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Nonverbal Taboos: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 Nonverbal Taboos
  • 1:34 Clothing Taboos
  • 2:40 Action Taboos
  • 3:40 Expression Taboos
  • 4:50 Gesture Taboos
  • 6:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, explore the ways that nonverbal taboos can influence communication and discover some common examples. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Nonverbal Taboos

Don't do that. Why not? Because it's not polite. In the world of communication, some things are simply rude. Call someone a name? That's mean. Make a sarcastic comment? Rude. Laugh when someone trips on a banana peel? Okay, well, that sounds kinda funny, but most likely would be seen as impolite.

Something that evokes a breach of good manners is called a taboo and every culture has 'em. In terms of communication, taboos can actually be broken by more than just what you say aloud. Nonverbal communication, or the communicating of information without speaking, is something we are constantly doing, whether we're aware of it or not. We roll our eyes, cross our arms, look distracted. These communicate something about ourselves, something that other people pick up on. More than half of communication is nonverbal, so of course some of the most important social no-no's don't require you to say anything wrong; you just have to do something wrong.

Breaking a taboo can be a minor annoyance or a serious offense, and it can result in people rolling their eyes or chasing you out of town on a rail. It all depends on how seriously a culture feels about that taboo. This is why it's important to understand cultures before you visit them, but not today. Today, we are going to travel the world breaking nonverbal taboos. In other words, get it out of your system now before traveling for real.

Clothing Taboos

One of the first things many people notice about you is your clothing. This is true in most cultures and there are several taboos involved in what not to wear. And here we are in sunny Italy. Ah, bella Roma, home of a thousand gorgeous cathedrals and some of the greatest art in the world. Want to go see? Well, ya can't. Sorry, but those exposed shoulders, shorts and sandals mean that you aren't allowed in the cathedral; exposed legs are traditionally offensive in church.

Taboos are based in cultural values, which mean that not only are they often different everywhere you go, they also change over time. And through the magic on traveling with a virtual tour group, we've now arrived in ancient China, just in time for a wedding! But whatever you do, don't wear white. White was the color of clothing used for funerals; black was the color for weddings. This changed over time, and in modern China white wedding dresses are common, largely thanks to Western influence.

Action Taboos

Wearing the wrong things sends strong nonverbal messages that you either don't belong or don't care enough to respect the cultural values of other people. Well, guess what? Your actions can do this, too! Manners are almost always tied to how we behave in public.

And with that, we have arrived in Morocco, just in time for the religious festival of Ramadan! And you're still immodestly dressed in a place where religious values dictate covering your body. Well now you're being really rude. Why? Because you are eating in public during Ramadan. Do you know one of the ways Ramadan is celebrated in Morocco? By fasting. Yes, while the people of Morocco are fasting in observance of a religious holiday, you are eating in public, which is a taboo and seen as very rude. Just because the people of Morocco are too polite to kick you out, doesn't mean they're not offended. Keep that in mind.

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