Culture could be divided into three types of depictions that storytellers and gamers might employ, singly or in combination: what’s only seen, what’s heard, and what’s performed. This organization is mentioned for clarity as we investigate what to invent and what to bypass, which may depend on medium. We’ll look at depictions that are subtle but which can permeate society. More pronounced depictions of culture, like greetings, clothing, and etiquette will be discussed later in this chapter, as most deserve their own section.
The visible aspects of culture are seen but seldom commented upon by storytellers. This includes architecture, clothing, hair styles, and body language. Much of this can be quickly taken in by a viewer in a visual medium like film, TV, or gaming, where the set and costume designers will be charged with inventing most of it. This is not to say that storytellers can or should ignore it, but in the written medium, we devote most time to actions, dialogue, and thoughts. Some readers even dislike much descriptive writing as the story stalls while we describe something, unless we’ve learned the art of description as action or revealing of a character’s state of mind.
With many visual depictions in the written word, it’s often good to focus on the impression someone or something creates rather than going into details about how this is achieved. One reason is that most of us don’t recognize terms for various clothing, hairstyles, or architecture, to name a few, and conveying these to an equally ignorant audience accomplishes little, while also making it seem like we researched this stuff so we could tell them. Don’t name a hairstyle unless you’re quickly able to describe it and what it’s thought to suggest about anyone using it; that opinion will vary by other cultures.
The words our characters speak are most of what we need for audible depictions of culture, which often dictates what we say and how, or whether we say anything at all. There are times when we think it’s not our place to comment on something because of how that’s viewed. For example, if you say something rude about your absent spouse, am I expected to change the subject or wait until you do? Am I allowed to comment on it? Can I agree with or disapprove of your behavior? These cultural non-responses are due to perceptions about what a behavior means and the underlying value, such as minding my business or warding off a further venture into a personal subject. When inventing culture, we should consider what is expected to be said and (italics) what is allowed to pass without comment. It reminds me of the adage that sometimes it’s not what we say and do but what we don’t (italics) that is revealing of ourselves.
For example, humility is (at least theoretically) prized in the United States. If someone gives us a compliment, it’s customary to politely acknowledge it before changing the subject, rather than gushing about how true their remarks are and encouraging more of the same. When determining what (or if a) response is expected, think about what moral value is exemplified by doing so, and what offense is avoided. Also think about the belief that is attributed to the action or inaction. If ignoring a compliment is believed (italics) to be rude, then it effectively is so, possibly because a value (italics) of modesty is violated. The quietness of a library or church is also respectful, but does it need to be in every culture? It’s customary to mute a mobile phone when attending a meeting. Loud music in bars makes it customary to yell in someone’s ear to be heard, causing a violation of someone’s personal space that is accepted in that environment due to necessity.
Our voices, and the way we speak, can also be part of culture. Some languages are considered, by non-speakers, to be eloquent and flowing while others are harsh. But it can also be culture to speak softly/loudly, to speak at length or say very little, or speak with a prompting inflection so that even statements sound like a question; this is deferential and may reflect values of humility and respect. The “ums” and “ahs” of speech might be rampant or non-existent; these can be unnoticed or frowned upon, maybe because they’re believed to result from an unsound mind. Perhaps interrupting people is unusual because it’s considered disrespectful, or commonplace as a sign of enthusiasm and sociability while remaining quiet is believed to show unfriendliness. We can spin interpretations.
Songs may be prevalent so that we write lyrics to print in a book. There are other sounds like the tone of alarms, phone rings, and even when applause occurs (in some cultures, there’s no clapping between songs at a rock concert). We should consider the impression and quality of these sounds; for authors, that’s most of what we can give the audience, whereas other media allow the audience to hear it. Other instances of audible depictions of culture will be covered later in this chapter in the form of greetings, curses, colloquialisms, and more.
No culture is complete without actions people perform. We’ll once again look at more subtle ones here. One of those is eye contact, whether this is maintained, averted, or avoided altogether, and for how long. This is influenced by attitudes about respect, deference, and domination. Use this as a guide to decide what people do. Some view maintained eye contact as challenging, while looking away is meekness. If a culture values personal strength, they likely approve of sustained contact and frown on looking away, while a culture that values knowing your place might feel the reverse. If an action is considered respectful, we don’t need to explain why, but dialogue is a good way to do so if required. Consider this scene:
Kier burst into the throne room, bloodied sword in hand. “My lord,” he began, addressing the king, “the ogres are minutes from breaching the defenses. We must leave at once.”
The captain of the king’s guard intercepted him. “You dare to carry an unsheathed sword before the king? Show some respect!”
Kier frowned. “You had better, too, or will you fight them with your pretty face?”
Amid the muted laughter from those assembled, the king caught the captain’s eye and nodded. As one, the king’s guardsmen ripped swords from sheaths and took up defensive positions.
The expectation to not bare a sword before the king, and the reason for Kier’s doing so, is summed up in two short sentences that are relevant to the action. It also causes brief tension. This is why we need culture.
What side of streets, paths, and halls do people walk or drive on? The left side is preferred in countries where people are predominantly right-handed and physical combat (i.e., swordsmanship) was/is common. A swordsman wants his sword arm facing the potential opponent approaching him. The scabbard is also worn on the left hip and less likely to become entangled in anyone (people are walking on the other side of you). It’s also easier for right-handed people to mount a horse from the left, which would be while standing in traffic if they’re riding on the right of the road, so this is avoided.
But once wagons are in the picture, things may change. Picture a wagon pulled by two horses side-by-side. There was nowhere in early wagons for someone to sit, so someone is riding the left horse because it was easier to mount. As traffic comes toward him, he wants to keep his wagon wheel away from approaching traffic, which is easier to achieve if that traffic is on his left. The result is driving on the right side. If you want to prevent this, decide that even the earliest wagons had somewhere for him to sit. While this is interesting, we’re unlikely to mention the reason for our choice.
Most of the actions we’ll depict are incorporated to hybrid subjects (where what’s done, heard, and seen are combined) like greetings, so we’ll cover those after a word about social classes.