Let’s Shake Hands*

HandshakeEvery 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Angela Savage, Betty Webb, Tony Hillerman

26 responses to “Let’s Shake Hands*

  1. Glad you mentioned the Alexander McCall Smith books, Margot – it is those glimpses of the culture behind Mma Ramotswe and her friends that adds immeasurably to our understanding and enjoyment of the books.

    I’d also add another of my favorites: Arthur W. Upfield’s books, written and set in the Australia of the early twentieth century. A lot of modern Australian readers appear to be uncomfortable with the books because they feel the portrayal of Aborigine society and beliefs was “degrading.” I disagree; Upfield was a champion of that society, and Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte, that half-Aborigine, half-Caucasian “Man of Two Tribes,” always showed his respect for an ancient culture. It is what made him a great detective, and many of the most powerful Bony novels, such as “The Bone is Pointed,” deal with the detective’s interactions with that culture.

    • Les – I’m very glad you mentioned the Upfield books. You’re always so good at filling in gaps that I’ve left. You’re right too that Upfield treats his protagonist with a lot of respect; more than people sometimes think. Sometimes there are some dated comments and so on but overall I agree with you 100%.

    • Les is right…”we” modern Australian readers do tend to be a bit uncomfortable reading Upfield – myself included. I have been pondering why this is so over the past year or two and I think it is a combination of things. While I agree that Bony is depicted well – with due deference to traditional culture and so on – much of what goes on in the books including his treatment by others makes us cringe now – or it did me anyway. I can remember reading Upfield in my early 20’s and being appalled – full of righteous indignation I was at that age – but I think now it was probably something similar to how a 1980’s German might have felt reading a book set in the 1930’s with a German detective doing the right thing but Jewish people and others being the subject of awful abuses – you don’t really want to believe your culture – possibly your relatives – were capable of such things. It’s probably a bit less raw now as we’ve made progress on indigenous issues (though not enough but things like recognising and apologising to the Stolen Generations a few years ago made an enormous impact) and it is perhaps getting easier to look back with some objectivity,

      • Bernadette – I can well imgine why you feel the way you do about the Upfield novels. I’ve read some historical novels depicting Blacks and Native Americans in the U.S. that made me feel exactly the same way. As you say, you don’t want to believe your own people would have been capable of behaving that way. Perhaps you’re right that as time goes by, we can look at novels that were written (or that take place) at that time a little more objectively. You’re actually bringing up something else here (or at least making me think of it). How accurately should one depict such things in historical mysteries? One the one hand, certain groups of people were treated horribly of course and historical novels that take place at certain times need to depict that if they are to be authentic. On the other, it is indeed cringe-worthy. I’ll have to think about that a bit.

  2. Another interesting topic. I plan to read more mysteries set in different cultures this year, and will be on the lookout for cultural differences like these. Angela Savage in on my radar to get her first book, when I can afford it.

  3. Culture is important to write into any genre – even one that is made up. I love reading the norms of other peoples.


  4. What a fascinating post, Margot. And you are so right- those little sub-texts are so critical aren’t they. Forget between cultures, even within a country (or even among different social levels in a city), there are so many nuances that you need to be aware of unless you want to stick out.

    • Natasha – You know, you got me thinking about something that really hadn’t occurred to me when I was writing this. Even within the same culture there are sub-cultures. The same ‘rules’ that apply in one social class or group do not necessarily apply in others. And those subtexts really do matter if one wants to fit in. That’s an excellent point.

  5. Margot, this post has really given me something to think about for my own writing. It’s not particularly something I’ve missed in my first Wip but definitely something to bear in mind in future ones. Especially considering the city I write in is very multicultural.

    It’s been a long time since I read Poirot and yet I can’t remember him as the hugging type. In today’s easily moving world though, knowledge of these things is more and more important. Yet Agatha Christie was doing it years ago!

    • Rebecca – I think with today’s mobility, the world really is more multicultural than it ever was. And those little cultural ‘rules’ matter a lot as we all try to get along. So it’s going to be, I think, an increasing part of crime fiction too.
      And about Agatha Christie? She was indeed ahead of her tiime on a lot of things I think. This is just one example.

  6. Margot: I agree with Les that the Bony series provides a view of Aborigine culture. What he did not mention is that the book also reflects, sometimes painful in their prejudice, how white society dealt with indigenous Australians.

    I also thought of the Nathan Active series by Stan Jones. He provides insights into the culture of the people living on Alaska’s northwest coast.

    • Bill – Right you are on both counts. I really like the way Jones depicts the culture, too. He is honest about it (i.e he doesn’t romanticise it) but he has real reaspect for the people.

  7. It’s funny that you should bring this up now – I am reading THE BAT by Jo Nesbo which is set in Australia – apparently written (or inspired) when Nesbo came here some years ago – some of the cultural things have made me laugh – to be fair he’s done a good job of delving beneath the surface things and after all he is writing us as he (and his character) sees us but it is not always how we are – or not how we think we are anyway – but then we can only be as others see us I suppose.

    • Bernadette – Oh, that’s a fascinating topic! How do characters who are not from a given culture see members of that culture? I think that can be an excellent devvice to ‘hold up a mirror’ to a culture. And I think it’s really interesting to think about what it’s like when someone like Nesbo (who is not a member of the Australian culture) takes a look at the culture as opposed to when someone like Erskine or Savage (who are) do so. Oh, such good ‘food for thought,’ for which thanks. I think I’m going to have to do a post on that sometime soon.

  8. Margot your blogpost has remind me of how much we (men and women) do kiss each other in Spain, even when we meet for the first time. The standard is two kisses on each cheek, as you well know. In some places,like South America, our second kiss ends up in the air quite often.

    • José Ignacio – It’s funny you mentioned that. When I first went to South America when I was a teenager, that custom was something I had to learn as it just doesn’t happen where I grew up. And interestingly enough that custom, plus standing close when speaking and a few other things, were things I learned even before I learned the local words for things. Interesting how those social ‘rules’ are so important that people pay close attention to them without even noticing that they are.

  9. I notice them. Especially now that I live in Mexico. People have so many pre-conceptions about the country and most of them are not true. Also, how they greet is very different than American greetings and so if they got it wrong in a book, I would notice.

    • Clarissa – Oh, I know exactly what you mean. I don’t live in Mexico but I’m a little familiar with the culture as I live in a border state. And yes indeed people have a lot of misconceptions about the culture. There are differences too between the way things are done in the U.S. and Canada and the way they are done in Mexico. And it does stand out if a novelist ‘gets it wrong.’

  10. I noticed this when I live in Greece. People were very, well, tactile. And some got what I would term the ‘English freeze’ from me if I wasn’t in the mood. I’m reminded of this characteristic when I read Camilleri’s books. It is clearly a Mediterranean trait. I find the men/women relationships slightly perplexing in those books.

    • Sarah – I’m sure you did find a lot of differences in terms of those little social rules while you lived in Greece. Two very different ways of looking at the world, so naturally it comes through in the culture as well. And yes, Camilleri’s novels are most definitely reflectie of that culture. I’m glad too that you brought up the whole men/women relationship issue becuase that too is strongly influenced by culture. I’m going to have to think about that for another post, so thanks for the idea.

  11. I agree, a lot of authors give importance to cross-cultures in their novels. One such non-crime fiction novel I read most recently was the action-packed Phoenix Force: Executioner series, a close-knit five-man army that the CIA and Pentagon uses for covert operations, in other words fight its dirty wars. The five commandos are a French-Israeli, a Canadian, a Britisher, a Japanese, and a Cuban. These five men from different continents look out for each other throughout the series. Cross-cultures do make a novel that much more interesting to read.

    • Prashant – Oh, that must have been a very interesting book! And of course those people from very different cultures had to co-operate, which I’m sure complicated an already-stressful situation.

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