Cultural Shorthand

One place I believe we discover identity is in the cultural shorthand we share with those similar to us; the stories we have in common.  This can be movies, literature, shared experience and even the Bible– if you have that in common.

For example, in this odd season I find myself in, I’m finding it easier to explain to Biblically grounded people what’s going on.

And I don’t mean that as any species of slur to people who don’t know the Bible.

It is a running gag (mercifully petering out) in *Bones* to have one character make a cultural reference and the title character responds, “I don’t know what that means.”

In the 3rd season someone compared the latest antagonist to the Sith (Everybody here knows Star Wars, right?) And the point: A master and an apprentice, there can never be more than two, which one are we dealing with? was communicated that simply and succinctly.

If you got the reference.

This is one advantage of a shared culture: efficiency.

Say what (some of) you will about American Culture tanking, it still has the power to perform culture’s primary function of unifying a people, and conveying a package of data in fewer words than the actual data would require. Story, especially, has the power make a point without naming names.

One of the familiar tales in Yupik culture involves the trickster character Raven joining a group a children playing catch with pieces of blubber. Raven pretends to play along but gradually eats up the bits until there are none left to play with.

One commentary I read described this as the story that would be told when someone was suspected of cheating at business or being unethical in some other way.  The individual was rarely confronted, but this story was told and he knew they were talking about him, or she would recognize they were rebuking her.


When I say we are preparing our house for sale, and that we aren’t actively looking for a place to buy yet, it doesn’t usually make sense right away.

Then I explain we have to sell before we have money to buy (since the point of this move is to reduce or eliminate our debt), and before we can sell we have to stage for the best price, and to stage we have to remove 90% of the stuff from our home…

Makes me think of the “reverse” story as I was introduced to it in my favorite novel, The Perilous Gard:

“What happened while I was away, Tom?”

“The dog died, Master.”

“How did the dog die Tom?”

“When the house burnt down, Master.”

“How did the house burn down, Tom?”

“One of the candles at your wife’s funeral, Master.”

We are being forced by backward steps into a simplicity I never would have attempted if it were not for this life-changing challenge: Jay intends to continue living here while we put the house on-market. Translation: we have to keep it show-ready while we live here, and as more stuff goes out the door, the more I believe that is actually possible.


We truly don’t know where we’re going, but my mom has said we will be able to stay with her if this house sells before we find a new one, so we don’t need to worry about being homeless. It’s not as crazy as it may sound, and we have peace this is God’s will for us.

Around my bible-knowing friends I describe this as our “Abram” time.  We are acting in obedience to what we feel God is calling us to (getting out of debt), and there are a series of steps before we need to know more. Steps before we’ll even be at a place of actual risk (as opposed to mere discomfort).

We have enough light for the next step, and, functionally, that is enough.


When I used the Abram analogy with my 7-year-old, she pointed out that he probably had a lot less stuff than us, and I laughed, agreeing.  But now I’m remembering he had all sorts of stuff and a small army of helpers “born in his household” so I’ve probably got less to deal with after all.

But maybe not per person…

It’s fun to have a child old enough to engage in a discussion based off a mutual understanding of a common source.

Someday I’ll make a list of these maturity markers: awareness of *other*, original conversation, relating a known story, referencing a known story to make a separate point…

I “worry” sometimes whether I’m conveying enough of my most important values, wondering which cultural compasses my kids will latch onto. But as a mother and teacher I can’t help feeling pleased to have reached this forth level of interaction with one of my kids.

It’s a fireworks burst of encouragement in a skyscape normally lit by much more distant lights.

3 thoughts on “Cultural Shorthand

  1. I love those parenting moments when you know for certain, even if it’s just for a moment, that you’re doing the right thing.

    And I am interested in the efficiency of culture. I’ve never really thought about it before.

  2. This is true and I see it every day. With a mix of Western, Middle Eastern, African, Asian, and European cultures it is often difficult to have that efficiency. This is one reason why people here tend to gather with people ‘like themselves.’ Ex. My friends are most people from the US and Canada as we have the most in common. It is easier to communicate and develope a friendship with someone who has similar experiences to yourself.

  3. Pingback: Next Option « The Opposite of a To-Do List

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *