Culture-building: Virtues & Vices

See, there’s a bonus to the previous post–today you get two new posts.   Today’s topic is culture-building–some thoughts on creating cultures-not-like-ours-exactly (or at all) and specifically some thoughts on how cultures differentiate along the fault lines of, well, faults.  What’s right.  What’s wrong.  What the people in that culture think about the “why” behind what’s right and what’s wrong.

We can start with something obvious and simple: food.  Humans are omnivores who have no physical barrier to eating a wide variety of foods that are not directly toxic:  the range of foods eaten by all the human cultures now existing is greater than the range eaten by any one culture.   If you look back in history, where we have data, even more things were consumed in the past.  Cultures may not only exclude some foods entirely, they may limit some foods to certain groups within the culture, whether by age, gender, or social rank.

I’m in a culture that–though expanding some of its earlier limits–still considers eating insects and their larvae, and some animals (dogs, cats, horses), and some plants (algae), as well as fellow humans, to be disgusting.   On the other hand, as heir both biologically and culturally to North European diets, I’m fine with meat of most other kinds, seafood, dairy, and gluten-containing grains, as well as most (but not all) of those vegetables.   Other cultures may be disgusted by the consumption of pork, or lobsters, or all mammal-meat, or  dairy, or all animal food.

So food is one place to start when considering culture-building.   Culture A, for instance, may have an absolute prohibition against eating tree nuts.  Why?   I can think of multiple reasons (including tree worship, protection of animals that rely on tree nuts,  the periodic infestation of tree nuts with a disease that makes those who eat the nuts very sick,  the limitation of tree nut access to royalty: the king eats a sacred number of tree nuts once a year, to preserve the land, and nobody else can, the animals that eat tree nuts are considered contemptible and that makes the nuts contaminated by association, etc.)

Culture B, on the other hand, grows tree nuts to eat and to trade.  B has orchards of nut trees, and a good chunk of B’s economy comes from the tree nuts.   B families give  tree nuts (sometimes raw in the shell, sometimes toasted with honey and salt) to friends and those they want to befriend.  Tree nuts are a garnish on some dishes, and sometimes ground into a flour used in special holiday pastries.  Most members of B eat some tree nuts, in some form, most of the year.  A person who doesn’t like tree nuts is considered to have poor taste…how could anyone NOT like tree nuts?  How can you cook without tree nuts?   Tree nuts are part of the ration for soldiers and sailors; tree nuts are part of the common speech:  “Sound as a nut,”  “a liar is like a weevil in a nut, spoiling the whole,” “she’s trustworthy–every nut in the basket sound,”  “poor old X, he’s short a handful of nuts in his bowl.”

Cultures A and B, when they come into contact (perhaps in a third location) are appalled at each other’s disgusting food habits.  And on that basis alone may distrust each other.   A members are shocked at the B’s nut consumption  (“How can you trust a man–a grown man–who eats tree nuts??  Have these people no shame?  No doubt they will cheat you, try to steal your daughters, rape your wives…they’re hardly human, picking up tree nuts from the ground and…eating them.  Eeeuw!”)  And A’s women are just as appalled….”They’ll try to feed nuts to our children, contaminating them with forbidden food.   Can you imagine a mother who loves her children actually feeding her child a tree nut?  I’ll bet they grind them up and put them in all their food…it’s not safe to eat anything they offer you, because it’s probably contaminated and even addictive.  I’m not letting MY children anywhere near THEIR children!”)   B members are equally shocked and disapproving.  “There’s nothing wrong with our trees, OR our nuts!  Perfectly good food, nutritious…what kind of idiots won’t eat nuts?  Or bread because there’s some chopped nuts in the dough?  I gave that man a gift of roasted honey-nuts and he threw it on the ground!  How’s that for rudeness?”

Humans are capable of attaching meaning to any random sensory input: colors (even shade of color) acquire a meaning over than a certain wavelength of light.  Wearing a color, painting a house or a business-location a color,  all signal something in most cultures but not the same in all.  Clothes and personal grooming–down to the smallest detail–can signal political or religious adherence, or social rank, or gender identity, or moral standing, or a combination of any of these, and the same detail can mean opposite things to different people.   (Do ragged jeans mean poverty or rebellion against authority? )   Music is a common divide between cultures…instruments v. no instruments (voice alone),  which instruments alone or combined, which style of music, etc.   Tones of voice–how often women, in our culture, are censured for having voices pitched higher, or for speaking loudly (compared to how the complainer wants them to speak.)

Since groups of humans forming a culture or subculture can choose from a wide variety of sensory inputs to create cultural meanings, so the writer can invent believable cultures by using the same sorts of inputs to bring an invented culture alive.  Consider different diets,  different choices of personal grooming (long hair, short hair, facial hair as decoration, ideas about gender identity in relation to hair choices and the meaning of hair that is not a choice, such as visible/noticeable hair on other parts of the body.  Teeth “natural” or filed, or dyed, to produce a particular look.  Tattoos applied to the skin, or scarification, as markers for a given culture), different choices of material, color, style for clothing, different choices of material, color, style for both exterior and interior of buildings: hard v. soft textures, saturated v. dilute colors, etc.

Beyond that, consider the abstractions cultures use to define themselves and the Others, and how those interact with the sensory inputs to which they’ve assigned meaning.   They all consider some things intrinsically Good and others intrinsically Bad.  What are those things?   And why does that culture think they are Good or Bad?   Always?  Only in some contexts?   (In some cultures, it’s Bad to lie to a family member about the health of a cow you’re selling, but perfectly all right to lie to a stranger–in fact it’s Good, if it brings more profit to the family.   In ours it’s Bad for a citizen to lie to a police officer, but it’s legal for the police officer to lie to the citizen–in fact, it’s Good if the lie leads to information that closes a case.)    Most cultures have loopholes in at least some of their rules of Good and Bad, because humans are complicated and look for, and find, ways to make the rules work in their favor at least part of the time.   Some years back, for instance, research showed that about 30% of the women seeking an abortion were opposed to abortion (some actively compaigning against it, in fact)…except they were convinced their case was different.  The *other* women were sluts who just wanted to have sex without responsibility, but they had *legitimate* reasons for their own abortions.   The same is true of men who are all for sexual purity except that they have “needs” or “weak wills”  or “made a mistake.”

No rule survives contact with human nature in significant numbers.  The decision on which rules to enforce–and on whom–is always a source of cultural differences…and makes for good stories, too.  Cultures, like the individuals within them, have specific strengths and weaknesses–they were born out of a specific historical context, of parental cultures from which they derived ideas and beliefs and practices that in the story-present make them more or less viable in a universe filled with other cultures.   (I think both Bujold, with her Barrayar stories, and Lee & Miller with their Liaden stories, do an excellent job of showing how cultures and individuals influence each other, and cope with culture contact and culture conflict.   These authors’ ability to recognize and show the depth and complexity of cultures adds a lot to my enjoyment of their work.)

So–a few of the many approaches to creating new cultures for your fiction.  I like to start with the sensory, because it’s concrete, and work from that to the abstract, but you could do it the other way.






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