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How to Show Culture Subtly July 14, 2019

This month I've been spending more time on Twitter, and through it I've found out how weak I am to peer influence. I've bought lipsticks because pretty women posted selfies wearing them. I've sought out movies because people referenced them in memes and animated GIFs. And thanks to gushing reviews, my "To Be Read" pile has sprouted with surprising rapidity, like the flowering weeds in our yard after the summer rains.

Unfortunately, I've been disappointed by several titles Twitter loves to death. The premises are exciting, and the writing is often lovely, but the books consistently share a quality that makes me give up less than fifty pages in: they preach.

Tweets that generate thousands of "likes" and "retweets" fall into two categories: (1) snarky quips that incite rage over controversies, or (2) mini sermons flavored with emojis and profanity. Every day Twitter tells me such-and-such identity is "valid," half the words in the English dictionary are "fucking offensive," and so-and-so people have no reason to feel guilty about something innocuous because they don't owe anyone a goddamn thing.

It's not surprising, then, that the books Twitter recommends have traits similar to the mini sermons with twenty thousand hearts. The novels scream morals in readers' faces like those Bible-waving lay preachers standing on street corners near college campuses. Social media does not reward subtlety; it rewards books with pithy quotes easily copy/pasted into a 280-character post.

When writing a book, you're not limited to 280 characters. You get a half million of them! You can use as many as you need to share a message, and do it in a way that will touch people and stick with them long after they put the book down. There's no point in writing an 80,000-word book if your message can be conveyed in a couple of straightforward sentences.

For example, a women's fiction novel I attempted to read last week set out to teach people about Chinese food and social norms, from the perspective of a woman who goes home to her Chinatown neighborhood after the death of her mother. Okay, awesome.

But instead of the heartwarming and relateable read I thought the novel would be, I got Chinese Culture 101 for Business Travelers.

Page 10:

I should visit my neighbors after my time away, grief justified dismissing these cultural expectations.

Page 13:

Filial piety was sacred in my culture, and my mother had died while I was three thousand miles away.

Page 14:

The tug-of-war to pay the bill was a common cultural occurrence. [...] The performance of paying the bill demonstrated the traits of generosity and hospitality so prized by our culture.

Here I stopped reading. I could explain why using shorthand Twitter-speak like "self-othering," but this is my blog, and I can type as many characters as I want to explain more fully.

Telling about culture is unnatural.

Have you ever attended an obligatory family get-together and thought to yourself, "Dang it, now I have to uphold American cultural expectations by eating one of Aunt Martha's soggy pies"?

I assume not. That's not the way people within a culture think. It's the way people outside a culture think when they're trying very hard to fit in.

A person in the heroine's shoes, recently bereaved and coming home for the first time in years, wouldn't think, "My grief justifies dismissing Asian cultural expectations." She'd think, "If I don't pay my respects to the neighbors, those grannies will gossip about what a rude and unfilial daughter I am. But I really can't handle acting nice and brave right now, when all I want to do is hide under the covers and pretend Mama will wake me up tomorrow."

Telling alienates readers.

As I wrote long ago in "Show, but Sometimes Tell," showing engages readers with the story. Explaining complex concepts or emotions point-blank doesn't give readers the opportunity to fully empathize with your main character.

Worse, this particular type of telling encourages readers to view the main character as someone alien. The Chinese Culture 101 tidbits highlight that the heroine is different from the reader—a member of an exotic tribe so bizarre, the author must explain their actions in detail to us culturally myopic Westerners.

Simplistic telling perpetuates stereotypes.

After stopping at page fourteen, I checked Goodreads reviews to see if anyone else had a negative reaction to the over-explanation of "my culture." One or two did, but overall people didn't notice or comment on it. Some even adopted the same language as the author, with insulting results. For example...

The heroine left home seven years ago, having committed the worst sin in her culture, the sin of not respecting her mother's wishes.

Yes, filial piety is very important to a lot of Chinese people. But filial piety doesn't mean "blind, unquestioning obedience." It means showing respect to your parents and caring for them as they age, and doing your best to be an upstanding person who doesn't disgrace the family. Most Chinese parents aren't controlling Tiger Moms who exile children for failing to fulfill their every wish. Refusing to go to medical school is hardly the "worst sin in Chinese culture."

I can't blame one novel for planting reductive generalizations about East Asian peoples in American heads, but the writing didn't help by making blanket statements like, "Filial piety is sacred in my culture." Repeatedly telling readers about "our culture" implies the author of this book speaks for all one and a half billion people who identify as Chinese. Some Western readers will take her at her word and come away with freshly reinforced stereotypes.

How to Show Culture

If you want to teach about a culture through fiction, you don't have to spell everything out. Readers will glean what's going on from the behavior and dialogue of your characters.

Let's take the example of the bill-paying tug-of-war. (Which is not exclusive to Chinese culture, by the way. We ain't got nothin' on Persian taarof, for example.)

To show the tug-of-war, it's sufficient to portray two characters fighting over who will pay the bill. This book already did that before the explanatory paragraph about virtues "so prized by our culture." (Shortened below.)

"I'll pay the bill," Celia said.

Mr. Wu cleared his throat. "No, Celia. Don't worry about the bill."

"Business is business. We all need to make a living." She reached into her purse for her wallet.

"I refuse to allow you to pay. Put your wallet away, Celia."

"Please, I insist."

If you're concerned people will think these characters are behaving that way due to individual personalities instead of cultural norms, you can make it clear this is a performance through actions embedded in the scene.

"I'll pay the bill," Celia said.

Mr. Wu raised his hands to reject her offer, in the expected show of humility. "No, Celia. Don't worry about the bill."

"Business is business. We all need to make a living." She placed her credit card in Mr. Wu's hands.

"I refuse to allow you to pay," Mr. Wu said, making a half-hearted attempt to give the card back to Celia.

Celia smiled generously. "Please, I insist."


Heavy-handed explanations of culture do a disservice to everyone: the members of that culture, by reducing them to exotic stereotypes; your readers, by patronizing them; and yourself, by diluting the effect of your message. Any cultural norms you need to communicate, you can show through natural actions and dialogue, rather than tell in awkward infodumps.


Annemarie Lacy (July 18, 2019 6:07 am)

Hello! Just found your blog through a comment you posted on Writer Unboxed. I’m so glad I did! Looking forward to making it a part of my early morning “pre-writing” routine. I am currently attempting to write a crisp cultural novel. I know it’s risky! Your posts are already helping me. I

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