I saw a Twitter thread about writing culture by author Joan He, on the face of it about her (or your) own but by extension that of others, and it has plenty of food for thought:
As a reader, and specifially a reader of speculative and historical fiction primarily not in my native language, I run into differences in culture a lot. And as a person in a multicultural, multilingual relationship in a strange country where I’m a cultural and linguistic minority, from time to time I find myself slammed against more deep-seated cultural assumptions.
Joan pointed out that culture is a way of thinking, or cognition, or perspective. As an example, I’d like to share two failures of cultural expectations from my personal experience.
At a con once, I wanted to get a book signed by an American author. I happened to know from their online presence that the author is an introvert. Even though we were both at a public place where introverted authors and panelists often don a more outgoing persona than they do in private, as another introvert I wanted to make sure I’d be especially considerate. However, quite without intending to I tripped over a distinctly Finnish quirk.
One of the big unspoken assumptions in the Finnish culture is that silence isn’t a negative. (Erik and I have both written about it for instance here, here, and here.) In essence, how I understand it, silence means space, and space means respect to other people.
Accordingly, at the abovementioned autograph session, when it came my turn I said my hellos, presented the author with my book, and waited silently. It wasn’t until the author asked me “Did you read it?” that I realised they expected me to say something else. And I had thought I was being courteous not to burden them with yet another dose of chitchat on a weekend full of being “on” at a busy con. I can’t remember for sure, since it was a kind of a deer in the headlights moment for me, but I think I was able to stutter my way to an exit without actually breaking into a run. In any case, not terribly smooth on my part.
I’ve also had a previously friendly person walk away from me when, in the middle of a presentation, I (I’m guessing “merely”) nodded to them to acknowledge their presence and silently continued to listen to the speaker (I’m guessing instead of starting a conversation with the friendly person). Although it’s been years, I still find that an utterly, completely, and thoroughly puzzling reaction.
Over the years, I’ve built a store of strategies and stock exchanges I can pull out if needed, but it’s been hard to try and perform—for it is essentially a performance—in a way that feels unnatural and at times even rude to me. Even after 10+ years, I still can’t bring myself to commit to it wholeheartedly. I suspect I’ll always be the odd, quiet one in Anglo-American contexts, but that’s my background and temperament.
So: yes, cultural assumptions and perspectives are difficult to convey, whether in writing or otherwise. Adding surface details to a fictional culture is easy, and it can be a fantastic tool for both creating distance from the everyday world and deepening the invented one. I love seeing glimpses of the practicalities that fictional characters deal with; I would find—and have found—stories seriously lacking without them. Never, though, should the surface glitter be where invention on the part of author ends; that is as unsatisfying as a lack of external cultural markers.
Being a truly exceptional author has, for me, come to mean not only the ability to create layered, nuanced worlds (or convey the complexities of everyday life in historical fiction). In addition, skilled authors I enjoy the most are able to avoid massive infodumps and to suggest underlying cultural values subtly, as inseparable part of narration and dialogue. And that’s a very challenging thing to do. It sometimes takes me more than one read-through to feel I’m beginning to understand a story. Then again, worthwhile things often are the most difficult ones.
In Live and Active Cultures we talk about cultures and cultural differences.