Every culture is just a little different and those differences come through in ways that go far beyond language. Different cultures have different assumptions about nearly everything and those assumptions are reflected in dozens of different ways. We may not even be aware of the ways in which we reflect our own cultures but we do it all the time. Just as an example, think for a moment about how close you stand to someone you’ve never met. There are of course individual preferences and differences that come into play, but culture has a real impact on how close we stand to others, how much and what kind of eye contact we make and our social rituals. Writers can use those cultural details to make characters and settings distinctive and to show not tell what they’re like. And readers really like those details. Most readers I know want to feel a sense of place when they read; those little cultural details can help to convey that. Besides, they’re interesting.
Agatha Christie was quite skilled at holding up a mirror to her own culture and its assumptions. One way she did this was by creating Hercule Poirot, who’s not a member of that culture – most decidedly not. Just as an example, Poirot is from a culture in which hugging is quite common, even between men. He’s learned, though, that in his adopted English culture, that’s not done. In The Murder on the Links for example, he and Captain Hastings travel to France to investigate the stabbing death of Canadian émigré Paul Renauld. At one point, Poirot makes a trip from the Renauld home in Merlinville-sur-Mer to Paris to track down an important lead in the case. Here’s a bit of the scene in which he takes his leave of Hastings:
‘You permit that I embrace you? Ah, no, I forget that it is not the English custom. Une poignee de main, alors.’
The handshake for leave-taking and greeting is one of those little social rituals that some cultures have – and some don’t.
Tony Hillerman’s novels featuring Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn include quite a lot about Navajo social customs and rituals. Just to offer one example, both Chee and Leaphorn visit the homes of people who may have information about a case or who may have been witnesses to a crime. Sometimes they just want background information. When they do visit the homes of other Navajo people (especially those who are more traditional in their outlook), both detectives know that politeness requires waiting outside until one’s welcomed inside. In more than one novel, Chee or Leaphorn travels to a home and simply waits in or by the car. The owner then sees that there’s a visitor and comes out to greet that person. Why not just knock on the door? The reason is that it’s more polite to give the homeowner time to straighten things up and prepare a bit to have a guest. And a handshake, which is exactly appropriate in some cultures, is not appropriate in the Navajo culture. It’s a reflection of traditional Navajo spiritualism. So neither Chee nor Leaphorn shakes hands with other Navajos they encounter. And yet, they’re not at all ignorant of other cultures’ customs and adjust when they need to do that. Those little details about the characters and the stories give the reader a very strong sense of setting and context without too much verbiage.
In Alexander McCall Smith’s series featuring Botswana private investigator Mma. Precious Ramotswe, we learn yet another approach to greeting. In Tears of the Giraffe, Mma. Ramotswe gets a visit from Andrea Curtin, an ex-pat American who’s decided to move to Botswana. She and her family lived there for a few years, during which time her son decided to remain and join an eco-commune. When he disappeared, the official explanation was that he must have been caught by a wild animal. But Curtin wants closure so she visits Mma. Ramotswe to ask her to investigate. Here’s Mma. Ramotswe’s first impression of Andrea Curtin:
‘The woman took her hand, correctly, Mma. Ramotswe noticed, in the proper Botswana way, placing her left hand on her right forearm as a mark of respect. Most white people shook hands very rudely, snatching just one hand and leaving the other hand free to perform all sorts of mischief. This woman had at least learned something about how to behave.’
It’s a fascinating perspective on what a handshake means. And again, McCall Smith explains that bit of culture and how it is reflected in people’s greetings without a lot of un-necessary description.
In Betty Webb’s Desert Wives, Arizona PI Lena Jones is hired by Esther Corbett to rescue her thirteen-year-old daughter Rebecca from a polygamous group called Purity. Rebecca is returned safely but then her mother finds herself accused of murder when group leader Solomon Lord is found killed. Jones joins the group in the guise of the newest wife of disaffected member Saul Berkhauser. Her plan is to ‘go undercover’ to find out who Royal’s real killer is and clear Esther’s name. But as she soon discovers, Purity has a culture all its own. One essential aspect of that culture is the low status of women. And all sorts of little social rituals at Purity reflect this. Jones has to learn to look down when she’s speaking, to walk a few paces behind her ‘husband’ and to not initiate conversations, especially with men, un-necessarily. All of this is very difficult for the outspoken Jones, and she runs into more than one obstacle. But in the end she does find out the truth about what happened to Royal. She also finds out several other very ugly truths about Purity.
One of the most fascinating depictions of having to learn different social rituals and customs is in Angela Savage’s series featuring PI Jayne Keeney. Keeney is an ex-pat Australian who lives and works in Bangkok. You could argue that there are several cultures in Australia (and you’d be right). But Keeney’s particular culture of origin is not much like the Thai culture in which she has to function. So she’s had to learn to do much more than just speak Thai (which she does). She’s had to learn how to ‘properly’ speak to authority figures, how to walk and move without attracting attention to herself, and how to conduct business. In Behind the Night Bazaar and The Half Child, Keeney uses what she’s learned about the Thai culture to find out the truth about the cases she investigates. And what’s interesting is that Savage uses those social rituals and other cultural reflections to show readers what the Thai culture Keeney encounters is like. They help to create a strong sense of context.
And that’s what’s so valuable about paying attention to the small cultural realities such as social distance, greetings and so on. They ‘flesh out’ characters and as long as they’re not done self-consciously, they add to the atmosphere. But what do you think? Do you notice those things? If you’re a writer, do you think consciously about those cultural realities?
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by The White Stripes.