Circles of obligation

If you’re a typical Nigerian, and intend to have a small wedding, you’re thinking maybe 300 guests. In the UK that’s a big wedding. 

The reason? 

Circles of obligation are smaller in the UK than in Nigeria.

That’s my theory. 

Circle of obligation is my name for the number of people who can make personal demands on you and expect you to take them seriously—the people you’re obliged to. And in many non-Western cultures, they tend to be large, but they’re smaller in Western ones. 

Growing up as a child, one of my mother’s sisters lived with us. Soon after she moved out, another sister moved in. Then my dad’s brother joined her. Both moved on, and then my mother’s brother spent a bit with us. And that’s not counting other family members, from cousins to vague relatives.

All before I was 10. And on it went. 

When I finished medical school, I had to work far from home. As it turned out, my mom’s brother lived near the clinic I worked at, so I moved to live with his family. Then I changed jobs and the second sister happened to live near there, so I stayed with her family before moving to a place of my own. And with both families I stayed with, other people came and went while I was there. 

If you’re Nigerian you’re familiar with this state of events, of course. The circle of who you’re obliged to host in our homes is larger than just the person you marry and the kids you have together. It extends to anyone in your family. And in cultures like ours, “family” is a wide word. 

It wasn’t as if the people I stayed with were thinking of paying back my parents. It’s just what we do. Our circles of obligation are simply larger. 

It’s why we expect work colleagues to show up for our birthday parties and family funerals. 

It’s why we expect to pay for everyone’s dinner when we turn a year older—just as we would if we were celebrating anything else. 

It’s why many of us grew up with the idea that you cooked more food than the number of people in the house could eat—because anyone could show up without warning, and of course you hosted them, because of course. 

And so on. 

Imagine my shock, of course, coming to the UK and finding like many Nigerians have for generations before me that you were expected to pay for your own dinner when you went for someone’s birthday, that you couldn’t just visit your own friend without booking an appointment, and when that friend was getting married, he’d happily tell you but not expect you at the reception he didn’t invite you to.

It’s one thing to know that’s how things are done. It’s entirely another to realise simply knowing that’s just the culture here didn’t stop me feeling a bit weird at first. Because it’s not just about what I knew or didn’t, it was really about what my assumptions are about how relationships work. 

It was in trying to really define what those assumptions were that I came to see that it came down to circles of obligation.

Where the circles were smaller you might expect a greater sense of independence and individuality, since you were obliged to far fewer people. The flip side might be loneliness and even despair. 

And where the circles were larger, you might expect a greater sense of belonging and community, but it might also feel interfering or even suffocating.

In both cases, whichever one you grow up in shapes your assumptions about what you expect from people, and who you believe can expect things from you. In general, larger circles prevail pretty much everywhere, from South America to Africa and Asia. The significant exception seems to be the West, where smaller circles seem to prevail. And especially in the historically Protestant West, given how Italy, Spain and Greek seem to tend culturally toward larger circles.

At any rate, while I obviously prefer the larger circles of obligation I was brought up in, I realise that is due in large part to familiarity, and certainly appreciate the value of smaller circles. I do think, though, that when we Nigerians long for smaller weddings, it would do us good when we long for the intimately small weddings from the movies we love, to remember that there’s a good reason our weddings are often so large.

It’s easy to so focus on the flaws of a thing that we miss its forte.

Published by Doc Ayomide

I’m a medical doctor with specialty training in psychiatry, and I love thinking and writing about what it means to be human.

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  1. Great read, Doc! Having grown up in the west, I’ve had a much different experience in regards to extended family. You did a great job of explaining your situation, how it happens, and why it matters. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Doc, loved it! It’s definitely a cultural artifact that gets lost in the west. We had a huge wedding (250 ppl) when we got married and it’s been a discussion amongst my wife and I for years. Thank you for writing about it.

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