Facebook: Finding global trends in family superstitions

I was on the BBC World Service over the weekend, sharing listener reactions about our Korean fan death story.

The reaction we got to the story on Facebook was incredible — not just in terms of volume, but the portrait it painted of cultural fears and anxieties in different parts of the world.

The original Global Nation story, by Kyung Jin Lee, was about the “fan death” phenomenon, based around the belief that leaving a fan on at night will kill you in your sleep — either by suffocation (recycling the same stale air) or hypothermia (your body temperature would plummet). Needless to say, it’s just a superstition, but with strong enough cultural roots that most Korean fans have actual sleep timers on them.

Here’s what I gathered from the response, both on the Facebook pages of both the BBC World Service and The World:

  • There was a sense of joy that this superstition was expressed on a global stage. Dozens emphasized with Lee’s experience and shared similar stories of living with the superstition.
  • On The World’s Facebook page, we saw the superstition resonate with Korean immigrants in the United States. We also saw people from Japan say their culture held the same “fan death” belief.
  • My favorite threads were the people that shared their opinions about fans in general (apparently, a lot of people feel strongly about still air), and lots of fans took the opportunity to boast about their fearless use of fans at overnight.

But above all, the comments on these posts showed different global trends of cultural fears. Here are a few:

  • West and Central Africa, India: If someone walks or jumps across you when you’re sitting or lying down, your growth will be stunted.
  • Sweden: Spit three times if a black cat is crossing the road.
  • West Africa: If you whistle in the night, you are inviting evil spirits into your home; If someone sweeps your feet with a broom you will never marry; if a mirror falls from your hand, it means one of your grandparents will die soon.
  • United States: If you eat the crust of your sandwiches, you will get curly hair.
  • Global: Don’t swallow fruit seeds — if you do, a tree will grow in your stomach and out through your mouth. Also: Itchy palms means you will soon get money.

I also saw that a lot of these “superstitions” seemed suspiciously like parents trying to get their kids to eat their dinners. Here are a few:

  • Turkey: If you don’t finish your rice pilaf, you would have as many kids as pieces left on your plate.
  • Germany: If you drink ice cold milk with hot potato pancakes, the mixture of cold milk and hot grease would give you ulcers.
  • Nigeria: Don’t eat with a big spoon, or your mouth will widen.

Listen to my interview for a few of my favorites. I also share a few superstitions of my own.

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