We’ve all heard that piece of advice. Even so, sometimes we slip in a place or person about which we know very little. When it’s something obvious, such as a location, means for murder or prosecutorial procedure, we do research. We don’t wing historical details in period pieces, or defy the laws of physics in futuristic fables.
However, writers often do not take the time we should with getting the details right about minor characters from a culture different from their own. We can’t simply take our own experiences and world views and slap them on someone who most likely would behave and see things differently than we do.
For example, a name cannot always be chosen at random. It must convey, at least to the author, characteristics about the fictional person that bears it. If a character hails from another culture, his or her name might be thought to be auspicious or describe the characteristics the parents hope the child will embody. For my novella set in Afghanistan, I spent hours researching names for the Tajik and Pashtun characters. Arman means ideal, hope and aspiration in Dari, attributes that I wanted the moderate Tajik mujahideen to possess. His friend Farokh, who lost his leg but not his life when an unexploded bomb blew up, lived up to his moniker, which means happy, fortunate. The two friends faced Hanif in a deadly battle. The young talib’s name means true believer in Arabic.
If your work has a character with Chinese heritage, don’t situate him in a fourth-floor apartment or give her four flowers, a four-door car or phone number with the number 4, the numeral for death. Eight, on the other hand, would be a good choice. That number is so auspicious for the Chinese that the Beijing Olympics opening ceremonies began at 8 p.m. China Standard Time on 8/8/08.
Characters often learn a lot by watching facial expressions. However, if people from different countries are watching each other, they might not learn much. Facial expressions, too, might have different cross-cultural interpretations, according to Rachael L. Jack, who said that Western Caucasians rely on the eyebrows and mouth to pick up cues, while Chinese focus on the eyes.
There is a host of other differences among cultures from what “on time” means to which hand (if any) to proffer in a greeting. Good international advertising agencies have become finally attuned to those differences. Successful marketers understand they can’t just translate an American ad into another language. Rather, they need an entirely different, culturally appropriate campaign. Electrolux was smart enough not to bring its “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux” ads from Great Britain to the U.S. Writers could learn from them, a warning that even in our mother tongue, the words we choose might have unintended meanings.