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Culture is full of anecdotal evidence

A seven-day holiday in my Italian home town with family reminded me why people do not like family gatherings: it’s loud, everyone is stressed and you are treated as if you were still a child. Especially with older people, life lessons are universally passed onto the new generations without questioning the validity of their teachings.

Whenever you question these teachings, you get a myriad of examples and “proofs”. As a logical person, I expect a rule to have a logical argument behind, such as “do not put your finger into a flame because it will hurt your body”. But with culture and traditions, there are often no logical arguments, but only anecdotes. And they are mundane things, like cooking, cleaning, social interactions that are put into rules that maybe made sense some day, but this sense was lost and never questioned again.

Therefore, whenever a rule is presented in my family (and there are so many), the reasoning behind them is often “because”.
But before delving into philosophical questions, here are some real-world conversations with my grandmother (GM) and myself (DB). An argument can start when people are used to different routines, such as when cooking eggs:

  • DB: Can I use a pan to fry some eggs?
  • GM: Sure, take one from below there.
  • DB: Okay, I found one.
  • GM: No, not that one. That’s not the egg pan.
  • DB: Okay, but I just need a regular pan, nothing fancy.
  • GM: No no no, in this one you can not do eggs, they stick. Take the other one.
  • DB: Okay, I will use that one. Do not worry, I was going to use some olive oil, they will not stick.
  • GM: Oh you use oil? Then use this other pan, that’s the one for oil.
  • DB: …

So there are implicit rules in this kitchen, that to me as a hobby cook do not make much sense, objectively, but the rules are based on personal experiences.
It is very difficult to argue or convince another person that their way has no objective proof. Also you really do not want to start an argument with your grandma about pans.

Sometimes an argument seems factually wrong, but you also do not really have the credentials to disprove a fact. This happens a lot to me when people claim stuff and I can not immediately disprove their claim. An example:

  • GM: You can use this gas heater if you are cold.
  • DB: Okay, cool thanks!
  • GM: But do not forget to turn it off before you sleep.
  • DB: Sure, we do not want to burn down the house, do we?
  • GM: No, that’s not the problem. You know Davide, the gas is really bad for the walls. You see the wall over there? We had to throw it down and rebuild it because the gas ruined it. That is why I only ever use the lowest setting on this heater.
  • DB: So you mean the heat is bad for the walls?
  • GM: No, not the heat. The gas!
  • DB: Okay…

You get the problem. It might be possible that burned gas might somehow “ruin” stone walls, but can we know for sure without consulting an expert on chemical matters, walls and gas heaters? I also would probably not find any news articles about this obscure phenomenon, and even less research. I can not even call it “fake news” or “made-up fact” by an older lady, because it might be absolutely possible that some other adult brain told her that. What do you do in such situations?

Sometimes an argument is based on personal feelings (“I do not like this”) or personal anecdotes (“this never worked for me”). I don’t know for sure, but you encounter this more often these days than before, as more and more people feel threatened or stressed by things and project their fears on others.

  • DB: We are going to play some football in front of the house, okay?
  • GM: No, do not go outside! There are cars.
  • DB: No, there are no cars, it’s Christmas, and we are in a lock down. No one is leaving home. Also, we are careful if some car wants to pass by. Promise.
  • GM: No no no, you are going to get hurt. Also, people complain if you go outside now, it is too much noise, people are sleeping after lunch.
  • DB: Who should complain that some kids are playing in the street? Did anyone ever complain?
  • GM: Also you will sweat before dinner.
  • DB: …and?
  • GM: No no no, stay here!

I noticed a lot of these silly interactions, and you might think that maybe GM is only a really old lady, but I see these unexplained rules in many families. Someone made rules once, and they never ever questioned whether the rule still makes sense.

Culture is full of anecdotal evidence, unchecked claims and contradictory traditions. May this post be a reminder to myself to always question my own rules and be open to changes when challenged.

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