How to incorporate proverbs into Western culture

When I was first getting to know the man who would later become my husband, I remember being impressed by his uncanny knowledge of English cliches and phrases.

“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush!” he’d say. Or, “After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day!”

Especially since English wasn’t his first language, this seemed amazing to me. How could someone know such phrases unless one had grown up with them?

It turns out that before he even came to the United States, my husband had been studying English cliches – “proverbs,” as he called them.

In the culture where he grew up, all the elderly people (who are shown great respect, by the way) speak in proverbs. Many of them won’t speak to you except in proverbs…and sometimes they’ll say only part of the proverb, not even the full sentence.

Even to this day my husband will translate for me some of the proverbs he learned as a child. One of my favorites, which he will often cite: “A white chicken doesn’t know his age.”

Now city slicker as I am, I don’t often see chickens that are still alive, let alone a white (elderly) one. So I wouldn’t really know how a white chicken is supposed to behave.

If an elder said to me, “Listen to my words, young lady – a white chicken doesn’t know his age!” I would be at a loss for suitable rejoinders. (“Uhh…thanks…I’ll keep my eyes open for a pink one, then.”)

The hidden meaning, apparently, is this: It’s important that you act appropriately, according to whatever lifestage you’re in.

I confess I used to think proverbs rather silly. Why not just come to the point and say whatever you want to say? And even now, I think openness and transparency in everyday communication are generally very good things.

But I’ve learned a lot through my multicultural marriage, enough to admit that I was wrong. One can find beauty and wisdom nestled within a proverb, that little mystery that beckons us to pause, reflect and search for the hidden meaning.

So here’s my “how-to” list to incorporate more proverbs into our Western, everyday lives:

  • Look for the poetic amid the prosaic. What has struck me about these proverbs is how they take everyday, relatively unchanging things and find universal truths in them. I can’t imagine making a proverb about a washing machine, for instance, since the way we launder will probably change in several centuries’ time. But I can find proverbs about “teaching a man to fish,” or “nothing new under the sun,” etc. – things that won’t change in 100 years or so.
  • Keep a journal for metaphors and similes. Sometimes it will take hours for me to come up with an appropriate metaphor, so oftentimes I just give up before I think of one. But when I take the time to write one down, to sit and stare at a blank piece of paper (and scratch out two or three other attempts) until the appropriate metaphor comes, it’s always been well worth it. These metaphors can become proverbial phrases that hold special meaning for you, and anyone else with whom you choose to share them, for years to come.
  • Listen to those who speak in riddles. Hey, sometimes imitation truly is the sincerest form of flattery. And if you stick long enough around people who love proverbs (such as yours truly), some of that wordy goodness is bound to rub off on you.

Have proverbs and other wise sayings played an important role in your life? If so, what were they? Feel free to share!

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About multiculturalmarriage

I'm glad to be part of a multicultural marriage! I grew up in the U.S. but am married to an African husband. This makes life challenging, creative and cool - all at the same time!
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