The Bizarre World of Cultural Taboos: Facts and Customs

The Bizarre World of Cultural Taboos: Facts and Customs

A taboo, by definition, refers to a social or religious custom that prohibits particular actions, objects, words, or people. Taboos exist in every culture, varying widely from one to the next. What may be considered normal in one society can be outrageously inappropriate in another. This fascinating and bizarre element of culture forms the foundation of societal norms, demonstrating the diversity of human belief systems. Here we explore some of the most unusual taboos from around the world.

Avoiding the Number 13 in Western Cultures

In many Western societies, the number 13 is often associated with bad luck. This superstition is so deeply ingrained in these cultures that it has affected infrastructure—many buildings do not have a 13th floor, and some airlines even skip a row 13 on their planes. The origins of this taboo are somewhat unclear, with different legends attributing it to everything from the Last Supper in Christian tradition to the Viking mythology.

Chewing Gum in Singapore

One of the most well-known taboos in modern society is Singapore's chewing gum ban. Since 1992, the sale and import of chewing gum has been strictly prohibited within the main city-state. The ban was instituted in an effort to maintain cleanliness and hygiene within the public spaces.

Imbalance of Compliments in Nigeria

Often in Western cultures, compliments are met with gratitude; however, in some parts of Nigeria, returning a compliment with another compliment may be seen as a sign of pride. Compliments are generally preferred to remain one-sided.

Giving Clocks as Gifts in Chinese Tradition

In China, giving a clock as a gift is generally viewed as a sign of ill-wishing. The Chinese word for "clock" resembles the term for "end" or "death," making the gift of a clock an omen of mortality. Hence, if you're gifting your Chinese friends, make sure to not wrap a clock.

Thumbs Up Gesture in Middle Eastern Cultures

In many western societies, 'thumbs up' is seen as a friendly gesture indicating approval or good luck. However, in several Middle Eastern cultures, this gesture can be interpreted as vulgar and offensive.

Walking Under A Ladder in the UK

Pedestrians in the UK avoid walking under a ladder, not only because of potential falling hazards but also due to deeply-grounded superstitious beliefs associated with bad luck.


Taboos, fascinating as they are, mirror the human's fears, supersitions and moral standards which vary greatly globally. Sensitivity to taboos is critical when interacting with individuals from different cultural backgrounds as what may seem harmless in your culture could potentially be a grave insult in theirs. It's a testimony to the fact that 'one man’s meat is indeed another man’s poison'.