40 Cultural Practices Deemed Strange Elsewhere in the World
Cultural differences can be as unique and wide-ranging as our beliefs and opinions. Though cultural norms are a binding social force, they are also an integral part of our development as individuals, teaching us to respect our own cultural practices and appreciate those of everyone else we meet in life. Though we may learn a lot in school, there’s so much to be said for getting out into the world (either in real life or via the internet) and learning about the customs of other cultures.
It’s fascinating to discover how certain symbols or animals can have a positive meaning for one culture while being demonized in others. We’ve all evolved in different environments, so let’s take a moment to explore some of the most fascinating cultural differences our diversity as a species has produced.
1. Denmark: The Cinnamon-Throwing Tradition
The trend in many western countries now is to stay single longer for practical reasons. Many young people want to be financially stable and focus on a career that may otherwise be stalled by the demands of family life. In Denmark, however, such a decision may see you subjected to a rather unpleasant tradition.
In Denmark, friends and family are liable to pounce on you if you make it to 25 years of age without getting married. They’ll then tie you to a post and throw cinnamon on you, from head to toe, using water or eggs to make it stick better. This prank seems incredibly dangerous!
2. Slovakia: Live Carp Swim in Bathtubs Before Christmas
Food preparations for the holidays in Slovakia start in the bathroom, where carp, a mainstay in Christmas celebrations, are allowed to swim for a couple of days or so to be cleansed of algae, dirt, and other detritus they may have eaten, being bottom feeders.
Don’t scream if you happen to be a guest in a Slovakian home and you see a bathtub full of fish. It’s not strange at all, as it’s a common cultural practice in their community.
3. Norway: Babies in Strollers Can Be Left Outside
This would be a cause for alarm in most countries, and a policeman would be summoned immediately to investigate why a child had been abandoned outdoors. In many countries, this would be deemed irresponsible behavior on the part of the parent or guardian.
However, this is a perfectly normal occurrence in Norway, where kidnapping is practically nonexistent. The children are well insulated against the cold in their strollers and safely snuggled in the fresh air.
4. UAE: Men Nose Kiss to Greet Friends
In countries like America, a nose kiss would be deemed a major invasion of personal space, with a hug or handshake being more widely accepted. However, nose kissing is how male friends greet each other in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), with hugging and cheek kisses thrown in for good measure.
They greet each other in this way as a show of pride and mutual respect, and this is often coupled with interjections to praise God. This makes a normal handshake seem rather bland in comparison!
5. Finland: Saunas Are a Common Feature Inside Homes Here
The Finns don’t install saunas in their homes merely as an extra feature. They can be costly features, and these amenities are often found in gyms, allowing you to enjoy their benefits at minimal expense. So, why do you find saunas in many homes in Finland?
Saunas are a necessity in Finnish homes not just for the physical health benefits, but also as a holy room in which to purify oneself and stay in touch with spirituality, improving overall well-being and peace of mind.
6. Ireland: Always Refuse Food from Your Friend’s Mother
The general rule when offered food in Ireland is to be shy about it instead of jumping at the offer. So, if visiting a friend’s home, it would be proper practice to be coy if the family offered you a seat at their dinner table.
Think of it like a little cat and mouse game that must be played before you finally accept their kind offer. By saying no a couple of times, you indicate that you understand the extra effort they’ll be putting in to accommodate you and showing that you care.
7. Australia: Flip-Flops Are Called Thongs
The weather in Australia is perfect for those who love the great outdoors, and that’s why many people travel to the country. With its adventure-rich terrain, unique climate, and fascinating wildlife, Australia is like a whole new world. The northern parts of the country are hot and humid, making flip-flops the footwear of choice. The thing is, Aussies don’t call them flip-flops.
Men, women, and children alike all wear “thongs” in Australia, but this term refers to footwear, not to the sexy underwear most Americans think of when they hear it! In Australia, such underwear is called a “G-string,” or if you really want to sound like a local, a “G-banger.”
8. Slovakia: Women Get Soaked for this Easter Tradition
To those who are not familiar with ancient Slovakian traditions, the idea of whipping a wet woman with willow sticks is not what you’d call a healthy preparation for the coming season of spring. Indeed, this tradition makes the unfamiliar cringe from the violence that seems to be wrapped up in it.
Nowadays, the whips are more like taps, and the women are supposed to thank the men by handing out dyed eggs in exchange for having buckets of water poured on them. It is meant to symbolize strength and youthfulness.
9. Argentina: University Graduates Are Hit with Eggs and Paint
Academic achievements are a great reason to celebrate, wherever you may be in the world. In countries like America, finishing a degree is a major challenge, filled with many financial and intellectual hurdles, but it’s necessary to enter certain fields, contribute to society, and become better citizens.
In Argentina, a simple celebration won’t do. Graduation plans will earn you a joyful visit from friends and family armed with paint, eggs, oil, and confetti. It’s their messy way of saying congratulations.
10. Russia: Dual Passports
In Russia, an internal passport makes it easier for authorities to identify people and track down criminals, just as it was historically used for migration control back in the eighteenth century. It contains verifiable data about each person, like proof of demographic data and citizenship.
Of course, most countries only have an international passport for those who plan to cross borders for travel. Russia’s internal passport is the same size as an international one, and as you can see from the picture above, they look quite similar.
11. Israel: Streets Are Empty on Yom Kippur
In the 21st century, it is almost inconceivable to find a city with not a single person on the streets. Even at the height of pandemic restrictions, there would always be someone off in the distance, going out for their daily exercise.
However, when the Sabbath of all Sabbaths (Yom Kippur) comes around, the streets of Israel go quiet for 25 hours as Jewish people repent for their sins while fasting and praying in synagogues.
12. Papua New Guinea: People With Blood-Red Mouths Are Common
Wandering across the streets as a first-time traveler in Papua New Guinea, don’t be surprised to see people smiling back at you with crimson teeth glimmering in their mouths. There’s no need to be afraid as there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation.
People in Papua New Guinea like to munch on betel nuts which they say are a rich energy source. The betel nut is chewy and tastes like a spicy mix of cinnamon, lime, and mustard bean. This treat is loved by locals of all ages.
13. Russia: Bears Ride Motorcycles
A real bear hopping on a motorcycle for a ride somewhere in Russia is way up there on the list of the most bizarre things one will ever see. It is strange, cute, and too incredible to take in all at once.
What is equally surprising is that it doesn’t pose a danger to anyone. Nor are any of its fellow commuters in the least bit bothered by its presence. To Russians, it’s just a bear casually going for a ride. There’s nothing much to see. However, this concept is shocking to the rest of the world.
14. Sweden: Personal Information is Easily Searchable
It seems that Swedes have very little to hide from each other and that transparency plays a major role in how they lead their lives. Throughout the world, public officials are generally expected to be open to scrutiny as a deterrent against corruption. However, in Sweden, everyone lives by the same rules.
Private individuals have no qualms with having information like their addresses, birthplace, and date of birth searchable via Google. It would only take a few clicks to learn about a person’s occupation and even what vehicle they drive.
15. United States: Ginormous Fast Food Serving Sizes
A 40-ounce cup of soda in America would look like a family-sized pitcher to consumers in other countries. Indeed, they often wonder why there’s no handle for sharing it out. However, in the US, it is common for such a drink to be consumed by only one person.
America is home to a vast ecosystem of fast-food chains, and citizens love having all kinds of sweetened beverages to go with their burgers and fries. The image above compares the largest drink size in Japan to the largest sizes available in the US.
16. Brazil: Their Way of Deterring Burglars
Brazil is famous for its street dancing and lively parties. These, along with its many white-sand beaches and unique landscapes make it a hot spot for tourism. However, residents will tell you that the country also has its problems, and a high crime rate is one of them.
Glass shards are installed to keep burglars from scaling the walls and entering private property. In a country with a crime rate that ranks in the top three worldwide, such measures are understandable.
17. Switzerland: They Translate Everything in Multiple Languages
Switzerland owes its four national languages to its history of decentralization, being composed of the country’s 26 cantons, which essentially makes it a federation. The languages are German, Italian, French, and Rhaeto-Romance, and then there are dialects within these. Travelers don’t have to worry since not even every Swiss person can speak all those languages and dialects. Also, English is widely spoken throughout the country.
Starting a business in Switzerland can be cumbersome in the text translation department. When explaining or preparing printouts for distribution, it is necessary to have translations available in the four national languages.
18. Iran: Handheld Bidets Are Common
A very small percentage of Americans have bidets in their toilets. It just isn’t a fixture that looks like it will catch on in the US. However, when it comes to handheld bidets (also known as “bum guns” or “private jets”), many countries in Southeast Asia and the Middle East are ahead of the curve.
Bidets are environment-friendly, allowing you to do away with toilet paper which is known to cause irritation. This makes it easier for people to get extra clean, prevent the spread of bacteria, and help the environment at the same time.
19. United States: The Pledge of Allegiance Looks Strange to Outsiders
Students in the United States recite the Pledge of Allegiance every morning in school, mindlessly performing the ritual before the flag. Some mumble the words and many don’t really understand the meaning of what they’re saying.
Some outsiders feel this exercise is an example of bigotry and nativism. They assume it must feel awkward to be forced to pledge allegiance or be expelled from school. Such a concept seems antithetical to the freedom Americans value.
20. Sweden: They Put Snow to Good Use
Sweden is blanketed in snow during winter. Outside, everything looks practically the same, and many people are forced to stay at home for long periods, watching the trees’ branches bow under the weight of the snow.
The Swedes have learned to utilize this natural resource by chilling their beverages outside in winter. This means more refrigerator space is available, but it also means you have to brave the outside world every time you want a drink!
21. United Kingdom: Uses Two Systems of Measurement
Most countries have chosen to use the metric system because it is more accurate and easier to convert due to its being based on decimals. The imperial system is, by contrast, full of oddities. Instead of completely shifting to be more efficient, the UK has chosen to use both systems of measurement, which can be confusing.
If you are a foreigner on vacation in the UK, a converter app is a good idea when shopping as it will allow you to translate from one system to the other with ease.
22. Philippines: Eating with Bare Hands
A peek inside the kitchen of a typical Filipino household reveals the usual set of plates and utensils, just like any house elsewhere in the world. However, those knives, forks, and spoons aren’t always used.
Filipinos love to eat with their hands, especially when together with friends and family, finding it most comfortable when sharing meals. Many confess the practice is reminiscent of their younger years, evoking a sense of warmth and camaraderie.
23. Switzerland: Pure Democracy
From the outside looking in, people are in awe at how Switzerland’s pure democracy works. Its citizens have a direct say on policy formulation, and they are allowed to vote on issues large and small, suggesting changes from the municipal level and up.
This is unlike almost all other democratic governments in the world that conduct their business through elected representatives, who in turn vote on behalf of their constituents. Pure democracies are difficult to implement with larger populations. Among other challenges, people have to vote far more often and must be more informed.
24. Asia: Masks Were Common Pre-Pandemic
Since the start of the pandemic, people around the world have gradually grown accustomed to the use of face masks. This measure has been implemented out of necessity, and we have to admit that it’s not easy and can be quite uncomfortable.
In Hong Kong and many countries in Asia, this has already been a common practice for years. Asians use masks when they’re feeling under the weather, when they have no time for makeup, and for protection against pollution.
25. United States: The Inordinate Cost of US Healthcare
One of the ironies of living in a superpower nation is that many Americans do not feel like first-class citizens when it comes to their healthcare system. The pricing is astronomical and only seems to keep rising each year.
This means that saving your life could be tantamount to digging an endless hole of debt. Family earnings that took years to save could be wiped out in a flash to compensate for the country’s lack of industry regulation.
26. Afghanistan: Friends Hold Hands
Since boys are separated from girls growing up, unlike in western countries, they learn to share their affection with their friends. This can seem strange to people from cultures in which there is no gender segregation. Afghani men often hold hands in public as a sign of warm friendship.
This gesture doesn’t mean what it does in other parts of the world. Afghan men can be very affectionate, embracing and kissing the cheeks of their friends in public. This is done purely out of kinship and mutual respect for each other.
27. South Africa: Fortified Homes
Gated communities in South Africa are practically castles, complete with giant walls, windows overlaid with grills, razor wire, and other extreme fortifications. However, it’s hard to blame house owners for this standoffish position considering that the country has a very high crime rate.
A quick push at a gate could trigger an alarm system or a zap from an electric fence. The country’s inefficient criminal justice system and pervasive corruption have led to this situation. However, even if crime rates were low, homeowners would need to keep baboons, hyenas, and lions at bay!
28. United Kingdom: Tea as a Panacea
Despite the enormous popularity of coffee all over the world, tea remains unaffected as the top hot drink in the UK. Even children are accustomed to drinking tea, and the average Brit drinks at least two cups daily.
The Brits love its calming effect, so they have tea when they want to relax and when they want to get energized. Though this may sound contradictory, tea truly is a cure-all in the UK, and it is consumed both day and night.
29. Brazil: They're Fixated on Dental Hygiene
Expect Brazilians to excuse themselves after every meal for their regular oral hygiene routine. Not only are they fashion-conscious, but they also like to be very neat throughout the day. It’s not about being especially finicky. Rather, it’s just the way they’re used to doing things.
You can count on them to be invariably presentable, always caring to wash their hands or apply hand sanitizer. They are also known to shower at least twice daily.
30. United States: Prices Are Exclusive of Taxes
Heading down to the cashier’s counter, a tourist may think they’ve scored an incredible bargain in the US. However, they’re generally in for a sad surprise as price tags are exclusive of taxes and other charges.
If shopping on a tight budget, a calculator helps with computing the price. However, the taxes vary and could be as low as 2.9% and as high as 7.25%. It would be so much easier on shoppers if they just printed the real price on the tags.
31. The Netherlands: Can’t Get Enough of Bicycles
Riding a bicycle is the preferred mode of transportation in the Netherlands, especially in the capital of Amsterdam. The roads are more favorable to bikes, and this was deliberately planned as a way of avoiding car dependency.
Most trips around Amsterdam are also short, meaning people of all ages can cycle with ease. Indeed, cycling makes it quicker to get to most locations and as a bonus, it is also a healthier option.
32. Poland: People Avoid Small Talk
Social gatherings are often decorated with many pleasantries and talk of the weather and other banal topics. Though it can serve a positive purpose, this is just the type of talk that Polish people generally avoid.
Most Poles feel it’s a waste of time to wander through aimless conversation. Thus, when they ask you about your day, don’t take it as a generalized inquiry made out of formality. They really want to know how you are and expect an honest answer.
33. Japan: Fertility Parade
Japanese people are famous for their polite, gentle, and respectful demeanors and the beautiful traditions they uphold. However, in the first week of April, they celebrate a custom that is neither polite nor gentle. The Kanamara Matsuri festival is a lively celebration of all things fertility-related and phallic.
Though an important religious event, streets are annually filled with large chanting crowds surrounding giant phallic structures, offering praise and prayers for marital harmony and sexual fertility. Stalls along the sidewalks sell souvenirs, and people can be seen eating sweets designed to look like the male organ.
34. United States: Having Celebrity Presidents
Citizens from other nations have found it odd to witness an American reality star be voted in as the commander in chief. These two industries aren’t generally mixed, having only the concept of popularity in common. Yet many American actors and public personalities have turned to politics. Trump, Reagan, and Schwarzenegger have been the most successful so far.
This crossing of boundaries creates a world in which fiction and reality seem muddled, and this is highly unusual to other cultures where the two domains are kept well-defined and separate from each other.
35. New Zealand: Excluded from World Maps
New Zealand may be a small island nation, but that doesn’t mean it should be left off the map. Despite this, they have been excluded from so many maps, even those displayed on airport murals, that they even made an ad campaign about it.
In most cases, this error comes down to the map’s forced perspective which leads to some sizing issues and New Zealand being pushed off the edge. Still, this isn’t the 16th century – map makers need to get with the times and show some respect to this great nation!
36. United Kingdom: Waiter Mistakes Draw Applause
The recent rise of Karen memes demonstrates just how unforgiving people can be when employees get something wrong. Rather than remembering that we all make mistakes, some people choose to let loose and take their anger out on the poor staff member.
In the UK, by contrast, server errors often draw claps and cheers from people around. Though this seems like a form of mockery to people from other countries, the Brits actually mean well. It’s as if to say it’s no big deal – we all make mistakes!
37. Germany: It Pays to Recycle
To give people more reasons to pick up trash and keep their neighborhoods clean, the German government implemented a system in which people who recycle get paid. These quick, real-time transactions are done through a vending machine.
Germans just put their recycling in the hole and the machine sorts it and determines what you’re owed. The machines can take glass, some plastics, cans, and other items. This is a fun way to earn a little while doing good for Mother Earth. This money-back recycling method has gained popularity in other countries like the US and Norway as well.
38. Canada: Experiencing Sunless Winter Skies
Waking up early for work in the wintertime in Canada can be a struggle. Outside every home, the roads and the hills are covered in snow. Doors may need shoveling and windscreens de-icing. It is coldest in Eureka, with the average temperature hovering at around -15° Celsius (5° Fahrenheit).
Many are forced to stay at home due to the severity of the cold weather. Winter can last for three to six months, and it is advised to take vitamin D during the gloomy, sunless season.
39. Japan: Inverse Valentine's Day Celebration
Valentine’s Day is a big deal in Japan, especially for young adults. However, the onus of gift-giving is upon the girls who usually give chocolates to their crushes and their close friends.
Honmei-choco (homemade chocolate) is considered a more meaningful gift than the ready-made varieties found in shops. There are also chocolates called Giri-choco a girl can give to a male friend in whom she has no romantic interest. Boys give gifts in return during White Day on March 14.
40. United States: Restroom Stalls Aren’t Super Private
Foreign guests in America often find restroom stall designs unusual, with their doors and walls that don’t extend all the way to the ground. A user’s shoes and dropped trousers are visible, and this is disconcerting for many travelers who aren’t used to it.
The lower opening allows people to see if someone is in there without having to knock on the door. It also makes cleaning and maintenance easier. This is a functional design, but we can see why it’s disconcerting at first!