Thursday, October 16, 2014

Avoiding Cultural Mistakes in Writing

This week, I am writing my blog from a train travelling in Northern England, from Sunderland to Wolverhampton. It has been years since I visited England and I’m struck by the subtle differences from my new home in West Vancouver. These variances show exactly where a novel can fall down when you are writing about a place you think you know.

Let’s look at this (English) example:

“Dave ran his dry tongue over his fangs. They felt dirty, blood probably, he had forgotten his toothbrush. He squeezes himself in behind the steering wheel of his two door silver Honda Civic, his belly hanging out of his Puma tracksuit bottoms. He puts her into first gear and pulls away from the curb, facing the oncoming traffic. He blasts his horn at an old woman about to step out on to the road.”

While this scene could be from a city in Vancouver, it might strike a Canadian reader as unlikely and I’m not talking about the fangs and blood part. If we take this sentence and compare it to some of the observations I made on my trip, the colloquialism’s aside, it can be surprising how two English speaking countries with a predominately Caucasian population that share the same head of state can be so different.

Here are some examples from my trip:

  • Cars: The cars are smaller, probably due the expense of petrol in the UK.
  • Parking: Cars can park facing both ways on the street.
  • Pedestrian Right of Way: If you walk toward the edge of the road in Canada, cars will stop, in England they will not. They do not slow down, so if you forget to look you will be hit.

  • Service Staff: In the UK, al the staff working in service jobs are very chatty and keen to get into a conversation. This is not the case in Vancouver.
  • Alcohol: There is a big drinking culture in the UK which is partly due to how cheap beer and wine are compared to Canada.
  • Age: The general population seems older. This maybe because of the more social benefits for elders like highly subsidized transport and the popularity of the pub culture with cheap alcohol
  • Weight: In the UK, people tend to be overweight, not many obese people like in the US, but almost all are overweight.
  • Fashion: In northern England, people wear track suits when not actually doing, or looking like they have done, any exercise.
  • Family: In Northern England, multiple generations of families will live in the same town.

As you can imagine, these subtle differences could spoil a story set in the UK by a Canadian or vice versa.

How do you get around these issues without visiting the country in question?
  • Avoid generalizations.
  • Get average sales figures of cars and relative cost of petrol.
  • Get regional average cost of food and drink but this does not mean they have a pub culture. For example, alcohol is cheaper in Indian than the UK but India does not have a pub culture.
  • The regional soap operas in UK tend to reflect the society every well, for example Coronation Street, if you ignore the story lines. If you look at the amount of deaths on Coronation Street, you will know it is the most cursed street in the world and no one would ever live there.
  • Talk to another author or another equally observant person who lives in that country.

A Canadian version of the first paragraph:

“Dave ran his dry tongue over his fangs. They feel smooth, clean, and blood free; he never left home without his toothbrush. He climbs into his Ford Explorer clipping in his seat belt, being careful not to crease his Canucks top. He puts her in to drive and pulls into the traffic. He stops to let a flavorsome looking Chinese woman cross the road.”

What interesting cultural differences have you discovered when writing?

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