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#23 The Wedding

Something borrowed, something blue, something that explains why weddings look the way they do. Part 2 of the story of Sue and Austin’s wedding.

October 18, 2016
View show transcript


PRODUCER: What’s happening now.

DJ: The bride is coming down the aisle.

PASTOR: The congregation may be seated.

RACHEL: Dearly beloved. We are gathered here today to celebrate the wedding episode of Surprisingly Awesome from Gimlet Media.

RACHEL: Who are you guys?

SUE: Hi I’m Sue Smith.

AUSTIN: And I’m Austin Rodrigues.

RACHEL: You’re still Sue Smith?

SUE: I’m a liberated woman.

RACHEL: And I am your officiant, Rachel Ward. And this week we are going to Sue and Austin’s wedding. If you didn’t hear the episode before this one, you might want to go back and listen, so you can get to know our bride and groom. On the last episode, we followed them as they planned for their wedding. We left off, just as they were hitting a big bump.


AUSTIN: Hey guys, I thought you might want to know that I got into a bike spill last night. I hit a rock on my way up the Williamsburg bridge and landed on my handlebars and the pointy end jabbed into my pelvis. And it hurt a lot.

RACHEL: Austin was worried he might be too hurt to do all the things he wanted to on his wedding day. But he was being really stubborn about getting help, until ….

AUSTIN: Via the encouragement of my wife and my sketch team Nipsey, UCB Theatre Monday 9:30, vape life. They told me I had to go to the doctor because I went to rehearsal the day after the bike accident and I was like pale and lethargic and like, in a lot of pain, so I went to the doctor. He was like there are no organs there it’s just a really bad bruise and you’ll be fine and sent me on my way.

SUE: I was very scared I made him go to urgent care.

RACHEL: It sounds kinda like his improv team made him go to urgent care.

SUE: Yeah he probably takes more stock in that.

AUSTIN: Uh, no it was on both of your urgings.

RACHEL: So with Austin mostly all healed up … the show goes on. And on our show today, we are going to be looking at the origins of what we consider the modern, secular American wedding. We’re going to look at wedding traditions — ones that Sue and Austin participated in, and ones that they passed on. Things like walking down the aisle, wearing a garter, and that famous old line about something borrowed and something blue…

There’s a LOT to unpack here, because it turns out that wedding traditions? They don’t come from one place. They’re a hodgepodge of things from all different places, all different times, all different social practices.

So throughout this episode, we’re going to be stepping back — to Ancient Greece, to the Middle Ages, to 19th century America — to understand what the weddings of yore have to do with the weddings of today. And to help with that we’re going to bring some experts to Sue and Austin’s wedding — specifically, a classical archaeologist and two historians.

And I also wanted to give a quick shout out to our queer listeners — we got your emails! And to make it clear for everyone, these traditions are used in lots of weddings, not just straight ones. But for now, let’s pick up where we left off. Right before Sue and Austin’s wedding.


SUE: We are heading up to the venue very early tomorrow morning and I’m feeling so relaxed actually and like calm and excited. I can’t wait to see everybody and have bonfires and stay in tents and see everyone I love and I think it’s gonna be great.

RACHEL: Suuuuure it will be.

AUSTIN: Rehearsal was a —

SUE: Shit show.

AUSTIN: Shit show.

SUE: Yeah.

RACHEL: Tell me about that.

AUSTIN: I’ve never been to a wedding rehearsal that wasn’t a shit show, though. So I feel ok.

SUE: No, but — can you imagine like, 10 comedians and performers trying to all make a
wedding happen, and tell — they were all trying to like, tell the pastor what to do (laughs)

AUSTIN: Yeah, well, we’re so used to directing our shows.

SUE: and then everyone had an opinion, I was like guys, shut up. (laughs)

RACHEL: A lot Sue and Austin’s wedding party came up to camp the night before, making a long weekend of it. And you may think this is really traditional, a wedding that basically takes up a whole weekend — rehearsal dinner, wedding day, maybe day-after brunch. And you may have complained about it — all the schlepping, and having to book multiple nights in a hotel yourself. But if you think that weddings go on for too long now … you would have HATED the middle ages.

DR. CORINNE WIEBEN: Oh yeah, the average wedding, sort of the process of getting married, can take weeks if not months in the Middle Ages if you want to be super formal about it.

RACHEL: This is Dr. Corinne Wieben, a professor of Medieval History at the University of Northern Colorado. Talking to her made us realize that weddings have changed a lot over human history … and that each time they took on a new form, it was because the meaning of MARRIAGE had changed. In the Middle Ages, that form was a wedding that took FOREVER — because they were basically contract negotiations. But of course, you didn’t have to be at that wedding for those weeks and weeks that it took to broker that deal.

DR. CORINNE WIEBEN: It’s more like a business merger than like a ceremony, in the way that we think of it now. So it requires a lot of negotiation. And you want lots of time to be able to think about this and think about what you’re doing.

RACHEL: Medieval weddings were different than modern weddings in a lot of ways. But the biggest way in which they were different than Sue and Austin’s is that they were primarily about transferring wealth. Whereas Sue and Austin’s wedding … sometimes it feels like it’s primarily about destroying wealth. And TRANSFERRING candles.

CHRISTINE: What are you carrying?

SUE: A huge box of candles. Because it’s like I tried to organize everything. But … it somehow is disorganized.

RACHEL: It’s the morning of their wedding. Sue and Austin get up to go work in the reception hall which in this case is a barn, because their wedding is taking place on a farm. The barn is beautiful — it has big chandeliers and sparkly lights strung across the rafters. But it’s a BARN on a FARM — so there’s a litter of barn cats underfoot everywhere. Next to the barn is a pen full of goats, and turkeys and roosters. Converting a barn into a party is a big task.

SHARON: And then, I just need to know the seating chart cause —

AUSTIN: I have it right here.

SHARON: Oh ok.

AUSTIN: So I can do this. I can set up the chairs.


SHARON: Ok, so we’ll all do it together.

SUE: Can you throw this on that table?

RACHEL: Sue and Austin are having 135 guests — the average, according to industry data, is 126. A good size for a party.

SHARON: (laughs) Ok. Alright so we’ll set up the chairs.

RACHEL: The stress in the barn is palpable. Sue and the bridesmaids pin up decorations, arrange candles and linens. Austin has the seating chart in one hand, and is using the other hand to unfold chairs and slide them up to tables. Over and over again … checks the chart, slaps down a chair. Checks the chair, slaps down a chair.

SUE: He’s so stressed. He’s never like that. He’s always really calm.

RACHEL: What do you think’s going on.

SUE: For him? He — he’s — he wants everyone to have a good time.

RACHEL: His stress levels are rising. But Sue’s are dropping.

SUE: There was a point where I had to stop setting up and go get my makeup done and just let got and let God.

RACHEL: Sue escapes the stress of the barn and heads into the farmhouse next door. She takes a seat in a director’s chair, facing a set of glass doors that look out onto the barn. She is calm.

RACHEL: You look like, sort of like, a Queen looking over your dominion right now.

SUE: Ah! My subjects. Of the barn! (laughs)

RACHEL: The mood here is GIDDY, as bridesmaids with curlers in their hair lounge around the kitchen, snacking on zucchini bread, and joking.

ANNA: That cat sat on my face at 4:30 in the morning. It was like humping my face.

SUE: You guys are married now.

ANNA: We’re married. I guess in cat world if you rub your butthole in someone’s face…then they’re your wife. They’re your wife! (laughter)

SUE: Anna this isn’t about you! (laughs)

RACHEL: The bridal party is in a silly mood … but Sue’s mother Ingrid, is a little more contemplative.

RACHEL: Sue, what are you looking forward to right now?

SUE: Um —

INGRID: I know the answer to that.

SUE: Wait, what?

RACHEL: Wait, Ingrid you know the answer to that?

INGRID: I think I do.

RACHEL: What is it.

INGRID: Well I can’t say it out loud!

RACHEL: Whisper it into the microphone and we’ll check it with Sue.

INGRID: When Austin sees her first she wants to make him cry.

RACHEL: Sue, what are you most looking forward to?

SUE: Looking hot in my dress and shoes. What did you say?

RACHEL: I think you guys had effectively the same answer.

PERSON1: She said making Austin cry when he sees you.

PERSON 1: Oh yeah Austin’s gonna be crying the most.

RACHEL: Sue and her mother talked about weddings a few weeks before the big day … but not about what traditions Ingrid is passing down to Sue. Because Ingrid didn’t have a big, traditional wedding when she married Sue’s father. It was much simpler. A district justice married them, with rings they’d stopped off at K-Mart to buy right before.

SUE: So it was just the two of you.

INGRID: The two of us. Just your dad and myself. And then after we got married, we did go over to Lenny and Nancy, were some friends of ours.

SUE: Lenny and Nancy, I’ve never heard of them. Who are Lenny and Nancy?

INGRID: We lost track of them when we moved away from Harrisburg.

SUE: Right. Why did you guys decide to get married.

INGRID: Well as you know I’m Canadian.

SUE: It was a green card marriage. I didn’t know that.

INGRID: Not necessarily. I would never have gotten married just for that reason. I mean there was a lot of love involved too. But it just made things easier.

RACHEL: Ingrid’s wedding to Sue’s dad might not have been that traditional … but there are traditions that she’d like for SUE to take part in. She pulls out a small box, covered in writing … in German.

RACHEL: What — what is this?

SUE: My grandmother’s garter.

PERSON 1: Oh my God, can you see it?

SUE: But what does it say in German?

INGRID: Well, uh — the interpretation I’m not real sure of. Something about — she wrote this after 25 years. And she was talking about how marriage had changed over the years.

RACHEL: So your — your mother used this?

INGRID: My mother. They will be married 65 years next month.

RACHEL: And so why do we have it here right now?

INGRID: Cause initially Sue said she was gonna wear it.

RACHEL: it’s something borrowed and blue.

PERSON1: And old.

RACHEL: So what I’m referring to is that old rhyme, about what a bride should wear: something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. People tell brides they’re supposed to wear one of each of those things for luck. The origins of this saying are tough to pin down. The earliest published version we could find is in a book called “Folk-Lore of Women” by T – F Thiselton-Dyer — T – F Thiselton-Dyer cites it as something that brides said and did in 1906.

RACHEL: That tradition, of trying to have something from each of those categories — old, new, borrowed, blue — has continued since then … and as weddings became more commercial, people have found a way to cash in on the saying. In the 1950s, that interests in following that custom, and the interest in having a garter, like the one Sue’s grandmother wore… they came together — and many brides wore a blue garter. The custom spawned a niche industry of companies selling garters, and in 1952, the garter industry sold $175,000 worth of wedding garters.

RACHEL: But Sue will be using zero dollars worth of wedding garters. She’s not doing it.

INGRID: She told me she changed her mind about the garter thing. But I brought it anyway. So she may not wear it.

ANNA: Did you wear it.

INGRID: No. See that’s it. I didn’t wear it. And she was betrothing it to me, Which I never got the chance to wear it. And we found it, um, just recently, actually. My mother has Alzheimer’s and we were going through her stuff and I thought, Sue might wanna wear it. (starts crying)

RACHEL: Oh, Ingrid.

RACHEL: Weddings are emotional. It’s a time of transition and it’s a kind of rite of passage.

RACHEL: What did being a bride mean to you?

SUE: I mean it was nice to celebrate the marriage and celebrate the love, but I did feel like anytime I encountered a woman that I didn’t really know that well, I could instantly bond with her about this wedding thing, we could just like freak out and bride out about it. Um so it gives you that connection to other women which is cool. But I would hope there are other roles out there for women than bride, wife, mother.

AUSTIN: It’s really hard to find the line of femininity and getting married

SUE: Feminist

AUSTIN: Not feminisitity,

SUE: … cocity …

SUE: feministing

RACHEL: What Sue is reacting to is that a lot of wedding traditions, when you peel back their face, can seem sexist. Think about the garter toss. The groom reaches up under the bride’s skirt — in front of everyone, and slingshots the garter into a crowd of male wedding guests. What this actually symbolizes is proving that the marriage has been consummated. Proving that the bride was pure — that the groom is a stud. There are also variations on this practice.

AUSTIN: I had to do it once when I was a kid

SUE: No!

AUSTIN: Say I was 12-15, off of like a 30 year old woman … ‘cause there is this thing that if you take it over the knee you’re a bad boy.

SUE: Did you go over the knee? I’m sure you did.

RACHEL: The garter toss is a holdover from this whole category of rituals that don’t really happen anymore: bedding rituals. This is Dr. Vicki Howard, at the University of Essex.

DR. VICKI HOWARD: They are things like, sort of hazing a couple who are going to be sleeping together for the first time, on their wedding night. You know, accompanying them to the bed. Teasing them, having sort of a communal party in the bedroom around the people, around the couple.

RACHEL: The couple’s first night together is NOT a private affair. During the Middle Ages a witness to … that first night … was necessary to make a marriage official. The tamer version of this practice that eventually developed was for a bride to toss a garter out the window to say “look, leave us alone — we did it.” In the late 19th century, tossing the garter became ceremonial.

RACHEL: But no one’s getting their garter tossed just yet — metaphorically or actually. Back at the farmhouse, the bridesmaids have gone from giddy, to full on SQUEEEE, as Sue appeared in her dress for the first time.

BRIDESMAIDS: AHHHHHH PRETTY GIRL!!! Oh my God. Woo hoo. Whoa. Oh it looks perfect. Pretty girl. So pretty. Oh my God the ceremony starts in 10 minutes! Shut up.

RACHEL: For the groomsmen the mood was more methodical …

AUSTIN: Vows. Gum. Sunglasses. Phone for pictures. Got my watch, got my pocket square. I think I’m good.

RACHEL: More somber.

ANGELO: Do we do anything? Do you want a pep talk

AUSTIN: No I’m alright.

ANGELO: look at me do you want a pep talk? Do you need one?

AUSTIN: No I’m ok.

ANGELO: Ok let’s roll

AUSTIN: I guess I’m gonna go up there and get married. This seems right, right?

RACHEL: Right … after the break.

RACHEL: Welcome back to Surprisingly Awesome from Gimlet Media. I’m Rachel Ward. This week we’re guests at the wedding of Sue Smith and Austin Rodrigues. It’s their big day. We’re at the top of a hill, in rural upstate New York. Guests are seated in old church pews. Sue and Austin are standing in front of an arbor decorated with sunflowers. Beyond them, green farm plots roll up to meet a blue sky filled with stout white clouds. Stands of trees edge around the farms, their leaves in heavy disagreement about whether or not this moment is summer or fall.

AUSTIN: I was so nervous, I must have asked 20 people am I supposed to go up there, am I supposed to hang here and say hi to the guest and everyone was just like just do whatever you want and then I eventually went up to stand at the altar and that’s when I started to get really nervous. And then they brought my grandparents came up in the van and like that was when I lost with seeing my grandma made the trip out there and everything. And I was just doing this, just banging my fist into my hand, trying to look casual and cool when I was really like the opposite to that

RACHEL: While Austin tried to look cool, the DJ, his friend DK, cued up the music:

DK: I’m looking for the bridal party, I thought somebody was gonna be giving me a thumbs up.

RACHEL: Sharon, the venue owner, called down the hill on a walkie talkie.

SHARON: Thumbs up, we’re ready to go. Yeah. Ok let’s get everybody in their places.


SUE: I could see him from the distance but I couldn’t really see him until I started walking down the aisle.

AUSTIN: Yeah I caught a glimpse of her coming from the barn but then I turned away because I didn’t want to see her until she did the loop around the corner of the aisle


RACHEL: Sue, what did you think when you saw him?

SUE: That he looked good, I liked all his stuff and yeah, I thought he looked nervous… it was cute.

AUSTIN: Until you came around and then when you came around the corner it was oddly calming and not overwhelming.

SUE: Yeah I felt more calm when I saw you and I was standing up there with you.


SUE: Yeah, it was like no one else was around.

RACHEL: And, by the way, Austin did cry when he saw Sue in her dress.

SUE: But it was cool to come around the corner and see everyone you loved. Because I hadn’t seen a lot of them until then and it was like, Oh my God this is crazy.

AUSTIN: that’s what you pay for, that what you do all the planning for.

SUE: Priceless.

RACHEL: And timeless. “Walking down the aisle” connects to a long tradition of weddings as processions. Dr. Lin Foxhall, a classical archaeologist at University of Liverpool says that deep into history — before Christianity, before the Roman empire — the Greeks used wedding processions, walking from one family home to another, to show that a couple was getting married.

DR. LIN FOXHALL: It’s the woman passing into the husband’s house, that’s the minute they’re married.

RACHEL: Walking down the aisle — processing down the aisle — is our modern connection to that ancient practice.

DR. LIN FOXHALL: The most important bit of the wedding is actually the procession. Certainly in the Ancient Greek world, you go from the bride’s house to the groom’s house, and you have lots of singing and dancing and clothes and flowers and all of the things you would expect.

RACHEL: The same as today. Dress up in fine clothes, have a procession. But one pretty big difference:

DR. LIN FOXHALL: In antiquity, births and marriages and deaths were all really family affairs and they were not something that the state got involved in. And of course there was no overarching church to manage them either. That’s a really different way of looking at a wedding.

RACHEL: In antiquity, religion wasn’t really present at weddings — getting married was a family matter, not a state, or church matter. Also, in Ancient Greece, there wasn’t “a church” as we think of it now. Sure, people might get married in a sanctuary for their favorite god or goddess … but it wasn’t until pretty long into the life of Christianity — the 13th century — that a church service began to be a critical part of a wedding. Nowadays we think of a wedding in a religious space as “traditional” and weddings on hills on a farm as “non-traditional.” And we think of “the past” as a more religious time. But Dr. Vicki Howard at the University of Essex says that even in early AMERICAN weddings, a wedding in a church WASN’T guaranteed.

DR. VICKI HOWARD: You know, the idea of a church wedding is something that becomes a middle class ideal in early to mid 19th century. Before the 19th century, you may not even be able to have a minister, because there may not be one in your area, and you might just cohabitate, or have common law marriage.

RACHEL: It wasn’t until the 19th century that Americans started to think of a “church wedding” as a “default wedding.” It was just impractical to have a wedding in a church all the time — maybe you didn’t live near a church, or your church didn’t have a full-time preacher. So you might just move in together and start telling people, we’re married. No ceremony, do not cross go, do not collect $200 worth of pots and pans from Bed Bath and Beyond. But despite the secular nature of Sue and Austin’s wedding, the order of service they’re using — THAT is heavily influenced by a Christian service: It’s got an opening prayer, readings, some sort of message, some singing.

PASTOR JEFF: As Sue and Smith make their promises to each other today, let us enter into this celebration confident that God is present with us.

RACHEL: Even when your pastor gets your names wrong. That’s Sue and AUSTIN, Pastor Jeff. But that little mess-up primed the guests to laugh as friends and family rose from the pews, to deliver readings.

INGRID: Love is patient, love is kind, it does not envy, it doesn’t boast, it is not proud.

DONNA: A soulmate is someone who has locks that fit our keys, and keys to fit our locks.

LUCAS: I will give you everything. Baby. Love me. Lights out. Beyonce.

RACHEL: And then, on the windy hill, Sue and Austin delivered their vows, which they wrote themselves.

SUE: Austin, you are the warmest and most generous person I’ve ever met. And also really tough like a bear or a wolf. I will love puns the way that you love puns now that we’re happily meowied.

AUSTIN: I promise to always have a one way ticket to snuggletown. I promise to always always support you and have your back. I vow to celebrate your many many wins and pick you up after any losses. I promise to never have a man bun. I love you, I love you, I love you Sue Smith.

RACHEL: Writing your own vows feels very modern, like a deviation from tradition that makes a ceremony more personalized, more casual, more American. But according to Dr. Corinne Wieben at The University of Northern Colorado…

DR. CORINNE WIEBEN: Medieval marriage could be shockingly informal. As long as you agree in the present tense to be married to each other you are married without the presence of witnesses, without the presence of officials.

RACHEL: Medieval people were writing their own vows wayyy before Sue and Austin crafted their first pun.

DR. CORINNE WIEBEN: It’s just a person saying I in this present moment, take you as my spouse. And as long as two people say that to each other, that is considered to be a legally binding marriage.

RACHEL: It didn’t matter where you got married, or who in front of – if you declared to each other, I will marry you, you were married. And there’s another medieval tradition that we observe today:

DR. CORINNE WIEBEN: The exchange of rings is a really common tradition throughout medieval Europe, and it’s one of the few ways in which people can sort of publically perform a wedding. Wedding rings are an extremely medieval thing. So if you are a couple in the Middle Ages and weddings are this informal private thing, one of the things you can do is a public ceremony to kind of cement the idea of your marriage in the minds of your family and the community is to exchange rings.

PASTOR JEFF: It gives me great pleasure to introduce, for the very first time, Sue and Austin as husband and mah wife.

AUSTIN: I feel like when the pastor, is that what we call Jeff? When the pastor said mah wife it was cathartic for me, I feel like I don’t have to say mah wife anymore. That was my last mah wife I don’t need to say it anymore

SUE: Because it like God said it.

AUSTIN: I mean who that’s like top heightening.

SUE: You can’t heighten it any further, yeah I dunno.

RACHEL: The public declaration by Pastor Jeff — and the public exchange of vows — this is what modern American weddings look like now. It’s a really different idea than a wedding being a contract negotiation, a business deal, to unite two families or consolidate property.

RACHEL: Do you guys feel like that’s your marriage?


AUSTIN: We don’t have anything

SUE: neither of us married up.


SUE: It woulda been nice if one of us had money

AUSTIN: the only way that we can relate to that is that we are in the same careers, so we can support each other.

SUE: We are a comedic power couple.

AUSTIN: now we are a comedic power couple, where as before we were just comedic lonely people.

SUE: Comedic weirdos.

AUSTIN: Our powers have combined.

RACHEL: To Sue and Austin, a marriage is much more than the business deal that it would have been in the Middle Ages. It’s about becoming partners. So the form of their wedding matches that — it’s a celebration of their partnership.


RACHEL: And just like millions of wedding before theirs, Sue and Austin’s service ends with a song — and they process out.

RACHEL: What was the moment where, like the physical action or thing happened … where you guys felt married?

AUSTIN: You leave the ceremony and that’s a strange kinda feeling. So we had a singalong for when we walked down the aisle and we sang one chorus of the song and kinda stayed there and walked away during the chorus and it felt like now just the two of us while everybody else is back there singing so I guess that kind of like a moment that was the first time that it was like wow this is the first time we’ve been alone while married.

SUE: Yeah definitely, let’s walk towards our future.

DK: dinner will be served very soon, but right now I would like to introduce for the very first time our bride and groom Mr. and Mrs. Aus .. woop Austin Rodrigues and Sue Smith.

NICK: I don’t think this dinner is gonna end in the hour they thought it was gonna


NICK: Does it ever?

WOMAN: It’s ongoing …. alright guys, grab your plates and make your way to the buffet. Enjoy.

MAN: Gentleman first, right?

RACHEL: In our research, we found that people have always assumed you would feed them at the wedding, or throw a party for them once you got married. And there’s a long tradition, from the Renaissance, to the American frontier, of people getting back at you, if you didn’t. It’s called a shivaree, or a skimmington, or rough music. Dr. Vicki Howard from University of Essex says if you didn’t come through with a party, the community would just harass you until you did.

DR. VICKI HOWARD: If a couple is seen as somehow having broken a rule, like not having provided a big party for the community, or not having invited the town into the celebration, people in the community might go to them on their wedding night and throw rocks at their house or play loud music or somehow rough them up a little bit in kind of a good humored way.

RACHEL: There’s no need for shivaree at Sue and Austin’s wedding. They’re clearly providing a party for their community.

SUE: So happy, so happy, everybody’s having so much fun and blending well and dancing. If you can believe that. I’ve never seen so much dancing at a wedding before, and it’s awesome. Speaking of which I have to dance to this song, okay? Bye.

RACHEL: This wedding is shivaree-proof: Even the kids of the farm’s owner agree.

OLIVIA: But right now I’ve never seen everybody get out of their seat and dance right at this time at 8 o’clock, I’ve never seen that.

SUE: You know, I think that people aren’t very self conscious I find in our friends and they will just do whatever and I like them about them

AUSTIN: Yeah we picked a good crew.

SUE: And it was good because it provided an environment where I didn’t feel self conscious and I could do whatever like mhhh let’s just dance, whatever.

RACHEL: Guests having a ton of fun — that’s the pay off. This is exactly what Sue and Austin wanted. And it’s a big win for DK, the friend who’s djing.

DK: The playlist is killer, uh the the biggest success of the night is, it’s 10:24 and the shuttle … the last shuttle bus is supposed to leave to 10:15pm and he is not even here. ‘Cause I offered him $50 to be late and the dance floor is still going good, the party is still going good. I lost my voice from yelling and singing and dancing.

AUSTIN: The energy felt so good,

SUE: Great energy.

AUSTIN: No matter how much money you have you can’t buy the energy at your wedding, having a room full of people that are just gelling well together energy

SUE: And everybody is having fun and having a good time and not rolling their eyes

RACHEL: What’s the key factor to get that?

SUE: You gotta really love each other.

AUSTIN: Yeah that a big one for sure.

SUE: You gotta really be in love.

AUSTIN: I think people really feed off your energy as a couple.

RACHEL: The whole thing is worthy of Ancient Greece.

DR. LIN FOXHALL: There was no register of marriages anywhere in the ancient world pretty much. So you couldn’t go into ancient Athens or ancient Rome and find a registry of marriages. Because it just didn’t exist. As far as the state was concerned, the marriage was a private business. Because it was a contract between two families.

RACHEL: This is Dr. Lin Foxhall again. She says that in Ancient Greece and Rome, weddings were big as a means of communicating citizenship. Because in Ancient Greece, you could only be a citizen if your parents were citizens. But because the state didn’t keep track of marriages, you had to rely on the community to remember that they’d happened.

DR LIN FOXHALL: Now one good way of making sure that everybody knows that your parents are really married and you’re not just some dodgy person, who, you know, fell off the back of a truck somewhere, is to have a really big celebration that people see happening before their eyes. Because then they can testify that you are really married.

RACHEL: So to broadcast hey, two citizens getting married over here! You have the biggest wedding to-do that you could muster. That way, 30 years later, when your kids needed to prove to the world that they were citizens, they could say … “no, no, no, no, no I’m Alexandros and Isadora’s kid — you know them, they’re citizens — you went to their wedding!”

AUSTIN: Oh, would would the guests say they remembered being there?

SUE: Absolutely.

AUSTIN: Oh for sure, yeah I think so.

SUE: I mean there were kittens.

AUSTIN: If you wanted a kitten, look down at your feet, there is a kitten you pick it up, pet it, throw it, bye kitten. There were goats getting their heads stuck in fences, like how are you not going to remember that. Bonfires and smores, pulled pork sliders. The Greeks and Romans will be talking about our wedding.

RACHEL: Eventually the shuttle bus — an off duty yellow school bus — does come, and the guests climb aboard and roll away.

ANNA: So the last crew that was going to the hotel has left on the shuttle, now the only people left are the people staying here. And everyone just gathered in a circle and Sue and Austin just danced in the middle and kissed. It was really sweet they love each other so much. Oh, the DJ needs to play one more song right now.

RACHEL: And then the last song played, and outside at the firepit, Sue and Austin debrief on how it went.

SUE: Everyone had fun and a lot of people who go to a lot of weddings were like, “this is the best wedding we’ve ever been too.” So …

AUSTIN: Best day of my life. I’m excited to wear this ring. I’m a different man now. I am happy to be married and have this ring and it’s an honor to be married to such a wonderful woman as I am. And yeah I didn’t used to be the kind of guy who wanted to get married and now I am. So you never know. Any guys out there listening, you never know.

RACHEL: And then they jumped into a golf cart.

SUE: Alright thank you! There we go, thank you.

[car drives off]

SUE: Oh no! [laughs] Bye.

Our theme music is by Nicholas Britell and our ad music is by Build Buildings. We were edited this week by Annie-Rose Strasser, and produced by Christine Driscoll, Elizabeth Kulas, and Rikki Novetsky. Sylvie Douglis and Nick Fountain field produced at the wedding.

Thank you to Sue and Austin’s friends and family for letting us ask so many questions and bother you during the whole wedding.

Thanks to Jorge Just — and sorry we forgot to thank you last time, and to our beloved mix engineer Andrew Dunn. ANDREW DUNN MIXED THIS EPISODE, he always mixes our episodes, and we have not been great about remembering to tell you that!

Additional production assistance came from Jacob Cruz, Emily Kennedy, Melanie Kruvelis, Sarah Melton and Sarah Stoddard.

Thank you to Karen Klaiber Hersch, Gayle Strege, Patrick O’Neil, Jennifer Gellmann and Sharon Boulani.

And thank you so much, to everyone who invited us to your weddings. We’ll be reaching out to shortly with a wedding gift.

Quick production note from the Surprisingly Awesome team — we’re going to be taking a hiatus — this is our last episode before the break. But STAY subscribed for fun treats and surprises along the way.

You can tweet at us @surprisingshow, email us at And our Tumblr is

Surprisingly Awesome is a production of Gimlet Media.

SUE: Did you hear about our mini-moon though? We went on like mini-honeymoon after and all we did was a 500 piece puzzle and ate bagels and it was great.

RACHEL: Where did you go?

AUSTIN: Long Beach Island, New Jersey. A little retirement community.

SUE: The puzzle was amaz– it was exactly what we needed

RACHEL: What was the image?

AUSTIN: An old couple on the beach.

SUE: Just a watercolour, like 500 pieces, nothing special.

AUSTIN: It’s wasn’t a Thomas Kinkade but it was similar.

SUE: No it was no Kinkade. Really experience married life on that trip.

SUE: Yeah

AUSTIN: We really did.

#22 Wedding Planning

This week: It’s awesome in the sacred sense – but stressful in the practical sense. Part 1 of the story of Sue and Austin’s wedding.

October 5, 2016
View show transcript

SUE: Oh, did we tell you about the moshpit?


AUSTIN: We think we’re going to close the night out with a late-night moshpit at like 10 – .

SUE: 10 o’clock. We asked two friends to make a moshpit playlist for us.

AUSTIN: Because by that time your clothes are all messed up anyways. It doesn’t really matter.

SUE: Yeah.

Sue and Austin were never going to get married.

SUE: We’d been together for almost 7 years and neither of us really wanted to get married until – like, for me, I didn’t want to get married until I met him. And then I was like oh I want to have this experience with you. But we were both a little hesitant because our parents are both divorced.

And yet.

SUE: We are a little under three weeks away from the wedding on September 17th. That’s crazy.

We picked Sue and Austin out of more than 200 couples that volunteered to have us come record their wedding. We were looking for someone having a standard, secular American wedding. Vows, dinner, friends, family.

Sue and Austin’s wedding is exactly that, and they’re doing it all themselves. They’re writing the vows. They’re picking the taco bar menu. And they’ve got friends helping them put the whole whole thing together. And family?

SUE: Our families are very different. Very very very different.

RACHEL: Your family is from Pennsylvania, Sue?

SUE: Yes.

RACHEL: And how would you characterize them?

SUE: German.


That’s the other reason we chose Sue and Austin – they’re really funny.

RACHEL: And how did you guys meet?

AUSTIN: We met at Upright Citizens Brigade Theater.

RACHEL: And how did it become a relationship?

AUSTIN: I tried to be cool but I guess I was very clearly flirting with her for a long time. Like I would bring her breakfast in the morning and then I was like of you’re like a yoga instructor right, we should go do yoga together some time and you can help me with my practice. And then I thought that would be a fail safe in case she wasn’t into me. It could still be a friendly thing, to just do yoga together. But it turned out she did know I meant it as a date. We went and did yoga together after the class we started holding hands and it’s been on ever since then.

Flash forward almost seven years later. It’s August 2016. And even if neither of them planned to get married, it is happening. In a month.

RACHEL: What happened?

SUE: I think it was a gradual thing where like over time I would just get jealous to other people’s wedding. I’d be like, ugh, that bitch, I hate this. Why is she opening her presents? And then I was like oh, it’s because I want to have this as well.

AUSTIN: Uh, and my answer might be equally as romantic as that one. And it’s from going to therapy and I think just working out my own issues about commitment. Because I don’t think it was anything about us and our relationship that was keeping me from wanting to get married. I think I just grew up a little bit and realized that this will be fun. Even the idea of a wedding sounds super stressful, but I went to a wedding last weekend and it was so nice picturing that it’s going to be us doing that in a month. So, I think it’s going to be awesome.

Excuse me. That is for me to decide. Because THIS is Surprisingly Awesome, from Gimlet Media.


I’m Rachel Ward, and in this episode we’re talking about WEDDINGS. This is the first of two episodes. This week, we are talking about PLANNING a wedding. What does it take to plan a wedding? At what cost? And what does the way a wedding is planned tell you about the couple who plans it?

Ok, so right off the bat, two things. First, we could only go to one wedding, because weddings are exhausting. So you are going to be hearing about one, very specific wedding, where a woman and a man get married, in a not really all that religious ceremony. In America. Out in the country, in a barn full of chandeliers and Christmas lights.

We know this is just a small sliver of all of the types of weddings that there are in the world. But if you’re about the age I am, and you follow the Instagram accounts that I follow, this kind of wedding is super ubiquitous.

Second: There’s a big chunk of you who are saying to yourselves right now — or maybe you’re saying it out loud, I don’t know what your deal is — Weddings ARE awesome! What are you talking about? What’s even up for debate here?

OK. Here is what I will concede to that point: The idea of two people binding themselves to each other for eternity — that is awesome, like in the most Torah, Bible, Koran sense of that word.

And weddings themselves can be pretty awesome, like if you get the right combination of DJ, crowd, food, alcohol. If you’ve had a wedding, you probably think your wedding was really awesome.

But come on. Weddings can wear on you. If you’ve been to, say three weddings, you’ve kind of been to all weddings. There are lots of variations in execution, but the bones of the secular American wedding — those don’t change very much. The script for the event is pretty set: ceremony, dinner, party, shuttle bus, hotel.

Even Sue and Austin’s OWN FRIENDS are tired of weddings:

ALEX: I feel like I haven’t seen wedding pictures that did not have some set of flower crown element recently.

ALEX: Also it’s really funny to me, like, whenever just the bridal party wears them because they all sort of look like Manson sisters.


ALEX: And they’re like “Hey we’re just here wearing flower crowns, and writing letters to Charlie.”

JESSE: It is uh, it is a social…. watermark. Right? There is some expectation that to grow up, you get married.

ALEX: One time I went to a wedding and the end of it was “I’m going to be a proper jewish wife to you.” And I was like, “The fuck does that mean?”

CARLY: Was it a religious wedding?

ALEX: Like, ish? But it took a left turn

CARLY: What does that mean?

ALEX: I don’t know, and I’m JEWISH.

RYAN: Like the whole formality, I mean, I grew up of Irish Catholic descent and had to deal with a lot of church weddings. I don’t believe in god, it’s fucking terrible. I don’t believe in ghosts, either.

CARLY: I mean, I like to say I spent the whole wedding getting mauled by people older than me, to be like, gimme your youth. But it was, it was fun, regardless.

CARLY: I almost put it on my LinkedIn that it was like, worked on my wedding for like 11 months. even with a planner.

STACY: I have seven weddings this year. [laughs] Yeah.

RYAN: And you’re like, laughing like it’s funny. No, you’re hemorrhaging money. You’re like the fucking National Debt over here just hemorrhaging fucking money to go to these goddamn weddings.

And yet, despite this chorus of voices being like “what is even the deal with weddings,” Sue and Austin are in love, and they want to do this thing. They want to plan a wedding. Even if the idea of what a wedding is … keeps changing.

AUSTIN: it started as we were going to have a little party and get some pizzas.

SUE: City Hall …

“It started as.”

SUE: And now it’s like a real thing. I don’t know, I think it’s like when we got the venue it all started to snowball.

The moment it stopped being City Hall and pizzas was the moment that they booked the venue. Because once you’ve got a big, beautiful empty room — in this case, a converted barn — you have to fill it.

SUE: But it’s like I didn’t originally thinking – I was like oh I don’t need flowers or anything and then I started thinking about it and the caterer introduced us to a vendor and I started talking to her and I was like oh my God I can do this and this and this, I need it all.

So a big wedding wasn’t the ORIGINAL plan. But Sue and Austin have been really excited about this part of the planning: All the choices they get to make, to show the world who they are. It’s kind of a fun challenge, to express your style as a couple, in a way that your friends and family haven’t seen before at other weddings. It’s a chance to be creative.

AUSTIN: The candy bars are gonna be exciting.

SUE: Oh God.

RACHEL: What’s the candy bar?

SUE: It’s like bulk candy

RACHEL: Why candy?

SUE: He was in charge of this, this was his job.

AUSTIN: I was very excited to be in charge of that. first one is going to be a little upsetting to some of you maybe, licorice all sorts, any licorice all sorts fans out there?

SUE: It’s only you and your grandmother

AUSTIN: Well if my grandmother is making her trip out there then she deserves some licorice all sorts. We’re talking Cow Tails. I mean we got ten others coming at you. Jellybellies

AUSTIN: Swedish fish, peanut M&Ms because you need some chocolate. And then we got little buttons with our cats faces on them that says “happily meowried.”

SUE: “Happily meowried.” I thought of that

AUSTIN: Yes, yes weddings. See what I mean? Surprisingly Awesome

SUE: Yeah.

Okay, these are the awesome things about planning a wedding — piles of candy, doing something special for your grandma, cat puns. But you know what’s not awesome?

SUE: I’m about to go to bed, it’s August 26th so I’m getting married in 3 weeks I think. I’m stressed about money because I’ve just been working my ass off to try to pay for this wedding and I know that like no matter how hard I work it’s just – I’m just getting deeper and deeper into debt

Sue booked that venue, opened up that whole can of worms, 12 months, 150 invitations, and $24,000 ago.

SUE: When we first got engaged, I had a couple months where I was having a lot of panic attacks and feeling really overwhelmed at the thought of planning a wedding and doing this big thing and incurring this huge cost and expense.

All of those choices that you get to make, to show the world who you are as a couple? They cost MONEY. Every element of the wedding — flowers, dresses, invites, napkins! — it all costs real American dollars. And these costs can just mount and mount and mount in ways you do not expect.

SUE: This week is candles. Okay you would not think that that is such a big deal, so like our venue’s not supplying candles, right, so we have to bring them ourselves and they’re like, expensive. I got in my head that I want little votives, right, and then I want pillar candles of different heights on every table. Just to look cute. And we have 20 tables, so to do that on every table – I don’t know, I went to Michael’s today and I spent 100 dollars.

That’s how the costs start to pile up. 100 dollars at Michaels here, a 100 dollars at Michaels there. But what does it all add up to? So on this, I’m bring in our trusty numbers woman, producer Christine Driscoll. Hello Christine


RACHEL: So Christine, at this point, listening to the amount of money that Sue and Austin are spending on things like candles, I am wondering… how much does a wedding cost?

CHRISTINE: Well I looked at a few different sources, and found slightly different numbers, but people spend somewhere between 26 and 32 thousand dollars on average is what people spend.

RACHEL: Oh ok. So basically like put a down payment on a house and then get married

CHRISTINE: But there actually is more to the numbers than that.

RACHEL: Go on…

CHRISTINE: Do you remember in middle school when you learned about mean, median, and mode?

RACHEL: Mostly?

CHRISTINE: So median is the exact MIDDLE VALUE of a bunch of numbers, if you line them up in order. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 – 3 is the median.

The Mode is the number that occurs the most frequently.

RACHEL: In a set of numbers?

CHRISTINE: Yes. So if you had like one 1, 1, 1, 1, 5 – 1 is the mode. And then the mean is the sum of all the numbers divided by how many you added.

RACHEL: Oh, mean is just like the average.

CHRISTINE: Yes, exactly. But averages are tricky. So for example if we each had a wedding and you spent a dollar on your wedding and I spent 99 dollars on my wedding, then the mean would be 50 dollars, right?


CHRISTINE: But in reality I had a much nicer wedding.

RACHEL: That’s probably true

CHRISTINE: So the mode would be better to report. You’d get a much better picture of what’s being spent.

RACHEL: OK so do you have a mode of what people are spending on weddings?

CHRISTINE: Well so that’s the catch — so Big Bride, big bridal magazine, they don’t want you to know what’s normal, they want you to be ready to spend a bunch of money. And I found a report from a company called The Wedding Report which is made specifically for people in the wedding industry, who are marketing to brides so it has a much better picture of what is actually happening. And what I found there is that almost half of weddings are actually less than $10,000.

RACHEL: That’s actually not that bad, that’s like an okay number.

CHRISTINE: Right, exactly, but those big averages that we talked about like $26-32,000 – they’re misleading because the survey sample is people who are subscribed to Bride Magazine or are on The Knot and are really into planning this wedding kind of spending a lot of money

RACHEL: So it’s exactly the kind of people who are already into the idea of a big, expensive wedding who are being represented in these surveys.

CHRISTINE: Right and so the results are a little bit skewed. And that might be deliberate, certainly advantageous. Because if you are thinking like oh if I’m gonna have a wedding it has to be $26,000 like you’re primed to be ready to spend that much money.

And so the New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead actually wrote a book about the whole wedding industry and she wrote about how this number is really great for the industry that it’s so high because people are expecting to pay more

RACHEL: So did find out the total cost of weddings in America, like how much is spent for people to get married in this country?

CHRISTINE: Well, it’s hard to track. But Wedding Report reported that in 2015 about 57.89 billion dollars was–

RACHEL: 58 billion dollars.


RACHEL: B as in Billion?

CHRISTINE: B as a in boy. And I have one more thing to share with you. I found a study about — people are spending all this money on weddings. So two economists looked to see. If how much money you spent had any relationship with whether your marriage lasted.

And what they found is that it’s inversely correlated. So the more you spent the higher risk for divorce. And for women specifically if their wedding was between $5,000 – $10,000 they had a higher chance of their marriage lasting than if they spent $20,000.

RACHEL: So, if you spent more than $20,000 dollars, you’re screwed.


RACHEL: OK thank you Christine thank you so much.

CHRISTINE: No problem

So this makes sense to me — with all the money being spent on weddings, that there would be a backlash. A DIY backlash. And so there are people like Sue and Austin who are trying to SAVE money, it’s a good reason to have a DIY wedding. It’s not just that it’s trendy to get married in a barn. It’s cheaper to get married in a barn. And maybe better for your marriage!

So we wanted to put this idea to someone with a sociology background, so we spoke to Tamara Sniezek, the chair of the Department of Sociology at California State University, Stanislaus. Because it seemed like the idea of a DIY wedding was a particularly recent phenomenon.

TAMARA: I would argue that people have been doing DIY long before that, that that’s only — that the middle class suffered during the recession, but um, people of color, and lower income folks, always did DIY weddings. So that’s only a new experience for middle class white women. And I see it now, I see it in my more diverse couples, they have whole systems for DIY. Probably, actually better prepared than middle class women. They’re really creative. Like, the Mexicans I interviewed here, family members would all pitch in and take responsibility for certain things and it would spread the cost amongst the larger family. So like, Uncle So and So would pay for the band. And this auntie would pay for um, the dress. And someone would pay for the hall.

The catch is, when you do a DIY wedding, you have to DO the wedding YOURSELF. And that’s creating a lot of work. Especially when you don’t have a whole community of support set up.

AUSTIN: Hi, it’s Austin and the wedding is 17, 18 days out. What stressed me out – today, what’s stressful is the bar, so I literally went through and deciphered how many drinks I thought each person would have and then on average how much a drink would cost to figure out if it was better to do per consumption or open bar. I know there will be some drinkers at the wedding that could easily send us over that $3000 mark. So we’ll see. It’s a very stressful thing.

A very stressful thing, that you are not getting paid to do. Coming up, after the break, what happens when planning a wedding becomes a second job.


Welcome back to Surprisingly Awesome. I’m Rachel Ward. This week, part one of our two part WEDDING EXTRAVAGANZA.

SUE: Today is Tuesday? … Next Saturday.

AUSTIN: Less than two weeks?

SUE: Oh my God, yeah

The wedding is getting closer.

And Sue and Austin are managing A LOT of STUFF.

AUSTIN: So I went to a wedding a couple weeks ago and they had ice coffee, I was like this is friggin’ genius, how did we not think of this?

SUE: She’s going to charge us two more dollars a person to do that.

AUSTIN: Think so?

SUE: I mean I can ask, I’ll ask.

AUSTIN: I’d pay a dollar a person for it.

SUE: You would? Alright. We got our final invoice on Friday from the caterer.

SUE: We originally told her like $25 a person. And she was like well you can spend that at burger king. That’s what she said.

AUSTIN: She doesn’t pull punches.

The wedding is two weeks out, and you can HEAR how tired Sue and Austin are.

TAMARA: Really, it represents a ton of work.

That’s Tamara Sniezek again. Another reason we wanted to talk to her is because she wrote a paper about WEDDING PLANNING. It’s something she fell into when she was planning her OWN wedding.

TAMARA: I was surprised by some of the tensions and conflicts that you have to deal with that come up during planning, I thought that was, was really interesting and wanted to explore that more.

RACHEL: So the veil kind of fell off of your eyes and you were like wow there’s a lot more going on here?

TAMARA: Yeah, I love that. The veil. Good metaphor right?

RACHEL: Terrible pun. Ok metaphor.

Tamara says realizing how much unseen work was happening in her own wedding made her want to dig into it. The result was a paper she published in Qualitative Sociology in 2005: Is It Our Day or the Bride’s Day? The Division of Wedding Labor and Its Meaning for Couples. She’d ask the couples she was studying, how do you divide up the work?

TAMARA: And they would even say specifically they’re very egalitarian in the wedding planning. Oh, we both work equally hard at planning this wedding. And it wasn’t really true, at least um, for when I would go and compare that to actually looking at their planners and, you know, recording step by step, ok, who did this, who did that, who put the work into this, that — and almost — in every case, it was never equal on any of the couples. The women always did more. And even the ones where it was more close to equal, the woman was the manager. So she did extra work to make sure he was doing more. Which is extra work.

We know this, intuitively, from our jobs. Managers have the work of managing people. That’s a job. But we don’t notice that labor so much outside of the workplace.

For Sue and Austin, Sue is the manager:

SUE: I was designing the save the date and sending out the save the date and talking about the guest list and he’s like you’re not including me in anything. And I was like oh you can do the food.

AUSTIN: I think she gave me the more – what I thought would be the fun task. Knowing that that might help me get into the planning. Because the planning stressed me out… pretty bad and the fun tasks that I’ve taken on, i.e. the food and the music, have turned out to be not so fun.

In her paper, Tamara writes about this bride, Sarah. Specifically, about how Sarah’s wedding invitations were chosen. Sarah presented a few options to her fiance, and they “chose the invitations together.”

But behind that “together” there was a whole bunch of work. Tamara says Sarah was leaving out a lot of backstory.

TAMARA: Oh well, I compared these different, the prices, I looked at the fonts and I went to this place and that place, yeah, and by the time he actually got involved, she had done tons of work.

There’s another element of wedding planning work that people don’t talk about: Making decisions is hard work. It is ACTUAL work. This work is not only unacknowledged. It’s unpaid. And honestly, it’s worth a lot. Christine! Come back. More numbers.

CHRISTINE: Hello Rachel.

RACHEL: So can you tell me, how much does an hour of work planning a wedding cost?

CHRISTINE: Well, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for professional event planners is $22.52 an hour.

RACHEL: And how long does it take to plan a wedding?

CHRISTINE: According to a 2010 survey by Forbes, a woman spends almost 10 hours a week, working on her wedding. And the average length of an engagement that year was 14 months.

RACHEL: Ok, so 14 months, times the number of hours women spent planning a wedding, is…

CHRISTINE: Almost 550 hours.

RACHEL: So the dollar amount — if you’re going to pay yourself like a wedding planner — is…

CHRISTINE: More than twelve thousand dollars.

RACHEL: More than twelve thousand dollars!

So that’s $12,000 that a person should be making to plan a wedding. Except most of them make nothing. And…

KATIE: Unfortunately usually it is women doing this wedding planning.

This is Katie Wannen: Wedding planner, and advocate for GET YOURS GIRL.

KATIE: And that’s a whole other podcast probably but I think that women tend to undervalue their time and they don’t think about how much time and how many hours it takes to actually plan a wedding.

Think of it this way: Katie has monetized all that work that other women are doing for free.

KATIE: So, I actually used to live in New York City and I produced theater on the side and also assisted a Broadway producer. So I was kind of a theater nerd. And I realized that producing an event and producing theater, a show, were actually very similar and required a lot of the same skills.

Katie can attest to exactly how much work goes into wedding planning. And how it deserves to be recognized as a JOB.

KATIE: There’s no reason why someone who just got engaged should suddenly have all the skills necessary to produce a really large event. It just makes no sense. Even if they worked their butts off and spent over 100 hours over the year planning their wedding, they may never use that knowledge ever again. It’s not like parenting where you don’t know what the hell you’re doing but you’re then able to apply that knowledge year after year after year. So why not hire someone who has done many many many weddings over many years and has that knowledge and has those resources and can help you through it.

So when women DIY their weddings, it means they wind up effectively paying themselves NOTHING for a ton of labor.

KATIE: I think that a lot of women feel guilty if they don’t actually want to do this. It’s like society is telling them they should want to take this on and do it all themselves. And you know, I just don’t think that’s right.

It just ain’t right! And it doesn’t stop at whether or not the labor that goes into planning a wedding is paid or unpaid. Tamara, our sociologist, she’s noticed that how you PLAN your wedding can have ramifications for how your marriage plays out.

Remember how planning labor was almost always distributed unequally? Tamara found that even when couples weren’t sharing wedding planning labor equally — THEY WOULD ACT LIKE THEY WERE.

TAMARA: Our ideology tells us that we’re supposed to be modern, equal couples. So yeah, I think it is threatening to the relationship.

RACHEL: It’s the worst, because not only do you have to do more work, you also have to do the work of pretending you’re not doing the work.

TAMARA: Yes, yes. Can you imagine?

RACHEL: I can. It’s very realistic.

TAMARA: And one of the things I argued in the paper, is it sets her up for taking on a larger burden in other similar work. Cause I compare wedding work to like, housework, and what we call kin work. Kin work is the work that largely women do to maintain family relationships and family ties. So for instance, women are the ones who organize funerals, not men. Women organize, reunions and birthday parties and brises or whatever. Women are the backbone of family. And wedding are a microcosm of kin keeping, and housework, and clothing and feeding and hosting, Which is fine, except they don’t necessarily get credit for it. I think wedding is the foreshadowing of that future role that she’s gonna have, as the kin keeper.

RACHEL: Wow, that’s so dark. [laughs]


When you look at some couples, how the division of kin work breaks down, it CAN be pretty dark. But it’s not for Sue and Austin. They talk all the time about who does what – they’re actually really open about it.

AUSTIN: I have very defined things that I’m in charge of.

SUE: He’s on a need to know basis.

AUSTIN: Yup. Exactly.

So that’s a positive thing. If you’re not actually dividing the work up equally, it’s good to acknowledge that it IS work and not just pretend that everything is equal. It’s healthy for your … NOMOS. Here’s Tamara again.

TAMARA: Nomos is a word to describe a joint reality that the couple holds. When you’re with someone long enough as a couple, you come to see the world in very similar ways. And almost so much to the point that you wait to talk to your partner before you decide on the reality.

So let’s say that you think someone you meet is a total jerk. You say to yourself, I THINK this guy is a total jerk. But let me check in.

TAMARA: You talk to your partner, like wasn’t he a total jerk, yeah what a total jerk, and then together it confirms your reality, and it becomes a joint reality, which is stronger sometimes than your own sense of reality. So it’s this little joint reality, that the couple shares. Boy the wedding really puts that out there, and makes you firm that up, and really makes it harden.

But what Tamara’s really worried about is not just couples failing to share work equally. It’s that when they TELL themselves they did do everything 50/50. When they do that they’re inserting a lie into their nomos from the very start. They’re making inequality part of their bedrock. And that pattern will just replicate itself over the life of a relationship.

That’s not the only example of Nomos, though.

Nomos is a sociology word for that thing you see all the time — where a couple stops being two people and starts being A COUPLE. Here’s an example, from one of the bridesmaids, Anna:

ANNA: They’re just so cute, they really care about each other. I feel like one of the biggest things about them is that when they moved in together Sue has two cats and Austin is not a cat person and now Austin is a cat person. Like maybe even more than Sue now. That’s a really big thing to change someone into a cat person

RACHEL: It’s the power of love.

Austin doesn’t care about cats. But Sue AND Austin – they LOVE cats. Nomos is stronger than your own preferences.

When you’re planning a wedding, you’re working on your nomos — whether you know it or not.

Nomos can make you a cat person. It can establish how you approach problems, how you divide up work. It is the reality from which you operate, when you are facing times of STRESS and STRIFE

And what is a wedding … if not stress and strife?

AUSTIN: Hey guys, I thought you might want to know that I got into a bike spill last night.

The wedding is on Saturday. Sue and Austin both sent us messages separately, just days before the wedding.

AUSTIN: I hit a rock on my way up the Williamsburg bridge and landed on my handlebars and the pointy end jabbed into my pelvis. And it hurt a lot and – and I am still in a lot of pain and walking funny.

SUE: He doesn’t like doctors and stuff and I’m the same way but it seemed like he might have bruised some organs so I was worried and I kind of told him to go to the doctor and he didn’t want to and

AUSTIN: So I’m a little worried about what that means for like – I don’t know, any weekend activities or dancing. I don’t think it’s the kind of thing where I need to go to the doctor, But I really don’t want to spend the money or time on it. But it’s a thing we’re dealing with before the wedding

SUE: It was really scary because I’ve never seen him injured that badly. You know, it’s a lot right now.

Next week on Surprisingly Awesome: Sue and Austin part two.


Surprisingly Awesome’s theme music is by Nicholas Britell. Our ad music is by Build Buildings.

Additional music came from Kyle Morton, Sex Life, and XOLO.

We were edited this week by Annie-Rose Strasser, and produced by Christine Driscoll and Rikki Novetsky. Our field producers were Sylvie Douglis and Nick Fountain. Hire Sylvie! Listen to Nick’s Fenway Park story on Planet Money!

Production Assistance from Jacob Cruz, Emily Kennedy, Melanie Kruvelis, Jessica Langley, Sarah Melton, and Sarah Stodder.

Thank you to Meg Keene at A Practical Wedding, Erin Boll, the proprietrix of the Instagram account Pisces Bride, Stevie Lane who designed our wedding invitation, to us find Sue and Austin.

Also, one final note: PEOPLE. There are A LOT of voter registration deadlines coming up. If you want to vote, CHECK YOUR REGISTRATION STATUS, and if you’re not registered, DO IT. You can find out how at

Surprisingly Awesome is a production of Gimlet Media.

SUE: I was like oh I don’t need flowers or anything and then I started thinking about it and now there’s gonna be a station where people can make their own flower crowns and it’s gonna be cute and adorable. I’m leaning into this, Rachel. I see your face and you’re like really? I’m leaning in to the farm thing.

RACHEL: This is exactly what Sheryl Sandberg was talking about when she said lean in.

SUE: Yes, she was talking about a woman’s right to have an elaborate wedding.

AUSTIN: There’s a whole chapter on flower crowns if I remember.

CHRISTINE: She’s wearing one in the author photo.

#21 Postal Addresses

4 billion people in the world don’t have standard addresses – so how do they get mail?

September 21, 2016
View show transcript

Annie-Rose: Guys I’m about to order a kilogram of Mongolian potatoes to my address in Brooklyn.

Rachel: What? Let me see, hold on –

Rachel: She is, oh my god, Annie-Ros

Annie-Rose: I don’t know how much this is. Like, I don’t – I genuinely don’t know the conversion rate

RACHEL: You are paying 6,000 symbol….

ANNIE-ROSE: It’s, um

RACHEL: tugrik

ANNIE-ROSE: Do you think it’s gonna let me do it?

BOTH: I mean what are the shipping charges?

RACHEL: From Gimlet Media, this is Surprisingly Awesome, I’m Rachel Ward. And I’m not gonna say this is a punishment but I mean it’s not a story that’s gonna show you in the best light. Do you want to tell about the Thai food Christine?


RACHEL: First of all, who are you?

CHRISTINE: My name is Christine Driscoll, and I’m the Associate Producer here on Surprisingly Awesome.

RACHEL: And what happened with the Thai food?

CHRISTINE: Well it was really late one night at Gimlet Media HQ and I heroically offered to order Thai food for everyone who was working late in the office

RACHEL: Which was a lot of people.

CHRISTINE: It was probably my third week here. And I like, took all these people’s orders I haven’t met. I was like oh, what a great way for them to meet me. And then like 45 minutes goes by and I get a phone call from the delivery person and he’s like I’m outside and I go outside and I realize he’s not outside. He went to South 3rd Street, all the way across the other end of Brooklyn. Ugh. I had to go tell everyone, “Hey remember when I said there was food coming, that Thai food you picked out late at night? It’s not coming at all. I’m sorry. I’m gonna order a pizza.”

RACHEL: We all had to eat your humble pie, which was a pizza pie.  And that’s a problem we have here at Gimlet. You add or forget one “south” in the address and your delivery guy winds up 40 minutes away.  But to a lot of people in the world, this is like, the least of their problems.

CHRISTINE: The majority of people in the world don’t have middle of the night Thai food. Because the majority of people in the world, four BILLION people, don’t have addresses. Or at least, not what we would consider an address in the US. In the postal BIZ these people are referred to as “The Unaddressed.”

RACHEL: That sounds like a Bruce Willis movie. And the trailer would be like “In a world, without postal address, how do you deliver the mail. HOW do you have a post office.” 

CHRISTINE: But that really IS the question. And that brought us to this woman. 

MONA: There’s no street name on my street – the beginning nor at the end.

CHRISTINE: This is Mona Harb, she’s works at the American University of Beirut. And she’s a professor of Urban Studies and Politics. We reached out to her to ask about how addresses work in Lebanon. Because — spoiler alert — they are pretty … informal.

MONA: Absolutely. Yeah, yeah, we often joke about it like when you have to give an address to someone it will take like 10 minutes of explanation about all the landmarks along the way. I mean they range from the name of shops to a big tree on a corner, or a garbage dump somewhere or the image of some political leader on a corner.

CHRISTINE: And another way Lebanon is different from the US: there’s very little home delivery of mail. 

MONA: I have a young daughter, she’s 7 year old and last year she was reading about the postman in school. And I had difficulty explaining to her who that person is (laughs). It’s so abstract that she can not even understand that there’s somebody distributing mail.  I can’t even show it to her.

RACHEL: No addresses, no mail carriers — how did Lebanon get here?

[AUTOMATED VOICE MESSAGE]: Thank you for calling LibanPost. For English, press 2.

RACHEL: Hi Chadi?


RACHEL: This is Chadi Meghames.  He’s the finance and administration director for LibanPost.  It’s the private company that has an exclusive contract with the government of Lebanon to run the national mail system.

CHRISTINE: In the world of postal services, LibanPost is pretty new. It was formed in the 1990s, after Lebanon’s civil war ended.

CHADI MEGHAMES: After 15 years of civil war in the country, that had impacted directly the infrastructure of the country, and its economy, the Lebanese government decided to privatize the postal sector in Lebanon, and this is why LibanPost was created. 

RACHEL: During the war, Lebanon’s infrastructure for mail delivery was destroyed.  That infrastructure was, namely, letter carriers. Because when you live in a world without addresses, the maps that those letter carriers are carrying around in their heads they ARE the post office’s infrastructure. So after the war, the folks that letter carriers had been delivering to, they were gone —  in the best case scenario those people were displaced by fighting. So those mental maps were no longer valid. And the state was starting from scratch too. So no post office, no addresses.

CHRISTINE: So it’s the late nineties, early two thousands, it’s LibanPost, this postal service contractor for Lebanon, that is supposed to replace the pre-war, government-run postal service with a modern, efficient system. To help people get addresses, so they could get mail. 

RACHEL: And this — this plan to create new infrastructure in the face of war — this actually parallels an experience that we had here in the US during world war two, when a lot of letter carriers went off to serve. The corps of post officers was depleted, but people still needed to send and receive mail. So the postal service had to figure out how to move mail more efficiently.  That’s when the idea of ZIP codes first surfaced.

CHRISTINE: ZIP stands for zone improvement plan — but when the postal service marketed it they leaned on the idea of making the mail faster. I think they worked backwards from Z-I-P.  And ZIP codes did make the mail faster.  The ZIP code let the post office send mail DIRECTLY to where it was going, instead of leap frogging across the United States through a bunch of different mail processing centers. 

RACHEL: They did that by having each digit in the code mean something. So, here’s the anatomy of a ZIP code: The first digit means your region. If you live on the East Coast, you’ve got a lower digit. I live in Brooklyn, NY – my first digit is a 1. If you live in San Francisco, your first digit is a 9.  The next two positions in the code, the next two numbers, are the code of a mail facility within that region. So the second position for both my home address in Brooklyn, and Gimlet’s address in Brooklyn are 12 — my work and home mail go through the same facility.

RACHEL: The last two digits are even more local – so my last two digits at home are different than my last two at work, even though they’re both in Brooklyn.

CHRISTINE: And so Lebanon needed the same kind of systematized, infrastructural overhaul, that the US went through. But on an even wider scale.

RACHEL: When LibanPost was formed, what was the problem that you were trying to solve? 

CHADI MEGHAMES: Our main problem, our main challenge let’s say was … to manage, the … lack of addresses in this country.

RACHEL: Because almost everyone has been using the informal addresses that Mona described.  By the big tree on the corner.

CHRISTINE: They needed help. A partner. Someone who could work with a country that had been through A LOT. A country that had been through, like, years of incursions! Meddling from other nations! Colonisation! Religious tension! Influxes of refugees! They needed someone who could help create some order.

RACHEL: So here’s a quick exercise – let’s do this math together.  Think of a modern country, where they also speak a little French, which is the colonial language of Lebanon. A place where the government  is known for providing a lot of services. Where everything just works. Where everyone is NICE.

CHRISTINE: Is it Canada?

RACHEL: It’s Canada. Canada would help Lebanon fix its postal office. 

CHADI MEGHAMES: You know, when there was no postal sector in the country 15 years ago, so the Canadians were the most experts in the field.

RACHEL: This wasn’t the first time Canada had stepped up to the postal service plate. 

CHRISTINE: Canada’s postal service was considered one of the most modern systems in the world because they were early adopters of a bunch of digital postal technologies, like online package tracking and electronic postmarks. And so Lebanon’s request was not unusual — it was actually pretty common for a country to come to Canada and ask it to help create or modernize a postal service.  Canada Post at this point had already provided assistance to the postal services of Thailand, Serbia, BELGIUM!

RACHEL: And in 1998, the Canadian postal service went to Lebanon. The promise was that everything would be better, more efficient. Mail would get sorted by machines.  New delivery trucks would hit the road. They would retrain postal workers, to replace the letter carriers who had the maps in their heads. They would build more places where you could mail things. And they would tackle the biggest problem: Help people get addresses. 

CHRISTINE: It was supposed to be a win-win. Better post office for Lebanon and a nice bit of cash for Canada. Over the life of a 12 year contract, the profits were expected to be more than a billion dollars. 

CHADI MEGHAMES: The Canadians, they committed to invest in the infrastructure of the post and to have the same standards, postal procedures, to put in place all the processes needed in order to start operations, So this was what was committed between the two entities, the government and the Canadian … 

RACHEL: And uh, did Canada do all of these things?

CHADI MEGHAMES: [laughs] I would prefer not to answer this question.

RACHEL: I see.

CHRISTINE: Chadi is being really polite.  What he’s not saying is, basically, this deal did not work. Despite Canada’s big modern postal system, and their experience elsewhere, they just couldn’t crack Lebanon.

RACHEL: There were two big problems at play here. The first was the way that the Canada Post deal worked. It wasn’t just an agreement between Canada Post and LibanPost. It involved contractors — contractors who were hoping to make a lot of money on the deal. One of these contractors was a Canadian engineering company, SNC Lavalin. And while taxpayers didn’t know it at the time, an investigation by the Canadian newspaper the National Post later revealed that the whole deal to help Lebanon’s post office was structured so that the profits went to SNC Lavalin first, which created incentives that weren’t in the public’s interest.

CHRISTINE: And there were lots allegations of graft and corruption on both sides, Canadian and Lebanese.  And we reached out to Canada Post and SNC Lavalin for comment multiple times. But no one wanted to rehash this.

RACHEL: But the second problem was that creating a modern postal service is really, really hard.  Especially in a place that’s managed without one for so long. Mona Harb — the professor we talked to earlier — her daughter doesn’t know what a letter carrier looks like because, in Lebanon, most of the stuff we do by mail, they do in other ways. Like utility bills. A bill collector comes to your house, you pay on your doorstep, not through the mail. In fact, according to Mona, just about everything in Lebanon has a workaround — formal or informal — that makes up for the lack of a modern postal system.

MONA: So they resort to other, to other ways of getting things done and it’s uh in Arabic we call it [al shatarak], the astuteness of the Lebanese who manage to get things done against all odds and all constraints. You can imagine. And including informal or illegal ways sometimes but you have to get things done. 

RACHEL: For example:

MONA: We have 7 million Lebanese in the diaspora so every person you know knows somebody living abroad, so it’s very common for people when they’re travelling or going somewhere to ask you do you need anything. Do you need books? Do you need clothes for your kids?

KAREN: I’m a senior art director Karen. I work in advertising

RACHEL: How does a letter get somewhere?

KAREN: Sometimes it doesn’t. Like when I got my acceptance from Miami Ad School I got the letter 6 months later, I was already there.

RACHEL: Wait, how did you know you got in? 

KAREN: From an email, thank God, yeah

RACHEL: Why did it take so long?

KAREN: Because I’m Lebanese!

TIM: My name is Tim Fitzsimmons and I’m a former freelance journalist based in Beirut. There’s like a huge network of journalists secretly carrying things like I need a new camera lens or I need a new satellite phone to Beirut for the press corp there because anything going through the tradition channels has a chance of getting taken.

TIM: When we had just opened the bureau there, LibanPost called and they said we have a  very large package for you that we need to deliver in person. Where do you live.  And we had to quickly ask, hey has anybody got this call. And the conclusion was this is probably Syrian government aligned people trying to figure out where at least this particular press outfit was located, because LibanPost never calls with a large package. Ever. They would not know who to call, they would not deliver it. it’s just not how it works. So we knew it was off.

CHRISTINE: So nearly 20 years after Canada Post and LibanPost signed this deal, this is the state of affairs.  If LibanPost calls you, your first thought might be: This is suspiciously good service.

RACHEL: And by 2001, the deal had fallen apart. The private partner, SNC Lavalin, pulled out. Canada Post was left holding the bag. The promised improvements didn’t really come through. Canada Post’s contract just quietly ended in 2004, and when it did, Lebanon didn’t renew it.  Today, people are still struggling with trusting the postal service.  

CHRISTINE: BUT people are still using their war-time workarounds. That astuteness of the Lebanese people, al-shatarak, is alive and well. And fixing the postal system is just, not really a priority.

RACHEL: And even though the Canadians bounced, LibanPost is still a company.  They’re still responsible for supporting a postal system, even if it’s a system that not a lot of people actually want to use.

CHRISTINE: So what is there left to do, when you’re a postal service in a nation without addresses? If you’re a company like LibanPost is, Chadi Meghames told us, you pivot. 

CHADI MEGHAMES: Our main goal was to shift the company from a traditional postal operator and to have diversified product and services. Our main target now is to become the daily life facilitator of the citizens, and this is what we are doing currently. 

RACHEL: Daily life facilitator?  

CHADI MEGHAMES: Yeah. The daily life facilitator of the citizens. Yes. 

CHRISTINE: And citizens actually ARE interested in having their daily lives facilitated.  Here’s Karen, the woman who got her college acceptance letter after she’d already been there for six months. 

KAREN: it’s really horrible dealing with government stuff, like you have to know someone or you have to wait forever. So LibanPost for example if your passport expired you call them, they come to you, they take your passport, and they go bring you – they take what they need, for example you need two photos, you know, 50 pounds, whatever they need, plus their service. And they go and they renew it for you and they bring it back.

CHRISTINE: And that’s what LibanPost is now: It’s a broker for dealing with bureaucracy. Don’t want to stand in line at some government office? Don’t want to pay a bribe so you don’t have to stand in line? Pay the post office to deal with that bureaucracy for you.

RACHEL: So they’re easing bureaucratic distress, but LibanPost is still trying to crack that BIG problem. The lack of universal addressing. Chadi told us they’ve got ambitious plans.

CHADI: Currently we are shifting to a new concept to instating the GPS code into a unique 8-digit code

RACHEL: That 8 digit code is called a “NAC.” N – A – C.

CHADI MEGHAMES: The NAC is my baby, and it, it’s the remedy to our problems.

RACHEL: NAC stands for Natural Area Code. It’s based on latitude and longitude. And it’s a way of giving the ENTIRE WORLD addresses. Because everywhere has latitude and longitude… Like for example, we looked up Buckingham Palace on one of these NAC sites, it has a lat and long. 

RACHEL: And according to one of the NAC sites we’ve been using, that lat/long is: 51.50077,-0.14334

CHRISTINE: SUUUPER easy to remember.

RACHEL: Totally. Not. But this site, NACtag dot info, uses an algorithm to give us a FIGHTING CHANCE of memorizing that location, by converting the latlong into a shorter string of numbers AND letters. So Buckingham Palace, on this particular NAC tag system, is: GZM7 RKH3 

CHRISTINE: Also suuuuper easy to remember.

RACHEL: I know.

CHRISTINE: But it is a little better.

RACHEL: It is a little better. And this is how Lebanon is going to solve the problem of no addresses, and no trust in the postal service. They’re going to start assigning everyone addresses. At first it’s going to be internal only — you won’t KNOW you’ve moved from the “unaddressed” to “addressed” column. But LibanPost says it’s assigning everyone a NAC tag. Eventually those addresses might show up on houses — they might even be integrated with emergency services. So someday you might be able to just write something like GZM7 RKH3 on a postcard, and send it to the queen.

CHRISTINE: So Lebanon got to this point after a lot of hassle. But what happens if you skip all of the middle men — Canada Post, SNC Lavalin, networks of journalists — and go straight for the high tech solution? We’ll find out, after the break.

RACHEL: From Gimlet Media this is Surprisingly Awesome, I’m Rachel Ward.

CHRISTINE: And I’m Christine Driscoll.

RACHEL: And you might have even heard about this next story in the news, here are some headlines:

<<Headline Waterfall>>

RACHEL: This spring, the Mongolian postal service — called Mongol Post — decided to overhaul its system. But unlike LibanPost, the Mongol Post didn’t ask another country to come in and do the work. Instead, Mongol Post went straight for a technical solution. They licensed technology from a British company called what3words.

CHRISTINE: And the technology is similar to those NAC tags that Lebanon eventually decided to use. what3words uses latitude and longitude to create a unique code for every place on earth.

RACHEL: Except the codes are MUCH easier to remember. Instead of a string of numbers and letters, like GZM7 RKH3, Mongol Post will use a three word phrase. The hope is that three little words will solve all of the problems that stem from not having an address.

GILES RHYS JONES: So what3words is a global addressing system. We have divided the world up into 57 trillion 3 meter by 3 meter or 10 foot by 10 foot squares and we’ve allocated each one those squares a three word address, so three dictionary words to describe any spot on the planet

RACHEL: This is Giles Rhys Jones. He’s the chief marketing officer of what3words.

CHRISTINE: Giles explained that literally EVERY place in the entire world — from Antarctica to Beijing —  has its own three-word code in their system. So for example — Buckingham Palace, it’s three words are fence.gross.bats.

RACHEL: So I’m gonna do this right now. So I’m gonna go to and there’s a button here explore map and I’m gonna put in the name of my college radio station WRUW.  And it brings it up and you can zoom way in on this map so I’m gonna place the pin at the door there’s a little door and you had to ring a bell to get in. The address of my college radio station is making.straw.allows.

CHRISTINE: Making.straw.allows.

RACHEL: Yeah. Spent a lot of time at making.straw.allows.

CHRISTINE: The place I spent a lot of time at in college was a couch in the art history library called 

RACHEL: Ok, here’s another place I used to hang out. The English and French departments were there. It is toys.doing.fantastic.

CHRISTINE: Whaaaat, Do you know how to say that in French? 

RACHEL: jouets.faire.fantastique.

CHRISTINE: Okay, but there isn’t any trouble getting “LA POSTE” to the French Department. It’s always in the same place. Mongol Post is interested in what3words because they want to reach a nomadic population.

GILES: They have a population of 3 million people which is dispersed across a country the size of Western Europe and a third of the population are nomadic so they move on regular basis. And they have mobile phones and they order things online and they still need to get medical records and documents but post struggles because addressing is not particularly robust.

RACHEL: So with what3words, no address, no problem.  You can even sort of customize your address. 

RACHEL: is there a dispute system if you discover your home is something you can’t stand? 

GILES: The dispute system tends to be you take a step to the left and into another box and most people’s homes are large enough to accommodate 15 or 20 or so and so what you do find is people will move around that they like or until they find something that feels representative of them, it’s a little like a horoscope, people pour meaning into these words. 

CHRISTINE: As long as you have a home or property that’s bigger than 3 meters by 3 meters, you can scoot the pin around your property until you find the three words you like.   

RACHEL: Like if the queen doesn’t like fence.gross.bats, she could go with those.added.animal.


RACHEL: Or shirt.rewarding.vague.

CHRISTINE: Mongol Post in the process of rolling out what3words now. People may be able to use the words on letters or packages as early as October. And some entrepreneurs in Mongolia have already adopted it. 

RACHEL: Can you tell me how to say your name? 

TELMEN: Uh, it’s Tel-men. T-E-L-M-E-N.

RACHEL: Telmen Gerelt is one of the owners of an ecommerce site in Mongolia, called M Market. M Market uses what3words to ship. (And, full disclosure, Telmen is helping with the rollout of what3words for Mongol Post).

TELMEN: We are one of the biggest online shops in Mongolia at the moment. Of course there are a few online shopping companies in Mongolia.

CHRISTINE: M Market is like Mongolian Amazon. It’s got a little of everything. Like, phone chargers, fitness trackers, exercise machines, baby bottles, this thing called a “beauty bar.”

RACHEL: I am obsessed with the beauty bar. I had NO IDEA what it was, because we were looking at this website in Mongolian. And when I first saw it I thought it looked like… an adult product. So I switched on the translate on the website, and discovered that it is a “anti-wrinkle, it’s easy to offer a more effective skin tightening v-shaped face.” Apparently you run it across your face and it does … something for beauty.

 CHRISTINE: So like most beauty products.

TELMEN: So, if you go to — to address section of the M Market, when you order a product, and there’s a map below that.  So people now using what3words on the map, they get the map, and uh, and point out their address.

RACHEL: Telmen says right now, having what3words on his website is mostly about educating consumers. And maybe they’ll get the app on their phone, that helps them map the real world out into phrases.

CHRISTINE: A system that lets you send a beauty bar to anyone, anywhere in Mongolia, with just three simple words. It sounds like a dream address solution. You would think Lebanon would be jealous. Except.

MICHELLE: You’re starting with a serious lack of infrastructure for a conventional addressing and postal delivery system to work. So I’m reading these stories and I’m like this is great and happy and techy and fun, but how is this going to work. None of this makes sense to me.  I’m Michelle Borok and I’m an American who lives in Darkhan, Mongolia.   

RACHEL: Michelle works for an English language website called UB Post. UB is what everyone calls the capital, Ulaanbataar. And she wrote a piece about what3words from the perspective of someone LIVING in Mongolia — someone who doesn’t have a business stake in what3words.

CHRISTINE: Michelle is a big fan of postal services. Both the US and Mongolian postal services helped her with her love life.

MICHELLE: I came here as a tourist in 2010 and I fell in love with Mongolia. I thought it was this weird crazy great place.

RACHEL: And you know what happens after you fall in love with a weird crazy great place. You fall in love with a person in that weird crazy great place.

MICHELLE: He spoke no English, I spoke no Mongolian. I went back to Los Angeles and we skyped for about 10 months with the help of a translator.  And then I said this is a ridiculous long distance relationship scenario so I need to just go ahead and move there. So that’s what I did.

RACHEL: Michelle packed up everything she owned. What she could fit in 9 suitcases was coming with her. Everything else she sold on eBay.

MICHELLE: So I was every day at the post office. One of the first things I did when I moved to Darkhan was I told my husband I need to send some mail.  So he’s like yeah we have a post office. I was like great. It happened to be pretty much just across the street. And so we walked in and it’s this… old Soviet style building. And we signed up for a post office box.  They said ok, here’s your mailing address. Every time you send mail, for your return address you need to include your phone number. So yeah the thing is the post office doesn’t have mail carriers. So when you get a package, the postal worker calls you on the phone and says come here, come get your package 

RACHEL: This is the infrastructure problem that Michelle was talking about earlier, one that she thinks is a huge barrier for what3words. And for what it’s worth, when we asked Giles at what3words about this, he seemed confident the infrastructure was there. Michelle was not confident.  BUT, to her, it’s not actually that big of a deal getting stuff through the mail. Because, to Michelle, ultimately, this system is fine. Just like folks in Lebanon, everyone in Mongolia has a workaround.   

MICHELLE: There’s a whole other system of delivery that exists here, these rogue taxis, kind of like a gypsy cab. Where it’s just people who use their private cars and they take fares. And there’s also cross country buses. So if you want to get something from ulaan bataar say a car part or a tractor part, you call your cousin and say my tractor’s broken. Your cousin in UB goes and finds the piece, then once they’ve got it, they go to the bus station and they find the bus that’s going to Darkhan and they hand the tractor part to the bus driver. The bus driver takes about $1.50 or $2 and shoves the tractor part under his bus with all the passengers’ luggage. And then when he gets to Darkhan, he calls the number that you’ve written on the package.  That’s our Fedex. I use it all the time. It’s so easy. 

CHRISTINE: Michelle’s got a really interesting perspective into Mongolian life. She grew up in the United States and she’s married to a Mongolian. So sometimes she does things the Mongolian way — just throws it under a bus. And sometimes, she does does things the US way — she uses a third party shipper to get things sent to her from the United States.

RACHEL: Michelle knows that’s a special position to be in. Some people in Mongolia are a lot better off than others. Especially after the fall of the Soviet Union, the nation that heavily influenced Mongolia’s economy.

MICHELLE: What we have now is a free market with a touch of oligarchy.

RACHEL: Just a dash.

MICHELLE; Smidgen.

RACHEL: If you grease the right palm, the right things can go to the right places.

MICHELLE; Yeah, exactly. It’s how everything here works. Every little thing. As a foreigner, I sort of giggle and glee that I have access to that because I’ve got this Mongolian husband who knows the system. But here’s this other part of me that says that this is wrong this shouldn’t be this way. It’s.. I struggle with it.

RACHEL: So this. This sense of unfairness? This is what fires her up about what3words.

MICHELLE: There are bigger problems in Mongolia than getting a letter delivered to your front door. Each urban establishment is ringed by what are called Ger Districts.

RACHEL: Ger, by the way, is what Mongolians call a tent. We call Mongolian-style tents yurts, but in Mongolia they’re actually called Gers. So Ger Districts are:

MICHELLE: These unofficial settlements where people have migrated from rural areas to city centers and they are doing so because they need access to state resources. We’ve had a couple of really harsh winters since 2010 that have wiped out entire herds of livestock and destroyed families. These families take what have left and they’ve moved to the Ger Districts they don’t have access to the central heating system. They don’t have access to clean water. They don’t have access to electricity. They are not worried about the post office. They are worried about the state knowing where they are so they can get state welfare, so that their children can get access to schools.

CHRISTINE: To Michelle, this big idea — to map everything, to give everyone an address — it’s just solving the wrong problem.   

RACHEL: And not only that — she’s not even convinced that what3words is actually rolling out in Mongolia. 

RACHEL: As somebody who is pretty engaged with what’s going on with domestic news you’re just not seeing any evidence that government mail is going to be rolling the system out. 

MICHELLE: Absolutely not.

RACHEL: We asked what3words about this, and they said that they’re primarily focused on rolling their technology out to institutions, not individuals. To them, it’s the clients’ job to communicate with customers. We also talked with Mongol Post’s head of postal operations who said the company is working on rollout now. It’s just not there yet.

CHRISTINE: So could there ever be a situation where like maybe a year from now you meet with somebody, or you contact somebody on facebook and you arrange to meet somewhere to exchange a stroller, I guess, and you set a location using what3words instead of saying meet me at this park?

MICHELLE: Me? No. I’m a Luddite.  I like my life to be pretty straightforward. I don’t need it. It’s not something I need.

RACHEL: Michelle, in this way, thinks the same way a lot of Lebanese folks do. People find workarounds that don’t require them to adopt something new — especially if that new thing doesn’t work for their lives.  They’re choosing something else over efficiency.  

CHRISTINE: Where are we?

RACHEL: This is the Dag Hammarskjöld Postal Convenience Center in New York, New York. Zip Code 10017.

CHRISTINE: Do you know what our NAC geo code is right now? 

RACHEL: I have no idea what our NAC tag is. Or are what our 3 words are. We could find out. 

CHRISTINE: I’ll look up my –  I’ll look up our three words! Is it postal convenience center? I would die. Slang Easy Random. Why are we here?

RACHEL:  I wanted to come here because this is a post office that really demonstrates the magnitude of the task, of giving everyone an address, and getting mail there. This is a really SPECIAL post office. Or postal convenience center.   It’s right by the United Nations, so as you’re walking up, everyone around you is speaking something other than English.  It feels really international, but at the same time very New York.

RACHEL: Oh my gosh look how Manhattan that is.

CHRISTINE: The steam.

RACHEL: The steam, rising out of the ground.

RACHEL: The other thing that’s special about this place is that the novelist Kurt Vonnegut writes about it in his last book, in an essay titled: “I Have Been Called a Luddite.” Just like Michelle.

RACHEL: He’s writing about his ritual of mailing his work to a typist. When he’d written enough pages, he would step out of his apartment and go down to the corner store to buy an envelope, right in this neighborhood.  He’d wait in line with people from all over the world — maybe people from Mongolia, maybe people from Lebanon — and then once he had his envelope, he’d walk over to the postal convenience center And then he’d wait in line again, with more people from all over the world.  He’d ask them about their accents, they’d talk about their days. 

RACHEL: Kurt Vonnegut could easily have had somebody do this for him. But there were two reasons that he didn’t. The first is pretty cute – basically, it boils down to him having had a crush on one of the women who works at the counter.  He wrote:

RACHEL: “All I have ever seen of her is from the waist up because she is always behind the counter. But every day she will do something with herself above her waist to cheer us up. Sometimes her hair will be all frizzy. Sometimes she will have ironed it flat. One day she was wearing black lipstick. This is all so exciting and so generous of her, just to cheer us all up, people from all over the world.”

RACHEL: The other reason is bigger. And it sheds a little light on why Michelle likes being a Luddite, and why the Lebanese solve their own problems.

RACHEL: It’s SATISFYING to do it by hand. To do it yourself. To know it’s going to get done. It’s the human thing to do.

RACHEL:“Then I go outside and there is a mailbox. And I feed the pages to the giant blue bullfrog. And it says, ‘Ribbit.’  And I go home. And I have had one hell of a good time.”

RACHEL: You can put a layer of addresses on the world. But you can’t make the world conform to a layer of addresses. There are always going to be messy things; things will always go wrong.

RACHEL: But humans always fix them. We don’t always do it in a big way, but it always get fixed. This essay makes me think Vonnegut wouldn’t have minded al-shatara that much. He definitely wouldn’t have bothered memorizing his three words. Because the way it ends makes it really clear: He took too much pleasure in being human.

RACHEL: “Electronic communities build nothing. You wind up with nothing. We are dancing animals. How beautiful it is to get up and go out and do something. We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you different.”

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN: Ok it looks like I’ve gotten a piece of old-fashioned mail from Gimlet Media’s Surprisingly Awesome. It’s addressed simply to Goldstein. Alright well I’m Jonathan Goldstein, the host of the new Gimlet podcast Heavyweight, and it’s gonna be launching on September 27th.

I’m going to open this up.

Dear Jonathan:

Thanks for agreeing to do this! Oh, of course. What are you doing? You’re reading our credits! That is true.

They are as follows:

Surprisingly Awesome’s theme music is by Nicholas Britell and their ad music is by Build Buildings.

They were edited this week by Annie-Rose Strasser. Peter Clowney weighed in too. The show was produced by Elizabeth Kulas, Christine Driscoll and Rachel Ward. It was mixed by Andrew Dunn. Special thanks to Maeve Higgins, who brought us that Vonnegut essay.

You may remember a while back that Surprisingly Awesome asked people to invite them to their WEDDINGS.  Well this Friday they’re unveiling the lucky couple. Subscribe to their newsletter to meet the newlyweds – it’s They send it every other week and it’s full of fun facts that they couldn’t fit into episodes.

But right now, stick around because after the notes from our sponsors, there’s a peek at my new show, Heavyweight. Oh, that’s really nice.

With warmest regards,

Surprisingly Awesome, a production of Gimlet Media

There’s no PS. Nothing on the back side either.

RACHEL: Right, because I’m adding the PS live in studio right now. So PS: We had production assistance from Shani Aviram, Jacob Cruz, Emily Kennedy, Rikki Novetsky and Sarah Stodder.

Additional music for this episode came from Our Many Stars, Onry Ozzborn, and One Two Three.

Finally, this week we are sad to see our producer Elizabeth Kulas go. She’s got a cool new job with our friends at NPR’s Planet Money.  They are very very very lucky to have her. Elizabeth found this episode’s story on a visit to Beirut. After getting lost in cabs a dozen times, because there were no addresses, she thought to herself, hmm.  Maybe there’s a story here. And that’s this story here. Elizabeth, thank you for everything and best of luck.



Hosted by

Rachel Ward

Rachel Ward is the Senior Producer and host of SA. She's a former Morning Edition producer and the founding editor of the Innovation Trail, a reporting collaboration among upstate NYY public broadcasters.


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