Friday, February 5, 2016

Culture Shock: A Dive into Worldbuilding Hangout Summary

When we started our discussion on Culture Shock, I pointed out that I wanted to look at various kinds of culture shock - not just that experienced by travelers, but also that which can happen in the workplace, or in marriages between families, etc. As it turned out, the discussion went to some interesting places but didn't quite cover all of the things I'd been thinking of. We'll have to come back to it again!

I spoke about the culture shock I experienced during my first visit to Japan, when I was living with a host family who would tell me to do and say things but not explain why. I had to bathe at particular times, and say "osaki deshita" when I came out. It took me some time and independent research to figure out what exactly was going on! Unfortunately, one of the things I learned was that this particular host family had been trying to take advantage of my presence to make money. The reason it took me so long to realize this was actually culture shock - I was just assuming that any discomfort I suffered (as when I was not allowed to heat my room against the cold) was due to my lack of understanding of cultural details.

Cliff told us a story about a coworker, a woman from a traditional Muslim community where men aren't permitted to touch women who are not close family members. She became very upset when a coworker tapped her on the shoulder. This was problematic because she had kept her expectations for touch behavior unstated, and they didn't match the culture of this Silicon Valley company.

We talked a bit about social casual touching, which (along with personal space) often has complex rules and boundaries that are extremely firm and can be very upsetting to people - but differ widely across cultural communities. Sometimes the rules are religious and sometimes they are more widespread across the culture.

Cliff told us about a situation from his work in progress, where arthropods have difficulty interacting with a human merchant when the research the human has done is insufficient and the negotiation goes wrong. The arthropods have very strong rules about communal vs. individual behavior, and again, there is unfortunate boundary-crossing.

I mentioned that very often in science fiction - and certainly there are a great number of salient examples from Star Trek - the aliens' motives and requirements are made light of or considered quaint or funny. I believe that to be a common error in the way these things are treated, because cultural differences can have life or death consequences.

Politeness can be a big problem because the base assumption is usually that "if you're not polite, you're being intentionally offensive." The consequences of rudeness or even cultural awkwardness can be serious and long-lasting.

Morgan told us about the Ukandir people in her work in progress, where keeping track of bloodines is really important, and a person who has not done this is treated as shocking and becomes ashamed of not knowing.

I mentioned that in our world, bloodlines and the policing of them are incredibly important to people's life outcomes, as with the "one drop rule" to determine whether a child is considered a member of the white or black communities. In this case, it has long been a life or death matter.

Culture is strange, because it is arbitrary on many levels, yet real in its structures and consequences.

Cliff returned to the idea of making light of alien cultures, and pointed out that (especially early) Star Trek was based in many ways on the idea of American exceptionalism, where it suggests that the crew has the best point of view and other cultures are based on something not valuable. In other ways, though, it uses its aliens to reflect aspects of our own culture metaphorically. It can get people to look at their culture from the outside.

I spoke a bit about my story, The Liars (Analog May 2012). It featured a cultural system that had many problematic aspects, but the worst problem arose when that system was pressured by human action, which made the problematic parts worse. In the end the humans could only remove themselves to try to make things better.

We also talked about unexpected consequences of historical decisions. China's one child policy has led to an overpopulation of men, and stigmatization of second children. It has also led to loss of vocabulary for complex kin relationships.

We agreed that there could be cross-generational culture shock, because older people are often offended by younger people's language. Glenda remarked that "long-haired music" before the 1960s referred to classical music, and Morgan noted that "golden oldies" are defined differently by different generations.

The idea of culture shock is a really great tool for authors working in speculative worlds. Much of science fiction depends on creating culture shock in the reader. A point of view character who is a stranger to their environment is a terrific tool, also. This has been used in many stories, including Shogun. A stranger gives you the opportunity to explain the rules in naturalistic settings. If there are no real outsiders, you can still have characters come from different cultures or subcultures within the story. A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar does this very well, as do many historical novels. Jane Austen immerses you in a culturally distinct world. Ursula K. LeGuin also uses the technique of using a contrast of cultures, neither of which is like our own.

Without outsiders, portraying a culture effectively is much harder. This is especially true for short stories, where there is less time to let people learn the alien culture.

Morgan told us how her shapeshifters were more tolerant of nudity before and after shifting than the non-shifter population.

Cliff and I talked briefly about how there is culture shock between parents (especially new parents) and non-parents.

We really enjoyed the discussion and plan to take it up again.

Next week, Wednesday, February 10 at 10am Pacific, we'll be joined by author Andrea Stewart, who will tell us about her work. I hope you can come!


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