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Here is the final installment in my fiancé’s blog on tradition. Hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did.

 

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Yesterday, I wrote about the value of tradition, even to a tradition-shunning couple like us. We don’t want to do anything just because everyone else is doing it. But we will be following some traditions. Why?

 

Yesterday’s reason was that traditions help to connect us to other people, across time and space. They build connections, and as humans, we crave connection.

 

The second reason I think tradition might be worth respecting is that if it stood the test of time, that might mean it works pretty well. Of course, it might “work” for some people and not others, and it might not work as well as something we haven’t tried yet. Improvement is important. But people in the past weren’t all stupid, and they often have had to try to solve the same problems that we have.

 

To put it in game theoretic terms, traditions are ways of identifying or even selecting an equilibrium. By equilibrium, I mean a solution to an environment of human interaction. For example, think about traffic. As we drive down two-way roads, we need to make sure that cars going in opposite directions don’t crash into each other. The solution is, as you approach an oncoming car, you move to the right. If everyone does this, we’re in great shape.

 

The stakes in the game of traffic are pretty high, so we don’t just rely on the tradition of passing to the right. We legislate it. But check out the sidewalk. In the United States, people tend to move to the right as they approach each other. Not always, but it’s a useful norm. And we do it because, well, it’s a tradition.

 

A lot of traditions help solve coordination and cooperation problems. (Thinking of tradition and culture in this way is not a new idea. It’s common in social and political sciences.) The weekend gets a large number of us to take the same days off, so we can schedule social events at a time when many people can participate. Holidays are the same thing.  Traditions identify an equilibrium solution and popularize it, so we all don’t need to figure it out on our own.

 

And of course, there is no reason why we have to pass on the right. The left works just fine, if that’s what we decide to do. And if we all took Tuesday and Wednesday off, that would also be a weekend. Any of those would do. There, we say there are multiple equilibria. And culture, or tradition, helps us choose.

 

Chloe’ and I are thinking we don’t like the long aisle for our wedding. We also don’t want the usually parade of people from the back of the room. But the truth is, if you are going to have an event that people will watch, it makes sense to put it at one end of the room and then point all the chairs at it. And then you need to have some way of getting all the key players to the front of the room. “Here comes the bride” is a pretty good solution. And when everyone hears that tune, they will know what is happening, and know what they are supposed to do. If we change things around, it will be unfamiliar to people. A little unfamiliarity can be fun, but we can’t count on everyone to react in a particular way.

 

The wedding registry is another such tradition. Typically, a wedding marks a couple’s entry into the world on their own. They need furniture, dishes, linens. That’s expensive, so we decide to help out. And if everyone in society can expect a little help when they are setting up their household, that’s great. When we get older and are in a better position to help out a new couple, well, we’ll help them out.

 

The problem for us – and for many couples in our generation – is that we lived on our own for several years before we got together. We don’t need a new blender. We already have two. So how do we participate in this tradition? We could be magnanimous and say we don’t want any presents. But our friends are generous. They want to do something. So we, along with many couples, need to adjust the tradition to accommodate our new situation. We need something that is consistent with the past, since many of our guests are expecting a registry with duvet covers and silver forks.

 

 

Our solution: We’re going to register for our honeymoon. A lot of couples have started doing this. We think it’s a nice approach. If you’d like a suggestion from us as to what we’d like to start our life together (which is basically what the registry is), we suggest that, instead of a gravy boat, you consider ferry tickets to Santorini.

 

The best thing about this solution is that it doesn’t mess with the tradition too much. Our guests will surely be able to roll with it. We are sticking with the basic equilibria – everyone helps out couples as they are starting off – but we are merging it with another tradition – couples get away alone together shortly after they marry.

 

Now, if we can just figure out how to get us to the stage.

 

Tips:

 

I said yesterday that “tradition” can be a dirty word. And I meant it. But tradition serves a purpose. Just think about what that purpose is.

 

Remember: There are a million ways for a wedding to be. You won’t even be the first person not to wear white, not to throw the bouquet, not to not see each other before the ceremony. Think about wedding traditions like a cafeteria menu. Choose what you want. Think about why you want them, and what they will mean to you. Then do what you like.

 

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My fiancé and I have been discussing tradition at length. He kindly agreed to share some of his thoughts on the blog. Hope you’ll add yours in the Comments section.

 

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Tradition

 

If you haven’t noticed, tradition isn’t going to figure heavily in our wedding. Chloe’ doesn’t want the traditional dress, the traditional ceremony, or the traditional anything.

 

And, as a good modern liberal, I agree. Colored-only water fountains were a “tradition.” Marriage limited to a man and a woman is a “tradition.” Employer-provided but largely unregulated health insurance is a “tradition.” If the best argument you can give for doing something is that we’ve always (or even just lately) done it, it’s probably time to stop doing it.  “Tradition” might even be a dirty work.

 

Except…

 

I can think of two good reasons why a tradition should be respected simply because it is a tradition. Questioned, maybe, even abandoned, but at least considered.

 

The first is that traditions help to build connections across time and place. If every year, on your birthday, you go to a favorite restaurant, that helps to remind you of where you’ve come from and how you got where you are now. Every American family I know celebrates Thanksgiving a little differently, but there are enough common threads that we know we are connected to each other. It’s something we can share, even when we aren’t together.

 

From a social science perspective (which is what I usually take), this is the stuff that defines your group, defines your identity.  It is the stuff of culture. Of course, some elements of our culture are bad, and we should change them. We do that by picking and choosing, casting aside those that have little meaning to us, and gathering up those that are important.

 

But that’s a choice, and it should be made consciously. For example: The Rose Bowl used to be a game between the top Pac-10 and top Big Ten football teams. When Northwestern went in 1995, we knew our team was doing something that other, usually better teams had done. It was an accomplishment precisely because it was just like every other year. The BCS has undermined that (and not even gotten us a national championship, but that’s another issue), and something is lost.

 

Culturally, traditions like this help a couple create their identity. Having a “Jewish wedding” or a “Korean wedding” or a “Southern wedding” is a choice, and it connects to a cherished culture. Couples with a mixed heritage can choose elements from one tradition and another.

 

You protect the traditions that connect you to people and experiences you want to connect to. Chloe’ is not going to be “given away” at our wedding, because that’s a practice that we don’t think makes sense for us. She is not property, and I’m not prepared to take ownership.

 

We can also choose how to interpret our traditions. (For other couples, being “given away” may mean something else.) It seems sad to me when we follow a tradition without knowing why we are doing it. Then we are connecting to nothing. But we also can change the meaning to suit the modern world. The Jewish tradition of crushing a glass underfoot at the conclusion of the ceremony has multiple interpretations. Some say it represents the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Others say the breaking of the hymen. I heard one Rabbi say that the marriage should last as long as it would take to reassemble the glass, split into many shards. I’m inclined to believe the research that suggests the practice originated a way to trick evil spirits. If they saw that a glass was broken, they would decide that enough trouble had been caused at this wedding and move on to another.

 

We probably won’t be breaking any glasses, but we will be choosing our traditions, and thinking about what they mean. We may even adopt some traditions that no one in our families has ever practiced. What matters is that they mean something to us.

 

To that end, please share with us any and all traditions that you have seen or practiced. We’d love to hear about them.

 

Hans and Chloe' at Smith College 2007

 

Tomorrow: Traditions as equilibria, or ways of selecting from among multiple equilibria.

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