One of the most fun parts for me about being a novelist is world-building. Creating new cultures, mixing, matching, and inventing new values, beliefs, and histories, and then putting characters into them with their own individual goals and struggles is a wonderful challenge. One problem that authors often face, however, is showing the differences across cultures in a way that is interesting for readers and creates challenges for characters (often, these are one and the same thing). While different clothing, different foods, and different climates are all good and oft-used ways of distinguishing peoples from each other, one way that doesn’t get used as often is differences in communication. What does that mean? Here are three contrasts of cultural communication differences…
- Loudness versus softness of speech
Some cultures prize being loud and bold in the way that one talks. Individuals may stand far away and shout at one another, stand close together and shout at one another, or be more quiet in the ways in which they address each other. Is raising one’s voice a sign of bold masculinity, or rude lack of self-control? Is being quiet a sign of respect or of cowardice? These differences may seem small, but they can be enough to make a character feel like something is different, wrong, or foreign.
- Directness versus indirectness of speech
While some cultures value saying what one means and meaning what one says, other cultures tend to view language as more fluid, or as only one tool of communication. When one agrees to a contract, is one really agreeing, or is one expressing politeness but also stating through subtle hints and external cues that both of you should know that he isn’t really going to keep it? When an individual from a direct culture goes to an indirect culture, he/she may be seen as boorish and clumsy, completely trampling on the tacit rules of communication that everyone knows from being raised in the culture. In contrast, when an individual from an indirect culture goes to a direct culture, he/she may be seen as incapable, untrustworthy, or just frustrating because of his/her lack of ability to follow directions or to state when something isn’t understood or won’t be able to be completed the way that is required.
- Argumentativeness versus politeness of speech
Some cultures value open debate and argument, while others avoid it to whatever extent they can. When someone offends you, do you insult him, his mother, and his dog, and challenge him to a duel, or do you smile, bow, wish him well, and then go off and silently work to destroy him? No culture is going to be without conflict. The question here is how that conflict is expressed. Characters from a polite culture might find themselves easily bullied or overpowered by individuals in an argumentative culture, but might also be more able to keep their calm and twist conversations to their advantage. Characters from an argumentative society would likely stand out in a polite society for their supposed rudeness, and they might seem to get their way more at the beginning of a story, only to find themselves countered later in the story by the “polite” individuals who have carefully worked behind his back to give him what they believe he deserves.
What other communication differences have you observed or might you imagine across cultures? Have you seen good examples of books that use communication differences to move plots forward or cause character growth?