Interesting Cultural Traditions From Around The World

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Travel the world and you’ll quickly learn that people from different cultures do things…well, differently. You might assume that everyone drinks their milk from a jug or that nobody will mind if you open the window to enjoy a cool breeze on a warm day. However, cultural practices vary wildly—and depending on where you are, the locals might think that your “normal” is actually incredibly weird.

In a recent Reddit thread, users shared the most bizarre cultural norms from their countries. We looked into some of these strange practices and traditions, then researched them to find out if they’re really widespread—and how they started in the first place.  

Danish birthday traditions get pretty spicy.

And yes, we mean that literally.

“In Denmark, young unmarried Danes [are] taunted with the prospect of a life of singledom by being showered with spices on milestone birthdays,” jcbndrsn wrote. “When you’re 25 and still single, you’ll get covered in cinnamon. When it’s 30, it’s pepper.”

So, how did this get started? According to folklore, the tradition dates back to the 16th century or so. Danish spice salesmen would spend all of their time on the road, so they didn’t have much time for dating; many remained single through their later years, so they were known as Pebersvends. That basically means “pepper dudes,” per a piece in The Telegraph. Unmarried women are known as Pebermø, or “pepper maidens.”

By covering people with spices, Danes, yes, are effectively taunting them with the prospect of lifelong singledom. Some take the tradition further by tying the victim to a pole or mixing the spices with eggs (the latter practice is said to “help with adhesion”). Hey, there’s no better way to celebrate your birthday than getting your skin coated with salmonella, right?

While the tradition might sound like a harsh punishment, it’s played off as a casual prank—something that every Danish person goes through unless they’re fortunate enough to find love early. More importantly, it’s hilarious; a quick YouTube search yields dozens of videos of the strange practice, and they’re all pretty funny.

In Hungary, wedding traditions are…different from what we’re used to in the United States.

“At a [Hungarian] wedding, it’s normal for the bride who’s wearing white to disappear and return in a red dress,” wrote Andromeda321. “Then the wedding emcee says something on the lines of ‘there’s one less girl in the world, and one more woman,’ and then collects money in a hat. If you put money in the hat, you get to dance with the bride, and pretty much everyone in the wedding party will do so (usually the money goes toward the honeymoon, these days).”

That dance is called the menyasszonytánc, per Daily News Hungary. The “red dress” probably isn’t what you’re picturing; traditionally, it’s a red and white folk dress, and it’s not nearly the strangest part of the reception.

“It’s also a tradition—but not at all weddings—for one member of the wedding party to grab the bride and run away with her during said dancing in a mock bridal kidnapping,” wrote Andromeda321. “Then, the guy has to do various feats to win his bride back. It’s pretty fun to freak out Western Europeans when they learn stuff like this still happens in Europe.”

Mock bridal kidnappings are especially common in Romania, and some of them are pretty over the top. The “kidnappers” might grab the bride, throw her into the car, and take her to a top tourist spot in the city (the Arch of Triumph in Bucharest was reportedly the site of 20 fake kidnappings on one Saturday night, according to a write-up in the Daily Mail).

They’ll often wield fake weapons and “force” the woman to take pictures while she waits for her new husband to save her. The ransoms vary, but in some cases, all a husband has to do is declare his true love for his bride to get her back to the reception hall. In other cases, the husband must provide drinks for the kidnappers to pay for his wife.

The bride’s often involved in planning the whole scheme, so it doesn’t come as much of a surprise.

“Everything was staged and ready in my case,” 25-year-old bride Alisar Dragne told the Daily Mail of her abduction. “The limousine was waiting for me in front of the restaurant, I was given the ‘leave’ signal by my friends, and together we came here to have some fun. Now everyone’s thinking what ransom to ask the groom.”

No word on what happens if he doesn’t want her back—we’re sure that’s happened at some point.

Now, for a non-wedding factiod: Germans hate drafty rooms.

“If you work in an office here in Germany and open two windows to get a cool draft, a co-worker will close them angrily in the next few minutes, yelling angrily ‘Es zieht,’” wrote TheBassMeister. “A lot of Germans wrongly believe that a draft will give them all kind of sicknesses from a stiff neck to a common cold. There is, of course, no scientific proof that a draft is harmful.”

In case you’re wondering, “Es zieht” roughly translates to “There’s a draft!” Go figure.

Some Germans (colloquially known as Frostbeulen, the word for frostbite) are deathly afraid of light breezes. Even on crowded trains on hot summer days, passengers will resist the urge to open the windows out of fear that a draft will cause an outbreak of pneumonia.

That’s an apparent paradox because Germans also love fresh air. Each morning, they’ll “air out” their homes—only to close up all of the windows for the rest of the day.

“Modern German architecture generally works to prevent any natural ventilation by creating many closed-off units (rooms) with serious doors (that in Germanic culture remained closed),” wrote blogger HF for travel blog The German Way. “Although the German wonder known as the Kippfenster (tilting window) is ideal for allowing natural ventilation, that is usually confined to one room, and only if the air coming through the window is barely detectable.”

Those tilting windows have caught on in a lot of other countries, but in Germany, they’re rarely used all day.

“The windows are indeed there for opening, but you open the windows wide, but only for a few minutes,” wrote Reddit user unimatrix_0. “The Germans call it ‘Stosslüften,’ which translates roughly to ‘shock airing’ or ‘airing out in intense but brief spurts.’ This is a generally accepted practice, but ‘tilting’ the window so it remains open a bit over long periods causes prolonged drafts and thus … illness, don’t you know?”

Obviously, those practices can cause heat to build up over the course of the day. Per HF’s piece in The German Way, Germans also dislike air conditioning, so if you’re not a fan of hot rooms, you might want to stay away from the country in the summer.

“It defies real logic,” HF wrote. “Outdoor fresh air is good, but fresh air coming through a window is bad. How did our ancient ancestors go from living and surviving in drafty tents or huts to city-dwellers who can’t withstand a drafty window?”

“One answer: by age six, if not sooner, we humans have absorbed most of the basic tenets of our culture. German six-year-olds know about killer drafts, and nothing about ventilation. American six-year-olds know about ventilation and nothing about killer drafts. That’s why an American will never really grasp the Germanic killer-draft concept, any more than a German will ever truly grasp the concept of a good draft—[also known as] ‘a nice breeze.’”

Slovakia has a strange Christmas tradition involving fish.

In many Eastern European countries, you might find a fish in your bathtub in the days leading up to Christmas. You didn’t think that you’d read that sentence today, did you?

“A few days before Christmas, we buy a live carp (fish) and fill our bathtubs with water and let it swim around for a day or two before killing and filleting it for Xmas dinner,” wrote svehlic25. “We do this because carp are bottom feeders, and it helps to clean [the fish] out. That’s what I’ve been told, at least.”

As NPR reports, the tradition is based on a misconception; while carp are bottom feeders, they would need to stay in the bathtub for much longer in order to truly clean their digestive tracts (try not to think about that for too long). There’s another problem with the practice: Some people end up getting too attached to the fish, so they end up freeing the carp before Christmas dinner arrives.

School of fish
Sebastian Pena Lambarri on Unsplash

Of course, some people have fewer reservations about their bathroom carp. Typically, the father of the family will take the carp out of the bathtub, then behead it; because carp are strong fish, they sometimes need to be stunned with a hit from a heavy mallet. Yeah, it’s not exactly a wonderful fate for the Christmas carp, but hey, it’s a tradition.

It also brings up an obvious question, which another Redditor posed later in the thread.

“I was aghast at this [tradition] and asked my Polish husband about it,” wrote truecrime_and_cheese. “He just said, ‘Oh yeah, totally normal.’” I asked, ‘What if you want to take a shower?’ His response: ‘No shower. Just fish.’”

We can’t really argue with that logic.

Canadians drink milk from a bag.

Reddit user Marius_Nightfire brought up this strange practice (although, to be fair, milk from a carton is also pretty strange when you sit down and think about it).

Go to a Canadian grocer, and you’ll find big sacks of milk. Each container has a few milk “bladders” in it, also packaged in plastic; the buyer uses scissors to snip off a corner of the bladder. Then, they can pour the milk into a pitcher—or they can simply set the entire bag in the pitcher and pour from there.

Mental Floss looked into this practice and found that it’s closely tied to Canada’s adoption of the metric system. In the 1960s, the country officially adopted metric standards, and manufacturing plants realized that their milk containers would have to be drastically resized as a result. It was much easier to pack the milk into plastic bags, which could be resized easily.

There was another benefit: The bags produced much less plastic waste than the jugs that Americans use. They were also fairly easy to store—if you’re out of space in your refrigerator, simply separate the milk bladders and slide them in horizontally.

Today, you can find bagged milk throughout Canada and some parts of Europe. You can also get a fresh bag of milk in northern Wisconsin, Minnesota, and other border states, provided that you know where to look. Just be careful; apparently, it takes some time to learn how to pour milk out of a bag correctly, but once you get past the learning curve, you can enjoy your bagged milk with confidence.

In Japan, everyone goes through an annual medical checkup.

The results of those checkups aren’t exactly private.

“I moved to Japan a few years ago, and one of the things that surprised me was the annual health checkup,” wrote emperorjammy. “The actual checkup itself was all fine and efficient, almost like a production line where you are shuttled from one station to the next (as are about 20 other people at the same time).”

”The part that shocked me was that the results were not sent to me directly but to my company [and] boss. Going into work and having the boss say, ‘Jammy, you should go get your kidneys examined further’ was quite upsetting in an inexplicable way. Instead of being an individual, I was now a machine [that] got a service, and the company wanted to make sure I was still capable of running. My co-workers all said it was normal.”

It is, in fact, normal. Typically, Japanese medical checkups take about a half day, per a post on Japan Today. Non-Japanese workers often feel that the process is intrusive, but to Japanese people—many of whom have undergone the checkups since middle school—they’re just a normal part of life.

Another strange aspect of this practice: Physicians assign letter grades—A through F—to patients. After you undergo your checkup, you’ll essentially receive a report card (as will your employer). The tests typically include a chest x-ray, urine test, blood pressure check, blood tests, and measurements of girth, height, and weight. 

The checkups are completely free, and while foreigners often worry about facing discrimination from their employers as a result of their health conditions, there’s little they can do to opt out. Still, some expatriates say that the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.  

“The Japanese annual health check system, even as it stands, would be considered a luxury in many places around the world, and I am grateful to have access to it,” wrote Jessica Korteman, Australian travel writer, for the blog Notes of Nomads.

In Norway, you can easily figure out what your coworkers are making.

“[What’s normal in my country is] being able to check how much anyone gets paid,” wrote IqouLe, who lives in Norway.

There, the tax records are public. That means you can quickly find salary information for friends, family, co-workers, public figures, or anyone else with a few quick clicks.

That’s nothing new, as Norway has allowed taxpayers to consult paper records since the early 19th century. However, Norway set up an online tax database in 2001, and it quickly became a source of entertainment for the country’s citizens.

“At one stage, you would automatically be told what your friends had earned, simply by logging on to [social media],” Tom Staavi, a former economics editor at the Norwegian newspaper VG, told the BBC in 2017. “It was getting ridiculous.”

Staavi explained that the system is important because Norwegian taxes are relatively high; people pay about 40.2 percent of their income on average. For comparison, Americans paid an average of 29.8 percent in taxes in 2017 (including federal taxes, state and local taxes, Social Security, and Medicare). If you’re paying that much for your government, it makes sense to make the information public.

“When you pay that much, you have to know that everyone else is doing it,” Staavi said, “and you have to know that the money goes to something reasonable.”

In 2014, the Norwegian government implemented an important change: If you check on someone’s taxes using the online database, they’ll receive a notification that includes your personal information. They’ll know that you checked, which could result in some awkwardness around the water cooler. The Norwegian media, however, can consult the database without sending out a notification, so they can publicize tax records without incurring any sort of penalty.

The new notification system has helped to limit public use of the lookup system.

“Since 2014 it has been possible to find out who has been doing searches on your information,” Hans Christian Holte, the head of Norway’s tax authority, told the BBC. “We saw a significant drop to about a 10th of the volume that was before. I think it has taken out the Peeping Tom mentality.”

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