The student themself used the example of an Caribbean-American using the word “bacchanal” and an African-American not understanding the term as it was intended by the speaker.
Other examples include how for many of the world’s cultures a “lime” is a garnish rather than a gathering, how the word “sex” is used by men on a Trinbagonian small-goal football field, or further afield, why in some villages of south Asia your pack lunch, but no other meal of the day, will often have a small lump of coal on top of it?
These basic examples of incomprehension are evidence of different cultures meeting. In anthropology such rich points are described as carrying a “heavy cultural load”. They are often the moment where a cultural outsider does not have enough insider knowledge to explain or understand the term, action, or expression happening in front of them, and meaning breaks down.
For the most part people take for granted the many different cultures – national, ethnic, religious, geographical, class, gender, age, and much more – they are members of. Yet when a rich point occurs some of our invisible cultural jackets become apparent to others and ourselves.
In anthropological speak, a rich point is when one “languaculture” meets another. Languaculture is the idea that language isn’t simply about syntax, spelling and vocab. Speaking is also about background knowledge, cultural translation and local context.
At their most obvious rich points occur between large national cultures. For example, in 1999 during fieldwork into carnival fetes in Trinidad there was much talk coming off the stage about “horning.”
In the context of a party the use of the word appeared self-evident: at a fete people make noise by blowing horns. This was languaculture UK not being informed about languaculture T&T and in particular the local sub-cultures of carnival “fetein” and the local history of male/female relations.
But rich points aren’t just between national cultures they appear within them too. For example, do all members of T&T have the languaculture to understand why local footballers use the term “sex” for a skill on the field of play?
It might seem obvious, so perhaps they do. For any who don’t, further investigation revealed that the term emerged because it describes the action of putting a football through another man’s legs. This then comes to represent “opening your legs.” And perhaps on a symbolic level emasculating another man by making them a receiver of sex rather than a giver.
Within a hyper masculine context and psyche – or languaculture – such as a male field of sport this sort of makes sense. However, without the context it would remain quite odd phraseology.
Just for background, in Jamaica the same move is called a “salad”. While in the UK it is known as a “nutmeg”. Perhaps they are also sports terms to suggest emasculation but for now they are simply rich points and we cultural outsiders in need of a translator.
And that was anthropologist Michael Agar’s aim when he came up with the term rich points. He wanted to talk about cultural translation. Rich points recognise the fact that we are all members of multiple cultures; not just one, singular cultural group, as the traditional definition of culture falsely supposed.
A rich point often marks a breakdown in cross-cultural communication. It suggests cultural exclusion and confusion is based on a lack of insider knowledge of context and languaculture. Our day-to-day lives, even in an impressively multicultural twin-island nation, can be filled with rich points. We often don’t see them that way though.
For example, thinking another has made a mistake or error. Or that a phrase or word they use is silly or stupid. Writing off another’s behaviour because you think they don’t know any better. Or being suspicious of people because you think their actions indicate they are being devious. Even being prejudiced against a particular type of person. All of these situations might be exactly as you first assume.
Equally many of these situations might be cultural rich points. Moments where people as members of many different cultures at once, bump into each other, and lack elements of the languaculture needed to translate and understand what is going on.