Small talk, Ziva and art: more thoughts on ‘culture above’ and ‘culture below’

Chaval brasil umbrella at canal from flicr When I was in Charlotte last week, I noticed my taxi driver had a copy of Common American Phrases in Everyday Contexts: a detailed guide to real-life conversation and small talk. I paged through it on the way to the airport and thought, "this is a book I have to have."  It came today from Amazon.  Here are a couple of outtakes.  

You bet your life.

That's the last straw.

You make me laugh (never said by someone who is laughing)

Shake the lead out.

I need a change of scenery.  

We know these phrases.  They are deeply familiar and we "get" them immediately.  

Now let's pretend we are recently arrived from Gambia, struggling to learn American English, and hearing these phrases for the first time.   What we are doing is eliminating all the cultural knowledge with which we normally meet and greet these phrases, the stuff we know because we're "from" this culture.  Without this knowledge, these phrases are strange.  ("I bet my what?")

Ziva by Cote de Pablo Let's call this the Ziva effect, after the character on NCIS. Trained Israeli assassin, Ziva is smart, beautiful and dangerous, but she always gets the little phrases wrong. She retrieves them from their familarity.  

Now consider these:

See you!

I've changed my mind.

Come back anytime.  

Care to dance?

These are a little more submerged.  They are harder to see as aribrary.  Our first reaction (ok, my first reaction) is to say, "these aren't arbitrary.  These don't demand cultural knowledge.  If you know the literal meaning of the terms, you understand the phrase."  Not so fast.  Culture is operating even here.  We must supply cultural knowledge to understand these phrases.  This is another way of saying that even when we're looking for the way culture shapes we see the world, it's sometimes hard to see.

Ok, that was "culture below."  Now to "culture above."  Thanks to Tom Harle, I learned today about Creative30, a website by Volvo dedicated to telling the stories of 30 creative people in the UK.  It really is fantastically interesting.  The clips are fleeting, but the data comes pouring in.  And I sat there thinking, what a wonderful assignment for anyone interested in doing anthropology.  I will issue the official competition tomorrow.  The task, for someone who wants a head start, is something like this.  Take 5 of the 30 artists and write them up in 1000 words.  Examine the clips, examine their art and activities, and give us what Geertz would have called a "cultural account."  What do these people think they are doing?  How are they doing it.  What are the cultural rules in evidence here? What relationship does this art have to the mainstream culture?  

I will withhold my own thoughts on the matter, but let's just say this.  Spears' book on common phrases give us a glimpse of "culture below," culture operating beneath the threshhold of consciousness, active but invisible, longlived, descending to us from "time out of mind" usually.  The Volvo Creative 30 site gives us something close to "culture above", that stream of novel artifacts being invented a culture's edge, as it were. This culture typically comes from people inventing and applying grammars that are unclear and emergent.  What's interesting is that they "get" some of their rules but not all of them.  There is culture at work here that these cultural innovators cannot see.  

My long standing argument: we are relatively good at monitoring and thinking about culture above.  This is after all precisely what a cool hunter is called upon to do.  What we must add to the undertaking, if we wish to give a genuinely thoroughgoing account of our world, is a new interest and feeling for "culture below."  It's not all that flashy.  It is not ,God knows, the latest thing.  But it is keenly important, and not only to taxi drivers in Charlotte recently arrived from Gambia.  


Spears, Richard.  2003.  Common American Phrases in Everyday Contexts.  New York: McGraw-Hill.  

Tom Harle's website here

The Volvo Creative30 website here.


Thanks to Chaval Brasil for the image.  See Chaval's Flickr bio here.

3 thoughts on “Small talk, Ziva and art: more thoughts on ‘culture above’ and ‘culture below’

  1. AJ

    Wisdom from taxi drivers? How Thomas Friedman of you 🙂

    But a fascinating post. I should look up that book myself.

  2. Ray

    I work with a lot of writing from non-native speakers of English, who let’s be clear, are definitely smart. I am constantly removing awkward idioms which I’m sure they learned in English class or from books like the Spears example.

    These idioms are tweaked as they slowly evolve, and what seems fresh, normal, and stale is quite subtle. By the time, they are codified in a book, that are often stale or cliched.

    The example I love to use is my friend (also very smart,) trying to explain the word “Duh” to some Taiwanese friends. The expression is pervasive (much to the dismay of all English teachers, I’m sure) to the point of being mundane. Definitely, culture below.

    But, what does it mean? How do you even say it? A lot of cultural meaning is packed into a three letter word, that can mean everything from, “that is obvious” to “are you stupid?” Intonation is crucial in saying it, because you can control the amount of sarcasm being expressed. All that meaning is communicated in a second, which may not be flashy, but is really interesting.

  3. peter

    This post reminded me of a conversation I once had in Seoul, South Korea, with a Korean colleague following a meeting the two of us had had with an American colleague, who had said something very emphatically as the meeting finished, and then left us. My Korean colleague took me aside to ask, “What is a bippy?”, “Why is it sweet?”, and “Why would I bet it?”

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