Why is the Number 4 Unlucky? Tetraphobia Definition & Examples

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Much like Western culture has its fear of the number 13, some Asian cultures have an even bigger phobia of the number four, any sequence of numbers with a four in it, or any number divisible by the number four. They take the number four very seriously and plan all their major moves involving numbers and dates accordingly.

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The number four runs deep in their death superstitions. Some people from East Asian countries take great measures to avoid the use of this number in every part of their lives from the apartment floor that they live on, their telephone numbers, and the numbers on their vehicle license plates. It is not known as just the fear of the number four, but also as tetraphobia.

What is Tetraphobia?

Tetraphobia is the fear of the number four. In Eastern Asian languages, they pronounce the number four the same way they pronounce the word for death. 

In Mandarin and Cantonese, the pronunciation of the number four sounds almost identical to the sound of the word for death. When used in combination with other numbers, pronunciation and meaning become more ominous. For example, the number 14, when said out loud, sounds exactly like the word for certain death. The number 24 translates into an easy death

If you're a person with tetraphobia, it probably doesn’t feel good driving around with a vehicle license tag that has you marked for either a certain or easy death. 

Japanese culture considers the number 49 to be especially unlucky. When pronounced, it sounds eerily like the phrase pain until death. No wonder that in East Asian cultures they do whatever they can to avoid the use of this number.  

In Mandarin, the number four is pronounced (). The word for death is pronounced () which is almost identical to the number four. In Japanese, the number four is pronounced as “shi,” and so is the word for death. With both pronunciations being so close to the other, the Japanese have found an alternate way of pronouncing the number four. Instead of shi, they sometimes say yon. However, yon is never a replacement for the word shi meaning death.

Many East Asian people tend to avoid the number altogether. They take great care so that there's no number four landing on dates of special occasions, and carefully plan out everything from anniversaries, business openings, and phone numbers.

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Examples of Tetraphobia from Around the World

Tetraphobia has worked its way into Asian cultures around the world. Examples of it can be seen in the way Asians do business, select their residences, and in how they plan for marriage.

If a number or date is deemed to be unfavorable, they will typically forgo moving ahead with any of their plans that fall on a particular date having a number four. They also won’t do business with someone who has included the number four in their business in any way. 

Architecture

In China, in the luxury apartment market that wealthy Chinese are known to gravitate towards, they look for apartment buildings that avoid the use of the number four in their numbering systems. Apartment building architects and designers go to great lengths to skip over numbering the 14th floor as such.

As an alternative, it’s typical to find the 14th floor labeled as 13B. Other floors that also get skipped over might include the 24th and 34th floors. Unlike here in the U.S., Asians have no superstition or aversion to the number 13, and they don’t regard it as an unlucky number as do most Americans.  

Addresses

Asians in Canada also have this fear of the number four. Cities such as Vancouver and Toronto have, in the past, made special accommodations to avoid the number in their local addresses. What began as a local accommodation for a few home builders and architects in Vancouver, ended up spiraling out of control.

As word spread of the local government’s approval for the elimination of the sequential order numbering system that included the number four, more and more home builders applied to skip over the number four. 

The effect of not numbering addresses, floors, and units in sequential order created confusion among emergency personnel such as firefighters, EMTs, and police officers. They were finding it increasingly more difficult to get to the correct addresses which resulted in losing precious response time in emergencies.

Firefighters, in particular, who have to respond to emergencies where visibility is low, were getting confused when trying to reach the correct floor. The water hoses they carried were sometimes too short to reach the affected unit because of the new numbering system. Sometimes, they were off in the needed length of their hoses by an entire ten floors.

In 2015, Vancouver banned the omission of certain floor numbers in any new high-rise real estate developments. The city of Toronto still allows the skipping of numbers in their addressing system but has also banned the use of the numbers 13 and 4 from any new housing construction and developments. 

Business dealings

Businesses in Asian societies are also affected by the use of the number four in some interesting and unexpected ways. Take, for example, the well-known companies Foursquare and the Four Seasons hotel chain. They both include the number four in their names which probably doesn’t bode well for them when doing business in Asia. 

One way to resolve this issue is to do culturally specific marketing. By changing their business name according to each market, they capture a segment of the population that might otherwise refuse to do business with them. This is an expensive alternative when it comes to marketing, but the alternative is to lose out on the potential Asian consumer market revenue altogether.

Vehicles

In Beijing, the traffic management bureau banned the issuance of license plates bearing the number four. This creates a problem of increased traffic on certain days that ban vehicle road traffic for vehicles that have a four on their license plates.

Since so few license plates remain with a number four on them, this means there are more vehicles on the road on days when fours are banned from travel.

Consumerism

Places like China, Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, and Malaysia all have the same anxieties when it comes to the number four. Tetraphobia is a real fear that affects everything from housing to consumerism in the marketplace. 

Purchasing habits in Asian societies remain much influenced by consumers’ tetraphobia.  For example:

  • Nokia chose to skip the number four when developing their series of mobile phones, going from 3xxx to 5xxx, and even some models skip the number four in subsequent editions. 
  • China banned the purchase and use of elevators bearing the number 4, even when purchasing real estate in places like Australia.

Other ways tetraphobia shows up

  • Phone numbers. Chinese avoid the use of the number four alone or in combination with other numbers that change the meaning of the number’s meaning. For example, the number 94 translates to being dead for a long time.
  • Military. China, South Korea, and Taiwan avoid numbering their military aircraft and vehicles with the number four.
  • Weddings. Tables with the number four are skipped over.
  • Holidays. People avoid saying the number four out loud when a loved one is sick or dying.
  • Tipping. Avoid tipping any amount with the number four or divisible by four.

Examples of Tetraphobia in Popular Culture

Tetraphobia also shows up in pop culture around the world. Most of the time it is referenced in subtle ways that if you’re unfamiliar with the phobia, you wouldn’t be able to recognize its use. 

Manga and anime

  • The popular manga and anime character Guido Mista from JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is known to suffer from tetraphobia. His fear of the number four has been popularized as a meme in anime circles and is used to provoke or offend others. 

Music

  • Coldplay. In their album Viva La Vida, which is Coldplay’s fourth album, their fourth track is called 42 and references death, ghosts, and the afterlife. It’s also four minutes in length. 

Literature

  • Harry Potter. The author of the popular book series has a personal dislike of the number 4. She purposely settled on an address for Harry’s abusive foster parents to include the number four in it because of the number’s unpleasant ring to it. The number four also comes up in the series at significant bridges from one story plot to the other relating to death, resurrection, and followed by a more permanent death of certain characters in the fourth book in the series. 
  • House of Leaves. This book’s details places four locks on doors leading to scary parts of the house used in the storyline. There are four people in each team of people who explore the house. There are four members of the protagonist’s nuclear family. And, there are four exploration videos contained in the story.

Film

  • Diamonds are Forever. This James Bond movie shows a character pushing an incinerator button labeled with the number 4. 
  • 4:44: Last Day on Earth. References the last day on Earth with the end time being 4:44 AM.

Tetraphobia as a Way of Life

Tetraphobia is very much a way of life in some Asian cultures much more than the fear of the number 13 affects life in Western culture. Some East Asians will go to great lengths to avoid bumping into the number four or any combination bearing this number.

Whether the fear is real or not, it’s deeply embedded in their culture. Huge international companies and local governments alike concede that the inclusion of the number four in Asian cultures spells doom. 


Sources

  1. The Economist. “Tetraphobia -- Nothing to Fear.” The Economist Group Limited. December 5, 2015. www.economist.com/the-americas/2015/12/05/nothing-to-fear
  2. Paris, Alyssa. "Tetraphobia and Doing Business in Asia." Acclaro, 28 December 2014, www.acclaro.com/translation-localization-blog/tetraphobia-and-doing-business-in-asia-252
  3. "China Stops Issuing License Plates with 'Unlucky' Number 4." Times of India, 20 October 2010, timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/mad-mad-world/China-stops-issuing-license-plates-with-unlucky-number-4/articleshow/6780656.cms
  4. “What happened to levels four and 14? Why the Chinese word for 'death' is causing entire FLOORS to disappear from new high-rises in Australia.” The Daily Mail, 7 March 2016, www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3481168/New-Sydney-apartment-building-deliberately-left-floors-number-four-sounds-similar-death-Chinese.html.
  5. “JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure.” Pop Culture Reference.” 1996, knowyourmeme.com/memes/mistas-tetraphobia
  6. “Harry Potter.” Literature, TV Tropes, tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Literature/HarryPotter.
  7. “House of Leaves.” Literature, TV Tropes, tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Literature/HouseOfLeaves.
  8. “List of Nokia Products.” Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Nokia_products.

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