I took psychology at A-level, which meant I got to run psychological experiments on people! The downside is there are ethical rules and stuff*. My dreams of being an evil scientist dashed.
Still, I made the best of it. This post is a bit about one of my experiments and why I think it's important to keep in mind for multicultural# writing.
War of the Ghosts meets The Dandelion
I ran an experiment based on the famous 'War of the Ghosts' study**. I used a different story - a tale called 'The Dandelion' - but the principle was the same. The test victim had the story read to them and were asked to retell the story.
One of the things discovered in the original study was how people coped with gaps. Rather than say "I don't know", they filled them in with something that made sense. 'War of the Ghosts' was a Native American story. The details that 'made sense' to a Western listener could easily be wrong. An example is the characters hunting seals by the river... this became fishing***.
My tale produced an interesting result, because the gap filling came down to storytelling conventions. 'The Dandelion' (also based on a Native American story) focuses on the main character, who watches a dandelion from afar. He believes she's a beautiful maiden. One day her hair turns white and a sigh is enough to send her seeds flying.
Most of my victims did one of two things in the retelling.
- Some brought the main character closer to the dandelion, so that he could realistically blow the seeds.
- Others realised he needed to be at a distance to mistake her for a maiden... so instead, something unconnected to the main character would knock off the seeds.
Dandelions are always dandelions. You can't blow the seeds off when you're standing at a distance in any part of the world. The cultural difference isn't based on how dandelions work.
It was a difference in storytelling. Most Western folktales do not personify forces of nature. In 'The Dandelion', the main character is a personification of the wind. If you're able to make this assumption easily, it won't be hard to remember he blew the seeds from a great distance. If you're assuming he must be a normal human, you'll tie it into your schema**** for dandelion clocks - that makes it harder to remember correctly.
Implications for Multicultural Writing
The problem for multicultural writing is clear - you'll fill in the gaps with bits of your own culture without realising it. You may even be convinced that the filler is from the intended culture.
Using bits of your own culture isn't always a bad thing. Assuming you're writing for members of the same culture, it can make the story more accessible (in the case of 'The Dandelion', the retelling could have benefited from emphasising the nature of the main character for a Western audience). But too much, or the wrong details, makes a story lack that authentic feel.
As shown in the studies, you can't rely on your memory to get things right. You need to re-read your cultural sources with the story in front of you, to check you've not filled the gaps with the wrong cultural filling.
You also can't rely on what feels right. A gap filler could feel like the right thing to use, because it fits your cultural view of the world. The right filler may actually feel a bit alien and unusual to you.
One example where I messed up involved elephants. I knew I was writing about a culture where elephants were viewed as graceful. I still managed to use a descriptor which made the elephant sound clumsy*****. I caught it on a culture-checking pass of the story, having missed it when I was editing purely for general story issues.
Which all boils down to having to check yourself when you're writing about other cultures. You're not to be trusted, so you better make sure you're keeping an eye on yourself. This is one time where trusting your gut feelings may not be the best option.
# I'm defining multicultural writing as writing about many cultures... but not necessarily in the same story.
* One is that people have to remain anonymous. Note my lack of names in the post. Another is you have to debrief them, so they're not mentally scarred for life. Fortunately, my verbal storytelling skills aren't quite that bad, so no humans were harmed during this study.
** Run by Frederick Bartlett, in case you want to look it up. I'm obviously simplifying a bit here.
*** This is all linked in to the idea of schema - a mental structure used to organise bits of the world/life experience. The average Westerner has a schema for fishing (you go down to the river, you get out your fishing rod, you add the bait, you catch a fish). They don't have a schema for seal hunting.
**** See footnote *** for a brief description of schemata.
***** This is a fun example, because both schemata are correct. Elephants can be graceful, precise and delicate. They can also be clumsy, loud and destructive. The difference is not about the elephants. It's about the structures different cultures have created to understand elephants.******
****** As implied in this example, stereotypes are also a form of schema. As well as using the wrong cultural filling, you could end up using stereotypes to fill in the character of someone of a certain race/culture.