Where Do You Learn Your Cultural Traditions?

We’re at a wedding, doing toasts, and I don’t raise my glass with everyone else, although I do clap and smile warmly at the couple at the head of the tent.

‘Why aren’t you toasting,’ a friend asks, pointing at my glass.

‘I’m drinking water,’ I explain, an explanation sufficient enough to me, but she still looks confused. ‘It’s bad luck,’ I clarify. ‘To toast. With water.’

She gives me a skeptical eyebrow, and the rest of the table is evenly split on knowledge of this particular social point. Yes, some of them say, everyone knows it’s bad luck to toast with water. The other half of the table is as puzzled as she is, has never heard this particular point of cultural tradition; we are all of us white, highly educated, from the same region of the United States, from similar social circles, yet only half of us know that it is bad luck to toast with water.

Apparently there are several reasons why people believe it’s bad luck to toast with water (or an empty glass), but I grew up with the understanding that you raise a glass of water to the dead and no one else. Toasting the living with water, then, is akin to wishing them dead, which is, most people would agree, rather rude and to be avoided unless you actually don’t like your hosts.

This was also the wedding where I learned that while most people in attendance knew you don’t wear white to a wedding in the United States, many apparently did not know that black at a wedding (with the exception of black tie) wasn’t suitable.

And it got me thinking about cultural knowledge, these small things that we just assume people know by virtue of living in and interacting with a culture; I can’t tell you who’s told me these things about weddings and why I know these rules, just as I couldn’t tell you the cultural rules for weddings based in other cultures and held in other nations. I’d have to ask someone, and that person likely wouldn’t think of some very basic rules because they’re so second nature, it wouldn’t occur to them to mention them.

I wouldn’t tell a guest from China, for example, that it’s bad luck to toast with water, because it’s so naturally ingrained in me that it’s just second nature. Of course you don’t toast with water, just as you hold the fork in your right hand to eat (in the US, at any rate, sorry, left-handers, get thee to Europe). While many of these things are recorded in rulebooks of formal etiquette along with all their permutations for the benefit of people who want to do things ‘the correct way,’ so many of them are also acculturated, learned as people grow up; to enter a new culture and learn its rules is to painfully overcome childhood programming.

And, as illustrated at this wedding, where a group of people from the same cultural and social background couldn’t agree on a point of etiquette that some thought was second nature and others thought was totally alien, even within the same cultural group, these ‘universal’ rules are not, in fact, so universal. Where do we learn these things? Who imposes them upon us? They become a form of ingroup identifier; the people who know the ‘correct’ way to do something are those we gravitate towards, and those who do not become figures of disdain and mockery, easily identified as people who don’t know how to do things in the good or right way.

At a wedding among friends, an opportunity for an interesting discussion about the myths and origins of the ban against toasting with water, a casual conversation among people who don’t lose respect for each other for knowing or not knowing a cultural tradition. But in a larger cultural context, a more troubling and serious divide; there are those, for example, who use the fact that President Obama has been known to toast with water against him. It’s evidence of his low class, his disconnect with the real America, his disdain for the people of the US, or any number of other things, according to some people who like to rant at length on the Internet about the subject.

When people shift cultures, moving into new cultural environments, it is these small traditions and ways of knowing that betray them. Sometimes a lifetime in a culture different from one’s birth will always feel alien and uncomfortable because of this, the awareness that people are judging you for your inability to keep step with cultural traditions. For some, there are classes, with instructors who provide information about traditions and etiquette, while others are expected to just know, to absorb through osmosis; the poor person who marries a wealthier person will forever be an outsider, because that person has no easy resource for learning the ways of the wealthy.

For the immigrant, the Other, the outsider, classes are aimed not at education about a different culture, but assimilation. A teaching that previous cultural traditions, beliefs, and practices are wrong, outdated, and inappropriate, that they must be replaced with those of the new country, the new culture. If the pupils are resistant, this is only further evidence of the inappropriateness of immigration, the need to more tightly control who is allowed in and for how long—to think, that some people might enter a nation and be allowed to move freely about in society without a full awareness of social norms!

I don’t toast with water, but I still can’t tell you the precise moment when I learned that; it’s something that I just absorbed from the society around me, and do (or rather, don’t do) without thinking. Automatic. Natural. But in fact, when more closely examined, it’s highly unnatural, a learned behaviour that comes with its own cultural load.