One culture or all of humanity

It’s the first Wednesday of the month again, time for a post for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.
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Sometimes, people assume that what is traditional for one cultural group is traditional for humanity. Or should be. It is a wide-spread misapprehension and is forgivable in most private cases, unless it is put in fiction by a writer. Then, it becomes an erroneous assumption on a scale corresponding to that writer’s popularity. It might even lead to racism or other drastic conflicts between cultures. I was thinking of it when I read a book by Anne Bishop, one of her The Others series (*).

In the book, a couple of human women discuss the drizzling of honey on a scone, and how the others (not human) don’t do it because they had never been taught the right (=human) way to eat honey. The conclusion: not enough humanity in those who don’t know. The women in question are good persons, set to bridge the gap between humans and the others, so they decided to help out the non-humans by teaching them to ‘drizzle honey,’ among other things.

I grew up in Russia. I had never heard about drizzling honey on a scone. I had never seen a scone either, much less tasted one. We didn’t have scones in Russia. We ate honey in a different way: ladled some into a small bowl and ate it with a teaspoon like a liquid jam, or spread it on a piece of bread like marmalade, if the honey was viscous enough not to run off. Or added it into our tea to sweeten it. I had never even seen a honey dipper until I immigrated to Canada and started watching English-language movies. I’m sure there are many other cultures in the world that don’t ‘drizzle honey.’

Does it mean we’re not humans? No. But it means that people born someplace else might have a different tradition of consuming honey than the English-speaking people do. That is just one tiny example, but it is symptomatic enough to demonstrate the global point.

Writers have a great responsibility not to disseminate the wrong ‘facts.’ We have to do lots of research to accomplish that, but sometimes, even an excellent writer stumbles on that task, when the tradition in question is trivial, seemingly not worthy of research. Like Anne Bishop did with her ‘drizzling honey.’

What do you think? Do you research exhaustively? Do the traditions you mention in your fiction belong to a specific culture or to all of humanity? Are you sure? How do you treat this issue in your writing?
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(*) Note: I love Anne Bishop’s The Others series and its characters, so the musing in this post is in no way a condemnation of the books or the author.

This entry was posted in Insecure Writer's Support Group, Olga Godim, Writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to One culture or all of humanity

  1. Diane Burton says:

    Sometimes we make assumptions like you mentioned. Not good. That’s how we offend others. I try.to do a lot of research so I don’t make mistakes. But even when I do it’s easy to mess up. Have a good month.

  2. I’ve seen a honey dipper but never used one for honey. Just pour it out on the muffin.
    I’ve lived in several countries and each has their own style and traditions.

  3. Yes, every culture has their own way of doing things, and we should celebrate the differences.

  4. Since we do many things differently, we need to choose wisely where we set our stories. If you’re not willing to invest in research, then it won’t ring true.

  5. Denise Covey says:

    Research is one of my favorite things about writing. My series is set in the Renaissance. You can imagine the research! But also when I use words, I have to check their etymology. No good using a word that wasn’t around in the 1600s. But I’m sure I’ll slip up and get told off for making a mistake as hard as I try to ensure I’m legit.
    Drizzling honey? Who would have thought. We tend to think the things we do are widespread but it’s not always so.

    Hope you’re doing well, Olga. Thinking of you.

  6. Research never, ever goes astray. Particularly research into the things you are sure you know.
    I am joining Denise in sending hopes and thoughts your way.

  7. Beth McQueen says:

    I’m writing memoir, so it’s all factual according to my own perspective. But if I’m adding some cultural fact that needs to be exact, I’d defiantly research it. But as it’s my story, full of my impressions and interpretations of the world around me, it’s alright to have the wrong “facts” because that’s how I may be going through life, so I can go through my book that way too.

  8. Really good example and one of many. I do research exhaustively, mostly to avoid the honey-drizzled-on-scones sort of problem. Of all the good I have gotten from blogging, cultural awareness is a big one.

  9. patgarcia says:

    Hi,
    I do research for anything I write. It is important for me to write a story as realistically as possible so that people can relate to it.
    Wishing you all the best and thanks for being a part of IWSG.
    Shalom aleichem,
    Pat G @ EverythingMustChange

  10. emaginette says:

    I agree. I’ve lived in Canada all my life and have met only one person who drizzled honey. And it was into peppermint tea and not on a scone. Weird that.

    Anna from elements of emaginette

  11. cleemckenzie says:

    Ethnocentrism is a writer’s worst enemy. Well, it’s probably the world’s worst enemy, but you’re right about those who set ideas down in the form of stories needing to be culturally aware. Since my background is inter-cultural communication, I’m hyper-sensitive about the issue of narrow cultural vision. Great post and great co-hosting today!

  12. Loni Townsend says:

    It’s easy to make assumptions, even in weird colloquialisms. For instance, in my US state, people who grew up here know what fry sauce and finger steaks are. Take that across the border and you’re lucky if people don’t look at you weird when you mention it. But that’s something I know will get looks or comments if I put it in writing. 🙂

    And as far as scones and honey goes… nope, never had it. 🙂

  13. J.Q. Rose says:

    Is it soda pop, soda or pop? They’re all right, but in Michigan it’s pop. That doesn’t mean another area of the country is wrong when they say soda. But when writing, you have to have the one that fits the setting. Research is important if you want to be believed whether writing fiction or nonfiction. I love your drizzling honey example. Thanks for sharing.
    JQ Rose

  14. yvettecarol says:

    I’ve been really slack about researching the facts and I’ve only started making myself do the work in recent times. I want to be far more careful in future to get things right and not just assume so!

  15. Juneta says:

    I can’t say we drizzled, but my mama use to put honey on a peanut butter sandwich instead of jam. That’s good. I have used to sweeten tea before.

  16. denisebaer says:

    I research during my fiction writing. If I want to make two people love honey and believe it’s the only way to eat it, then I will create such characters because it adds to the development. Majority of people believe in right and wrong when it comes to certain things, so I believe those types of things sometimes make it into our works. Plus, I’m not a political correct person. I treat people with respect and talk of positivity, and despise hatred and anger, but I’m not about to censor myself or anyone else.

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