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The Bizarre Dating Rituals of the Nacirema

You may chuckle at these tribeswomen,, but haven't you been known to obsess in similar ways over certain men, waiting anxiously for them to call or email you, picking apart endlessly a simple "Hey, what's up?' text message, to the point where you start to feel sick or depressed?
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In 1956, Horace Miner published a paper in the American Anthropologist titled "Body Ritual Among the Nacirema," in which he described some of the bizarre rituals and practices of a little-known tribe -- the Nacirema -- living in North America. Consider this example: "Special women's rites are performed only four times during each lunar month, but what they lack in frequency is made up in barbarity. As part of this ceremony, women bake their heads in small ovens for about an hour." I remember reading his paper in my Masters of Counseling program, and being struck by what I regarded as backwards, sometimes disturbing behavior.

Recently, I spent some time digging deeper into the Nacirema culture. After long hours of research, I uncovered additional information about the Nacirema's mating and coupling customs, which, of course, piqued my interest given my specialty as a dating coach and columnist. Apparently, the Nacirema women engage in all sorts of peculiar and extreme behavior when it comes to the mating game.

In the Nacirema tribe, during the courting phase, men signal that they want to speak with a woman by blowing a horn hollowed from rhinoceros tusks -- each woman has a different tune assigned specifically to her. Nacirema women have been known to get quite obsessive about these horn-calls, spending hours each day waiting for the sound of the horn. The women also spend countless hours analyzing the tracks their courters leave in the dirt outside their huts, often looking for deeper, hidden meanings or clues with regard to their level of romantic interest. Nacirema women have even been known to come down with what the tribespeople call "sweating sickness" during these early days of courting.

Another common dating ritual for Nacirema women is to take on the personas of distinguished tribeswomen of yore, stories of whom have been passed down through the generations from the elders, by pretending to quite literally be reincarnations of these women. Researchers have noted that the women believe this temporary fakery will attract their suitors and solidify their interest in a marriage.

Quite bizarrely, Nacirema women have a tendency to move very quickly when they meet someone they like. When in the courting phase, which often consists of sitting around a long wooden table at the heart of the village, sipping a drink called lohocla (lo-HO-claw) from wooden cups whittled from the rednetrab (red-NET-trab) tree, it is common for Nacirema women to discuss the color of their robes for a tribe wedding ceremony.

Stories within the Nacirema village abound of women making poor decisions by consuming too much lohocla, a mood-altering substance that has been known to cause women to flail their limbs about and to slur their speech.

But I suppose it's easy to understand why, in the Nacirema's world, lohocla is abused all too often. In an odd and rather sad twist, many Nacirema women have been known to engage in elaborate chants in which they punish themselves emotionally and mentally by putting themselves down. They sing these songs or chants repeatedly telling themselves how unworthy they are of fellow tribesmen's love. This ritual is common practice, as it is looked down upon by many Nacirema to celebrate oneself -- this would be considered by the clan to be a breach of humility. Unfortunately, this custom often prevents the tribeswomen from feeling adequate and whole. As researchers have surmised, it is no wonder why many Nacirema women have trouble finding mates.


OK, OK, if you haven't figured it out by now... I'm talking about AMERICAN women -- Nacirema is American spelled backwards. Though its lessons are many, Miner's paper on the Nacirema was a farcical study written primarily to satirize anthropological papers written about other cultures and to shine a light on the "othering" of cultures. In reality, he was writing about 1950s America and many of our obsessive bodily rituals and customs, ones that can certainly be deemed peculiar and backwards simply by describing them using different language. How strange this "other" culture looks and sounds like, we muse superiorly.

I added to Miner's study and followed his lead, discussing, in crude terms, some of the more ridiculous rituals we find ourselves taking part in when it comes to matters of the heart. Indeed, the Nacirema dating and mating rituals I've described appear to be strange, ludicrous even, until we recognize them as our own. At this point, it becomes easier to understand and laugh at the folly of our ways.

For instance, you might have chuckled at the notion of tribeswomen waiting desperately for the horn-call and their obsessive analysis of subtle cues within the dirt, but haven't you been known to obsess in similar ways over certain men, waiting anxiously for them to call or email you, picking apart endlessly a simple "Hey, what's up?' text message, to the point where you start to feel sick or depressed? Instead, might you think about going out and living your life, having fun with friends and making yourself available to go out with other men, instead of putting your life on hold for a man whose intentions are still unclear?

When it comes to the Nacirema women pretending to be reincarnations of deceased tribeswomen, might you consider if you've ever pretended to be someone you're not in order to win a guy's affection and love? While it can be tempting to play someone you're not when you date, ultimately, the real you is going to come out. Don't mold yourself to be who you think others want you to be.

And how many times have you jumped 10 steps ahead in your brain, envisioning your marriage with a guy you just started dating? Like the Nacirema ladies, far too often, women start picturing the dress and the ceremony before they've gotten to know a man's character, before they've even ascertained if a certain man is a compatible match. Give relationships time to blossom and grow. Enjoy the ride. And yes, "lohocla" and "rednettrab" are both a play on words for alcohol and bartender.

Perhaps alcohol has come into play in much of your dating life. While there's nothing wrong with drinking, of course (a little liquid courage can be helpful to tame the nerves on dates), don't allow alcohol to entirely sway your judgment or make decisions for you that you might not make when sober. Avoid using alcohol as a crutch.

Finally, how shocked were you by the way Nacirema women treat themselves? But if you think about it, how many times have you put yourself down? How many times have you thought yourself unworthy of love, affection, and a commitment-minded man and then repeated these things to yourself over and over again? Negative self-talk and limiting beliefs have the power to shape your world. Don't let your beliefs disempower you. Rather, be more compassionate with yourself; make your beliefs work for you instead of against you.

Your turn: What other dating habits might seem silly if you described them in different terms, through the eyes of another culture? Is there anything you can learn when looking at something through a different lens?

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