Taboos and cross-cultural communication

Jimmy B. Foster, P.E.
Director of Public Works
City of Plano, Texas

In a cross-cultural setting, good communication requires more than good language skills. It also requires knowledge of the culture and cultural rules that may be very different from those of the visitor. Culture has been defined by Stephen Grunlan and Marvin Mayers as "the learned and shared attitudes, values, and ways of behaving." Knowledge of these cultural rules is essential to successful relationship building in an international setting.

Taboos are subject to the environment—the context in which the communication is taking place. In many cases, visitors to a foreign country realize the existence of these cultural rules only after they have violated them. Those who do not observe these cultural rules may face embarrassment to themselves or their hosts. The consequences can be severe.

"Taboo" is a borrowed word from Tongan, a Polynesian language. For most of us, it refers to forbidden or discouraged behaviors, both verbal and non-verbal. Taboos are established because people believe that such inappropriateness will bring harmful consequences to them because this non-verbal or verbal behavior violates the moral code of the society.

Taboos exist in all levels of a society. The members of that society are psychologically and physically trained and shaped by the community to observe these cultural rules closely (recall the earlier definition of "culture"). For example, Westerners wear black for a funeral and white for a wedding. But in the ancient Chinese weddings, a white dress was not allowed to be worn because white was for a funeral. Therefore, all individuals involved had to wear black formal costumes. Later, the color changed to red. Now under Western influence, white is an accepted formal color for brides and sometimes for bridegrooms, too; although it is the author's experience that red is still the preferred color.

To many Chinese people, a fan is a forbidden present because it has the identical sound as the Chinese word for "separation." If a person gives a fan to his or her friend, their friendship will stop or diminish from that time. Therefore, it has become a taboo to give friends a fan in Chinese society.

In every language there seem to be certain words of such strong emotional connotation that they cannot be used in polite discourse. In Western, Asian and African cultures, the fear of death carries over into fear of the words having to do with death. Have you ever heard or used any substitute words for "died" or "death"? Expressions such as "passed away," "went to his reward" or "departed" may be a part of your vocabulary. People generally like to hear words that bless one's good health and long life or metaphors that generate positive descriptions of one's personality and appearance. However, because of different cultural backgrounds, an expression in one country can cause a quite different effect in another.

Do you ever travel overseas on business? Do you entertain overseas visitors to your city, county, or business? If so, you must be sensitive to the cultural differences that exist. To succeed in your efforts at international business you must do the following:

  1. Keep an open mind.
  2. Take the time to communicate, to understand, and to be empathetic to your international partner.
  3. Accept that other people are different.
  4. Recognize that one side is neither better nor worse than the other.
  5. Learn your respective strengths and weaknesses.
Several internationally focused programs will be presented at the 2002 APWA International Public Works Congress and Exposition. Two of them are sponsored by the APWA International Affairs Committee and the APWA Diversity Committee:
  1. "Exploring Cultural Taboos Around The Globe: The Do's and Don'ts of Building International Relationships"; and
  2. "Round Houses, Ships on Dry Land, and Chorus Line Cultivating: The Experiences of APWA Members in International Settings."
Don't miss them! Learn how to be a better cross-cultural manager.

To reach Jimmy Foster, call (972) 769-4128 or send e-mail to

APWA Diversity Resource Guide

"The American Public Works Association recognizes, appreciates and fosters the synergy, which is created when the work environment values the differences in individuals and practices inclusiveness and open communication."

Were you aware that APWA has a diversity statement? Were you aware that diversity does not mean affirmative action? Were you aware that the APWA Diversity Committee has a Diversity Resource Guide filled with tips and creative ideas on how to make sure your chapter is addressing the diversity issue?

Because we have run out of the hard copies of the guide, it is now available for download from the APWA website on the Members Only page, or go to the Board of Directors page and click on Board Committees and then Diversity Committee. This is a free resource guide for our chapters and members. We can either embrace/celebrate diversity and use it to APWA's benefit or we can fail to recognize the world's demographic future and lose out on valuable resources and contributions to the association. Make sure your chapter is doing its part. (The guide has also been identified as a resource for talking with your own children about diversity issues!) Contact Kaye Sullivan, APWA Deputy Executive Director, at if you have questions.