When Cultural Backgrounds Clash

by Jack Woe

I’m working on a short story called Copyright Infringement. The current draft starts with the following two paragraphs:

The envelope was clearly labelled Christopher T. Henderson — yet he had been dead for over twenty years. The man pretending to be Christopher picked it up with trepidation.

Dead men don’t receive letters.

It is currently set nowhere, it’s up to the reader to supply the location. Basically, the idea was for the reader to be able to picture my protagonist living in the same city, town or wherever.

However, this setting doesn’t really work in the USA. On the peer review site Writer’s Carnival, I got the following comment from Matt Gomez:

Probably the biggest question would be why someone pretending to be Christopher would be surprised to receive a letter addressed to him. After all, if you take over the identity of a dead person and have been otherwise using it, it would prehaps [sic] be more surprising if no junk mail was received at all.

Here, Matt has a point. It used to be the case in the US that every mail had to have a name, or at least an address. This has only recently changed. Companies used to sell addresses from warranty return cards and other correspondence to mailing lists for exactly this reason; maybe they still do.

In other countries, the post office has for years provided bulk mail service where every address on a route will be given some promotional leaflet. This is the situation in Iceland, and from casual conversations seems the same in Australia, Brazil and Slovakia. If the Wall Street Journal is any indication, this has only been offered since 2011 in the US.

The point is, in probably every other country than the US, bulk mail is never addressed to an individual person. That is, without ticking or unticking the right box on some correspondence with an organisation, a person is quite unlikely to land on someone’s mailing list.

Unlike the USA.

In Iceland, I just tell the post office not to send me any bulk mail, and they’ll give me a sticker to put on my mailbox to reinforce it. I suspect it’s the same over most of Europe if not the rest of the world.

In the US, I have to talk to talk to the credit bureau’s to make sure I’m not on a list for unsolicited credit cards and insurance offers. I have to talk to the Direct Marketing Association to get my name off their lists, which according to the Native Forest Network, is about 75% of all bulk mail. There is the National Demographics & Lifestyles for addresses collected from warranty cards, and a few publishing houses for national sweepstakes. Everyone else has to be contacted individually.

When all of this is considered, it is quite unlikely that a person using a stolen identity never gets any junk mail with that name.

The question is, can readers in the US accept that a person is careful not to get on any of those mailing lists? Will they believe it if it’s not explained?

If I do explain it somehow in the story, chances are it will no longer work elsewhere, such as England and Australia; or wherever the reader is, such as Sweden — though it is a stretch given the language it’s written in and the legalese, I never intended it to be impossible for a reader to envision it happening in a non-English speaking country.

This is my current dilemma, do I fix it somehow, or just allow American readers to be surprised?