March 01, 2014

Taboos and Our Writing by Sandi Somers

Taboos. Restricted actions. Words not spoken. Questions not asked. Topics hidden from others.

Taboos can be individual, family or societal. They can arise from religion, superstition or folklore. Socioeconomics, class, gender and other world views can conceal landmines.

Our topic this month invites us to consider taboos and the implications of writing about them.

Because I I encountered cultural taboos while teaching English as a Second Language, I have focused my writing in this area.

Innocent in One Culture, Taboo in Another

Why is this student so hostile? I wondered. He kept his eyes focused on his notebook. When he spoke to me, he furtively glanced over his glasses, and then quickly lowered his eyes. I thought he had a gruff appearance, with his scraggy beard and hair awry. I was distinctly uncomfortable.

Later he told me that in his country, making eye contact with people of superiority was a sign of immodesty and rudeness. As a newcomer to Canada, however, he was trying to adjust to our direct communication, but was finding it difficult.

What I had interpreted as hostility was a man struggling to overcome a cultural taboo, yet open enough to discuss his intentions. I had responded by judging him from my own cultural perspective.

Cultural Landmines

This was only one cross-cultural landmine I experienced in teaching ESL, and I knew I would step on others. Like blowing my nose in front of the class when I had a cold, a taboo to my Korean students. Or demonstrating how we show strength as I grabbed the crook of my elbow, raised my fist and flexed my biceps, very vulgar in Afghanistan.

Students also stepped on landmines. A new Costa Rican male student, accustomed to hugging friends, greeted a Muslim woman classmate with a hug. She was absolutely horrified, as Muslim women and men acquaintances do not touch in public.

My Chinese students had difficulty when they tried pronouncing our “th” sounds—sounds which require us to stick out our tongues—rude, they said, in their culture.

Students were shocked to learn that burping after a meal in some cultures is a sign of satisfaction, and the louder the belch, the more they enjoyed the meal.

My Koreans would leave any uneaten food when eating in a restaurant. When they discovered Canadians could take home the leftovers, they quickly adapted and asked for a “doggie bag” (after I explained what a “doggie bag” was).

Some students said that showing the bottoms of your feet is an outright insult, because the foot is the dirtiest part of the body. Sitting sit cross-legged or tucking your legs underneath you is appropriate.

To Understand Each Other

Through these experiences, God was calling called me to understand and respect my students and their world views.

But more, my students themselves were gaining a larger framework to understand both Canadians and immigrants of other countries as we discussed different perspectives and world views.

We cannot know all the cultural landmines on our pathway or on the pathways of our immigrant friends. But if we have an open mind, a compassionate attitude and a prayerful heart, God will provide opportunities for us to understand each other.

We will begin to love cross-culturally if we cross cultures in a meaningful way.


  1. It almost seems that those who take ESL classes with a teacher willing to include exposing the cultural taboos have an advantage over those of us who think our way is the only way.

    Your post is reminding me that we don't all start from the same foundation. In God's eyes we are all the same. Our love for one another needs to be unconditional. But oh, the differences! That's where I need to curb my judgment, do a bit of research, ask questions.

    Great post, Sandi.

  2. What a wonderful article. I met many cultures when my daughter taught ELS here in Canada. It's too bad we don't accept the cultural taboos of other countries when we visit then. I'm guilty, I never research to find out about their culture before I go.

  3. Sandi,
    I have lived overseas in a few countries and taught students of many other cultures so I totally relate to this post. It is so true that before we judge others we should, "walk a mile in their moccasins" in beginning to understand where they are coming from. Plus, I learned a LOT about myself and my own culture through their eyes. I LOVE the way God has made each of us unique and yet always beautiful in His eyes. Yes, let's love more and judge less. Thanks for sharing.

  4. I enjoyed reading this post. Your first example about eye contact is even part of some First Nation cultures here in Canada. It just goes to show that we can't take things for granted.

  5. Sandi,
    What a wonderful post. For us now to watch and see and discuss so we don't commit as many faux pas as we might if we didn't know.
    THanks so much.
    As I travel to Poland this summer for the 5th time on a mission trip I will try to be even more aware of what I say and how I act.

  6. Sandi, I smiled and nodded as I read your post. Growing up as a "missionary kid" made me very sensitive to people around me. I learned very quickly to keep my mouth shut and my eyes wide open :)
    When my sister and I lived with my grandparents one year I found out about taboos again. I was used to eating with my fork and knife like the British do. However, my grandmother told me it was "rude" to use my knife for anything besides cutting my meat.
    Taboos take on a whole other meaning in the context of church practices. Hmmm maybe that's what I'll write about this month.

  7. I have taught ESL and enjoyed it too, but this was back in the late 70s. I think since then there has been a growing awareness of cultural differences. I was overwhelmed by what some of my students, then referred to as "the boat people," which may now seem like a cultural slur, had endured to get out of their respective Asian countries and come to Canada.

    Loved your thoughts on this, Sandi.

  8. What an interesting post. How wonderful it is to learn of other cultural ways. Communication is so much more than words. Thanks for an interesting read, Sandi.

  9. Thanks for the interesting post, when my daughter lived in a Kenyan village she was mortified that I might dress like a prostitute -by wearing capri length pants hidden beneath my two acceptable layers of skirt. So many variations of acceptability.

  10. I so enjoyed your thoughts,Sandra , as I too am teaching EAL. I have found that sharing my faith with them is not accepted the same way as it would be by native speakers so I am always learning to be sensitive to them and their world view. What a challenge!


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