Monday, November 14, 2011

Two Cultures, Different Ideas: One Love. Pt. 1

Hello everyone, happy Monday! It's the beginning of the week, four days until the weekend, and time to talk about love.

The topic today is one that I mentioned in my last post about why we love, and is a suggestion I got from a wonderful person very close to my heart. It is something almost every Lebanese person can relate to, especially if you grew up abroad. As the title of the post suggests, this is all about growing up in an Arab family, in a different, non-Arab cultural environment, and how you're supposed to navigate the norms, values, and expectations of both with regards to relationships. It is something relevant to anyone Lebanese, or Arab, or really anyone that is from one culture living in another, regardless if you're Arab or not. Also, you might be able to reflect what I am going to say even if you've never lived outside of Lebanon.

So what's the problem exactly? Let's imagine you're a young, 29 year-old woman, about to turn 30. You have worked so hard so that you can have a successful career. Your boss loves you, you love your job, you know that just a few years of uninterrupted hard work will land you a corner office, or even better: a business of your own. You're really trying to live out the dream. But... guess who's on your ass? "Chou, why haven't you met someone yet?" "Do you want me to introduce you to someone?" "Come out to dinner tonight, you should meet the son of a friend's friend." "What's wrong with you? Why cant you meet anyone?" It's your mom. It's your family. It's your family's friends... is there any escape from their relentless pursuit to hook you up, get you married, and have you switch from your day job to managing that organic reproductive factory in your abdomen churning out toddlers?? This is all you hear at each and every single moment: that they want grand kids. Oh if you had a dollar for every time you heard about the next generation, you'd have more easy money than the cast of the Jersey Shore.

...And undoubtedly be WAY less douchey.

Honestly, the pressure is way worse for women from Arab families than it is for men--that vexing double-standard. If anyone remembers that scene in My Big Fat Greek Wedding where the father (Gus) is discussing how his daughter (Toula) may or may not have a serious problem because she's not married, he turns to his son Nick (Toula's brother) and comfortably reassures him that he has no worries:

You get the point (despite the watermark). As a guy, I'm not going to sit here and say I know what any of you ladies between the ages of 20 and unmarried feel. But I definitely can sympathize with the pressures that are placed upon you by both your Arab/ethnic upbringing and your national identity. Where does this all come from? It's not merely a desire for your parents to have grand kids. It's not merely an excuse to have your father walk you down the aisle. It's not merely a way to remind you that your biological clock is ticking faster than the countdown to Doomsday. It's really rooted in one thing: collective culture.

Part 1: Collective Culture vs. Individualistic Culture

Harry Triandis (e.g., 1995) is a pioneer concerning the concepts of individualism and collectivism. Basically, these are two contrasting cultural make-ups, where collectivism emphasizes "The subordination of the individual to the goals of a collective" (Hui and Triandis, 1986: 245). In this case, the collective is generally family, kinship, or a larger group within society (e.g., a religious community). Individualism on the other hand is "The subordination of the goals of the [collective] to individuals goals" (Hui and Triandis, 1986: 245). Individualism, thus, reflects that emphasis on working to be the best at a career, profession, whatever it is that you want to do. To be number one for person one: you. This is the way that the majority of the United States, Canada, Western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand tends to be. That's not to say it's all like this, or that in these societies no one cares about their family. But in individualistic culture, one's own dreams, aspirations, and desires are given a higher value than following in the norms and expectations of collective groups. A great study was conducted that provides a great analysis of individualism vs. collectivism here in Lebanon, and an overview of Arab collectivity (Ayyash–Abdo, 2001, citation here).

These two concepts are relevant to everything, for instance, even including love. It's been widely documented that love relationships, for instance, are valued less in collective cultures than they are in individualistic culture. Karen and Ken Dion state, "Romantic love is more likely to be considered an important bases for marriage in societies where individualism as contrasted with collectivism is a dominant cultural value" (K. K. Dion and K. L. Dion, 1993: 58). Romantic love is highly emphasized in individualistic cultures where personal choice and loose kinship networks are normative, strong kinship networks and extended–family ties exist in the collectivist cultures. Thus, romantic relationships are often viewed as negative, and are actively discouraged in collective cultures because they may disrupt the tradition of family–approved/endorsed marriage choices, or kinship ties (e.g., Goode, 1959; Gupta, 1976; Al–Thakeb, 1985; Abu–Lughod, 2009).

There are so many obstacles placed in front of you in the Arab world when you want to do "what you want" whether it's love someone not in your religion, get married later, enter into a different field of study, and a plethora of other things. That's not to say you can't do it. But go to your parents and say you want to study art, or sociology, or something that isn't medicine, engineering, or business. I'm sure most of you would get some kind of negative response.

Well let's multiply that. Let's say you want to work on your career and wait to get married. NOW let's see what kind of response you get. In the US, it's largely ok to put a hold on marriage and work on your career if that's what you want to do. But for the Arab side of you, what you want is often at arms with what they want. And in this situation, it's usually they who win out. This is funny too, because at a presentation last spring (2011), the average age of marriage for Lebanese women in 2004 (latest data) was 29 years-old. The men's was even higher at 32 (you can check out the stats here in this PP). This is interesting because it's one of the highest in the world and THE highest in the Arab world! But it's relevant for all of you "approaching 30's" because most Lebanese women don't get married early.

Even Bill Gates can't figure that one out. F***in' crazy, right!?

A friend of mine wrote a great article about what it's like to be an Arab daughter, especially one growing up in America. It's applicable to almost anyone, however. And one thing that she is alluding to is some of the problems of living in between collective culture at home, and individual culture outside in school, media, among friends, etc.

Talk about cultural schizophrenia!

On one hand, you're told to do what you want do do, but on the other, you're told that getting married and having babies is the best, most accomplished thing you can ever do. Where does this come from? It's not just merely a "clash of culture." There are many other groups in the world other than hyphenated Arabs that also subscribe to this. The answer is in the very fabric of Arab families.

But to get that, you're just going to have to wait until Thursday. I'll be working on part 2 over the next few days. This is a lot to read, so let me know if you have any questions. I assure you though, after Thursday it will make much more sense.

Until Thursday, spread the love,


Abu–Lughod, Lila. 2009. "Shifting Politics in Bedouin Love Poetry." Pp. 116–132 in Poetry and  Cultural Studies: A Reader, edited by Maria Damon and Ira Livingston. Urbana-Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Al–Thakeb, Fahed. 1985. "The Arab Family and Modernity: Evidence From Kuwait." Current  Anthropology, 26(5): 575-580.

Ayyash–Abdo, Huda. 2001. "Individualism and Collectivism: The Case of Lebanon." Social Behavior and  Personality, 29(5): 503-518.

Dion, Karen K., and Ken L. Dion. 1993. "Individualistic and Collectivistic Perspectives on Gender and the Cultural Context  of Love and Intimacy." Journal of Social Issues, 49: 53-69.

Hui, C. H., And Harry C. Triandis. 1986. Individualism-Collectivism: A Study of Cross-Cultural Perspectives. Lincoln, NE: Nebraska University Press.

Goode, William J. 1959. "The Theoretical Importance of Love." American Sociological Review,  24(1): 38-47.

Gupta, Giri Raj. 1976. "Love, Arranged Marriage, and the Indian Social Structure." Journal of  Comparative Family Studies, 7(1): 75-85.

Triandis, Harry C. 1995. Individualism and Collectivism. Boulder, CO: Westview.


  1. Very Interesting Michael! Your blog is priceless!!

    1. Thank you so much Rania! I really appreciate it :)

      I'm not sure if you know, though. I've stopped blogging (meaning I won't add new content). The archives will always be available, but it was time for this part of my life to come to a close :) Shta2tillik habibi!