos, deconstruct them, and at times get over them. Then again, how would you feel if your granddad turned-up to Thanksgiving dinner with his new farting fiancé, who is actually his cousin, with a gift of dog and cat stew and an appetite for dinner destruction? Could you handle that? Let us know in the comments, and please tell us about any unusual taboos in your country.