One man and three women on a rowing boat


It was a beautiful sunny day and a man took his mother, wife and daughter for a trip on his rowing boat. All four people were delighted by this short voyage. But suddenly the weather deteriorated and a heavy storm set in. The boat came in great difficulties and eventually overturned and sank. The man, although equipped with strong arms, could carry only one of the three women with him swimming ashore. Which of the three did he take back to safety?

Roughly speaking, the choices people make facing this tragic dilemma depend partly on their cultural background. Many people spontaneously choose the daughter, because she has a future life as a young lady. Others go for the mother as she is the only one from this trio who is irreplaceable. Indeed, the man can remarry and have kids again with his new wife, but he cannot replace his sole and only mother. Incidentally, few people vote for the wife; she is apparently nr 3 in the triad…

This story gives an indication of how people view the chronology of past, present and future. In Western, somehow future-oriented cultures, most people vote for the daughter because “the future belongs to the young”. In other cultures, many view the past as important and go for the mother. Consider this African proverb: “Everybody has been young before, but not everybody has been old before” illustrating the importance of a longer past in the lives of the people. These cultures value seniority, old age and grey hair (eminence grise).

This riddle is originally Moroccan. When asking the Moroccans about their choices, you get various answers, as I experienced recently in a class. Because it is not only cultural as I mentioned above , but also generational. Hence, young Moroccans easily go for the daughter, too; but they fully understand that others (i.e. their parents) would choose the mother.

Story telling is used more and more in (intercultural) education. Stories often reveal more than a long theory and are generally very much appreciated by the learners who usually recall them well. In a next episode, we will look at other aspects of time: deadlines. Remember that if you don’t respect them, you’re dead!

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