The US and the UK have a lot of things in common, including (more or less) a language. But now and then you trip over something where the culture is so wildly different that people on one side or the other may not even be able to grasp how utterly different the other culture is. That can be a significant issue in writing for an audience on both sides of the Atlantic, because you can end up leaving one half of the audience scratching their heads and thinking your writing is sloppy, when what they see as a plothole is an accurate reflection of the culture the story is set in.
It’s particularly bad for Brits writing for an American audience, because a British audience usually has some familiarity with American culture through exposure to American tv and films, while the reverse situation can’t be assumed. I ran into an example of this a couple of weeks ago, in connection with my ongoing episode-by-episode review of Torchwood. After writing the draft I would have a look round at other people’s comments on an episode to see if there was anything I’d meant to talk about but forgotten — and noticed something. There was a very consistent complaint from Americans about how unbelievable it was that the audience viewpoint character, Gwen, initially didn’t know how to use a gun. She’s a police officer, so they couldn’t understand how she could not be trained in firearms, even if she had never had to actually use one in anger before.
These are Americans who have actively sought out a British show. They’re more likely than the average American to know something about the UK. And it never occurred to any of them that the police in the UK might not be like the police in the US, that what was shown was an accurate depiction of life in the UK. Even though “British police aren’t armed” is one of the things that often shows up on “hey, those Brits, they’re weird!” coverage.
What do you do about this situation? You can’t just slide over it and never comment on Gwen using a gun, because the British audience will wonder why on earth an ordinary bobby is firearms-trained. Ordinary uniformed beat police in mainland Britain do not carry guns. Not only do they not carry guns, they are not normally trained in the use of firearms. Nor are they likely to have gun knowledge from their private life, because private ownership of handguns has been effectively non-existent since 1997, and was unusual before that. Gwen immediately handling a gun with no problems would break suspension of disbelief for the British audience just as effectively as showing her as untrained did for the Americans.
This is just one example, but there are a lot of subtle and not-so-subtle ways something like this can happen. The first problem for the author is of course to be aware of the difference. Since I write for an American publisher, my editor will generally pick up on things that need to be clarified. The second problem is to find a way to make things clear, at least from context, to both audiences. It can sometimes be a tricky balance, putting in enough information to let one side pick up what’s going on without it being a boring and obvious infodump to the other side. Sometimes there simply isn’t any way to reconcile it, and I think that the Torchwood example is probably one of them, although I think they might have been able to do a little more explicit “I’m a beat bobby, remember, not a detective constable” to key people in. But it’s always worth considering what you can do to write around situations like this. It’s a part of the world-building process in contemporary fiction, just as much as details of an unfamiliar setting would be in genres like historical romance or science fiction.
[This post is about handling cultural differences when writing for multiple audiences. It is not about whether there is a right side and wrong side in the specific example used. If you wish to discuss the latter, please do so elsewhere.]