Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Culture, shmulture

The lovely Carol is at a writers' conference, where one of yesterday's sessions discussed writing about other cultures, or writing for one (North American) culture about another (Japanese, Greek, ...).

One of the participants wanted to write stories set in China, but she had never been there. When the instructor asked about culture, this prospective author compared culture to the raisins or olives in your bread.
Sorry if you just sprayed coffee on your computer screen, but I don't make these things up; I only report them -- with details changed to protect the privacy of the, ah, naive.
But it amused me to think how people from various cultures might react to this statement. Here are a few that came to mind, in no particular order:
  • Press (not clench) teeth together, open lips slightly, inhale orally. "Chotto chigaimasu ne," uh, I mean, "That's slightly, uh..."
  • Tilt head slightly, put on a thoughtful expression. Then: "Interesting. Other viewpoints?"
  • A condescending chuckle, then, "You haven't actually lived on any other continent, have you?"
  • "Arrgh! Do you realize that half the world doesn't even eat bread?"
  • "I'm sorry, but the acoustics in this room must be a little strange. It sounds like you said something about bread."
  • "Could I differ with you on that?"
  • "Class, stop laughing please! We are not here to ridicule ignorance, but rather to eliminate it."
  • "There are volumes, I mean I could name literally a half-dozen of them right off the top of my head, about how people of cultures misunderstand each other just because of those cultural differences:
    • Tannen's You Just Don't Understand, subtitled "Men and Women in Conversation"
    • Understanding Cultural Differences, by the Halls I believe, about French, Germans, and Americans
    • Managing Intercultural Negotiations, written I believe by some diplomatic task force
    • Japan's Cultural Code Words, a not entirely charitable attempt to explain the mysteries of Japan to foreigners
    • Different Games, Different Rules, by Haru Yamada. She explains why you don't get a job description in Japan.
    • Polite Fictions - Why Japanese and Ameridans seem rude to each other by Nancy Sakamoto; and of course
    • John Gray's Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus
    • Crossing Cultures, which describes some of the pitfalls of cross-cultural communication.
    The authors/titles might not be quite right, but I'm working entirely from memory here.
  • A patient sigh, then: "Yes, well, it can be tempting to think that way, particularly for those of us who haven't actually lived among people of another culture."
I'm sure you could think of other possible responses, more or less polite than the above.

But culture is tremendously important. What does it mean when someone rotates his head back and forth about a vertical axis? In North America, it usually means "I disagree," but in other parts of the world it can mean, "Keep going; I'm with you; I love what you're saying!" What does it mean when someone walks into your house with his shoes on? Depends on where. How close to someone is it polite to stand or sit? What does it mean when someone comes into your house and starts opening the shades that you have drawn shut against the heat?

Sorry, this is getting too long, so I'll stop here.

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