When writing about different cultures we need to realize that in some situations, the culture, standards, code of ethics and traditions are completely different. Don’t just presume that because you would do a thing one way, so will all other cultures. See below for some cultural differences to watch out for.
“How much do potatoes cost in South Africa?” a cyber friend asked in an online group discussion on cost of living in our various countries. I gave the current price in rands (South African Currency) then converted it to dollars for the benefit of the others in the group.
“That’s for a 10 kg bag, or a ‘pocket’ as we call it here,” I added.
“Goodness! That’s nothing,” came the reply. “We pay far more.” As we continued to share prices, the Americans in the group became convinced that South Africa was the cheapest place on earth to live.
Some years ago, when travelling in another country, I was astonished when an educated person halted me in mid-sentence. “Why do you keep saying she lives in ‘England’? I thought she lived in Great Britain?”
Surely everyone knows that England is part of Great Britain?
But why should they?
I know very little about the geography of the United States of America. I know less about Australia and New Zealand, and don’t ask me about countries and cultures in Central or Eastern Europe. So why should my reader know about South African cities or about common landmarks in Great Britain?
Writing for the international market is a tremendous opportunity to educate people about your own country—or the country you’ve chosen to write about. If you’re writing about your own country, remember that others don’t have your inside knowledge. Your English-speaking reader may use different words to yours to refer to a common item.I'd never heard of the Twin Towers before 9/11. Click To Tweet
I’d never heard of the Twin Towers before 9/11.
Dare I admit this? On the original 9/11, I heard of the Twin Towers of America for the first time. I’m sure I wasn’t alone.
Yes, I’m well educated. Yes, I knew quite a bit about America, especially through my many cyber friends. I knew of the Empire State Building, the Pentagon, the White House, and many more buildings. But I’d never heard of the Twin Towers. Why would I have? Today the whole world knows of them, but only as a result of that tragedy.
I once enjoyed a book by a well-known author. Half way through the story, his main characters visited an extinct volcano in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). I immediately lost interest in the book. Although to that point I had enjoyed the story, I found I could no longer follow it. Why? I grew up in Rhodesia. There is no such thing as a volcano, extinct or otherwise. Even though this was a novel, the writer lost my respect. He hadn’t done his homework, and the story was spoiled for me.
Learn different words by chatting with folk who live in another country
One good way to learn what “the world” knows or believes about your own country is to strike up conversations with those from other lands. If we can’t go in person, the World Wide Web presents us with a tremendous learning opportunity.
During my first visit to America, I was amazed at how often I was asked if I was afraid to live in South Africa with all the wild animals roaming around. (The only wild animals of the dangerous variety who roam around South Africa are in game reserves or private game parks.)
A number of folk made comments like, “Perhaps you know the Barrett family. They live in Africa.” (So do millions of other people.) Or “Do you live near the Nile?” (Umm. No. We’re in South Africa, hundreds of miles or kilometers away.)
Over and over again I was asked how I could be South African and yet have a white skin. Many people thought the only white-skinned people here are missionaries or tourists. When I said I was born in Scotland, that made them happy. But when I said my husband was a 2nd generation South African (and yes, he’s white) and my children are 3rd generation, they were amazed.
What about the way we speak?
I was also told on a number of occasions that I “don’t have a South African accent”. And what would that accent be? Those listening to me had probably heard Nelson Mandela speak on television, and yes, he has a very different accent to me. He was a Xhosa-speaking South African who also spoke excellent English. But he had a Xhosa accent.
Or perhaps my critics had heard some of our white-skinned Afrikaans actors. Their native language is Afrikaans, although they speak excellent English with an Afrikaans accent. I am of British descent, and English is my first language. Although I’ve lived in Southern Africa since I was four-years-old, I have an English / South African accent.
Like many countries, America included, South Africa has many accents and dialects. (We have eleven official languages!)
We think we know a country from the things we’ve seen on TV, watched in films, read in books, or heard from others. If we’re going to write about it, we need to make sure of our facts.
Other cultures may not understand ours
International writer, LeAnne Hardy, recently ran a writing course for a group in Awasi, Kenya. A woman in the group was amazed that LeAnne had two daughters and no sons, yet her husband hadn’t taken another wife. That’s how it would be in Kenya. (For some more amusing insights from this writing adventure, visit her post on the International Christian Fiction Writers blog.)
When my two sons were growing up in our home, one day they caused an abrupt halt in a family discussion. We were all talking about something that clearly didn’t interest them, and all of a sudden one announce, “Talking about bicycles . . .” We weren’t talking about bicycles. We all stopped talking and looked at them as if they’d said something really strange. (They had of course!) We got to know this expression meant, “Moving on . . .” because whoever said it wanted us to change the subject. It has become a family joke. When we want to get everyone’s attention, there is no better way to get it than to say, “Talking about bicycles . . .”
Talking about toilets . . .
Just recently, my international critique group held a discussion on . . . toilets. Some years ago, my little grandson, who had been on the mission field in South America, came home on furlough. He was in tears as he couldn’t “find the bathroom”. He asked his granny (that would be me) and “she sent me to the wrong room.”
I had sent him to the bathroom, which was what he’d asked for. He wanted the toilet, which was in another room. That incident sparked off an interesting discussion in our crit group on what the different countries called the little room that only has a toilet and no bath or shower.
Because people don’t know a word or have wrong ideas about our culture does not make them ignorant or uneducated. It simply means they don’t know . . . and writing is a great place to tell them all about how your country lives.What do you call the little room if it's only a toilet with no bath? Click To Tweet
Bangers and Mash?
When you hear the term “bangers and mash,” does your mouth water or does it go dry? British readers with know the idiom means sausages and mashed potatoes. Readers in other countries may imagine a scene of extreme violence.
To clarify this expression, the British writer could say, “We’ll have bangers and mash for supper— I have some nice pork sausages.” The International reader now knows what’s on the menu.
A South African may write about “The street children,” and the local readers will immediately recognise the tragedy of children who live without adult supervision, sleeping under bridges or in the bushes. Readers from other countries may not understand. The S.African writer could rather call them “homeless orphans” and everyone will know what is meant.
These phrases, understood by the native speakers of a language, are called idioms. As writers, we need to be aware of them, and clarify their meaning for our international readers.
A common idiomMost people world wide understand the meaning of the noun, bucket, and the verb, kick. But what happens when you put them together? Click To Tweet
One of the common mistakes we writers can make when we write a story based in another country is to imagine the readers living in our own location. We expect our readers to automatically see what we see, hear what we hear, and smell what we smell. Yet surely part of the thrill of reading about another country, is to learn about other lands and cultures? We need to treat our readers as our guests and share with them some of the local traditions.
English as a language
Before I became a writer, I believed English was one language. Wherever you lived, if you spoke English, you . . . spoke English! By the same token, if you wrote English, you . . . wrote English.
Obviously, my way of writing English was the correct way, the only way. After all, I was English. (Scottish actually, but we’ll ignore that.)
Because I grew up in the British Colony of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) most of my books came from England. They were printed in the same English as my teachers taught. I moved to South Africa to study nursing, and all my textbooks were printed in the UK.