Culture Clashes

I went to a wedding recently where the bride was Polynesian. There was a strong showing from her community, which had organised the wedding, as well as all sorts of islander culture – various traditional dances etc.

The whole experience made me realise how different the culture was from our familiar western one.

For a start, instead of having the wedding table at the ‘head’ of the room – I guess showing that the bride and groom are ‘king and queen’ for the night, there was another table set up behind and above the wedding table. This one was full of dignitaries – the local chief and his family as well as a local politician connected with the family. There was a tremendous amount of deference shown to this group, with a nod and word to them at every point of the night – before speeches, at each ‘traditional’ point such as cutting the cake etc.

The other thing that struck me was the demeanour of the Polynesians. Apart from those actively involved in the organisation and entertainment, they showed an incredible amount of reserve. Although effusively friendly on an individual level, taken as a whole they stayed an incredibly stoic audience. My lasting impression was that they were essentially fulfilling a role as witnesses to the event. Throughout the night I hardly saw them talking with each other – very different from the usual wedding crowd.

Then there was the way they respond to an issue. At the beginning of the night there was an influx of a couple of dozen people who did not have places to sit. For a good half an hour it appeared as though there was no response to this incredibly embarrassing wedding faux pas – but after a while I realised this was cultural as well. The guests could not help because they were present to observe, while the organisers could not rightfully take action until the whole situation was exhaustively talked around and a unamimous consensus reached. In our (more familiar) culture, there is usually the unspoken acceptance of one or two decision makers who act according to their own choices (and probably far quicker!).

So what does this have to do with writing?

This was only a wedding between people of different backgrounds who lived in the same country and spoke the same language – and yet the culture clash was quite sharp.

What an unexploited source of conflict and situational dynamics! So often in fantasy fiction (or even science fiction for that matter:)) there are people from different countries and cultures rubbing shoulders, yet apart from a nod to language there is rarely much spoken about in terms of cultural approaches. I guess there is such as thing as economy – maybe too much emphasis on this can distract from the story – but what a tool to use to create colour and setting!

What are your favourite culture clashes in fiction? Have you used the clash of cultures to highlight the setting or advance the plot?

10 thoughts on “Culture Clashes

  1. I enjoyed Lois Bujold lack of understanding between Betan and Barrayaran cultures.

    Personally, I’m trying to make taking advantage of a highly socially competitive culture that places a lot of importance on honor, “face” and reputation, and a cultural acceptance of dueling to defend same.

    1. Hi, Pam. I really enjoy LMB & really enjoyed the Betan-Barrayaran differences. I can see how this might have been influenced a bit by Cold War thinking.

      That story sounds like fun – but then again I am a sucker for anything with swords, and love characters with integrity. Good luck with it!

  2. I think the Barrayaran/Cetagandan conflict is fascinating. I loved Eathan of Athos for the huge differences between the Athosians, the Stationers, the Cetas… it was wonderful.

    I went to a wedding between a Cambodian and an American, It too was rather different, a bit more Eastern in the community sense but I don’t recall it as quite as stoic as what you’re describing. I think the bride changed dresses three or four times. The bride and groom essentially stood by the door to greet any guest coming or going all night. Money was/is the traditional gift and the bride received it an envelope from each guest in whatever amount they could afford/deemed appropriate. If they bride couldn’t reach the envelope at the height the guest held it, it was the grooms job to lift her to it.

    1. Hi, Mike. That sounds like an interesting wedding. These guys also had a ‘wishing well’. I think the Polynesian culture would be very different from Cambodian culture. It does occur to me it may also be hard to separate the particular quirks of a family from the cultural ‘background’ behind it.

      Hopefully there were plenty of seats at yours!

  3. The one that has stayed with me for years (more than I care to admit to) is Poul Anderson’s The People of the Wind. The cultural conflicts within a mixed human/alien settlement were brilliantly portrayed.

    Also, pretty much anything by C. J. Cherryh. She seems to specialize in it.

    1. Hi, Ellyll. I love Poul Anderson. He does a good job of throwing strange elements together. I can’t remember the name of the book, but there was a scene with medieval warriors galloping their steeds down a ramp from a spaceship to attack a planet. And it work. I just loved that.

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