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.