On cultural programming, or why a home is not necessarily a house


While writing why you probably can’t afford to buy a home, I found myself subconsciously substituting the word “house” for the word “home.”

That article, one of the longest I’ve ever written for this site, has the word “home” appear about two dozen times. I probably had to consciously stop and substitute the word “home” back in half of those times.

I bring this up only because I found it fascinating how much these betray a cultural truth: when one talks about owning a home, it is assumed that they are talking about a house. Why is that?


A few years ago, the world hit a milestone: more people were living in cities than rural areas. This has been the case in the US for much longer. The reasons for this urbanization could fill a book, but the larger point here is that all those people need to go somewhere. With the increased density being a cornerstone of urban living, a city must grow up more than it must grow out. (Growing down hasn’t yet been seriously considered, but if any place will, it’ll be New York City.)

Long term trends indicate that the number of people living in each residence is decreasing, which, as inefficient as that may be, seems to be leading the trend toward tiny living: more units that are smaller.

More multi-unit dwellings doesn’t imply ownership though. The general trend for people today is to live in a rented apartment and then, when ready to buy, move to a house.

(Statistics on these topics are notoriously hard to pin down. If anyone has specific numbers to back some of these qualitative claims, I’d be happy to cite you/this.)

But I wonder if this trend will continue. It used to be that a house, typically in a non-urban setting, was seemed as a “safer” area, especially for child rearing. But attitudes are changing, and families are starting to move back to cities.

I was fortunate to grow up in a “streetcar suburb,” but many people I know who grew up in suburban or rural areas talk about a place with minimal cultural interaction, where you were trapped unless you could get access to a car. Safety to parents meant something very different to their children: a sterile environment that they couldn’t wait to leave.

(I realize that a house doesn’t imply rural or even suburban living, but because of the way we build our places, it often is that way.)

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With the intersection of these long-term trends, I predict that more households will start to buy and live in condominiums. Whether this becomes the norm, I don’t know. Since so much of the US is rural, I doubt that will happen anytime soon.

But even then, I wouldn’t be surprised if people continue to say that they are “buying a house,” even when it’s not a house. Because the words “house” and “home” have been linked for so long, I expect the word to provide the same function as the word “blueprint” does today. No one makes real blueprints anymore, but when people print out a large-scale drawing of something (on a xerographic process, inevitably) they still call it a blueprint.

Personally, I'm waiting for blueprints to become trendy again. Hipster Kinko's anyone? Photo courtesy of Brian Butko
Personally, I’m waiting for blueprints to become trendy again. Hipster Kinko’s anyone? Photo courtesy of Brian Butko.


We all just want to go house

One reason why this is so fascinating to me is that I’ve never even harbored any (at least consciously) strong feelings toward house (not home) ownership. I love houses, happily grew up in one, and enjoy being in them, but my mind always seems to wander to the burden of the physical plant. When I see a roof, I can help but think of repairs; when I see a lawn, I can’t help but think of lawn mowing and maintenance. And yet, here I am, talking about a “house” despite myself!

Clearly, we can’t change our cultural programming easily. What is more useful is for us to realize when we are buying into cultural assumptions. By saying “house” when I mean “home,” I’m saying a lot more than I intend to about our values and norms.

So homes aside, you should pay attention to your language and what it’s really saying.

But enough about me. What assumptions have you found yourself making with your words?

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