The Cultural Anthropologist Visits His Friends

Sometimes Our Simple Joys Are Casualties to Our Awareness

Fascinating experience about a year back.

We visited a friend. He invited us to his house. We’d never been. The plan was to get together for dinner. We brought dessert (Susan makes killer desserts. The main course is often the vector to her dessert concoctions).

We arrived, rang the bell, the door opened, we were greeted. The dessert was put in the kitchen next to a big bowl of salad (talk about nutritional contrasts), our coats were taken (it was mid-March) and then…

And then our friend gave us a tour of their house.

A quick race up the stairs and “This is the guest room. This is the our bedroom. This is Virginia’s office. Here’s the upstairs bath.” Back down stairs. “This is the kitchen. This is the dining room. This is the living room.” Through a french door. “This is our deck. We’ll be dining here, tonight.” There was a chiminea, thank god for warmth (we planned to do some stargazing. I didn’t realize he meant during dinner). Quickly back through the french door and “Here’s the downstairs bathroom and that brings us back to the kitchen.”

How nice. We were almost out of breath.

But we weren’t done.

“And in the basement…”

We only came for a friendly dinner. We’re not here to purchase. What was this about?

The entire time our friend smiled. Virginia chuckled (we learned later she’d been through this before and had learned to enjoy the experience). It was an odd smile. Not happiness so much as joyful. Almost proud or prideful.

We were smiling and thoroughly confused.

Some three hours later, on our way home from a pleasant evening, Susan asked, “What was that about?”

The cultural anthropologist in me was already on the case. “I’m not sure. Some kind of tribal thing, I’m sure. I’ll ask when I think it’s appropriate.”

Now, something you need to know; if you’re Joseph’s friend, your actions, thoughts, words, statements, language, behaviors, … everything becomes storyfodder. Do something that intrigues me and I’m going to ask you questions about it.

Hence about three months ago, during lunch, “Bob, remember that first time we came over?” He nodded. “Was there a reason you gave us a tour of your house?”

Bob stared at me. “I gave you a tour of our house?” I described our first five minutes visiting. “Wow. I don’t even remember doing that.”

Do you do that for everybody that comes over?

“Not that I know of.”

(the cultural anthropologist loves a good mystery) Do you remember the first time you did it?

Pondering. “I do it for first time visitors. You know, to…”


“To show them the house.” He sat back in his chair, confused by his own behaviors. (ah! big clue and i’ll bet all the other cultural anthropologists in the audience know where this is heading) “Can you remember the first time you ever saw it done?”

He closed his eyes. His brow furrowed. I could see he was concentrating, digging through memories. “I remember when I was a kid – ”

“I’m guessing quite young. Maybe 3-4-5 years old?”

He experienced the joy by performing the how totally devoid of understanding the why.

“Yeah, that’s right. It was right after we’d moved into a new house. My parents had all our relatives come over – ”

“None of whom had their own homes, or lived in apartments or multi-families? Nobody had a single family home?”

He smiled. “Oh, hell no. We were immigrants. My folks were the first ones to have their own – ” and he burst out laughing.

My friend, when young and impressionable, learned a ritual without understanding the ceremony (cultural anthropologists are nodding in agreement). He saw the grownups smiling and laughing and so happy, congratulating his parents and telling him how lucky he and his sister were. He didn’t understand why they were doing it, only witnessed how it was done.

And as an adult, our friend reexperienced that joy by performing the how totally devoid of the why.

Lots of immigrants’ children of my generation know the rituals without understanding the ceremonies. We’ll use snippets of our parents’ language without understanding what we’re saying, only knowing it got a laugh or was a warning. Terms which I thought were of endearment I’ve learned are actually insults when spoken outside the family circle.

People often use expressions without understanding their original meaning, only the effect they have on the listener. A christian friend demonstrated the power in the name “Jesus Christ” by shouting that phrase while walking down a small town street. “See how many people turn, stop and stare? That’s because the name has power.”

No, that’s because you’re shouting it in a small social setting that’s based on western (judeo-christian) cultural paradigms. That same exercise in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Toronto, Vancouver, London, Paris, Rome, Buenos Aires, … gets hardly a notice. Same cultural paradigms, vastly different social setting. Ditto third world and aboriginal villages; different cultural paradigms.

Go to the same cultural paradigms but a different cultural setting and shout “Fire!” You get that “Jesus Christ” effect. Different cultural paradigms and shout the name of their tribal diety, again you get that “Jesus Christ” effect.

The ceremony – using a culturally recognized significant object to gain attention – has different rituals based on where that ceremony is performed. Another example is the marriage ritual, incorrectly (by anthropological standards) called a ceremony. The ceremony is the bonding of two individuals for immediate and future mutual benefit. The rituals vary according to race, religion, creed, belief systems, et cetera.

Note that the ceremony is for two individuals. Sexual identities are irrelevant. Sexual identities only become relevant if we’re talking about mating rituals. Lots of ancient marriage ceremonies are now little more than mating rituals and the participants have forgotten the ceremony’s original purpose.

In our friend’s family (tribal) cultural setting, sharing your success with your family by showing them your house was a joyful ritual based on cultural wealth ceremonies, hence my friend’s joy at giving first time visitors a tour of his house. He didn’t know why he did it, only that it gave him joy to do it.

But he’s not in that tribal setting anymore. He hasn’t given people tours of his house since. I asked him why. “It seems foolish. Vain. Egotistical.”

Pity how many of our simple joys become casualties of self-awareness.