The other day my wife and I had a conversation about the difference between the show cops in America and in Germany. First, I should stop here and say that yes, most of my good ideas and insights come through conversations with my wife.
Before I go any further, I can’t say this enough so I will say it right now and make it BOLD. You have to be careful of stereotypes. I generalizations here about groups of people, I’m making no judgements. I understand that regions and peoples act and react differently. Things change over time, so don’t rely on my word, do your own homework.
Back on topic. I am not a big fan of the show cops but I have seen enough of it while flipping through the channels that I have a basic understand. The camera crew follows the “cops” around while they argue with drunks, break into houses to break up fights and in general follow people, who are “fighting the man.”
While I was in Germany a couple of years ago in an attempt to brush up on my German, (which is very rusty) I was flipping through the channels and came across what was basically the German version of Cops.
This was a very different show. They pulled people over and gave them tickets. After they gave them a ticket, the camera crew would go and talk to the people.
“I got pulled over for using my cell phone.”
“Didn’t know it is illegal?”
“Yeah, but my hands free device was broken.”
There was no swearing, no claiming that the “cops” were wrong, not jumping up and down. The guy got a ticket, and left. Period. The other highlight of the show was an older woman who was locked in her house. (The doors often lock form the inside and out.) She had called the “cops” thinking her son had taken them home by accident and she could not get out of the house. After about 20 minutes of talking to her they got a lock smith and opened the door. They found the keys in a side drawer after she invited them in.
I have no idea if “cops” is still on in Germany, but it was an interesting perspective to see. People really don’t fight the law, at least not on TV. While I was talking to my wife we discussed the differences between the American system where, because of our revolutionary heritage we tend to fight against everything “THE MAN” and Germans who have learned through the years not to fight, or perhaps to fight in a different way that I don’t understand. We talked about why those differences evolved and what that means to the society in general.
It is knowing little things about other cultures, that can make your writing come alive. Another example of this, I remember reading a book several years ago, and they talked about a guy kissing someone in public in Switzerland. The author discussed how the woman, a Swiss native, was uncomfortable with this because the Swiss tend to be a private people and don’t like public displays of affection. When I thought back to my time in Switzerland as a kid I remember never having seen any one kissing in public. I was young and I might have missed it, but this details do seem to mesh with what I knew and made the book come more alive.
Understanding that there is more to any culture than what you see on TV is very important. Germans don’t all drive Volkswagens, the Chinese don’t all know Karate (or other form of Martial art,) (Heck, knowing that the martial art Karate is not from China) The Dutch don’t all wear wooden shoes are just some overstated examples. The point is knowing these things will help you. Of course make sure that you don’t generalize too much. For example, while it is true that New Yorkers to have a bit of an accent, we don’t all sound like we are from the Bronx. Upstate New Yorkers tend to talk faster, and people from Western New York have a slower speech pattern that almost has a Mid West sound to it.
We can’t all travel around the world. Really, before you get any ideas that I can, I can’t either, my travel is all business related. But what you can do is seek out people who are from a region or country and talk to them. Find out the little details. Another important thing is to double check your research with more than one resource. Very often people have a personal bias and will lead you astray unintentionally. If you are making up a culture for sci/fi or fantasy, take the time to really invent the culture. Make the little details that will help your “alien culture” be more than just a bunch of cardboard cutouts.
Of course you have to be careful to not just info dump about a culture that you know a lot about. I know for me researching is a lot of fun, and what I learn I really like to try to share with people, but while it is interesting that the Roman Emperor Caligula’s name translates into little boots unless you plan to make that some sort of a plot point, you probably don’t need it in your story. Sorry, Caligula you name will have to just stay a foot note in my memory.
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