Episode 27.3: Learn How to Create Cultures
Listen as host Randy Ellefson discusses how to create a culture, including greetings, farewells, language, expressions, slang, and more.
In This Episode You’ll Learn:
- What consider when creating greetings and farewells
- What elements are typically present
- What can be omitted
- Gestures that exist in cultures
- How language is affected by culture
- How to create expressions and slang
Thanks so much for listening this week. Want to subscribe to The Art of World Building Podcast? Have some feedback you’d like to share? A review would be greatly appreciated!
Episode 27.3 Transcript
Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number twenty-seven, part three. Today’s topic is about how to create cultures. This includes greetings, farewells, language, expressions, slang, and more. This material and more is discussed in a chapter from Cultures and Beyond, volume three in The Art of World Building book series.
Do you want practical advice on how to build better worlds faster and have more fun doing it? The Art of World Building book series, website, blog, and podcast will make your worlds beat the competition. This is your host, Randy Ellefson, and I have 30 years of world building advice, tips, and tricks to share. Follow along now at artofworldbuilding.com.
Greetings and Farewells
Before we get started, I want to mention that you can buy transcripts of these episodes from artofworldbuilding.com or Amazon.com.
With world building, we are always trying to figure out what to do and what to skip. One of the most useful things we can do when it comes to creating cultures is creating greetings and farewells because these are things the characters will actually say to each other. If a work is a TV show and it happens repeatedly, sometimes fans of those shows will say these greetings to each other. An example would be saying “Namaste” from the TV show Lost. In Game of Thrones, people often say “seven blessings.”
Sometimes these expressions become popular enough that they enter into the common language that we often use, so this is one area that I do not recommend skipping. Greetings and farewells will exist in virtually every culture. The only exception I can think of is a culture that is so barbaric that they haven’t even evolved to that point yet. Even then, they are likely to at least grunt at each other. It’s worth noting that even animals will make recognition of another animal, especially those of their species. One reason for that is rivalry, especially among males, for females.
So, yes, at the very least, the greetings will exist. The farewells, maybe not quite as much. And if you think about it, we do make a bigger deal out of greeting someone, but often, when we are saying farewell, we may not say anything. We might just give a nod. We might even just turn and walk away. It depends on how casual the setting is.
One reason that greetings may be more prominent is that they really set the tone for the coming interaction. This is something to keep in mind. If we have already come up with our cultural vision, and that vision includes being very respectful to people, then the greeting is also going to be probably more formal and, of course, respectful. On the other hand, if the cultural vision is very casual, then we might end up with a very casual greeting, like, “Hey, what’s up?”
For both greetings and farewells, a general tip is to keep them brief. I remember watching Game of Thrones and it would take something like 30 seconds for all of Daenerys’ titles to be read off by the end. The first few times it was okay, but as this continued, the greetings just started to grate on my nerves as someone in the audience who just wanted it to be over with because I’d already heard all of them before. These technically weren’t greetings, but it’s the same idea. Keep them short.
Another reason for brevity is that a greeting is not exactly the heart of the conversation, now is it? We have much more important things that our characters need to say to each other. The case can be made that one of the most useful reasons for a greeting is to show culture, but another is to show that someone does it poorly, or skips it and causes a minor offense to another person.
When we’re inventing greetings and farewells, we probably want multiple versions of these. The reason for this is that some settings are formal, some are very casual, and others are somewhere in between. For example, in English, we have “hello,” “hi,” “hey,” “yo,” and then stuff like “what’s up,” which can even be shortened to “sup?” That’s a lot, so we don’t really need to go that far, but I would recommend at least two, maybe three of them.
It can be easier to start with the most formal and then try to come up with shorter versions of it. One reason for this is adults are usually the ones who come up with the way someone should be greeted, and then younger people tend to shorten things out of laziness. I doubt an adult over the age of 30 came up with “what’s up?” Very casual greetings like that can apply to a social group within the larger structure of a settlement, region or sovereign power. One way of looking at this is that the more formal greetings might be more widespread and universal almost, and then these more casual versions might be applied to one group or another.
Typically, the casual versions originate with one group, and then they sometimes catch on and spread to the wider population. This brings up a point that these more casual versions are often a kind of bonding mechanism and a way for peers within that social group to recognize each other. In addition to this social aspect, greetings sometimes have a practical origin. For example, the handshake originated from each person trying to show that they did not have a weapon. Sometimes people had a knife or a dagger hidden up their sleeve, and the shaking of the arm was supposed to cause that to come loose. Another version of this is each person grabbing the other person by the upper arm because, of course, you would feel the blade was in there.
Knowing the origins of a few of these helps us think of other versions, especially if we have a different kind of weapon in our world. We’ll talk a lot more about the physical gestures in a few minutes, but let’s focus on the words first. As we all know, in any greeting, there is typically a word that basically means “hello.” The words often include some sort of wishing pleasant times upon that person. Some examples of that would be something like “good morning” or “live long and prosper” from Star Trek. Technically, the latter one is a farewell.
Another thing often included in greetings is some sort of inquiry as to how well they are doing, such as “how are you?” You may remember in the U.S. there was a commercial running a few years ago where a guy would walk into a bar, or some other casual scenario, and someone would say, “Hi, how are you?” and instead of just letting that pass, because it’s a rhetorical question, he would actually give a really long answer to this. So, the point I’m getting at there is that this is, often, a rhetorical question. You’re not necessarily supposed to answer it. This would be an easy way to do a culture clash where someone from one culture doesn’t realize it’s rhetorical and does give an answer just like the guy in that commercial.
Greetings can sometimes include some statement about how happy we are to see them, such as “pleased to meet you.” Then, sometimes, there’s a title like “Sir,” Lord,” “Mr. Smith,” or even a really formal one like “Grand Master of the Seven Realms.” In some cultures, we may introduce ourselves first before asking the other person’s name, or vice versa. Then, using your given name, or your first name, as we call it in the United States, is less formal than using the surname, or last name.
So, when we are trying to come up with the words that people say, these are all elements that we can mix and match to come up with their greetings and farewells. To some extent, the cultural vision that we have developed for this culture may not have too much of an impact because there are a lot of universal elements, like the ones I just listed, that are incorporated into greetings. But if we do have a cultural vision, it’s certainly very helpful to leverage that, if we can, when doing this.
A final remark about the words is that sometimes a profession, like being a swordsman, may have something to do with what is said. For example, I might say, “May your sword never break,” or, “May your bowstring never snap,” if you’re an archer. If you’re someone who does scouting for the military, looking for dangers, maybe something to say to that person is “many sightings,” as in “may you see many things that are worth reporting on.”
When people belong to a specific social group, we should have already defined what makes that social group exist in the first place and we can leverage that to come up with these greetings and farewells.
If you’re looking for more world building resources, Artofworldbuilding.com has most of what you need. This includes more podcasts like this one, and free transcripts if you’d prefer to read an episode.
You can also find more information on all three volumes of The Art of World Building series, which is available in eBook, print, and audiobook formats. Much of the content of those books is available on the website for free.
Sign up today to get your free content and take your world building to the next level.
Let’s start talking about physical gestures. The words are almost mandatory in that we almost always say something. It’s a little bit less common for us to only make the gesture, unless we are far enough away from the other person that they wouldn’t hear the words anyway. In other words, unless the situation prevents it, words are typically expected, but physical gestures are a little bit more optional — or, at least, that’s how it is in the United States. In another culture, like Japan, something like the bow might be required, and skipping that is going to be the thing that gets you into trouble. This is an important distinction to make. In some cultures, one thing might be expected a lot more than the other. But in the United States, we can really interchange the physical gestures with a word, so we can do one, the other, or both. And of course, in some cases, we can do neither. Which one of these is more prominent in your setting?
When it comes to these gestures, one thing to keep in mind is that throughout human history, we have had a different sense of the spreading of germs than at other times. Today, we’re very familiar with this, but even 200 years ago we didn’t have any idea about a lot of this. A culture that is not well informed about the spreading of disease might be one that is doing more physical intimacy, such as kisses on the cheek. A culture that is more aware of how sickness can be spread might have greetings that have physical gestures with more separation between the parties, such as a bow.
It’s worth noting that in science fiction, where there is space travel between worlds, the pathogens are going to be completely different and no one is going to have immunity from a pathogen that exists on another planet. Of course, our characters are usually wearing a space suit of some kind. In a show like Star Trek, this is one of the things that they kind of gloss over, the same way they gloss over people not understanding a foreign language. The universal translator took care of that problem, and there seems to be this implication that the doctor on the ship has some sort of immunization that he can just easily give to everyone so that sickness has been largely eliminated from science fiction — either that or if someone catches something, it’s relatively minor, like the common cold.
What we don’t usually see, because it’s pretty dramatic, is something like what happened when the British arrived on the shores of North America — and the other countries, like Spain and France, also did this — and all sorts of pathogens infected the American Indians and wiped out a lot of them. As a side note, in science fiction, if an alien culture really wanted to just wipe out the Earth, all they would have to do is release a pathogen that we have no immunity to. They don’t need to show up with all these space ships. Writers probably ignore that most of the time because it would make every sci-fi alien show the same when it comes to aliens discovering the planet.
Despite all of this, physical interactions are often part of any sort of greeting or farewell, and that includes the handshake and its variations. One thing we may want to avoid is the actual handshake that takes place on Earth. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it is so Earth-like that it’s just going to remind people of here. So, we can do some variations on this, like interlacing the fingers. Then, of course, there’s the fist bump that was popular for a while here. And then we can use two hands, or we can grasp someone by the forearm, the bicep or do this kind of shoulder clasp where you put their hand on their shoulder.
With some of these, we can actually keep the handshake itself, such as if I use my right hand to shake your hand and then I put my left hand on your shoulder at the same time. You, of course, would be doing the same thing to me. Then again, maybe you wouldn’t be. If I’m a man and you’re a woman, maybe you don’t do part of this. Or if I am subordinate to you, maybe I do not put my hand on your shoulder, but you do it on mine, almost like you’re some sort of father figure. The point here is that both people do not have to do the exact same thing. This is true of everything, not just the handshake.
There are some other details from Earth that we can manipulate. For example, these are typically done barehanded here. Not removing something like a glove could therefore be considered disrespectful. We should always be on the lookout for ways that we can make someone screw these up so that they offend somebody. Don’t just invent how it’s done right, but make a note about how it can be done wrong and what that typically means to people.
Sometimes one gender is expected to make the gesture first, but we can change this and have older people be the one expected to do it. That seems to suggest that those with higher social standing do it, so maybe it’s not age, but something else. Children are often not expected to do it the same way, or they’re cut some slack for not getting it right. They may have their own greetings.
Another issue that comes up is the strength of the grip. Some people us a weak one, some people do a strong one, and for some people it’s in between. Some people place a lot of importance on this, and I have had the experience where some guy has essentially crushed my hand in his because he’s trying to make a point about how strong he is. But that can actually be considered rude when it actually hurts, and that has happened to me where I have felt some disrespect for this guy for crushing my hand. So, that’s one way that this can go wrong — too much, or not enough, force.
Sometimes these gestures can also go on for too long. There was an infamous video, probably several of them, of Donald Trump shaking someone’s hand and essentially refusing to let go. When something like this happens, it becomes awkward for the other person and anyone who is watching it. This social aspect is important because we can be judged not only by the person that we’re greeting, but by anyone else who witnesses what we do.
As a result, there can sometimes be a lot of pressure on how we go about these, and that’s especially true if we are doing something like greeting royalty. Most of us won’t have the chance to do that, but our characters, in theory, if they are traveling and they’re going to save the world, they’re going to be running into some very important people. If they’re going to a specific kingdom to ask for help from the people who are in charge of that kingdom, then instead of just having everything go smoothly, one of the ways we can have it go wrong for them is for them to screw up the initial introductions. This is both simple and believable.
Either with a handshake or without it, another version is the kiss. Doing this on the lips is, of course, considered very intimate. So, most of the time, we may kiss the top of someone’s hand, for example, or one or both cheeks. If we’ve invented a species that has something like really sensitive ears, then maybe kissing them on the ears is considered going too far. Once again, we should figure out how long this is supposed to be so that we can decide when people mess this up. Even without kissing on the lips, it’s still pretty intimate to get your face that close to someone else’s where you’re kissing them on the cheek.
Now, if we’re going to have greetings like that, maybe the culture also prizes something like cleanliness and not having something like body odor because it might be a little bit more uncomfortable if you’re a little disgusted by that person, but you have to go through with this kind of greeting. If people in one culture, or from another species, have a different sense of how much cleanliness is appropriate, then this is another way to cause a kind of conflict. This is one of the funny things about greetings because the whole point is to make sure that our interaction goes well, and that’s what we’re hoping for, and yet it can go wrong right from the start.
World Building University
If you’d like to learn world building skills through instruction, I’ve launched World Building University. There you can find one free course you can take just by signing up, which has no obligation. Other courses are in development and available now. You can preview parts of every course, all of which include video lessons, quizzes, assignments, and sometimes downloadable templates that are even better than those found in the books.
To get your first free course, just go to worldbuilding.university.
For most of us, bowing seems like one of the more formal ways to greet someone. Naturally, our barbarians are not going to be doing this one. Or are they? It’s a way of showing respect. The degree of the bow also correlates to how much respect is being shown. Generally, the deeper the motion, the more respect. Similar to the bow is the kneel, where we get down on one or both knees. What both of these have in common is how long you stay down. Maybe the motion is quick, or it’s slow, and maybe you have to stay in that position until you are released by the person to whom you are bowing. In all cases, we should decide how touchy the culture is about how well this bow is performed.
Then there’s the salute, which we mostly associate with the military, but can exist in other scenarios. The number of fingers used is something that we can vary. We can vary the position of the fingers, as well, such as having them be straight or having them curved so that they touch the thumb, for example. This is another area where Googling this can give you more ideas as you see variations that exist here on Earth.
One anecdote that I picked up when I researched this is that in Poland they use two fingers, just like the Cub Scouts, and this led to the U.S. troops assuming that the Polish were being disrespectful to them. How far did this go? Well, the Polish troops were actually arrested until the misunderstanding was cleared up. That seems a little excessive because it is, but we can do the same kind of thing to get our characters in trouble. In some places, the salute is only done when a hat is worn. In other places, it’s only done when inside.
If you’ve seen any war movies about Vietnam, you know that officers were often saluted by others, but sometimes other people were told not to do that because it essentially identified an officer who could be then targeted by a sniper. So, a practical situation can lead to variations. We can also have the palm facing downward, outward or inward. Upward could be an option, but it’s kind of hard to pull that one off all the way. We can also close the hand altogether, such as when we make a fist.
These variations should give you some ideas on ways that we can make variations of our own. If you’re wondering about the origins of the salute, it is believed that knights used to raise their visor to identify themselves, and also show that they were not afraid of their opponent.
Most of the gestures we just described are somewhat formal, so there are other versions, like the casual wave that we give to people. Sometimes we just smile, nod our head at someone, or maybe even raise our eyebrows. Generally, we want to acknowledge the other person. Just decide on two of these: the formal one and the informal.
So let’s talk about how to subscribe to this podcast. A podcast is a free, downloadable audio show that enables you to learn while you’re on the go. To subscribe to my podcast for free, you’ll need an app to listen to the show from.
For iPhone, iPad, and iPod listeners, grab your phone or device and go to the iTunes Store and search for The Art of World Building. This will help you to download the free podcast app, which is produced by Apple, and then subscribe to the show from within that app. Every time I produce a new episode, you’ll get it downloaded right onto your device.
For Android listeners, you can download the Stitcher radio app, which is free, and search for The Art of World Building.
This only needs to be done once and at that point, you will never miss an episode.
Let’s talk about language. According to many, the way we speak carries as much meaning, if not more so, than the words we actually say. One of the problems with email is that it doesn’t carry tone as accurately as the human voice. It is, therefore, easier to get ourselves into trouble and have a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of what we’ve said, or our intent, when we use the written word versus when we speak. This is not to say that people get things right just when they are speaking, but it’s a little easier.
Many of us take tone for granted, but what we want to focus on with world building is not the tone with which a specific person says something, but what sort of tone the culture in general uses. For example, are they eloquent or very casual? Eloquent language has a tendency to be wordy and have longer words in them. Casual has shorter sentences and shorter words. When we think of elves in fantasy, they often come across as being very eloquent, even though we can’t understand a word they say. This is partly the language that Tolkien created for them, at least in The Lord of the Rings. But other races, such as the Klingons in Star Trek, have a very harsh and guttural sound to them. So do the Dothraki from Game of Thrones.
Even if we can’t understand a word of the language they say, the tone of it comes across. When we characterize this, we may want to think of a relatively neutral audience, like ourselves, and how we would view these languages. It is from that vantage point that I would say that Dothraki is harsh and Elven is eloquent. But an elf would not only think that Dothraki or Klingon is harsh if they were in the same fictional universe, but they would probably think that something like English is harsh. This can be an important distinction to make in your notes, or we can just make a kind of general note to ourselves as a reminder that something like elves think all other languages are kind of harsh, and only certain ones are especially so. You could have an elf say something like, “Your language is so ugly, but at least it’s not as bad as Klingon.”
One thing about tone is that we judge people based on this tone, and one thing that can mean for us is that we can characterize a whole species, or a culture within that species, just on their tone.
if you’re enjoying the podcast, please rate and review the show at artofworldbuilding.com/review. Reviews really are critical to encouraging more people to listen to a show haven’t heard of before, and it can also help the show rank better, allowing more people to discover it. Again, that URL is artofworldbuilding.com/review.
Expressions and Slang
Within language, we should also pay attention to slang and expressions. Most listeners of this podcast have probably seen Star Trek and heard a certain amount of the technobabble, but that’s not really what I mean. We need curse words and related expressions. When I watched Game of Thrones, it bothered me for a while when people would drop the f-bomb. Not because the word itself bothered me, but because it reminded me too much of Earth. This may be one reason why Battlestar Galactica went with the infamous “frak” instead. Of course, that can also be jarring because you realize how they’re using it and that they’re still reminding you of Earth even though they’ve changed it. If memory serves, they did that, partly, to get around censorship.
At this point, the f-bomb is so universal that we can go ahead and use that the same way we can use various words for excrement. These are bound to exist in every language, and these one-word swears are very convenient to use. It’s important to note that some words can be a benign word in one language and something offensive in another.
For example, in the U.S., the word “bloody” doesn’t mean anything in particular, but it does in England. If I say, “This bloody car won’t start,” in England, that’s the same as saying, “This ‘effing’ car won’t start,” in the United States. On the other hand, if I say, “I’m not going to pick up that bloody knife,” in that context the word doesn’t mean anything like that. This is one way that we can take an ordinary word, like an adjective, and apply it to another scenario where it becomes offensive.
A good way to make our swear words stand out is to combine words, and we’ve done this on Earth. Two examples would be “dumbass” and “bullshit.” There are many others that I won’t repeat here to keep this more PG, but one way we can do this in our setting is if we have invented an animal, then we can replace some of these, like the bullshit version, with some other animal and then the word for excrement. Why do we choose a bull? Well, it sounds good to say bullshit, but a bull is also supposed to be a very strong animal. In theory, that would suggest that its excrement is especially nasty. Maybe in a fantasy world we would say “dragon piss.”
All we really need is something objectionable, including parts of the body. This is why anything involving your butt is considered bad. If we have an animal with an especially nasty horn, then we can use that horn plus something else to come up with a name. If the species is called “jack,” then maybe we say “jackhorn,” and that is the same as “jackass.” Maybe it suggests that you’re going to get speared by one of these because you’re the sort of person who deserves it.
Expressions can be a little harder to invent. Two of the ones we need are ways of saying that we agree with someone, or disagree. If I think you’re wrong, maybe I just say “you’re wrong,” but maybe I use the expression “you’re full of crap.” In the U.S., when we agree, we say things like “okay,” “sounds good,” “alright,” “yeah,” and “right.” And we all know what a pirate says.
And “pirate” seems like a good place to stop. In the next episode, we will complete our talk about inventing culture.
All of this show’s music is actually courtesy of yours truly, as I’m also a musician. The theme song is the title track from my Some Things are Better Left Unsaid album, but now we’re closing out today’s show with a song from my album The Lost Art called “Lagrima.” You can hear more at RandyEllefson.com. Check out artofworldbuilding.com for free templates to help with your world building. And please rate and review the show in iTunes. Thanks for listening!