…and other leading questions we ask our children.
After having spent my past several articles laying out some basic conceptual groundwork on the topics of anthropology and culture, I would now like to plunge into the realm I plan to spend most of the rest of my articles in this blog exploring—namely, the way that the influence of culture crops up in the most unexpected aspects of our everyday lives, and how the concept of culture can help us to gain a better understanding of what exactly is going on underneath these seemingly straightforward situations.
The first example I’m going to take a look at is a question most of my readers have probably heard asked at some point in their lives—in fact, they have almost certainly answered it at least once, and may even have asked it themselves. It is the (seemingly) age-old question, “What is your favorite color?” This apparently harmless question provides me with the opportunity to revisit both of my previously discussed definitions of culture (as imitation and as imposition), hopefully clarifying anything that was left ambiguous by my more theoretical treatments.
First of all, the very idea of “color” illustrates what I mean by cultural imposition on the world around us. Yes, color names refer to an undeniable physical property of the world around us—the wavelength of light than an object reflects to our eyes. However, the way we break up what is, in the physical world, a continuous spectrum into distinct color categories (red, orange, yellow, etc.) is just as undeniably something we have invented and imposed. Different societies have broken up the color spectrum in different ways,* and I’m sure enough of us have gotten into dispute about whether a certain shirt is actually a bluish green or a greenish blue to recognize that even different individuals within the same society might have different places where they draw those distinctions.
But the “what’s your favorite color?” question also demonstrates my points about cultural imitation. In addition to the fact that color distinction is one of the things we spend a great deal of conscious effort teaching our children from a very young age** (“What color is your shoe, Ctaci? That’s right, it’s brown.” “Abel, can you bring me the pink elephant?”), the very form of this seemingly simple inquiry implicitly reinforces a whole host of cultural lessons you probably never expected.
First of all, asking someone (and I would wager most people who are asked this question are first asked it at a relatively young age) what their favorite color is takes for granted the notion that that person has a favorite color. It thus implies that a favorite color is something every self-respecting person should have, and encourages the individual, if s/he does not yet happen to have a “favorite color” picked out, to select one on the double.
This, in turn, reinforces a variety of even deeper notions. Some of these are connected to favoritism, competition, and superiority. The very form of the question sets up the idea that in any field of multiple options, it is possible (and advisable) to judge one to be universally “best” (rather than simply acknowledging that different options might be preferable for different purposes or under different circumstances). Other implications relate to the concept of identity—posing such a query serves to instill the belief that people can and should be individualized by certain types of traits, that one has preferences which both persist over time and connect intimately to one’s sense of self, and that others can and should keep track of these traits in order to better understand or distinguish between their fellows.
These might seem like subtle or stretched messages for a question frequently posed to five-year-olds and requiring nothing more than a one-word response, but that is precisely my point. The external simplicity of this inquiry masks the vast array of cultural lessons it conveys to its often highly impressionable recipients. Overt discussions of cultural values (“You see, Daphne, this is why we think it’s important to share”) are actually much easier to question and resist than are these sneaky verbal Trojan Horses, especially because the person presenting them may not even realize the underlying messages they have thereby introduced. This goes to demonstrate just how widespread and invisible the little elements of culture we have spent our lives thus far learning to imitate can be.
And don’t even get me started on the whole color/gender connection.
* Interestingly, some research has indicated that there are universal cross-cultural similarities in the places where people break up the color spectrum (though distinct differences in the extent to which they do so). This makes some sense, as there are physiological similarities across cultures in terms of the ways that humans perceive color. Even if color distinctions are entirely physiologically based, they are still impositions, since these distinctions derive from the structure of eyes and brains rather than the outside world. The really interesting question is whether having a physiological basis disqualifies something as "cultural." I'm sure some would support this criterion, but to do so demands that one provide non-physiological explanations for any tendencies one wants to deem cultural, which I am not convinced is possible. Though I certainly welcome attempts!
** This raises the question of why color identification (along with shape recognition, size and orientation terms, barnyard animal noise pairing, and other such often-emphasized subjects of baby books and enthusiastic parental coaching) are of sufficient importance to merit the energy we devote to imparting them to our children—a topic for a future article, I suppose.