Friday the 13th is only two days away. Are you superstitious?
Merriam-Webster.com says you are if you’re swayed by “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation.”
Perhaps because of the negative connotation of the definition, people seem to deny being superstitious. If you bring up enough examples however, they soon recognize that they have at a minimum followed some “traditions” that are actually superstitions. For example at weddings, rice is thrown for fertility, and tying cans to a car bumper is supposed to scare away evil spirits, and the list goes on.
One of the most common superstitions is knocking on wood. If you do so and you don’t believe in tree gods and the need to appease them, you are superstitious. Indeed, superstitions seem to hail from an era when strange rituals were thought to be able to influence the future. Whether your ancestors sacrificed a chicken or you wish on a wishbone, you are acting on superstitions.
We outgrow a lot of the superstitions we learned as children, or at least seriously question them. Case in point: I am still not unconvinced that my mom didn’t just tell me to hold my breath passing graveyards simply to keep me quiet on long road trips (as this was long before the advent of DVD players).
Even for the superstitions we don’t rationally believe as adults, some people just don’t want to tempt fate. In one notable study, 75 percent of participants refused to break a mirror even though they said they didn’t believe in the resulting seven years of bad luck. Similarly, when I heard that if you don’t make eye-contact when toasting it could mean seven years of bad sex, I made sure to look at toasters’ eyes (seven years is a long time).
In talking to people at the mall about their superstitions, I found positive ones (a horseshoe will bring you luck) negative ones (walking under a ladder) and downright ominous ones (a broken clock that suddenly chimes signals a death in the family).
People believe that your luck can change if you: put things in the wrong places (don’t put hats on a bed); in the right places (feng shui); use things improperly (don’t leave your chopsticks standing in a bowl of food); or use things properly (carry a four leaf clover).
Some superstitions are practical – there are a number of reasons why not to open an umbrella indoors. Some are not so practical, like if the bride is kissed by a chimney sweep on her wedding day it is good luck. (I have to wonder who came up with that last one, a drycleaner? A woman caught kissing a chimney sweep on her wedding day?)
Animals are often involved in cited superstitions. An elephant with its trunk up, or a rabbit’s foot is good news (except for the rabbit), while turtles can slow a business, or seeing an owl during the day can foreshadow death. Some animal-related superstitions seem instituted just to make people feel better about crappy occurrences: it’s good luck if a bird poops on you (pun intended), or if you find a spider on your wedding dress it is especially lucky.
Some superstitions are grounded in religion (Friday the 13th hails from Christianity), others come from language (the number ‘four’ sounds like ‘death’ in many Asian countries).
There are also beliefs only held by certain sub-cultures. Hockey players often don’t shave during the playoffs. Bingo players walk around their chair once to improve their luck. Theatre aficionados say “break a leg” and never utter Macbeth in a theatre. I’ve even heard of people that stopped being superstitious because they heard it was unlucky (yes, that’s a joke).
The Internet and globalization make superstitions even more exhausting, as things that are lucky in one country are unlucky in another (colours, animals, numbers, the day of the week to cut your nails, etc.). In a city like Las Vegas that preys on people thinking they are lucky, would there be any numbers left in the elevators if they catered to all visitors’ superstitions?
Since superstitions seem pervasive and they are propagated by word of mouth, I feel it is my duty to tell you (and for you to tell others) of a few that I have heard recently. It is very unlucky to not replace an empty toilet roll; or to leave odd or even numbers of globs of toothpaste in the sink.
On the flipside, men who clean the house and tell their women they are beautiful a lot typically get very lucky. Finally, it is extremely good luck to email columnists and their editors when you like their work and/or send them red envelopes containing dollar bills ending in zero.