Spaghetti, Syrup, and Escalators: Interpreting Culture Shock in "Elf"

The movie Elf wouldn't be so funny if it didn't contain a surprising element of truth. I mean, yes, pouring maple syrup on spaghetti is really funny, but is it that far-fetched? Americans eat waffles and syrup, sweet and sour pork, and other combinations of sweetness and carbohydrates, so why not syrup and spaghetti?
It's still gross (and funny) to imagine putting syrup on spaghetti, so perhaps a better example of the power of social convention is the lesson Buddy (Will Ferrell) gets from his human brother about proper dating etiquette. The brother tells Buddy that he should take his female co-worker on a date by asking her "to eat food," but it has to be "real food, not candy." The movie is again making a joke by pointing out that a custom Americans take for granted seems arbitrary and strange from a kid or elf's perspective. What makes this joke especially interesting, though, is that it exposes a puzzle in American culture: Why does our culture tell us to to eat nothing but sweets for other rituals, but not first dates? After all, Americans offer and consume pure candy on other ritual occasions, such as Valentine's Day, and these sweet rituals make perfect sense from a biological perspective: attraction to sweet tastes is one of the few biological universals we humans (raised by humans) share. So why don't we sip maple syrup or Coca Cola, and nibble on fine chocolates, on first dates?

There's an even better authority here than mere biological science: Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting. In the Harvard bar scene in this movie, after Skylar (Minnie Driver) gives Will (Damon) her phone number, she says, "Maybe we could go out for a cup of coffee sometime?"

"Great," Will says, "Or maybe we could go somewhere and just eat a bunch of caramels."Skylar is baffled, so Will explains, "When you think about it, it's just as arbitrary as drinking coffee."

Will is making a reasonable anthropological point: American culture has some weird rules for the ritual consumption of food and drink.

I'm not trying to convince readers to run out and eat caramels or put syrup on their spaghetti, I'm just saying that Elf exposes the cultural nature of American customs that are usually taken for granted, from food habits to escalators. Buddy reminds us that an escalator really is a scary machine with gnashing metal teeth, a modern contraption that is literally and metaphorically "earth-shattering." His escalator ride creates a perfect body metaphor for the disorientation caused by culture shock.


That’s what culture shock does at its best: it gives us a fresh way to see things, including escalators and hyperbolic advertisements for the “world’s best cup of coffee.” ("You did it! Congratulations!")

The popularity of movies like Elf shows that people enjoy culture shock for the sheer joy of surprise and illumination. Even neuroscience research proves comedy and cognition are linked: on fMRI tests, the same parts of research subjects’ brains light up when they solve word puzzles and when they watch videos of stand-up comedy. In the best comedies, like Elf, we're laughing and thinking at the same time.

Of course, one could also argue that this movie masks the nasty underbelly of Christmas: the rampant materialism made possible by sweat shop labor, which we don't have to feel bad about because these are happy elf-workers, all chained to their little stations in the North Pole. Sorry, taking the analysis in that direction would be like crying, "Bah, humbug," so I want to end with a more uplifting, personal story about Christmas and escalators...

Several years ago, after Christmas vacation, I was flying out of Newark Airport, not far from New York City, where Buddy the Elf had his adventures. I always love airports—the intersection of cultures, the people in transition—but the Newark Airport is fairly large and impersonal, and on this particular morning, it was filled with long lines and grumpy people. I overheard one passenger say to a counter attendant, "How friggin' rude."  I myself was low on sleep and rushing to catch a flight back to Oregon, so I tried to keep my head down and not interact with anyone.
Newark Airport, Manhattan in background. Credit Ramriot, Flckr.
When I got to the foot of an escalator, though, a South Asian woman in a sari tapped me on the shoulder and I had to stop. She couldn’t speak English, but she smiled broadly and then started to guide the hand of her small son, about 4 years old, toward me. A couple confusing possibilities raced through my mind. Was this a trick to exploit my sympathy for a mother and her little kid, who was, in fact, adorable? Did she not know how to find her gate? Did she lose something inside the escalator?

She just kept smiling, offering me the little boy’s hand, and speaking in an incomprehensible foreign language. Then I figured out the problem. She had two little boys (her other son was even younger) and a large suitcase. She couldn’t hold onto her two sons' hands and the suitcase while riding the escalator. She was forced to do what no mother should ever have to do: ask a stranger to take her little boy's hand in a crowded public place.

Suddenly it all  made sense, and I felt like a total jerk for having distrusted her. Of course I agreed to help.

When the boy put his small hand in mine, the harsh airport atmosphere melted away and I felt it—pure human connection.

Riding up the escalator, the little boy held my hand and looked back and forth between me, the moving stairs, and his mother, standing right behind him, whispering words of assurance. Near the top, as the stairs disappeared into thin air, he showed no signs of stepping off, so I picked him up high in the air and set him back down on the ground when we got to the end, as if this were a little game. Once the boy got a couple years older, he'd surely master the escalator and treat it like a joyride, but at that point he just looked confused.

I wanted to make sure they made it to their gate safely, and suddenly wished I could find out all about them—where they came from, where they were headed, who was waiting for them on the other side. But the mother just mumbled a quick thank you, took her boy’s hand, and sped off in the opposite direction.

I never saw that mother and her boys again, but I've thought about them many times. I hope they reached their destination.

Christmas should be like my escalator ride with that boy—moments that move the ground beneath our feet.


Journal Article (for the anthro fanatics):
If you want an anthropological analysis of "culture contact" in a different (yet strangely related) context, see “What’s So Funny about First Contact?” Visual Anthropology Review 22:14-33, 2006. In this journal article, I analyze a documentary about first contact in the 1930s between Australian goldminers and aboriginal peoples in Papua New Guinea, especially in terms of audience perceptions and Westerners’ fascination with technology as a ritual of supremacy, but also as a source of surprise and “wonder."

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