How to write about culture clashesCulture Clashes. They happen among nations, ethnic groups, and generations. Sadly, culture clashes also occur among families. Heritages or upbringings collide. Differing values splinter relationships.

Personal memory collectors, memoirists, and family storytellers all struggle with whether or not to tell the unhappy, unflattering, or  embarrassing tales. (See “Making your stories public: How Much to Share” for more about this. Or for an example read Dee Burris’ “The toughest entry I’ve ever tried to write.” )

However, determining if you’re going to write about such family episodes isn’t the only decision. How are you going to write them? How are you going to tell these stories in such a way that others gain perspective from them? That the stories are accurate and compelling?

Collisions within the Family

Culture Clashes and generation gaps through photos Go back to the beginning, if you can, and explain how the conflict started. For instance, many family culture clashes come by way of marriage. The bride or groom came from a different background or culture, practiced a different faith, or, God forbid, held a different political affiliation.

As you tell the story, make sure you highlight the social context of all sides of the story as well as the personalities involved.  Who in the family knows the whole story? (Yes, this is part of citing your sources.) How big of a mark did it leave on family story? Was it limited to a few family members, or did it cause a split? How did it resolve—or did it? What did the family learn? Do they now openly debate differences, or is civility valued much more than free discourse?

Vignettes Representative of a Larger Story

Sometimes small vignettes illustrate a generational conflict that simmered under the surface. For example, The Great Depression left a permanent mark on many people, one that affects (or affected) their thinking into their old age. I know of a few instances where a child of the Depression’s view of material things or about spending money impacted family dynamics.

Decade and Life-long Stories of Culture Clashes

More than a few stories of family strife rooted in a culture clash have germinated into complete memoirs. Misunderstandings grow into decades of hurt and dysfunction.

Ugly as these stories might be, they are important in understanding the generations that went before. Often, they’re also helpful in understanding current family dynamics. For example, to tell of my mother’s entrance into the Wilkinson family without highlighting the uneasy relationship she enjoyed (don’t take that verb literally) with my grandma would be elevating rose-colored glasses to a blind fold.

In my mother and grandmother’s case, there shouldn’t have been much of a culture clash. She and Daddy came from similar backgrounds. But my paternal grandma strongly disliked any woman who vied for her son’s heart.

I’m sure there are stories like that in your family too.

Tips for writing about Culture Clashes

  1. Try on all the shoes. After digesting the social and historical contexts involved, imagine what it would have felt like to be in each person’s place. What emotions would you have felt? Do you think things would have been different in another generation?
  2. Were there barriers to communication, such as language or knowledge of the other culture?
  3. Remember, bad buys have good sides too. If someone was bull-headed or seemed outright mean, how’d they end up that way? What made them tick?
  4. Look for products of a time period. When we see a foreparent in terms of their environment and upbringing, it’s easier to write about them without judgement. In fact, it might even be unfair to apply modern-day standards to their actions.
  5. Step back. Particularly if you’re emotionally connected to one person in the story (It might be you!), assess their side of the story as if you were an unrelated reporter. Does it change the way you look at the story? Does it affect the way you want to write about it?
  6. It’s the sugar that helps the medicine go down. It also makes for entertaining writing.

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