Telling about Countries and Cultures

This entry is part 5 of the series International English


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?

Where schools certainly try to give a general knowledge of the world, for obvious reasons they concentrate on the countries and cultures where the students live. So my school mates and I learned the geography of Rhodesia, as it was then called, about the natural beauty, animals and flora—but very little about other countries.

As writers we have a tremendous opportunity to tell others about our countries and cultures. Click To Tweet However, we need to recognize their different education and knowledge. We have an excellent chance to come alongside our readers and help them to understand our countries and cultures.


                                     Piccadilly Circus 1992, CC

Have you been to London?

Many people have never been to London. They may never have heard about Piccadilly Circus. So when they read, “The town was like Piccadilly Circus,” the confused reader in another country may picture elephants, tigers, and bareback riders in the city.

The alert British writer could say, “The congested streets, teaming with cars and people, resembled Piccadilly Circus in London.” Now the readers can not only visualize the scene, they have learned something about London.

Have you been to New York City?

empire-state-building-10819I have never been to New York City, but I have heard of the Empire State Building. I have also seen it in pictures and in movies. However, if you don’t know about the American building, you won’t understand what I mean when I write, “the Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg is like the Empire State Building.”

I could rather write, “The Carlton Hotel towers over surrounding buildings in Johannesburg, South Africa, in much the same way as the Empire State Building does in New York City.” I’m sure a number of you have now learned something about South Africa as well as New York.

When you write about famous buildings or landmarks, make sure your reader can picture the scene. Don’t take it for granted they have the same knowledge as you. They doubtless know more about their own home country than you do. Help them to learn about yours.

While writing this post, I came across a fascinating website. Here you can compare your country to other countries and cultures. In the process you may learn some interesting (and sometimes scary) facts.

For example:

If Australia is your home instead of South Africa you will . . .

  • be 77.11% less likely to be unemployed
  • be 89.35% less likely to die in infancy
  • be 96.55% less likely to be murdered

On the other hand, you will . . . 

  • spend 9.5 times more money on health care
  • consume 3.7 times more oil
  • use 95.93% more electricity

If the USA is your home instead of South Africa you will . . . 

  • make 4.6 times more money
  • be 70.68% less likely to be unemployed
  • be 88.09% less likely to be murdered

On the other hand, you will . . . 

  • spend 13.8% more money on health care
  • consume 4.8 times more oil
  • use 2.5 times more electricity

If Japan is your home instead of South Africa you will . . .

  • be 83.53% less likely to be unemployed
  • make 3.2 times more money
  • be 99.06% less likely to be murdered

On the other hand, you would . . .

  • spend 7.4 times more money on health care
  • consume 2.9 times more oil
  • use 39.7% more electricity
    • Oh and I’m not sure which column to put this in, but if you live in Japan, you will
      have 57.39% fewer babies! (What do you suppose happens to the .39%?)

These statistics gives the impression that all of the residents of the country stand a high chance of being murdered in any given day. Obviously, this is not true. We do have an exceptionally high crime rate, but many of the murders take place in dangerous areas or in situations which shouldn’t happen.

Where statistics such as just mentioned have a limited accuracy, it can still be helpful to bear some of these in mind if you are writing about your country and comparing it with another. It can also be beneficial to ask the question, “Why?”

Several reasons come to mind. 

dishwasher-526358_6401. There is an ongoing massive drive across the country to cut down on the use of electricity as the Electricity giant does not have sufficient resources at this stage to supply the country. If we use too much, we face “load shedding” where our homes are plunged into darkness, usually at the most inconvenient time. So when we leave a room, we switch off the light. (Usually.)
2. As a result of the limited supply, electricity is an extremely expensive commodity, so appliances such as heaters are used sparingly.
3. Some homes in the poorer areas are not yet supplied with electricity, and so residents resort to illegal (and dangerous) means. This means they only use a small amount of power.
4. Most homes have compulsory trip switches to switch their geysers on and off, hence cutting back on electricity.
5. The country does not have as many labor saving or life improving devices as more advanced countries. e.g. few private homes have air conditioning, poorer homes cook with paraffin instead of electricity, many do not have dishwashers, tumble dryers, and other electrical devices. Many who once had them, now consider them as expensive luxuries due to the cost of electricity.
Just reading this short list should help you be more aware that many of your readers do not have dishwashers, tumble dryers, etc, although they will know what they are. As soon as you put these appliances into your character’s home, many readers will automatically see the house owner as being well-off.

As writers, we need to avoid taking our readers’ understanding for granted.

Don’t let’s presume that our culture and conditions are understood by readers from other countries. It is so good to read a book in which you understand what the author is talking about and enjoying learning about their country.

In reading this post, have you learned something about any country? In particular, have you learned something about South Africa? Now teach us one fact about your country. Please type it as a comment below. 

8 comments on “Telling about Countries and Cultures

  1. Thank you for an interesting post, Shirley. I’m going to have a look at the website you recommended as it sounds fascinting.

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