On Display: Social and Cultural Dimensions of Consumer Behavior in the Greek Saloni

Janeen Arnold Costa, University of Utah, USA
[ to cite ]:
Janeen Arnold Costa (1989) ,"On Display: Social and Cultural Dimensions of Consumer Behavior in the Greek Saloni", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, eds. Thomas K. Srull, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 562-566.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, 1989      Pages 562-566


Janeen Arnold Costa, University of Utah

Greeks acquire and use specific objects for display in their parlor, or saloni. In this paper, I examine the social and cultural aspects of this consumption process. Several contrasting dimensions, including male and female, public and private, tradition and change, Greek and foreign, sacred and profane, among others, meet in the goods Greeks place in this room. As such, the consumer behavior particular to the saloni acquires and expresses unique meaning, representing both societal division and integration.

Following prescribed notions of Greek hospitality, the woman ushered me into her -- saloni, or parlor, the one room in the Greek home set aside for public occasions and the place guests on their first visit are invariably entertained. I glanced about, taking in the customary furnishings: the large table in the center of the room, a sideboard adorned with nicknacks and family photographs, sofas and chairs pushed up against the walls, bedecked with crocheted doilies and embroidered linens. But my attention was immediately caught by an item which seemed out of place; in the center of the table stood an orange and gold "lava lamp," the likes of which I had not seen since a visit to some obscure doctor's office at the age of 10 or 11.

I felt transported to that dimly lit office, the green vinyl couch, the end table cluttered with magazines, and the magical lamp with its fluid rising and falling, the bubbles stretching and breaking slowly, continuously, monotonously. Yet I was in Greece, some 8,000 miles and 20 years from that doctor's office. When I exclaimed with surprise and pleasure at the familiar object, my Greek hostess obligingly plugged the lamp in, and I was again caught up in the liquid's mesmerizing motions. Having left the room, the woman returned a few moments later, not with the expected drink and sweets with which all guests are welcomed, but with another light to be activated, this one an interesting device which produced whirling colored lights on the room's walls.

Edified by my response to the lava lamp, she searched my face eagerly for a similar positive reaction to the new object. I sought to reassure her, "Yes, it's lovely." Then, "Where did you get these things?" "Oh, Yianni brought them back from America. He went there with the ships," she replied (excerpted from author's Field Journal, 1980, Greece).

This paper illustrates the fruitfulness of an approach which analyzes the cultural matrix of observed consumer behavior. Utilizing social anthropological tools and theory, the consumer behavior is viewed as meaningful in the context of Greek social organization and processes of cultural change. Wallendorf and Arnould "contend that attachment to objects as symbols of security, as expressions of self-concept, and as signs of one's connection to or differentiation from other members of society is a usual and culturally universal function of consumption" (1988, p. 532). In this article, I explore the consumption process in Greek society involving the acquisition and use of culturally favored items as this process relates to relevant roles, gender and status distinctions, cognitive and spatial domains, familial/community interactions, and the effects of Western acculturation on Greek society.

In his 1987 ACR Presidential Address, BeLk suggests several "macro consumer behavior issues" not yet fully explored in the literature. Among the questions posed for fruitful research is: "How do consumption objects become symbols of wealth, age, sex, political preference, and other statuses?" (Belk 1987, p. 2). In response to this question, I have analyzed the symbolic associations with respect to gender, and relative prestige within the Greek community, as expressed through items placed in the saloni or parlor. This paper investigates the nature of material objects purchased for or made for the purpose of display in the Greek parlor, with the underlying premise that such objects represent the image which the family and individual wish to present to the outside world (see Goffman 1959; Wallendorf and Arnould 1988). In this context, the objects chosen for display are best understood as symbolizing the fulfillment of appropriate male and female roles within the family. In addition, the change in the actual objects, representing increasing contact with Western society, is analyzed both in terms of altered consumption patterns and with respect to emerging variations in Greek men's roles. I contend that the phenomena explored here--the purchase and use of items as associated with public presentation of self and the effect of Western acculturation on consumer behavior in Greece--provide important data which have implications for consumer research in general.

The data for this paper were collected in predoctoral and post-doctoral anthropological fieldwork periods in Greece from November 1979 through October 1980, and during the summers of 1986 and 1987. I visited numerous small Greek villages, and spent extensive amounts of time in three specific villages, from which the majority of data is drawn. The ethnographic research methods utilized were participant-observation, where the anthropologist participates as fully as possible in the lives of the people under study, and unstructured in-depth interviews. The latter are particularly well-suited to the Greek cultural context where fluidity and informality are stressed and structured questionnaires are inappropriate. In the many interviews with informants, I asked questions concerning the origin and use of specific objects in the saloni (parlor). I was able to participate in each home as a guest received in the saloni on my first visit. Additionally, I attended numerous events, particularly during the Christmas, Easter, and summer periods, when the saloni is the site for celebrations or visits from migrants returning briefly to the village, and for baptisms, weddings, and name-days. As an economic anthropologist, I was particularly concerned with these events as they related to production, distribution and consumption. This paper focuses primarily on the variables of the consumption process.


Greek space has often been described as divided into public and private domains. In looking at a Greek village, for example, the village square, or plateia, the stores, the streets, the restaurants and coffee shops, and the church courtyard are all classified as part of the public realm. The private domain includes most parts of the village homes and walled courtyards. In Greek cognition and behavior, the public sphere is associated with men and the private area is associated primarily with women (Friedl 1962; Campbell 1964; du Boulay 1974; Hoffman 1974; Dimen 1977; Hirschon 1978; Dubisch 1986).

The public and private arenas are, at least at first glance, mutually exclusive domains. Men frequent the coffee shops, work in the fields, hold discussions in the village square, stroll up and down the streets, and confer in the church courtyard during services. Their time at home is limited and separate from that of the rest of the family. Men and women eat at different times, and men are seldom at home in the evenings. They may spend time in the courtyard adjoining the house in the late afternoon, but only when they need to repair their tools or to drink a quick cup of strong Greek coffee before setting off for the coffee shops or square. At this time, the courtyard, usually associated with women, becomes the domain of the man. Again, however, his presence there is fleeting. The quickness of his movements within the house and the lack of conversation seem to indicate his sense of not belonging to that private domain.

Women, on the other hand, often seem to feel uncomfortable in the public domain. They walk quickly across the church courtyard, stand awkwardly at the edge of the village square, and seldom set foot in the coffee shops, and then only when accompanied by their husbands on occasional public appearances together. Their activities and social interactions center around the home, although the village ovens and cemeteries are traditionally part of their domain.

Within buildings, some portions or rooms may be set aside as male or female spheres. For example, in the village church, the men stand on one side and toward the front, often closer to the altar and sanctuary, where women are not allowed at all. The women stand on the other side and toward the back of the church with their children. In many small village churches, the women's section is situated in a way that precludes direct observation of the ceremonies. In a coffee shop or restaurant, women may come through the back door and congregate in the kitchen. In the home, similarly, the kitchen is the province of women, while the saloni (parlor) is associated more with men.

In addition to the division of space into male and female, objects are also divided on the basis of gender and reflect and reinforce the public/private division as well. The tools required for work outside the home, for farming, for the care of work animals, for fishing, and--in those regions affected by modernization--the car, are all men's possessions. The women own the tools and appliances associated with the kitchen and their tasks in the home. In some villages, women are said to own the homes, which they pass on to their eldest daughter. Even in areas where female inheritance of homes has not generally i been the case, female home ownership is increasing as providing a house, apartment, or addition to the parental home becomes a necessary and prestigious part of the inheritance (dowry) given to a daughter at marriage. Animals may be owned separately also, with the work animals belonging to the men, and the milk goats, chickens, and housecats owned by women. It appears, then, that men usually own those things which "establish a family outside the home" (Hoffman 1974, film narration). Some theorists have gone so far as to claim that "all valuable items belong to men' (ibid.).


The saloni, in contrast to the kitchen, is associated primarily with men and is, in a sense, the public part of the private domain of the home. While some have analyzed this room as entirely the male's arena, however, I contend it is the one place in the village where both the men and women of the family participate together regularly in a public sphere. As such, the items chosen for display in this public room have special meaning. As we shall see, much of this meaning derives from the public presentation of objects which represent contrasting dimensions in Greek life. Some theorists have suggested that meaning is uniquely generated "by joining opposites in unity" (Avery and Peacock 1980, p. 197). The objects in the saloni symbolize male and female, tradition and change, village and migrant, homemade and store-bought, among other oppositions, to be explored presently. In the utilization of these objects in presenting the individual/familial "self" to the public, Greeks are emphasizing the importance of these structural characteristics of their society.

In most homes, the saloni is usually locked or i at least considered "off limits" for everyday affairs. The general and daily activities of the household take place in the less formal setting of the kitchen, while the saloni is reserved for auspicious occasions involving the interface of the family and the community. As indicated in the opening passage, guests on their first visit to the home are entertained in the saloni. The hostess ushers her guest(s) into the room, seats them at the table, and retreats momentarily to return shortly with a drink and sweet. It is expected that the woman will always have something to serve readily available, and her prestige within the community is partly based on her ever-ready hospitality. Both the sweet and type of drink vary, although it is traditional, particularly in the summer months, to provide a glass of water and a spoonful of thick vanilla syrup or preserves. The guest quickly eats the spoonful of sweets, drinks the water, and places the empty spoon in the empty glass as a sign of having been well received. In addition to first visits, the saloni is used to entertain friends who have left the village as migrants and return infrequently. The use of the saloni in this case again emphasizes its special, public nature. - The saloni is used also to celebrate the socially recognized events which represent the continuing life stages of family members, particularly the males. On the occasions of baptisms, weddings, and male namedays, the saloni is used to entertain the numerous individuals who drop in to offer their congratulations to the family and its members. At these times, the saloni is literally the site which represents the family's place in the community. The family invites society into this room as a gesture of social solidarity, the community returns the gesture by attending the events, and the relative level of the family's prestige in the community is validated both by the behavior of the family's members and, importantly, by the objects displayed and the refreshments served in the saloni. As with favored objects in other societies, these goods "serve simultaneously to express integration and differentiation" (Wallendorf and Arnould 1988, p. 538).

The refreshments served to guests are an important part of the public display function of the room. Typically, elaborate Greek pastries or Italian-style "tortes" are served. The women of the home usually prepare the sweets, although it is becoming more common to order and purchase a cake or sweets from one of the local confectioners. In villages without a confectionary, arrangements are sometimes made to bring in a torte or other sweet from a nearby town or city, either on a bus, by taxi or by ferry boat. The relative prestige associated with serving homemade versus store-bought confections varies according to the characteristics emphasized. The qualities of the homemaker in terms of the amount of work and relative skill which are required to make the sweet and the freshness of the ingredients are emphasized in evaluating the home-made confection. Alternatively, the store-bought confection is praised in terms of the modernity, the convenience, and the extravagance of purchasing an item.

Furthermore, the drink served on these occasions receives particular attention and is a basis on which the relative prestige of the family is evaluated. Although it is still common to make cherry and peach brandies, today these drinks often are considered inferior to expensive store-bought liqueurs. The more exotic the liqueur served, the greater is the amount of prestige accrued. Kumquat liqueur from Corfu, Amaretto from Italy, and other sweet liqueurs based on banana or orange extract are highly valued, as are whiskeys from foreign companies, such as Johnny Walker Black Label. Homemade brandies are usually left in the kitchen, while bottles of store-bought drinks are kept displayed in the saloni. These items are perceived as prestigious in terms of their high price and because they represent the "cosmopolitan" character of the family.

Since women own the things associated with the home, particularly the interior, it would seem that the items in the saloni would also be hers and represent women's activities and behavior. This assumption is borne out by observation of the objects traditionally found in this room. The saloni is customarily the place where both the dowry objects the wife brought with her in marriage and the items being collected for the dowries of maturing daughters are stored and displayed. The typical dowry includes a large quantity of items for the new home: sheets, blankets, carpets, floor coverings, mattress covers, tablecloths, napkins, towels, pillow cases, a wooden wardrobe, a bed, a table and chairs, and utensils for cooking and serving. In addition to hand-made items, young women's families.purchase dowry goods from traveling merchants, local shops, and on occasional trips to the larger towns and cities of Greece. Cash is increasingly important in the dowry and is used to purchase household Johnny when the couple settles the new home. In the 1980's, a family can be expected to provide a cash amount equal to one or more years of the father's income as part of the dowry for each daughter. In areas where agriculture is viable and when the relative wealth of the family allows it, parcels of land are also included.

The content and relative value of the dowry are indicators of a family's ranked position in the community. Wealthier families are expected to provide much larger dowries, for instance. Traditionally, marriage negotiations revolved around the dowry,- with the prospective groom's family demanding an increase in the size and value of the dowry, while the bride's family attempted to reduce the value by emphasizing such things as positive character attributes of the bride. Although dowry negotiations have been unlawful in Greece for the past decade, dowries are still provided and are used to gauge relative status within the community. As such, both the bride's family and the groom's family are eager to discuss the dowry in cases where the size and content of the dowry are sufficient to warrant public attention. It should be noted that some women do not come with dowries and some men are not in a position to ask for them because of the relative poverty of their families. As income sources change in Greece, however, this situation is less common than it once was (Costa 1983; McNall 1974).

Greece is a society in which responsibilities, behavior, and character are emphasized in designating individuals and families as "honorable" (see Campbell 1964; Peristiany 1965). Two of the most important duties of the males are to protect the chastity and fidelity of the females in the family and to provide daughters/sisters with an appropriate dowry. In this way, the dowry is an important group of objects as a source of prestige for all members of the family. Furthermore, as indicated above, the groom and his family derive prestige from the dowry as well. The dowry items displayed in the saloni symbolize the status and relative wealth of the bride's family, the groom's family, and the new family created through the marriage. As older items in the dowry wear out, new ones are brought from the cupboard to replace them. And, as mentioned above, the items being collected for the dowry of the maturing daughter of the family are also stored here, usually in a conspicuously displayed trunk purchased specifically for this purpose.

An important part of many salonia is the comer or other space set aside for the family's religious icons. Cardboard and painted images of saints, the Virgin Mary, Christ and other holy figures are placed together in this area, along with items which may include a small bottle of water blessed on Epiphany and used for healing purposes, a sprig of laurel or palm leaf cross distributed on Palm Sunday, a red Easter egg and Easter cookie saved from one year to the next as symbols of luck and rebirth, and a small glass container or "candili'' filled with olive oil in which a floating wick is lit on special occasions. The display of these items indicates the family's intimate connection to the beliefs and important figures in Greek Orthodoxy, much as the icon shelves in Mexico City discussed by Lewis (1969). Members of the family usually are named after and display the icon of their patron saint. The Virgin Mary symbolizes the sanctity and holiness of motherhood, a state women can approach only as they fulfill their societally sanctioned roles through bearing and raising children (du Boulay 1986).

In addition, several new objects have been added to many families' salonia. The lava lamp and "psychedelic" light mentioned in the opening passage are just two such items. Greek families now also choose to exhibit Mexican velvet paintings, artificial flowers, Chinese silk tablecloths and tapestries, large ceramic animals, and other art objects purchased in foreign ports. This choice of objects is intimately tied in with the socially valued economic strategy in which the mature males of a family "migrate to the ships."

Rural Greece has limited economic opportunities, and many villages have experienced considerable depopulation as a result of extensive out-migration; men have been the primary participants in this migration process. Particularly in coastal and island villages, the merchant marine is an important source of employment. In some areas, over 50 percent of the men have been sailors, navigators, or ship-captains at some point in time. A common labor cycle involves spending several months on international shipping lines, followed by a brief return to Greece and the home village before resuming employment on the ships. Visiting ports all over the world, sailors purchase goods, particularly art objects, which they present to their families when they return home. These objects are placed on display in the saloni and have a value which derives both from the migration process and from the relative prestige attached to foreign-made items.

Because Greece is a poor country with few natural resources, migration is perceived as an important avenue for upward social and economic mobility. The emphasis placed on migration in this century is reflected in such things as characteristics considered desirable in choosing a spouse, for example (see Costa 1983, pp. 24143). A man who has not migrated and/or has no plans for migration often is looked down upon, is seen as lacking in ambition and, in some cases, is said to be "not a sostos (right) man." The visible manifestation of his migration are the objects he brings back to the village, which are then displayed in the saloni. These objects symbolize his masculinity, and the exemplary way in which, as a migrant, the male is fulfilling his role as provider for the family.

Furthermore, most items manufactured outside of Greece have greater social value than Greek goods. Such items are more expensive, since the Greek government imposes import taxes which double or even triple the price of many foreign products. In addition, a perception of-life outside Greece-particularly in America or Western Europe--as more prestigious, is widespread and has a long history among the Greeks (Costa 1983, 1988a, 1988b). By extension, items produced in America and Western [ Europe also are more prestigious. Hence an individual [ who has traveled to these areas, has sufficient income I to purchase these goods, and/or recognizes the value i of a "cosmopolitan" lifestyle which the possession of these goods reflects, is likely to accrue greater prestige.

The television has been an important element in the saloni. The placement of the television, part I of the "world standard package" (Keyfitz 1982), seems to depend on the point in time when the family purchased the television and how long it has been in their possession. In 1*980, only a few families in the villages studied had a television set, and it was often conspicuously displayed as an object of value in the , saloni. Given the special uses of the saloni, however, I placing the television in this room meant that it was not available for use as often as many people desired. In order to avoid altering the sanctioned function of the saloni, many families moved the television to another part of the house. By the mid-1980's, more and more families were able to purchase a television. Since the prestige associated with possessing the television has decreased as more families buy the object, those who acquire a television now often ' forego the temporary placement of the appliance in t the saloni and situate it immediately in the kitchen.


In the presentation of self to general Greek society, individuals and families use objects in the saloni to represent several contrasting and important facets of Greek culture and to indicate their participation in these facets and the fulfillment of their appropriate roles as men and women. The opposing dimensions are united through the placement of specific objects in a room which represents, in itself, a meeting-place of the public and private domains. The paired oppositions represented by saloni goods are summarized in Table 1.



By displaying these objects, the family presents itself as a unified whole to the rest of society. But, it is a whole which encompasses the relevant dualisms in Greek life. As such the items chosen for display and the process of exhibiting them acquire meaning. This research supports the contention, then, that "consumption is an activity by which consumers create intelligibility in the world and make visible and stable the categories of culture as they experience them" (Wallendorf and Arnould 1988, p. 533, summarizing Douglas and Isherwood 1979).


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