Taking Culture Beyond Yogurt

Or cheese. Not that I dislike either, it’s just they don’t work well as analogs of human culture, as it were.

See, a lot of writing uses the whole stranger to the culture thing because it automatically ramps the tension up – it’s an easy way to add a level of risk and suspense that the author doesn’t have to do much about, and they’ve got a nice, simple way to avoid the dreaded infodumpus by having their out of place character asking questions (you didn’t really think Rowling made Harry Potter that dumb because she wanted him to be stupid, did you? She set him up so he’d be completely clueless and with a built in aversion to reading up on things, then handed him the biggest scold/substitute big sister/nag ever to be his assistant (and I like Hermione as a character but have to admit she’s a bit too much like me for my comfort – although I was a bit less inclined to trust authority) so she could tell him whatever he needed to know whenever he needed to know it).

Even though dumping some poor sod into your culture is a common trope, it’s still sadly too easy to get it catastrophically wrong. Sometimes the poor sod is the only person in the whole book that thinks differently about things – which is not going to work out well. Even the most peaceful, well-run society is going to have differences of opinion and differing beliefs. Even Switzerland has political differences and would drive an outsider insane if they weren’t trying to acculturate.

Other times you get the really obvious differences, the SF and Fantasy equivalents of the cowboys with black hats. Or the racism writ large society where each species has a particular place and everyone in a species has the same outlook as the rest of their kind (which is why I’m kind of fond of the idea of twisting things around a bit – opera-loving orcs, anyone?).

Yeah, people who are raised a certain way are mostly going to believe what they’ve been raised to believe. That doesn’t mean they can’t change their mind or that their beliefs aren’t going to shift a bit to accommodate life around them. They’re going to have different habits to their neighbors – maybe small things that don’t mean anything much, but different nonetheless.

It’s the little differences that make it hard to truly fit into a new society. When the differences are big and obvious, you know you have to change to deal with them. It’s the little things that trip you – and by extension, your stranger in a strange land character – all the time. Things like, despite the Australia I grew up in and the USA I moved to having a heck of a lot of similarities, never knowing for sure which side of a hallway to walk in.

That one is – I think – happening because the US and Oz drive on different sides of the road. So people tend to walk on the same side of the hallways that they drive on. Enter a sleep-deprived Kate who switches erratically depending on which set of instincts and memories are running at the time, and watch the chaos. It happens in grocery stores, too. We won’t even go into the frantic head-turning that happens at intersections. I only hope this most simple of differences will eventually sort itself out in my muscle learning so I stop running into people in the corridors at work.

Yes, this is something that can be used in fiction. Along with little things like the closest equivalent to comfort foods not tasting quite right because the ingredients are different. Or not being able to get something that your character regards as a staple, only it’s exotic here.

It’s all cultural – all the rituals and feelings that grow up around certain foods, the side of the road you drive or walk on, whether you give the date with the month first or the day first… And all of those things help add richness to your culture as your character interacts with them and trips over them.

All of which is much more satisfying to read than a culture where everything’s been homogenized into cheese.


    1. Yes! Kate is very much missing Vegemite. I can get it, but it’s expensive and I don’t eat much of anything that you have Vegemite with these days.

      1. Around here they have Vegemite at Kroger’s, in the International Foods section. (We have a very weird giant Kroger’s, mind you. They decided to compete partially with all the different ethnic groceries.)

        1. I saw some at Jungle Jim’s, in the Australian foods section near Sherwood Forest.

  1. Completely Off Topic: A friend’s cousin visiting the U.S. from Australia helped herself navigate by tying a bit of red yarn on the left side of her glasses/sunglasses, and a bit of green on the right. [If Ted had no mold on the cheese, he’d have no culture at all]

    1. Not a bad technique – although what would happen if said friend’s cousin had been red/green color blind is interesting to ponder.

      (mold on the cheese is a perfectly viable culture)

      1. I think the odds in re color blindness were in HER favor. 🙂 Naturally, any combination denoting positive/negative would work. My bread machine is a regular Shiva to poor yeasties.

  2. Japan is the Mad Hatter of people traffic rules. I was all prepared to walk on the “opposite” side of stairs, etc. HOWEVER. In their crowded, insane train stations sometimes that isn’t the best way to shove HUGE crowds of people in or out. So you also have to pay attention to the traffic arrows on the *stairs*. Or you will have lots of small, polite footprints on your back. 😀

  3. I had some fun dropping an over-powered medieval pre-firearms period werewolf into our culture. Mostly she complains about things I think are stupid, and otherwise luxuriates in the things we all take for granted. Like croissants, and houses that don’t leak. And hot water. And t-shirts.

    Tactical bacon and bread-in-a-can were a big hit. ~:D

      1. Nothing like pork steaks in brown gravy for brekkie on a C-130. A four-pack of cigs older than you. Yum.

      2. When I heard about Tactical Bacon, and knew that one of my characters would be all over that. ~:D A culture-clash snippet:

        “Food,” said Alice firmly. “The kid needs to be fed. He’s scrawny. Bacon and eggs?”

        “I have your favorite kind,” said Nike.

        “Woo hoo, tactical bacon in a can, no fire required!” cheered Alice. “We have those disgusting instant scrambled eggs too?”

        “Obviously. I also have proper food, in case our friends don’t share your cast-iron gullet,” said Nike.

        “Hey, you would be a fan too if you’d been stuck with no fire as often as I have,” Alice reminded her. “Erwin and Guruh, you want to try real soldier food? I promise, it’s revolting! But you don’t have to heat it. No fire, no smoke, no unpleasant visitors. And no thermal bloom on infrared. We probably don’t have to worry about that, though. I hope.”

        “If it isn’t oatmeal, I am interested,” said Erwin sitting up.

        “Easier than killing rabbits,” said Guruh. “I will try your soldier food.

        Alice got up and fetched a can of bacon and a can of date-nut bread. “Here, starving people. The eggs are a soldier in-joke, nobody likes them. But this stuff is good. My mom used to give it to me for a treat when I was little. Makes me feel better whenever I see it. Bread in a can, how crazy is that, right?”

        She opened both ends of the canned bread and pushed it out onto a plate of green leaves, then cut slices with a fearsome looking dagger she produced from a forearm sheath. She zipped open the bacon and pulled it out, opening the paper wrappers and laying the bacon on the bread slices.

        Erwin and Guruh sampled them carefully, not too sure the food would be edible. Erwin’s eyes went very round. “Of all the miracles you two have brought out so far, this is the largest next to the flying wagon. Food, sealed up in metal. And it is good! This bacon is as well cured as any I’ve managed to steal in the wizard’s castle. The bread is strange, but it is sweet, and the nuts are of the finest stock. Not a fusty one in it. Are you great lords in your world, to have such things?”

        “We’re not really normal, in our world,” said Nike munching her bacon. “But this food is. Anyone can buy it. No one starves, in the country Alice comes from. There are still places where the poor starve, but fewer and fewer over the years. I was first born in one. I left and went to live with Alice.”

        “Poor people are fat in my country,” said Alice.

        “Fat poor people,” said Erwin. “I would have to see that Alice, I just can’t imagine it.”

        “It is a thing that takes some thinking to get your brain around, that’s for sure,” she agreed.

        1. Hey! I’ll have you know that ripping open a packet of scrambled eggs and ham in an MRE was the height of my day for way too many days in the Middle East.

          1. Americans. No conception of what Real Army Food is supposed to taste like.

            I’m talking Canadian Army in the 1970s. The Trudeau Army, y’know. We would have killed for American MREs. You guys got a chocolate bar! 😡

            The eggs came in a packet and you mixed them cold with water. The result was like rubbery snot with extra crunchy bits of undissolved sulfur powder in them. If you heated them, they kind of vulcanized. I think with a bit of work they could have been made into inner tube patches.

            Another favorite was the tinned “luncheon meat.” The regular force guys used to have contests to see how far they could launch a can of lunch meat out of the gasoline powered immersion heaters.

            1. I do remember getting some of the last of the C-rations in England when I was stationed at RAF Alconbury. We’d vent the top and then stick them on lightall or heater engines to warm up. I made the mistake of letting one go too long and it kind of burped all over the engine, so after the exercise was over, I got extra detailed to the flightline wash rack for a day to steam clean it and anything else the brought by. Funny, but I bet some of the equipment they brought me hadn’t seen steam since WWI.

            2. My dad commented about the eggs served at the air force base on Okinawa in 1945. They’d chlorinate the water into submission, which had the unnerving tendency to make the powdered eggs an interesting shade of green.

              I have vague memories of canned bacon; I think it was sold to the backpacking market in the mid 1970s or so.

  4. I find the imagery of an orcette belting out “O Fortuna!” appropriate.
    Especially if she’s wearing a horned helmet, and an exaggerated breastplate.
    Of course, German is a nice guttural language, has been noted to have been associated with a warlike culture that swings wildly between imperious and subservient. And an opera about a bat is certainly on theme.
    (Then, of course, there’s Wagner.)
    It would be a fun background for a story. (It practically screams for a deconstruction/subversion of “The Phantom of the Opera”. But given the general venality of showbusiness, and the participants thereof, your options are wide open.)

    1. And an opera about a bat is certainly on theme.

      I can imagine an orc singing Wagner, but I have trouble imaging one singing Johann Strauss. Die Fledermaus (The Bat in English) is a comic opera (operetta?), and most orcs seem pretty humor challenged. But if Bugs Bunny can sing Wagner, I guess an Orc could sing Strauss.

        1. This blog should come with a Like button. 😆

          I don’t have Orcs in my novel (maybe I should add some), but my first version of most dialogue …. well, let’s say I need to de-opera it during edits. 😉

  5. Heh. At Day Job, there are not traffic rules in the hallways. Although the Faculty and Staph, er, Staff have suggested that two intersections need traffic mirrors, if only for the protection of our dignity.

  6. “opera-loving orcs, anyone”. Huh, I bet you’re one of those who thinks it sounds better in German than the original Uruk-Hai. Philistine. [EG].

  7. The big jump for me in Oz is coffee. Australia pretty much only does either instant, or what comes from an espresso machine*. A big pot of dripped java, constantly refilled as your meal continues is not a thing down under.

    *happily, almost every business has one. Even a musical instrument store I frequent in Cairns.

  8. And there’s the things you don’t even realize are cultural. Such as using the idiom “a strong/weak suit” in medieval England.

    Before cheap paper.

    Hence, before playing cards.

    Hence, before bridge.

    1. Exactly. Until I was working with a group of programmers and testers who spoke English as a second language I had no idea how pervasive cultural idioms like that actually are. Those who learn English as their second/third/whatever language tend not to understand casual English unless/until they get very familiar with it. Sarah being the exception, of course, although I imagine she went through a phase where she had the same issues with native English speakers.

  9. I’m going to have to make sure my vampire character (he’s survived for nearly 30,000 years as one of the members of the losing side in the Wizard Wars…think “Waffen SS, without the Foreign Legion, and living up to their battlefield legend”) point out that with few exceptions, the world has become a better place because of science and technology. Most of the “revolutions” are teenage angst raised to adult levels.

    And, chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream. Can’t complain about that.

    1. Damn straight it is. For proof, take a good look at any 100+ year old railway station platform. Note the ingrained soot on brick walls – so deeply ingrained that it can’t be cleaned out however many decades it is since most trains went to either diesel or electric. Now imagine what the air quality would have been like with steam trains going through every few minutes…

      Black lung and other such ailments are for the most part a thing of the past. This is a good thing.

      Environmentalism requires an insanely wealthy culture. One that can afford not to use every available resource to the maximum.

      1. Oh, absolutely. He’s this absolute ball of homicidal snark, starting with, “I don’t sparkle, damn it, And, I don’t chase kids in an effort to regain my lost youth.”

        “I’ve lived for over 30,000 years. I remember all of it, and trust me, the 1970’s sucked. Even worse than the Three Kingdoms period.”

        “Anybody that wants to live in the past must write a ten page report on the state of dentistry in that era. If that doesn’t discourage them from wanting to live there, they should be killed right there and then, just to cull that kind of stupid from the gene pool.”

        “Never make your girlfriend into a vampire. It never ends well, because until you kill her, you’ll never get away from her.”

        1. Anybody that wants to live in the past

          Hans Christian Andersen has written a fairy tale about that: A man who keeps complaining how much better everything was in the past one day comes across a pair of magic pantoufles that transport him right into said beloved past.

          It was a very sobering experience. 😆

          1. The good old days, damn well weren’t so good…

            Mind you, there are some things I want from the past. But, on the whole, I prefer right now to the 1980s. At the very least, you can find cute cat memes on your iPhone.

  10. Though there was a time when a programmer was explaining to me that the Czech term for the first person trying somethign was “guinea pig”

    1. Nothing, but nothing beats the “Chinese method of calculating standard deviation” – I don’t know if it was a placeholder, a “Let’s see how long it takes the stupid Americans to find this” thing, or what, but the method to calculate standard deviation in the test-taking software I was working with was…. rand()

      No wonder I was getting really bizarre results when I tested with specific results expecting a certain standard deviation and got a different result every time I did the same set of tests.

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