Consider Yourself One of Us*

Fittiing InCulture is very deeply ingrained into the way we look at the world. So it shouldn’t be surprising that we naturally feel more comfortable with people who understand our culture, at least somewhat, and can operate effectively within it. Even subtle aspects of culture, such as physical distance between speakers or the ‘right’ formulaic expressions, can make interactions go more smoothly. In fact, research shows that those pragmatic things are more important than things such as accent, pronunciation, or standard grammar when it comes to social interaction.

If you travel outside your own culture, you’ve probably already experienced that bit of camaraderie when you know how to order the kind of coffee you want, or the ‘right’ thing to do about tipping. You may not know a lot of the language, or you may have a different accent, but those little cultural things can still make you feel more welcome.

Crime fiction is full of incidents like this, which shouldn’t be surprising considering how small our world has become. Here are just a few examples. I know you’ll be able to add many more than I ever could.

Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia takes place mostly at an archaeological dig site and expedition team house a few hours from Baghdad. The dig is being led by noted expert Eric Leidner. He’s brought his wife Louise along, and she’s been having a great deal of difficulty since their arrival. In fact, Leidner decides to hire a nurse, Amy Leatheran, to attend to his wife, who claims to see hands tapping at her window and has other fears. One afternoon, Louise Leidner is murdered in her room. Hercule Poirot is in the area and is persuaded to look into the case. At first, Nurse Leatheran is not inclined towards much confidence in Poirot, and at least part of her concern is that he’s not English. Her view begins to change when Poirot insists that she have tea with him and Dr. Reilly, who first introduced her to Leidner.

 

‘‘Oh, no doctor,’ I protested. ‘I couldn’t think of such a thing.’
Poirot gave me a little friendly tap on the shoulder. Quite an English tap, not a foreign one.
‘You, ma soeur, will do as you are told,’ he said.’

 

Nurse Leatheran agrees, and as she gets to know Poirot a little, she sees that even though he’s not English, he does understand the culture well enough to put her at her ease.

In Timothy Hallinan’s A Nail Through the Heart, we are introduced to ex-pat American Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty, who’s now living in Bangkok. Rafferty is a rough travel writer, who’s written some popular books on adventure travel in different places. He’s also gotten a reputation for being able to find people who don’t want to be found. And that’s why Clarissa Ulrich wants to hire him. She’s always been close to her Uncle Claus, who lives in Bangkok. But she hasn’t heard from him for a few months, and has gotten concerned about him. She’s heard that Rafferty is good at finding people. And even though she’s Australian and he’s American, they have more in common culturally than she feels she has with the Thai culture. Rafferty understands the local culture and speaks Thai, so he’s well-suited for the job. One lead on this case takes Rafferty to the home of a very wealthy and enigmatic older woman named Madame Wing. She agrees to give Rafferty information he wants if he’ll do a job for her. Soon, he finds that both cases are much more involved and dangerous than he thought.

In Alexander McCall Smith’s Tears of the Giraffe, private detective Mma. Precious Ramotswe gets a new client, Andrea Curtin. She is an ex-pat American who moved to Botswana when her husband took a position there. When it was time to return to the US, their son decided to stay, and joined an eco-commune there. When he died, the police reported that he was probably killed by a wild animal, but his mother has always wanted to know the real truth. She wants closure, and asks Mma. Ramotswe to find out what happened to her son. Here’s Mma. Ramotswe’s reaction to her new client:

 

‘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.’

 

Andrea Curtin’s understanding of the local culture, even if she doesn’t speak all of the different languages, puts Mma. Ramotswe more at her ease, and helps to create a rapport between the two women.

In Angela Savage’s The Half Child, Jim Delbeck hires Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney to find out what happened to his daughter Maryanne. She was volunteering at New Life Children’s Centre in Pattaya when she jumped, or fell, or was pushed from the roof of the building where she was living. Delbeck has never believed the suicide explanation, and he wants Keeney to find out the truth. So she travels to Pattaya to get some answers. Part of the trail leads to a bar frequented by American military personnel, and Keeney goes there to follow up. She soon finds herself needing to make a quick escape from an overzealous contact and manages to do so, only to end up in another predicament when she blunders into a room where a group of kratoey, ‘ladyboys,’ are preparing for a pageant:

 

‘Jane had to think fast.
‘Younger sisters,’ she said with a wai, ‘my name is Jayne. There’s a tall, dark, handsome Marine chasing me and I don’t want anything to do with him. I need to hide fast. Can you help me?’

There was a moment’s stunned silence as they took in Jayne’s ability to speak Thai, her flattering form of address, and the implications of her predicament. Then the room burst into a flurry of activity.’
 
 

The beauty queens help Jayne, not least because she understands the culture well enough to behave in the ‘correct’ way within it.

There’s also Eva Dolan’s Long Way Home, which introduces DI Dushan Zigic and DS Mel Ferreira, of the Peterborough Hate Crimes Unit. They are called in to investigate when there’s a fire in a shed belonging to Paul and Gemma Barlow. In the ruins of the shed is the body of a man who was very likely a foreigner. If that’s true, then this might be a hate crime; hence Zigic and Ferreira’s involvement. Zigic is third-generation English; Ferreira is originally Portuguese. Ferreira has learned the English way of doing things, and knows how to operate within the culture well enough to have gained some acceptance. Yet she still maintains some of her own culture, and her fluency in Portuguese turns out to be useful in this case. Her case is an interesting example that shows how immigrants and those with immigrant backgrounds can find more acceptance if they understand how to operate within their new culture. At the same time, this doesn’t mean at all that simply knowing some cultural nuances will automatically mark someone as ‘one of us.’

There are a lot of other examples of crime-fictional characters who’ve mastered some of the nuances of another culture (I know, I know, fans of Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte). It’s an important skill to have if you want to fit in within a culture that’s not your own. Which ones have stayed with you?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lionel Bart’s Consider Yourself.

24 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Angela Savage, Arthur Upfield, Eva Dolan, Timothy Hallinan

24 responses to “Consider Yourself One of Us*

  1. This world does seem to be getting smaller every day, doesn’t it? I read a fabulous post on Writer’s Village about using local words and phrases, which this post reminded me of. How a touch of local flair can go a long way to add nuances of the area. But also, the author needs to be careful because what some locales use for one word can mean something completely different to someone else.

    • You’re absolutely right, Sue. The world is getting smaller, and that means that more and more often, people spend time in cultures not their own. The ability to learn and use the cultural nuances helps a person to negotiate that new culture and be accepted. Research shows that a person is forgiven far more quickly for a mispronunciation or grammatical difference than for violating a cultural norm, especially if that norm is a very important one. That said though, you’re also quite right that for authors, it’s important to choose words carefully to evoke a particular context. You could argue that the author needs to be really familiar with a culture in order to write about it effectively.

  2. This can even be true within one’s own country. If one visits an ethnic or religious community, whatever the reason, it’s important to know the local customs and beliefs to avoid offending a member of (or the whole) community…or perhaps walking into a dangerous situation.

    English hiding in an Amish community to escape killers is the plot of the movie, The Witness. That would be tough to pull off in real life.

    • Oh, I agree, Pat. And Witness is a terrific example of how difficult it can be to try to understand cultural nuance, even within one’s own country. As you say, each local culture has its own beliefs. Understanding them is essential if one’s going to be accepted, let alone welcomed.

  3. A lovely post, Margot, and thanks for the shout out. I remember cracking up at Nurse Leatheran’s observations about ‘foreigners’ in Murder in Mesopotamia — entirely oblivious to her own ‘foreign-ness’ in Iraq.

    • A pleasure, Angela. I think you do a great job of depicting the way your Jayne Keeney handles those cultural differences. And you’re absolutely right that Nurse Leatheran completely misses how ‘foreign’ she is in Iraq. In my (admittedly unsophisticated) opinion, Agatha Christie knew, and used, Amy Leatheran as a way to hold up a lens to that part of her society who didn’t see that ‘foreign-ness.’

  4. I’m fascinated not only by different cultures – in Death in the Rainy Season by Anna Jacquiery the different ways of policing in Cambodia to France are highlighted although at least Commandant Serge Morel has some links with Cambodia to ease his path…

  5. Col

    I’m keen to try Eva Dolan’s book at some point. I have another author on the pile – Jake Needham who has a series of books with an American lawyer operating in Bangkok. I like outsider observations on a culture.

    • I think you’d like the Dolan, Col. And I’m glad you’ve mentioned Needham; I’ve heard some good things about his work, and I’d like to try it sometime. I agree; it’s always really interesting to look at a culture through the eyes of an outsider who moves within it.

  6. Margot, in context of the theme of this post, I’m not familiar with the different cultures in different parts of my own country, which is a real shame. I suppose, one cannot learn another’s culture without actually experiencing it. Most authors who write about other cultures have travelled extensively and travel, as we all know, broadens the mind like nothing else does.

    • You make a very important point, Prashant. There are different cultures even within one’s own country. There isn’t just one Indian culture, or just one American culture, and so on. I wish I knew the different cultures within my own country better than I do as well. As you say, travel helps one understand others and their cultures as nothing else really does.

  7. Great examples! Fish-out-of-water mysteries are amongst my favourite to both read and write – I think all those little misunderstandings and losses of nuance add so much flavour and sense of unease… hopefully!! :-S

    • Oh, I think they do, too, Claire. The writer can use those nuances both to add to characters or to build tension – sometimes both. And I think those things do happen in real life, even for people who travel a lot. Thanks for the kind words.

  8. Espionage novels (even more so, movies) come to mind for me, especially the Cold War type where the Soviet agent blends into, very easily it would seem, American or British culture. I can’t think of any fictional treatments offhand, but a recent TV example is the series The Americans.

    • No doubt about it, Bryan, the espionage novel makes very effective use of the ability to blend in and be accepted by others. I’m glad you brought it up, because it’s woven through that sub-genre.

  9. Kathy D.

    Well, as a several-decades long armchair traveler, I can say that reading about different countries and cultures is the next best thing to actually being there. What one can learn! I think I bore friends by telling them about historical, political, cultural or even language discoveries.
    And even TV series. I read the subtitles to crime fiction, yet listen to the language. The Bridge is a case in point. Hearing Swedish and Danish, similarities and differences to each other and to German, .and then hearing English words, especially for technology, is fascinating. Even some similarities to Yiddish.
    I can hear my mother asking, “Understand” in Yiddish when I hear German, Danish and Swedish; it’s close enough.
    Eva Dolan’s books are interesting with the police detectives having Portuguese and Serbian family history. True, too, of the protagonist in The Hummingbird. Anna Fekete lives in Finland, but is from a Hungarian community in Serbia.
    I think it’s fantastic and a fictional reflection of globalization and migration that we’re reading about multi-cultural and immigrant characters. That adds so much to a good book.
    And, yes, I’m paying much more attention to language, and right now, since I’m reading about Anna Fekete, I’m learning about her languages.

    • It’s quite true, Kathy, that you can learn so much about different cultures and languages, just from reading books that take place in different locations. And as you say, you can also learn about similarities and differences among different languages. Television and film are, indeed, great ways to do that. And I’m glad you mentioned Eva Dolan’s work. As you say, she’s created some interesting characters and situations. I’m also glad you mentioned Kati Hiekkapelto; she’s another who has woven some of these cultural items through her work.

  10. I love this list – it’s always a great moment when this happens isn’t it? IN books and in real life. Your examples are excellent. I was thinking of some examples where there opposite happens – pushy foreigners – but I’d rather leave it with the good examples. Maybe you’ll do a post on mistakes….

    • Thanks, Moira. And you’re right; it really is a terrific when that sort of moment happens in real life and in books. It can be interesting, too, when people make those cultural mistakes, even when they don’t intend to be pushy or rude. Definitely something to be considered for another post…

  11. Several authors here I want to read. Eva Dolan and Timothy Hallinan. And I do hope to read Angela Savage’s The Half Child in 2016.

    • I really recommend Angela Savage’s work, Tracy. I think she’s very, very talented. I like both Hallinan and Dolan as well. They are both authentic and uncompromising with their portrayals of context, so they’re not light, ‘frothy’ books. But they’re fine series, I trhink.

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