Wednesday, April 3, 2013

I Hate When They Get That Wrong

Humans clump together in tribes. The criteria for the clumping vary and are multidimensional. And humans may simultaneously belong to multiple tribes. Of course, I'm not talking about the Iroquois or Ottawa, but groups whose members share a particular affinity.

I happen to be a Geek with particular interests in Math, Physics, and Computers. Chemistry & Biology, not so much. Medicine, not at all. I also happen to be an Evangelical Christian with interests that are Puritan, Baptist, and Reformed. Moralistic social activisim, not so much. Westboro Baptist nuttiness, not at all. I also happen to write and read with particular interest in Robert Heinlein, Jerry Pournelle, and Larry Correia. William Faulkner, not at all. I hang out with "Makers" and am very excited at the prospect of a maker-space growing in Grand Rapids, MI.

Membership in these groups is not necessarily mutually-exclusive.

Each group has its unique folkways, and lingo. Jokes that are funny in one group may well fall flat in another. Each group has its own inside knowledge. And most importantly: each group has its own distinct "trust cues." These are little shibboleths that are deployed within the group to identify whether the person you're talking to is "one of us" or not. Ferinstance, did you know that a "student" at Oxford is the fella/gal up front teaching the class, and the kids learning stuff are called "members." We'll just change up the lingo a little bit to identify interlopers.

You may have heard of "gaydar" that sense that you have of a person's sexual orientation. Sometimes it's as overt as looking for how one wears a wristwatch, or which ear has an earring. This notion extends to pretty much every tribe. Mathematicians have little "tells" that are different from those of Biologists. If I look superior and attribute something to my having "the knack," it means something to Engineers, particularly those who watched the old Dilbert TV show.

Some tribes are accustomed to being picked on. Before Geeks made good money and had all the best job prospects, we lived in terror of the Jocks. If you're in any group in the "before they were cool" time, you've come to expect abuse. When a TV show comes on and the guy has a Bible and handles snakes, all the Christians I know will flinch: We don't talk that way. We don't act that way. That's not who we are.

To successfully engage a tribe, you've not only got to depict its members in a realistic way, but you've also got to have your characters flash some of the "trust cues" associated with that group. It's very important that these trust cues be used by the right people in the right way.

I was watching a "Christian" movie where the pretty girl is socializing with some unsaved jocks. But then one of the actors playing one of the jocks said a word that only an Evangelical would say in that context. Hold it! That actor is a Christian playing an unbeliever. It took me out of the story and I quit the movie moments later.

Did you note the use of "unsaved" and "unbeliever" in the last paragraph? Non-Christians don't say "unchurched" either.

Evangelicals have this code language that's different from the general population. If you can use it, you'll create a more convincing Evangelical character. But you have to use it right, because being just a little bit off will stand out to your Evangelical readers.

And it works the other way, too. I happen to be fluent in Atheist. When I want to sound more like an Atheist I'll use language just a little different. Ferinstance, I say "deity" a lot more than "God."

I found "The IT Crowd" unwatchable because it got the Geek tribe so wrong. Sure, we're
monomaniacal and we lose perspective of the practical. But we're not stupid. When you depict a member of a tribe you don't belong to acting stupid for comedic effect, you might get some yucks from non-members of that tribe, but you've lost any hope of appealing to that tribe.

In particular, some groups pride themselves in their superior intelligence. Physics grad students and post-docs do not come from the shallow end of the gene pool. Such may have low social skills (which can be milked for comedic effect), but they aren't stupid. "Big Bang Theory" exploits this masterfully. Even the "dumb blonde" on the show isn't dumb.

What I'm getting at here is that in your writing, you may want to depict characters who belong to tribes you do not belong to. Part of your research into those characters includes getting to know that group. If you fail, you'll make cardboard characters or worse a caricature.

Black people are insulted by putting black-face makeup on an actor then making him talk like Li'l Black Sambo. It works the same for Geeks, Christians, or whatever other tribe people belong to.

1 comment:

  1. This is very true. I used to belong to a controversial semi-Christian movement, and frequently people who were only in for a few years try to make themselves out to be experts on the movement and on cults in general. They invariably say something that immediately shows that they really don't know what they're talking about. And when they do, they totally lose their supposed target audience, the current believers, because they know that the ex-member is sensationalizing or exaggerating and thus full of s@#t.


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