Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Crafting Cultural Interactions/Linking large-scale and small-scale phenomena - a worldbuilding hangout report

First, an announcement. Due to expressions of interest by friends and online acquaintances, I'm going to start making recordings of my worldbuilding hangouts and posting them on YouTube. For the moment this is experimental, and the hangouts are intended to be rather informal (and I want to keep them that way). Our first attempt at this will be for tomorrow's hangout, Thursday, February 14th! In honor of Valentine's Day, the topic tomorrow will be Holidays - specifically, how to develop/incorporate holidays in your world. I hope that I will see you there!

For the Cultural Interactions hangout, I was joined by Glenda Pfeiffer, Kyle Aisteach, Lesley Smith and Fanny Darling. Since Kyle had proposed the topic, I offered him to give us a sense of what he was working on and get us started.

Kyle has been working in a world where he takes a character from one culture and transplants him into another. Once the character arrives there, the situation blows up because of cultural misunderstandings.

As you probably already know, I love stories involving cultural misunderstandings - particularly substantial ones rather than simple questions of table manners etc. Not enough people do this. One of the things that it requires is creating both cultures you'll be working with, and then setting up comparisons and contrasts so that you understand where the differences lie. At that point, you will have more to work with when you try to watch how those differences play out.

Kyle told us that his scenario involves a gay man from Culture A who winds up in Culture B. While neither of the two cultures is comfortable with homosexuality, each one has different attitudes toward it. The man then meets a child who is suffering an abusive situation, and the child asks him for help getting out of it.

I love the way that Kyle has set this up because there is real conflict potential here. As he himself mentioned, however, the challenge of working on this problem in a world outside our own is keeping real-world references from creeping into the situation - as he put it, Cultures A and B "turning into the Midwest versus the Coastal States."

Kyle is therefore working with a fundamental cultural difference of core values. I remarked that I had come into the hangout expecting to talk about a different aspect of cultural interactions, namely manners and speech. However, one of the things I have learned in my studies is that core cultural values are constantly reflected in speech and manners. Our assumptions about the nature of the world, and the values we hold, percolate down into our tiniest interactions.

One example of this is taboos on social speech. Who are you allowed to speak to in this culture? I think it's easy to imagine a situation in which X person is not allowed to approach Y person except in Z special context. To apply this to the situation Kyle has designed, in what kind of situation is it considered appropriate for a gay man to talk to a child? What is a safe space, and how do you set it up?

Kyle also mentioned that his situation involved different kinds of outcast groups (outcast from the main society) that wouldn't interact with each other. This is certainly a common enough scenario in our world: minorities of one variety don't necessarily interact with or support minorities of other varieties.

Kyle asked me to elaborate on my earlier point about how large-scale values were reflected in small-scale interactions. I chose to look at the question of "group orientation" in Japan. We often talk about how the Japanese are group oriented, but this large-scale trend shows on all kinds of levels. Crime tends to be group oriented - lone muggers are practically nonexistent because the mafia has such an enormous influence and forbids them. School discipline is group oriented as well, because all members of the class will be punished for the actions of a single person. Bullying is extremely common, because group punishment gives children a strong motive to discourage any deviation from the required group behavior (the expression in Japanese is, "the nail that sticks up gets hammered down"). Group sensitivity also shows up in the grammar of Japanese. The easiest example of this is the words for "this" and "that." English makes a two-way distinction, but Japanese makes a three-way distinction.

this = kore     
that = sore    
that = are

"Kore" means "this," specifically a thing/issue in proximity to me - but not just to me. It can also be in proximity to a group that I am associated with, like my family, or my company, or even my country, relative to others.

"Sore" means "that," specifically a thing/issue in proximity to the person I am talking to - or to any group that person is associated with, like family, company, or country. "That thing associated with you or your groups."

"Are" means "that," specifically a thing/issue in proximity neither to me nor to the person I am talking to, and to their groups. Thus, it would be something that neither I nor my groups nor you nor your groups are associated with, but something belonging outside those established circles.

You can also find evidence of status consciousness on many levels of culture in Japan. Universities are considered to be ranked (also grouped, actually) relative to one another. Employees at a company are ranked relative to one another, as are students, who are conscious of their year level as a sort of rank (meaning that students who entered earlier are higher ranked). These status rankings are important in no small part because they are reflected in linguistic honorifics. The way you speak or refer to someone is directly influenced by their status relative to yours.

My own experience studying Japan and Japanese (and living in Japan) lets me elaborate on these cultural and linguistic characteristics, but the same kind of phenomena can also be found in English. Our sense of who is more highly ranked than us, while not as concretely reflected in grammatical form, nevertheless changes the way that we speak to people. "Gimme that pen" is not something we're likely to say when borrowing a pen from a professor, for example.

My study of Japanese was one of the things that made me very conscious of speech interactions and manners, and in the fictional realm, it inspired me to create - very early on - special greetings between the different caste levels of the Varin society I was creating. That part was in fact the easiest for me, but exploring the higher levels of complexity, looking at less quantifiable objectification, for example, or institutional bias, was much more difficult - and took much more time to understand.

When you are designing cultural interactions, take your time. I can hardly give any more useful piece of advice than that. Try out a conflict situation where two people are held back by prejudice. On the first go-round you're likely to get ugly insults and serious conflict, and that kind of stuff is useful to know (it's good to know how people feel deep down). However, ugly insults aren't typically pervasive. In situations of oppression or deep inequality, most of what goes on is subtle and unconscius. You're far more likely to encounter avoidance behaviors than interaction and conflict. At first I thought about what people would say to insult my undercaste character - but then I realized that if she's going to be getting into a vehicle for a long trip, people are far more likely to pretend she doesn't exist. They don't want to raise their blood pressure over the fact that she is there, especially since there will be no way of getting rid of her until they reach their destination. If they interact once, they will have acknowledged that she's there. So they don't interact at all. It was only much later, after I had figured this out, that I realized people don't see undercaste members on the densely built main streets of Pelismara because they are expected to use alleyways between the backs of the buildings, specially designed for garbage collection and utility pipes etc. Even later than that, I finally understood how nobles would refer to undercaste when they had to speak of them, in hushed voices, trying to avoid being too indelicate. The cultural knowledge about how undercaste members use back alleyways turned out to be useful to one of my characters in my novel, because it allowed him to recognize an assassin disguised as a member of the undercaste (who couldn't be undercaste because he was walking on the main street!).

At this point I asked Fanny to take a turn telling us about her work-in-progress, because it has a great example of fantastical culture shock in it. She explained that it's a changeling story, involving a human raised in the "shadow realm" while a "hairn" child is being raised on earth. In her story, the hairn child has trouble because her glamour begins to break, and she starts to see her appearance - but because of the cultural environment, her parents think she has serious body image issues and possibly hallucinations, so they get her diagnosed with body dismorphic disorder and she ends up visiting a therapist.

Another interesting cultural issue in Fanny's story is the presence of wraiths, creatures who feed on the energy of dark emotions, and turn off their feelings of empathy when they have them, because they don't value them. She talked about how difficult it was to place herself in a perspective which does not value empathy and compassion.

[At this point we had a brief cat-related digression, which was pretty funny, but did bring up the issue of communication with animals or animal-like creatures whose language we don't understand.]

Fanny then continued by mentioning how there's a big difference between describing beliefs and dramatizing them. Her wraiths do experience feelings of empathy and compassion, but their view is that "you can't let them rule you." Given how we ordinarily talk about not letting fear or hatred rule us, I thought that was a really insightful phrasing. She also said that in the shadow realm, the hairn family cannot understand why their changeling daughter blushes, and she goes to quite a lot of trouble to explain it to them.

One point that becomes clear from this discussion, I believe, is the importance of "show, don't tell" when you are designing a culturally complex situation. As with any kind of information, social information can be conveyed through a number of means (explained by the narrator, explained by a character, or demonstrated through action and dialogue) but you will achieve greater credibility if you can demonstrate rather than explain.

I brought up the question of third culture persons. These are people who experience culture shock in two directions, because they don't properly belong to either group. The children of international marriages can sometimes experience this, as can children of immigrants, who may not be accepted in the country where they were born, yet have no experience of their parents' home country and its culture. There are a lot of complex problems and emotional experiences that can arise from situations of this nature.

Kyle mentioned that he thought that Petunia Dursley, in the Harry Potter books, was in a complex emotional situtaion - taking in a child she can't stand in order to keep him safe. The interactions between muggles and wizards can also be considered cross-cultural interaction (I think in particular of Arthur Weasley's interesting ideas about muggle technology and manners).

Glenda mentioned that there may be complex cultural interactions within one's own home culture, as is the case with clan or age stratifications. She mentioned that in her world, adults are nominally of equal status, but still engage in subtle status competition (put-downs, etc.).

The idea of cultural differences within a single overarching cultural group is an interesting one, and it doesn't just refer to the situation we have in the US where we have waves of immigrants coming in and engaging in cultural - and literal - conflict with those who lived here before. Each individual member of a culture can be considered to have a relationship with his/her own values. I also call this "not running true to type." Too often in fiction we see people justify their behavior by making reference to their cultural group, as in "I'm an elf, so I do this, because all elves do this." Think through how each person understands the cultural values they are expected to hold. Does your character actively cultivate and enact his/her own cultural values? Or does he/she feel discomfort with those values in any way?

When you are creating complex cultural interactions, a character's reactions will not grow directly out of the values of their culture, but from their own personal relationship and struggle with those values. A person who has internalized feelings of inferiority may demonstrate those or fight against them in any given interaction. A person who is deeply concerned with (I believe Kyle proposed this example) a perceived battle between communism and capitalism will tend to overapply that viewpoint to other interactions, even if they are not related. I have a nobleman character named Adon who is generally very compassionate toward members of the servant caste, and even tries to create a third cultural space within which he can fall in love his own personal servant without subjecting either of them to guilt or status pressure. However, when he discovers that (unbeknownst to anyone) his father was a member of the servant caste, instead of embracing a servant identity, he repudiates everything realted to servant and blames his servant-caste heritage for his own weakness in falling for the servant.

At this point we brought the discussion to a close. Thank you to everyone who participated! I always feel at the end of an hour that there is so much more we could talk about, but I really enjoyed speaking with all of you.


  1. You ARE planning a series of books with some version of these posts, right?

    I have so many of your posts bookmarked for the sheer amount of information on worldbuilding, and creating all the attributes of societies and people, that it is almost too hard to find the information I know I read there somewhere.

    Even if I'm currently not writing SF or fantasy, I would buy those books just to have them, to read them for the ideas.

    Have you considered that, now that you have 1000 posts (congratulations!)?

    1. ABE, thanks so much! I admit the thought has crossed my mind, but at the moment I have a lot of other projects on my plate. The 1000-post mark did feel rather huge... I appreciate your support and I'll put it on my planning list. :)

  2. Petulant fan: Does this mean I CAN'T have the book I just requested?

    Author: Uh...

    Petulant fan: Let me know, ok?

    1. LOL, ABE! I'll talk to my agent about it, how about that?

    2. Select the bunch of posts, contact Jaye Manus for formatting, throw it up on Amazon as a collection of useful blog posts - unless your agent has dibs on everything you provide.

      I have an extremely useful ebook from Rachel Aaron called something like 2k to 10k (about how to write faster) that is basically that (blog posts with a table of contents) - and incredibly useful.

      You just put a disclaimer up front: 'These blog posts are not postprocessed - you are getting a compilation of the useful posts in the area of... with no further editing' (so people know they could download the posts if they really wanted to save a few bucks - most of us would rather have the ebook than spend the time).

      Then Petulant Fan (me) could have the information I would love to have, and it might bring in a few bucks via Amazon, etc.

      You have so many useful posts, I bet without much work you could make several ebooks - in separate content areas - that fantasy and SF writers could use, and a bunch everyone could use.

      These are your words you worked hard and long to write. The ideas behind these posts are mindblowing.

      Please share. I promise to be the first to buy each of them.