Cultural sensitivities

Courtesy of gringosinparadise.com.mx

Courtesy of gringosinparadise.com.mx

It’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that all English-speaking places have more or less the same take on things, but I am occasionally reminded of the advice that was given to someone I know when they were moving to the U.S.:

It will be easier if you think of Americans as aliens who speak English.

I realise that this may be an incendiary comment to some people, but the logic behind it is reasonably sensible. There are undeniable cultural differences between nations, and trying to pretend that we are all the same might not only make you miserable when you can’t understand why people react or act in a certain way, but also denies the richness and diversity of all those nations. How dull would it be if we really were all the same?

However, as an author, there are certain pitfalls which I think it pays to be aware of, even if we decide to ignore them.

In my novel, The Artemis Effect, I chose to set the story in three nations: Australia, the U.S. and Britain. Now, as I live in Australia, I was fairly confident of not tripping up too badly there. The others I felt I had to be more careful with, even though I have lived for years in the UK, and have spent a fair bit of time in America. Only my readers will be able to advise me how badly I screwed up the cultural mores of those places.;)

One of the first pieces of feedback I received when the book came out was from a distant relative in New York. She said that she really enjoyed the book, but had to decipher some of the terms I’d used, such as ‘the boot of the car’ (as trunk). Now this was something that my editor and me thought about carefully when we were finishing the book, as it is available in the US. Should we Americanize the spelling and vocabulary? I know that many authors do, and I’ve read specific reference from Neil Gaiman that he has assistance to do this, and so doesn’t accidentally call a ‘sidewalk’ a ‘footpath’. In our case, we decided that as we were unlikely to be able to pick up everything, it was best to stick to Australian spelling and vocabulary except where absolutely necessary. The risk of doing it so that it didn’t read properly in either nation was too great.

Another book I’ve read recently has a different cultural issue: that of humour. Now everyone has a different sense of humour, and some poor people have none at all. However, as a gross generalisation, there are cultural differences in humour, although they are probably getting increasingly blurred as mass media makes everything available to everyone. However, in my eyes at least, the Brits often have a blacker sense of humour than the rest of us, and Australians have quite a dry sense of humour. The book I mentioned above, although beautifully written, had what seemed to me quite an American sense of humour. I could see that it was funny, but it just didn’t make me spontaneously hoot and snort with laughter.

Even countries as culturally close as Australia and New Zealand have different vocabulary, and of course we have great fun mocking one another’s accents. Fush and chups, anyone? A casual kiwi I used to work with, who always wore those shoes made of flat rubber to work, strenuously denied that he wore ‘thongs’. He said that a thong wouldn’t suit him (as in skimpy underwear), but he liked his ‘flip flops’. Likewise, no Australian talks about ‘jandals’, ‘trundlers’ or ‘chilly bins’. To us, they are ‘sandals’, ‘trolleys’ and ‘eskis’. I’m not 100% sure what an eski is to someone from the U.S., but I can tell you that the term ‘fanny bag’ makes anyone from Australia or Britain blush.

What can we do as authors in an increasingly international book market? We could have different editions for each country I suppose, with suitable vocabulary and grammar, but the amount of work would be phenomenal.

Vive la difference, I say.

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9 thoughts on “Cultural sensitivities

  1. Thank you for interesting post on English-language books. I was aware that there are differences between the countries languages, but a book in English was always a book in English. Reading next book in English, I will try to be more aware of the language used in it. I generally prefer British humour, but I still have to discover Australian sense of humour.

    Best regards.

    • Hello! Thanks for popping by.
      It can be pretty subtle – the differences between the different types of language used, but sometimes something just jumps out at you as particularaly american or english.
      I think Australian humour is perhaps closer to the British than American: drier, and perhaps with a stronger sense of irony?

  2. I don’t know, I didn’t have any problems with the Australian lingo when I read your book. I thought it worked really well because the Australian phrases (the ‘boot’ of the car) seemed like they were mostly in the chapters set in Australia, and when you were writing the characters living in the US or England they didn’t use the same terms.

    Yes the world is getting smaller, but there are always going to be differences between different areas of the world. You’ll find a lot of different ways that people use languages that have much more subtle origins than what country you live in. My younger brother uses quite a few phrases that I don’t in speaking, he’s 6 years younger than me and is a Computer Science major in college where I majored in Psychology.

    Bottom line, I understood everything in the book, so I wouldn’t bother trying to change it.

    • Thanks Adam! Good point about different generations (although 6 years is hardly a generation I suppose) using different language. I’ve just read an interesting article in the New Scientist about how groups develop differences in language specifically to differentiate themselves from other groups, so perhaps this is what is coming into play?

      • I didn’t read the article yet… But I think the different language used may be just an effect of the different means, things and goals. You need a bit different vocabulary to talk about computers, psychology, shopping online, gaming or whatever other topic/group one can think of. It’s not necessarily a conscious action, I think. (like: Hey! Let’s create new words so people from outside won’t understand us).

  3. I find little differences in vocabulary interesting. ie.Torch=Flashlight. I understand that Harry Potter books were printed in both British and American versions because of these little differences. Personally, I enjoy them. Hey, Kasia, in case I don’t get another chance, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and your little family.

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