Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Country Identity

Several recent interactions with friends, as well as the ongoing Olympics, have brought the topic of country identity to my mind. In this case I'm not talking about national symbolism, or flags, but about how people form a concept about another country.

We form patterns quickly. I think it's actually a biological imperative. If an unusual-looking bear is coming at you, and you hesitate because you can't figure out if it's really a bear or not... you get the idea. Typically we suspect a pattern after two data points conform to it, and we feel it's been confirmed when we see a third conforming example. From that, we expand our idea into a generalization that we try to apply in new contexts.

Lately, I've met more than one person who told me they didn't want to go to Australia. Needless to say, I found this surprising, since I'm married to an Australian and have been there lots of times (it's lovely). When I asked why, these people explained (not in precisely these words) that Australia was filled wall to wall with terribly dangerous animals from sting rays to jellyfish to spiders to crocodiles, and that going there would mean certain injury or death. My response? Um, wow. But I didn't ask where they got the idea, because I actually know where they got it. From the news. It doesn't take more than one Steve Irwin to make a big impression; add to that one story of lifeguards wearing panty hose to avoid jellyfish stings, and one story about the Sydney brown recluse spider, and voila! That's a pattern for generalized fear.

Just so you realize I'm not really much better than any of these people, I'll tell you how I felt when I first met my husband. I was incredulous, listening to all his stories about the big city of Melbourne (3 million people). I thought - with some embarrassment, mind you - "Wow, Australia has people?" All my data points came from stories or tv shows about Australian scenery and animals.

I heard another story about a pr video that was being made in France. The first people to judge it weren't impressed, because they wanted to get away from the typical "Baguette, beret, fromage" image. (Fromage is cheese.) France is quite strong in biotech, for example, and in this case, pointing out that fact was far more relevant to the video than the old-fashioned image.

So in general, I'll observe that people's mistaken first impressions of countries don't seem to come from erroneous information so much as bad luck in the first few pieces of data they encounter. When I watch the Olympics, I always feel like it functions as a force for good in world awareness, because at least it will give people a few more data points about a place they don't know well.

So in real life, we might advise people to be cautious about drawing larger generalizations from scant data - but the fact is, people do it. This is where it becomes relevant to writing alien and fantasy worlds. Chances are, residents of a fantasy or alien world will think in much this same way - and draw conclusions about humans, or about their neighbors in another country, accordingly. Think through how people think about each other. If you can, try to go as far as establishing the kinds of major events or rumors that might establish a country's reputation with its neighbors. It will make your whole world feel more real.


  1. "Wow, Australia has people?" ROFL! Bless National Geographic and its peers.

    I love your concluding paragraph. Great advice.

  2. Imagine how embarrassed I was. On the other hand, I had a similar experience far more recently watching "Galapagos." Fortunately, that one didn't involve other people judging me and thinking I was ignorant, lol.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. As humans we are not good at making decisions on complex phenomena. There is a growing area called behavioural psychology that covers this - read How We Decide to learn more (http://www.amazon.com/How-We-Decide-Jonah-Lehrer/dp/0547247990). I read this area as it helps me understand when to trust and not trust my instinct.

  5. Thanks, Tim! Everybody, by the way, that's my hubby; he reads those kinds of books all the time (a researcher of human nature in his own right). He also says that Australians pretty much expect that kind of reactions from Americans. Because they've seen them enough times to draw the generalization, no doubt!

  6. Very good points. Perhaps I've been out of the SF loop too long, but I can't recall many, if any SF stories that really delve into the issues of culture shock and reverse culture shock (returning home to one's country after an extended stay abroad). Perhaps some of CJ Cherryh's earlier work did, but most SF characters in general seem to take other cultures for granted. That, of course, would be a major mistake in real life. It is all too easy to make cultural faux pas based on ignorance and/or stereotypes of other cultures. (That should benefit the SF writer, though, if only because it helps provide plenty of conflict to help drive the story.)

    Regarding Deb Salisbury's "Bless National Geographic and its peers", the National Geographic and similar magazines are certainly helpful for getting a shallow understanding of other cultures (but an understanding of some sort nonetheless); however, there's really no substitute for actually living in a different country (and the more "exotic" from one's home culture the better). In the summer of 2001 I decided to work for a year in South Korea. Even though I spent my childhood reading through about 15 years' worth of NG magazines, I really found that my only strong impressions about Korean culture came from watching the '88 Summer Olympics in Seoul and all those years of watching MASH re-runs. (Even if MASH had been accurate, it still would have been 50 years out of date and dealing with rural Korea as opposed to urban Korea, where I ultimately lived.) In other words, I had no idea what Korean society was like before I arrived. That year in Korea, fortunately, was a wonderful learning experience, where I gained a much better understanding of the Korean people, and their history and culture. (Indeed, after I left, I pined for Korea for about six months.)

    One other observation I've also made which might be helpful is that one loses a sense of what goes on in one's home culture the longer one's been away. This is partly the basis for reverse culture shock. I've lived in Asia now for eight years, and I've noticed that it's more and more difficult for me to understand what's going on in American pop culture. It's sort of like, "Who are the Kardashian sisters, and why should I care?"

  7. JDsg, thanks for your comment! I think there are lots of opportunities to deal with culture in sf/f, and not all are taken advantage of. That's one of the things I try to focus on in my stories. As far as National Geographic, I greatly admire their work, but I confess as a child I was mostly a reader of photo captions in their pages rather than articles. I had a similar experience to yours when I first had a homestay in Japan - different country, but still a lot of culture shock and a great deal of pining after I returned to the US. I've never been one to follow US pop culture anyway, but I do notice that an expatriate's impression of their country of origin seems in some cases to fossilize in the era when they left. However, regular visits can help a person keep in better touch.

  8. Juliette: You're welcome. That's an interesting idea, the potential "fossilizing." I haven't been home since I left the US, so I don't know how true it is. I do try to keep in touch with what's going on in the US, and have done so to a degree (phone calls home, movies and TV shows, sports, and so on), but it's seemingly the little stuff that we pick up on in the local media that helps to provide the context at home that never makes its way overseas. That and the fact that a lot of the stories within the US take place over the span of years, which, unless you know the history, may cause gaps in understanding. (For example, my wife, a Singaporean, may watch a video from an American TV show (say, The Daily Show), and while she may have some understanding about the topic in question, she'll often ask me to explain the context because I have a better understanding of the history behind the topic. The same situation applies, but in reverse, for when I'm trying to understand why, say, the Singaporean or Malaysian governments do or say something I don't necessarily understand.)

    I guess then I need to come home some year. ;)

  9. JDsg,
    Very interesting. I think you're right - your stories really remind me of the times I've spent living overseas. Makes me want to go and visit again. :)

  10. In my travels, I found that Australia "tastes like" the United States more than any other country, even Canada. There is something in the Australian psyche that is very much like our own.

  11. Oooh! I love this. I hadn't thought about how common citizens that don't actually VISIT another country feel about it or think about it and it's just the kind of information I think I was needing. A lot of my main characters step over borders so frequently, I don't know quite what to do with the ones who don't when they consider outsiders, but this tells me just how that kind of opinion is formed.

    I'm going to include this in my next round up of links: worldbuilding. Thanks for the awesome article.

  12. Mike (TheOFloinn),
    I agree with you. There's a distinct British-colony flavor, yet it also has quite a rebellious tinge. I suppose that may have come from the convict aspect of Australia, where in America it comes from our own rebellion against the British. I always get a sort of "through the looking-glass" feeling when I'm there.

    I'm so glad you found it helpful.

  13. @ Juliette: No time like the present! ;)

    @ TheOFloinn: That, for me, is one of the interesting aspects of traveling overseas for an extended period of time, trying to gauge just how "exotic" a culture is from country to country. Of the three countries I have lived in for one year or more (the US, Korea and Singapore), Korea was by far the most "exotic" of the three, whereas Singapore's culture, while very much a melting pot of ethnicities and religions, does have that "distinct British-colony flavor", as Juliette wrote. (I am frequently amused at seeing Singaporeans of all ethnicities trying to be British, especially when they self-identify by wearing the English national soccer jersey.) In that regard, Singaporean culture has always seemed more familiar to me than that of Korea, despite the American military's influence on that country over the past 50 years. Personally, as you might guess, I prefer the more "exotic" cultures over those that feel more familiar, perhaps because I have a tendency to "go native." This started when I was a young child, and now I think of myself as something of a cultural mutt.