Divided by a Common Language
It’s an interesting thing, culture. I get an unusual perspective, being an Australian more or less permanently living in the USA (naturalization is on the list of things to do, but it won’t make me less of an Australian. Just more of an American. I’m both, sort of).
Last Monday was Memorial Day, the day Americans pay tribute to their fallen soldiers. Now, I’ve lived in this country for over ten years, and nothing I saw struck me as particularly distasteful or overblown. But then Amanda got an Australian pinging her on her Facebook feed with first a Bible quote (Matthew 5: 9 Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God) then a snarky comment that peacemakers didn’t and couldn’t refer to “fighters warriors or soldiers” and that this isn’t the middle ages.
Now my first instinct here was to apologize on behalf of the rest of the bloody country because most Australians aren’t frigging insensitive enough to make a comment like that a) on another country’s day of remembrance and b) to the mother of a soldier currently on duty outside the country. We might be rude, coarse, and crass, but we do have some decency.
What I did instead was attempt to hammer some sense into what turned out to be an appallingly thick skull armored with deliberate ignorance, but along the way I noticed – or possibly realized – something rather interesting.
See, while Australians and Americans nominally speak the same language, we don’t. Not really.
Americans tend to be very direct and up-front about things. If an American is proud of something, by Dog the rest of the world knows all about it. I’ve heard words like “loud” and “brash used, especially when Americans are busy displaying their dirty laundry and rattling the skeletons that the rest of the world thinks should be properly hidden away in the closet where they belong. What tends to get missed are the other words like “open”, “honest”, “friendly”. And “caring”.
Yes, Americans wave their flag a lot. Yes there’s a tendency towards sometimes overblown and often mawkish Facebook memes.
And yes, it does bother Australians – because the Australian cultural norms are just different enough it’s like a shoe that you can get on but doesn’t fit right so it’s a constant irritant. See, despite the often crude sense of humor and a general belief that there’s only one curse that’s beyond the pale (“no beer”), Australians tend to be rather private. And oddly modest.
Although modesty is probably not the best word to use, because it tends to be a strategic thing: always keep something in reserve in case. Don’t make a big fuss about how great you are, just get in there, do what you have to to the best of your ability, then go and have a beer. Pride is something that comes out on rare occasions but mostly kept to yourself.
Which means of course that American patriotism reads to Australians like jingoistic rah-rah bragging, while to Americans the Australian cynicism and love of taking the piss seems excessively harsh and even cruel. And we speak the same language! We use the same words – we just often mean different things by them.
Imagine how much fun a writer can have with two different cultures that follow this pattern. Two cultures that are on the face of things extremely similar: both descended from the same parent culture, both aggressively egalitarian (sometimes to excess in both cases), both with a tendency to put a lot of energy into work and enjoyment, both with a core belief in the worth of the individual. And yet so very different as soon as you look past the surface…
It’s enough to make me go all quivery with happiness at the thought of how much misery I could put my characters through… Then I remember that nobody would believe a fraction of the real Australia. I’d have to nerf so much just to make it believable.