It’s good to know what we need to know before we turn our characters loose on a new culture, and how to find it out, but sometimes knowledge just isn’t enough to keep our character’s feet safely out of their mouths. Instead, we need to figure out where the cultural traps are, and how to stay out of them. Most of us do this by instinct in the real world, but when we’ve got the distance we have with our characters, it can be a lot harder to remember how to read.
- One thing to focus on is where exactly you fit in the social structure. Best case scenario—hint, hint, GMs out there—there’s an NPC on about your level whom you can use as a preliminary measuring stick, since that way you can just try to copy what she does when greeting someone else. Otherwise, it’s going to involve a lot more calculation, trying to determine who defers to whom and who looks down on whom, how big the gaps are and what behavior fits in the gaps. Think of it like one big, complicated sorting algorithm, or one of those “How old is Billy?” math problems; determine where on the scale you are, see what people do with the kind of social gap you’re about to be on one side of, and then do it.
- Similarly, we have how people are connected. One thing to try to take into account is what sorts of relationships are valued, and how valued they are relative to each other. Most of us are used to high emphasis on marriage or family; what about people engaged in cooperative relationships to the point of virtual symbiosis? Mentor/student? Boss/subordinate (…and no, not necessarily in the workplace romance sense). If there’s a word for it, there’s probably a significance to it—see how people treat it, an d try to do the same.
- Another thing to take into account is taboos. While it’s safe to start by assuming the old cuss word trifecta of blasphemy, sex and bodily functions, don’t get complacent—a culture might ignore those entirely and have severe hang-ups about ownership, a surfeit of individuality, hygeine or lack thereof, romantic love…. you name it. Watch for the things that people avoid saying or doing, the kinds of people or situations that result in them being said or done anyway, and how people react to their being said or done.
- What about local ritual? A fictional culture might have specific ways of doing things or treating things for anything, whether it’s greeting, storytelling, gift-giving, courtship, disposal of certain kinds of wastes—hey, we even have rituals for sneezing. For this one, the best approach is to watch first and then try to copy, and/or ask the GM if there’s a ritual in place that your character might know about (or even, if you’re feeling really ambitious and the answer is “I haven’t thought of one”, whether you can make something up. I for one am quite fond of people adding new wrinkles to the culture).
- Don’t forget history, nor even (in some places) folktales. This is one of those things where reading the materials ahead of time and a little bit of logic and deduction can work wonders. Many cultures have one or more defining points that have worked their way into folk history as well as standard history, with their own significances—sources of great national pride or guilt, offenses caused by other groups or events that have worked their way to being a more emotional sort of national debt, stories that everyone gets inspired by or goes out of the way not to repeat. Usually, downplaying or even contradicting one of these things is just asking for trouble; for people who toe the cultural line, being told that something about which they share the great national guilt was for nothing can be… a bit unreasonable about it. The important things here are pre-research/asking a lot of questions and good old logical/social reasoning; if you can tell that something’s going to be an old wound, it’s probably a good idea not to pick at it, and if it’s an old pride, maybe bubble-bursting shouldn’t be the order of the day. At least, not without a good reason. And who knows when there’s a reason behind that old wives’ tale?
While these aren’t the only details it’s a good idea to osmose, nor the only ways in which to do so, they’re a good way to demonstrate that a character doesn’t just understand the culture, but belongs—or at least has enough power of observation to fake it.