If I’m Normal, What Are You?

When I used to teach Sociology, one of my favorite articles to have students read was Horace Miner's Body Ritual among the Nacirema. It is the findings of an anthropologist who is studying the poorly understood cultural of the Nacirema people and their significant rituals regarding their bodies. Here is one example:

The daily body ritual performed by everyone includes a mouth-rite. Despite the fact that these people are so punctilious about care of the mouth, this rite involves a practice which strikes the uninitiated stranger as revolting. It was reported to me that the ritual consists of inserting a small bundle of hog hairs into the mouth, along with certain magical powders, and then moving the bundle in a highly formalized series of gestures.

In addition to the private mouth-rite, the people seek out a holy-mouth-man once or twice a year. These practitioners have an impressive set of paraphernalia, consisting of a variety of augers, awls, probes, and prods. The use of these objects in the exorcism of the evils of the mouth involves almost unbelievable ritual torture of the client.

Spoiler alert! Nacirema is American spelled backwards. You may have already picked up that he is describing teeth brushing and going to the dentist.

The article is a fascinating and comical example of how our approach in regarding other cultures must be examined. Oftentimes, we carry the assumption that our way is normal, and when we look at others’ practices, they are perceived as ridiculous, barbaric, or just plain weird. 

We can forget that our very place in our culture guides us in our interpretation of words, events, expressions, and more.

How does relative normalcy play out in a cross-cultural marriage? I’ll give you one example.

Preparing for a party, I asked my husband to run to the grocery store to pick up a few items. When I began setting out the fruit, the cookies, and the ranch dip, I turned to him, “Where are the chips?”

He handed me a bag, and my face betrayed my disappointment.

“I asked you for chips, not tortilla chips!” I groaned, putting the lid back on the ranch.

“Wait. What did you want?” he responded. “Potato chips? You asked me for chips, not potato chips!”

Hmmm… what are “normal” chips?


  1. Ha! That totally sounds like something that would happen between me and my husband who is Chinese. We use "regular" spoons and what I call "Chinese spoons" (they are wider with shorter handles) and I always have to make sure to differentiate between the two to make sure I get the one I want!

  2. That's awesome, Alyssa! Thanks for sharing your story. Very funny. :)

  3. I used too teach Sociology while I was a graduate student (in Singapore)! And Nacirema was one of the required readings for Soci101 every semester. The class would come with bored looks on their faces (half) and the other half would earnestly comment on the weird "rituals" of the Nacirema. I always made sure I gave them the punchline within the first half hour of tutorial because then it's like PING! A lightbulb goes off and nobody is bored anymore.

    My husband is German and our son is German-Chinese by ethnicity and German-Singaporean dual nationality. Sociology still plays a big part in my life although I no longer teach it. We are also raising the boy in 3 languages and every day is a comedy as long as the boy is awake. Jokes tend to be how my husband cannot tell apart the tones in Mandarin. So the boy's newest trilingual vocabulary word is "dustbin" (or rubbish bin/garbage can) which is "la ji tong" but because "la ji" in different tones also means "spicy chicken", my husband will say to the boy in English, "yeah, go put your dirty diaper in the spicey chicken box"! which drives me nuts.

  4. Hi Julien ~ Nice to meet you! It's great to hear from someone else who's taught about the Nacirema. It's quite amusing to see students' reactions. I made the mistake my first semester of giving the assigned reading as homework and asking them to write out their own observations of a ritual of the Nacirema. It was then that I learned how many readers never got the joke! From then on, we always discussed it first. :) And like you said, those light bulbs were flashing!

    Thanks for stopping by and for sharing your comment. I love your husband's liberal use of the phrase "spicy chicken box." People don't say that enough!


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