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10 Cultural Do’s and Taboos: Chatting Around the World

by Janine Boylan on March 4, 2013

surprised girl, illustrating cultural taboos in conversation

It’s a good idea to know cultural taboos before you speak!
© Thinkstock

Hot (and Not So Hot) Topics

There are certain things you just shouldn’t talk about.

I’ve had a few Oh, I see moments around this—what is a culturally taboo topic in one place may not be in another. And, on the flip side, what is acceptable in one country, may be taboo in another. Sometimes it’s not until you’ve made the mistake that you learn the rules.

  • In some countries, including the United States, Indonesia, and Sierra Leone, asking adults about their age is generally considered taboo. In Vietnam, however, it is an important inquiry. The way you address someone older than you is different from how you address people younger than you.
  • “Are you married?” is a harmless question most places, but, in Afghanistan, it is considered rude to ask a woman this question.
  • Politics, religion, economic and social issues? Many avoid these topics when first meeting someone. In Nigeria, people love to discuss these topics and more—and strangers will join right in conversations to share their opinions.
  • Have a good joke? In places like Venezuela and Uganda, simple jokes are welcome. But if you are a man meeting a Yemeni woman in a business situation, jokes will not only fall flat, but they may also be seen as inappropriate and strain the meeting.
  • In many places like Taiwan, Sudan, and Syria, asking about one’s family is a welcome topic, but, in rural Thailand, it should be avoided until the speakers are well-acquainted.
  • Discussing one’s weight is considered appropriate in Ecuador; in the Democratic Republic of Congo being overweight is a sign of good health and mentioning it can be considered a compliment. Don’t try this in the United States.
  • Calling people by their names without their permission is offensive in Cambodia.
  • In Costa Rica, avoid talking about investments, money, or the market.
  • “How much do you make?” is considered a rude question in countries like Croatia, Germany, and the United States; in China and Ecuador, it is a normal topic of conversation.
  • In Thailand, it is actually against the law to criticize the royal family.

So how do you avoid cultural taboos when chatting around the world?

It’s always safe to talk about the weather!

The Centre for Intercultural Learning has a long list of cultural conversation do’s and taboos, sortable by country.

Kwintessential has a guide to culture, customs, and etiquette, presented by country. 

VIA Adam Wooten, Deseret News

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