When cross-cultural comparisons fall flat

At a recent meeting with a client, the team and I were discussing observations from the interviews we had been conducting throughout the week. We were trying to make sense of what we heard from one of the participants, who liked to spend money on activities and events with his family and friends, like baseball games, dining and movies. He wanted to throw a big party for his son’s 10th birthday at a simulated skydiving venue. It brought him a lot of pride to put the party on for his son and his son’s friends, no matter the price.

At least that’s what he set out to do… several unseen costs surfaced as it got closer to the event, and he began to feel some pressure from the ever-increasing budget. But he was still determined to put on the party and not back out. He hadn’t asked any family members or parents to chip in, until his son suggested he do so. In American society, there is still a strong taboo around discussing and asking for money from others.

The team discussed the observation in detail – some of them were confused about why this dad would spend so much money on what they thought wasn’t really an important milestone. We talked about why this might be, about the dad’s values and identity as a family man, and his tendency to spend money on experiences rather than material goods or a really nice house.

At some point in the conversation, I thought of the potlatch I learned about in grad school. A potlatch is a gift-giving ceremony that has been practiced by native cultures in the Pacific Northwest, such as the Kwakiutl, for centuries. The family putting on the potlatch accumulates resources (wealth) over a period of time, and in a lavish ceremony, gives their wealth away to the community and everyone benefits. The wealth distribution reinforces and adds to the family’s social standing.

Thinking this would be a great parallel example to help the team better understand the dad and his motivations, I asked the team if they had ever heard of the potlatch. I was hoping to use this as a metaphor for the dad’s gestures and goals. It was a bit surprising that none of them had heard of it because I thought at least one of them would taken an anthropology course, but there was no one.

Image result for potlatch

Dancers in ceremonial dress at a Tlingit potlatch, Klukwan, Alaska, October 15, 1898. Source: Wikimedia Commons

One person replied, “do you mean a potluck?” I said no, but it has a similar word origin (I was actually wrong on that according to this website, which says “potluck” has 17th century English origins).

The example wasn’t clicking with anyone. Then I thought of another similar example, a Mexian or Mexican-American quinceañera – some families put down $20,000 on a lavish party thrown by Mexican and Mexican-American families for the daughter’s coming of age ceremony (15th birthday). It can be as extravagant as a wedding. While most people were familiar with a quince (pronounced KEEN-say), they still couldn’t draw a connection.

Image result for quinceanera party

Quince dress. Source: New York Times

Ultimately I was trying to draw a connection so people would have a tangible comparison for the dad’s money-spending behaviors – so they would see his behaviors as valid. Rephrasing and redescrbiing the similarities between these three events wasn’t going anywhere – it was a failed attempt at drawing a cross-cultural comparison and creating some empathy and understanding of someone who is different.

Sometimes it’s hard to find a way to drive home a point or help people understand something foreign through theory, metaphors or parallels, especially cross-cultural ones. You basically have to experiment with different approaches. Asking people to take a leap and understand the complexity and variety of human behavior is a challenge. But it’s always worth a shot. Next time I have success with this, I will make sure to write about it here.


  1. Very good points.

    Your example also causes me to consider how insular many have become despite the very broad access to resources available to “digital natives” today. What I find interesting too about your example of the potlatch is that I suspect, even in many anthropology UG programs today, with the demise of the 4 subfield approach it is possible to get a BA without ever being exposed to the concept. I wonder if a book such as Mauss’ The Gift (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Gift_(book)) is even read that much today.

    So it goes . . .

    1. Really great point Robert! I think you are onto something. I think part of it also has to do with other disciplines staying insular, like business, design or technology programs that don’t require students to take classes in the humanities or social sciences. As for anthropology programs, well, they are definitely different from the past. They all seem to take different approaches to training – how much theory or methodology students learn about, 4-fields versus a focused program, etc. There are definitely a lot of classics I haven’t read, either. There are so many books that have been published since the early days of anthropology that I think it’s hard to read all of them.

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