Culture Shocking Your Characters

confusedWhen we got to Portugal, it became very clear very quickly that I was the family translator. There isn’t much to my linguistic skills to merit that position, but since nobody else had learned how to ask where the bathroom is, and I was decent in the bonus language of French, I was the best we had. And really, I did alright- a lot better than I would have guessed. If I really didn’t know how to say something, most people spoke English, and of those who didn’t, nearly all of them spoke French. I learned pretty quickly that the gender of ‘thank you’ matters, an eyes-low desculpa goes a long way when you’re an idiot, and the price was always lower if I asked in Portuguese first. I was practically a local.

Then we left the tourist towns.

We went to a tiny village called Pias where my great-grandparents emigrated from and up a windy little road to an abandoned clocktower that probably matters to nobody in the world anymore but us. As we were walking around the square in the heat of the day (when every sensible person was inside napping), trying to get every angle possible on this clocktower, we encountered a pair of elderly gentlemen sitting flat against a wall in about three inches of shade.

Confident after a week of touring around the country, I nodded politely and said in my best accent, “Boa tarde.”

They nodded back, returning the greeting.

My mother leaned close to me, clutching pages and pages of our genealogy, and whispered, “Ask them if they live around here.”

“Uh…” I racked my brain, trying to remember how to say it. “Com licença,” I started slowly. Normally a hand talker, I knew it was a little rude to point and wave, so my fingers twisted nervously together instead. “Você… um… vive aqui?”

They answered in rapid Portuguese and nodded down a certain street, and my mom pounced with her papers. She had been dreaming of making this trip for most of her life and we were all a little crazy with excitement at the thought of maybe finding relatives while we were here.

And that’s when the little old lady showed up. She came up behind us, a short wiry thing in a black dress and headscarf, mumbling earnestly about something that sounded really important. She came right up to my mother and put her hand on her arm, still talking without pausing to breathe.

My mom looked at me questioningly and I said to the lady, “Uh… boa tarde. Minha…” I trailed off before I could so much as start into introductions or my family spiel. The lady was still talking. And she kept talking. And I had no idea what she was saying. Next thing I knew, she had taken my mother and I both by our arms and was gently dragging us away from the men, and then pushing us back toward our car, still shaking her head and mumbling.

She did not speak English. She did not speak French. I wasn’t even totally sure she was speaking Portuguese. I was in a place I’d never been, being I think thrown out by a possibly angry old woman, and I couldn’t understand a single word she was saying. I was utterly, completely lost and a tiny panicked voice in my head squeaked, “What am I doing here??” I climbed into the car with a sick knot in my stomach that stuck around for hours.

Culture shock happens. Sometimes it’s months into a trip. Sometimes, like me, it only takes a few days before you get that panicky sense that you have no idea what is going on or what to do about it. (Don’t worry, it faded fast and my best Portugal memories all happened in those tiny towns where hardly anybody spoke English.) If you write a story where a character finds themselves in a new culture, adding moments (or prolonged episodes) of culture shock can deepen and enrich the character and the setting both.

The word I most associate with culture shock is disorientation. Culture shock is that feeling of not knowing what to do or say in a cultural context that is outside of one’s norm. It can be experienced in any transition between one social environment to another (such as starting a job at a new place, visiting a significantly poorer or wealthier part of town, etc), but we most frequently associate it with traveling or moving to a foreign country. And although we usually think of culture shock as happening very soon after entering the new culture (which it certainly can!), it more commonly takes place over several weeks or even months.

Culture shock typically has four stages for your character to adjust through, and how quickly they move through those stages varies person by person. In the honeymoon phase (before the shock sets in), the new culture is seen in a rosy light, and the character communicates mostly with people who speak their language and are friendly to foreigners. In the negotiation phase, that rosiness starts to wear off as the character deals with a wider array of people, and the character may experience anxiety as they start to feel frustrated by the more difficult aspects of cultural transition- differences in food access and quality, differences in hygiene standards, language barrier, commission of cultural faux pas, etc. In the adjustment stage, the character gets more used to the new language, customs, and routines, and things start to make sense. Finally, in the adaptation stage, the character is fully comfortable in the new culture.

What most people think of as ‘culture shock’ is specific to the negotiation phase. Some of the signs we most associate with culture shock include homesickness, communication difficulties, embarrassment, information overload, and nervousness. In more severe cases, the character may withdraw from the new culture, leading to a growing sense of disconnection from the world around them.

People who cannot overcome their culture shock reject the new culture and often leave to try to return to familiar ground. At the opposite extreme, some people become so well adapted as to fully accept all aspects of the new culture and lose all connection to their old culture. But in most cases, people fall somewhere in between, accepting and integrating many aspects of the new culture but also maintaining aspects of the old culture, creating their own blend of the two.

Transitioning between cultures is difficult and can be an interesting element of a character’s arc. Writing culture shock into your stories can not only add a new level of realism to your writing, but can give you more opportunity to show readers what your characters are made of, and the struggles they must overcome.

Happy writing!

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