Why Proverbs and Sayings Go Viral

The Q Document (the source material for the Gospels of Matthew and Luke) is a collection of Jesus’s proverbs. Jesus’s own ministry was comprised of 1 to 3 years of short sayings including proverbs and the occasional long-form sermon. The Book of Proverbs is one of the “Three Poetic Books” of the Old Testament. Ecclesiastes 12:9 and 12:10 say:

In addition to being a wise man, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge; and he pondered, searched out and arranged many proverbs.

The Preacher sought to find delightful words and to write words of truth correctly.

Clearly the Abrahamic tradition is deeply rooted in proverbs, short concrete sayings that are widely known and repeated, and in the case of the Ministry of Jesus and the Q Document, proverbs evolved into the canonical religious literature of modern Christianity. Proverbs exist as folk knowledge in many cultures and diffuse across cultural and language boundaries with surprising ease as cultures adopt sayings from other communities and other languages.

What is it about the proverb medium that makes it so adept at surviving and evolving?

At their origin, most proverbs operate in an oral environment, and as such they display many of the same mnemonic traits necessary for purely oral retention and transmission such as alliteration, rhyme, and rhythm. They also display many of the content patterns common in other oral traditions including personification, and hyperbole. In fact most orally transmitted epic poems are constructed from “cliche” proverb building blocks, that is short, well-known and concrete sayings. I’ve written about oral tradition before, so I’m more interested in what makes proverbs special among all oral communications.

In a 1995 book titled Aging Families and Use of Proverbs for Values Enrichment Vera R. Jackson proposed that social exchange theory is an appropriate model for understanding why proverbs are transmitted in families and close groups:

Exchange theory suggests that families will continue to do what hey found rewarding in the past. If an individual adopts a believe in a proverb, and receives a certain amount of pleasure (healthy or unhealthy) that individual will be more includes to share the proverb with other family members. Moreover, once there is a family acceptance of a proverb, families are less likely to consider other proverbs outside of those they already believe in.

Social exchange theory’s seminal work is Social Behavior as Exchange by George C. Homans. In it, he describes how social behavior is a form of exchange similar to operant conditioning:

… the more valuable the sentiment or activity the members exchange with one another, the greater the average frequency of interaction of the members.With men, as with pigeons, the greater the reinforcement, the more often is the reinforced behavior emitted. The more cohesive a group, too, the greater the change that members can produce in the behavior of other members in the direction of rendering these activities more valuable.

Like other oral communications including urban legends, slang, and gossip, proverbs often exhibit The Goliath Effect, in that they express folk discontent against structures and identities perceived to be over-powerful and negative. In the article Tensions in Proverbs: More Light on International Understanding Joseph Raymond discusses proverbs as “paremiological revolt”:

To avoid openly criticizing a given authority or cultural pattern, folk take recourse to proverbial expressions which voice personal tensions in a tone of a generalized consent.

The Nazi’s put a great deal of time and energy into using proverbs as weapons against the Jews, and rather than create new phrases, they created artificial evolutionary pressures that favored antisemitic proverbs. Wolfgang Mieder explored the Nazi’s use of proverbs in depth in his 1982 article Proverbs in Nazi Germany: The Promulgation of Anti-Semitism and Stereotypes Through Folklore.

They created collections of existing proverbs that could be spun by the Nazi’s as demonstrating pro-nationalistic ideals, either avoided mentioning Jewish-originated proverbs that had been popular in Germany or labeled them with warnings against their usage. Hitler and other Nazi leaders used these proverbs in speeches and as party slogans, the most well known example being the slogan “common good before individual good.” These collections and uses had the evolutionary effect of selecting for existing proverbs which favored the Reich’s positions.

Proverbs are an ancient and powerfully virulent way of communicating personal, religious, cultural and political ideals that social & viral marketers should be aware of.

What is your favorite proverb?

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