Things You Might Want To Know When Dropping Into a Culture

One of the side effects of dealing with worlds not our own is that we’re likely to be dealing with cultures not our own as well (and if we aren’t, why in blazes not?). From a player standpoint, or from the standpoint of a writer trying to deal with a culture not her own, this can get complicated—we want the characters to be products of their surroundings, or the ones who are going from one group to another to figure out how to fit in, but we aren’t always sure how to do it or even where to start. Here are some questions to ask when trying to avoid culture shock; while one can’t assume that every culture follows the answers slavishly, they’re good things to start from when trying to fit in.

  • What kind of culture are you dealing with? Granted, not every culture, even the fictional ones, is going to be something that lends itself to a large template, like “warriors”, “bureaucrats”, “scholars”, “consumers”, and so and and so forth. But it’s good to know what general direction they skew in anyway; if you’re trying to go Rugged Individualist in a collective culture, you’re going to have a fight on your hands.
  • How important is rank? While some cultures may not care about it, some find it terribly important, to the point of not allowing communication between the ranks or giving people in higher ranks a level of power over those in lower ranks that one might not see in most societies. It’s not always that blatant, though. Sometimes who ranks whom might not be particularly important, but you still need to make it obvious that you know where on the pecking order you stand—you might need to talk to people who rank you a certain way, and people whom you rank another way, and then account for difference…
  • What sorts of traits does the culture select for or against? In most cultures, there are traits and skills people will respect, and ones they’d rather not deal with; knowing which ones to express and which ones to keep hidden can be very, very valuable. If you want to try to game the system, knowing why the unspoken rules that govern these matters are in place can be vital for figuring out how to turn a trait that should be working against you to your advantage.
  • Similarly, what sort of work is important and what isn’t? Some cultures place all their value on warriors, and consider everyone else there to ensure that the warriors can still function. Others prioritize—or despise—researchers, service industries, bureaucrats, people who work with their hands—you name it, there’s probably a culture that can justify it.
  • What are the culture’s untouchable concepts? This one’s particularly vital when trying to fit in and not make enemies, since the fastest way to get a large group of people on your bad side is to go after something they consider beyond question—and on a meta level, anyone who’s grown up steeped in that culture needs to have a really good reason for questioning it, since they probably would have been raised believing that That Is How the World Works.
  • What sorts of smaller quirks do they have? Jargon, social ritual, lack of distinction (or increased distinction) between jobs or fields of study, favored/unfavored pursuits—every culture has a few distinctive points that don’t fall into one of the earlier questions but will stand out if not taken into account.

Knowing what you’re getting into—or at the very least, knowing what you’re looking for—can make the difference between a character born into/learning a culture and one who has it as a tacked-on background and/or doesn’t fit in.

Stay tuned for more Things You Might Want To Know When!

Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Culture Acclimation: Five Ways to Not Give Offense | Exchange of Realities
  2. Impractical Applications (Acclimation and Adaptation) | Exchange of Realities
  3. Links of the Week: October 17, 2011 | KJD-IMC - KJDavies "In My Campaign" Articles

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