Friday, July 8, 2011

Creating unexpected social interaction/Japanese empathy and business cards

Because I write stories with aliens, language and culture, I'm always looking for ways to give the same kinds of situations different value across cultures. This is something that has a rich history in science fiction! I remember the little sequence in Star Trek TNG where Counselor Troi was coaching Captain Picard about how to pronounce a greeting sequence - because if he got it wrong, it would have been a major diplomatic incident, not just an embarrassing moment.

Exaggeration, you say? Well, maybe, and maybe not.

The fact is that when you look at world cultures, there are all sorts of things that have one value here and one value there. In my left side bar I have a series called "A Different Value" which explores exactly this sort of thing - places where a particular object, idea or activity has dramatically different value across contexts.

Just a few weeks ago I was reminded how valuable this type of thinking is: we had Japanese guests staying with us for a couple of weeks, and there was a little activity my daughter was doing for her kindergarten homework that turned into a "major diplomatic incident." Well, in fact, no one got really upset, but it left both me and my husband shaking our heads and talking it over later in the day.

My daughter was asked to cut out five photos of animals from magazines, glue them on a page, and bring them into school. This turned into a major cultural lesson about teaching empathy and object-person symbolism in Japan.

She sat down at the table and we picked out the photos. When she started to cut them out, both of our Japanese guests were suddenly right on top of her (one from each side), verbally coaching in an extremely active way. If my daughter was cutting just the right shape the coaching was "good, good, okay" (sometimes in English, but mostly in Japanese as neither one of them spoke much). If she appeared to be turning her scissors in such a way that the borders of the animal in question would be cut, the comment was NOT "hey, turn your scissors" or "you're not doing this right" but this:

"Ow, ow, oh, ow!"

This did not happen one time, but over and over throughout the activity, with such intensity that my husband and I watched in amazement. Our two guests were both preschool/kindergarten teachers (the system is organized a bit differently there) so it wasn't as if we could write it off as the naiveté of our guests with children! We decided that several things were being deliberately taught.

1. How to cut out a photo correctly
2. How to imagine the feelings of others (empathy)
3. How objects are direct symbols of living entities

This fits in with our experience with Japanese business cards. A business card in Japan must be treated with respect, taken with two hands, placed in the shirt pocket and never the back pocket. It must not be left on a table in a spot where it might accidentally be wet by condensation from a nearby glass of water. My husband saw an instance when this happened and the entire roomful of Japanese businessmen went frantic.

Very often we hear people talk about how in Japan, people are sensitive to the feelings of others. We also hear that you have to be careful with business cards - but we rarely see the two in action together. The thing that makes this stand out to me is that this - and the photo-cutting activity - all grew naturally out of the same mindset in which objects can directly stand for people and animals and also be imbued with the emotional reactions of those people and animals.

When you're writing a world that's unfamiliar and new, think about the way your people think. In particular, if you're looking to have some kind of very important cultural trait play directly into your plot, spend some time thinking about how far that cultural trait extends across the behaviors of the people involved, and how it might be taught to the young. I've gotten multiple comments about the moment in "Let the Word Take Me" when I put in a child alien and showed his mother instructing him (here). It was the tiniest moment (in a short story, so it had to be), but it really resonated with some people. That kind of moment can really suggest the larger historical continuity of your society and give it a lot of depth. If you can place something like that picture-cutting activity incidentally early in your story (this will be easier with novels since you have room), then you can use it to set up a more plot-critical cultural surprise later in the story. The interaction will stand out in your story as feeling "real" and giving real insight, and the plot-relevant incident won't have to stand alone, so it will have less a feeling of being a cultural "twist" or sleight-of-hand and more a demonstration of the integrated qualities of the aliens or the fantasy race you've created.

It's something to think about.


  1. Very cool! Thanks for posting this. I love seeing and thinking about how other people view the world. This makes me want to go write.

  2. This is one reason I love these culture share posts. Anything that helps me to interact appropriately, just in case I ever have the chance, with people from another culture is good with me. It's hard enough sometimes just getting a conversation going with people in my home community. (more my own issues than theirs)

  3. MK, I'm so glad you found it inspiring. Thanks for the comment!

    Jaleh, I'm happy that you're enjoying them. I've always loved exploring other cultures.

  4. This is beautiful, Juliette. Thank you for sharing. It's good to get reminded just how different cultures can be.

  5. Thanks for this post, Juliette; this is a great example of how to show a lot of big concepts in a simple scene.

  6. You're welcome, Sophia. Thanks for the comment!