In my first year of graduate school, my Intercultural Communications professor told a story about traditional coupling practices that historically took place in some Native American cultures. According to folklore, when a couple was to be engaged, they would spend time together in silence. The idea was to see if the couple felt a comfort with each other naturally, and without the reinforcement of words.
In Japan, kokuhaku, which literally means “confession,” refers to the declaration of love made by a person for another, when they wish to make a relationship commitment. It is usually performed by men, although it is not uncommon for women to also make the declaration. In a culture where public displays of affection are not common, its significance should not be taken for granted.
In many African cultures, including mine (Urhobo people of Nigeria), distinctive cultural practices about love, mainly entail marriage. A common practice is the idea of the bride price or dowry. This involves a formal request to a daughter and her parents, to enter into a marriage, from a son and his in-laws, who may speak on his behalf. The son and his family usually offer the daughter’s parents gifts and libations during this traditional engagement process. It is important to note that in many cultures, after the first visit (the “proposal”), the daughter’s permission has to be granted (the “acceptance”) for the process to continue.
In a world that is largely influenced by Western and especially (mainstream and white) American exports – including perception and practices of love – how other cultures traditionally exhibit love and commitments can be deemed everything from “weird” to “backward”. But I wager that how a culture practices love and commitments is not only something to learn from, for the sake of knowledge. But in our modern times of Tinder, hook ups, the commercialization and commodification of the dating process, etc., different cultural practices can allow us to see our dating practices in a new light.
When my grandmother was alive (she passed away less than two years ago), I would half-jokingly tell people I couldn’t use modern dating apps because I would never be able to explain it to her. Quite literally, I am uncertain whether the Urhobo language could accurately describe that process of dating. Of course, this was mostly my way of trying to avoid the modern dating technology altogether, and feeling justified in doing so.
It would be disingenuous to say that my grandmother would have been against modern dating technology. I don’t know. Cultural practices of arranged marriage was something that she might have understood. Explaining that the technology was sort of like, “arranged dating” might have made sense to her. But I do know that modern experiences of feelings-free physical intimacy, love without commitments, and what often feels like the tyranny of choice (of potential love), would definitely not have made sense to her. They barely make sense to me.
My personal convictions aside, as a mere servant of cultural phenomena, modern love, for all its proclaimed freedoms from the chains of societal structures and traditions, hasn’t made modern people any happier. It doesn’t appear to have made the commitments we make more steadfast – our societal marital failures are evidence of that – and I would feel confident in proposing that if you ask most young adults whether “traditional” dating and finding love was easier in their parents generation compared to their own, they would say “Yes.”
Of course, the rise of women’s rights and women’s entrance into the modern workforce has to be accounted for in any analysis of modern love. Many women simply don’t have to make romantic commitments in order to participate adequately in society. For the sake of career, and perhaps as a result of the decline of the closeness of physical communities, romantic commitments take longer to formalize. In the final analysis however, many people if not most people, still might say that they want a romantic commitment at some point in their lives, even if it might look and actually be different from their parent’s and/or grandparent’s commitments.
In learning of the way different cultures – ancient and modern – practice(d) love and commitments, there are lessons that might enable us to rethink our modern love and commitments in contemporary American culture. The most notable observation, as described in the cultures that were cited at the beginning of this essay – Native American, Japanese, and some African cultures – is that there is a particular kind of attention given to the time taken to do love.
In the folklore example of Native American tradition, spending time in a deliberate and conscious manner is important in getting to know the other person. But in that cultural space, it’s not a defined time, or a set time, it a time that is. (Native Americans view time circularly rather than longitudinally.) In Japan, there is the act of declaration or kokuhaku, and prior to it, involves taking the time to fall for someone, and then working up the courage to publicly ask for a commitment. In African cultures, there is time spent between in-laws in seeing how the lives of not only the son and daughter fit, but how the families fit together.
In many cultures, including the ones noted here, we see that time is of the essence. But what time really represents in these examples is effort, and effort is the factor, I would argue, that is greatly lacking in modern love. Not just effort in the sense of taking time to get to know people in the ways that matter, but also in the effort of ultimately choosing someone intentionally, and the subsequent effort that arises from this choice. Perhaps even more than the sometimes misguided nostalgia attached to love in different eras, it is the showcasing of effort in love that this generation longs for.
In the midst of modern love, where desire often meets satisfaction perhaps too quickly, learning the language of love and commitments of different cultures can teach us that love, and oftentimes lasting love, is not an effortless choice, but a matter of sacrifice. Knowing this, I think, and admittedly, I hope, can allow us to rethink what we want from love, but also what love wants from us.