Victory-Cigar-Congress-Passes-DST.jpegIt’s that time of year again. It’s time to wake up an hour early, only to look at the clock and be confused because it’s an hour later than it feels like it should be. It’s time to grumble and moan and ask yourself and anyone in earshot why do we do this ridiculous thing!?

That’s right. It’s Daylight Saving Time.

It’s a peculiar practice that supposedly saves energy, except it winds up causing far more headaches than benefits, makes scheduling things weird, and is generally a pointless exercise that may or may not save a few bucks.

This time, though, it made me think of a different topic. Strange peculiarities that may or may not make sense but always seem weird from a different perspective are what make a real-life culture seem, well, real. What kind of things can we learn from that for worldbuilding? 

One of the biggest obstacles is, of course, that if we’re worldbuilding a place that is radically different from our own (far distant future, or a completely different fantasy realm), we still need to have something to ground our expectations. That’s why the default fantasy setting, especially for roleplaying games, tends to be medieval European, and why future sci-fi tends to be dominated by Americans, British, or their cultural analogs: the vast majority of the audience is already familiar with the elements of each, and the non-Western audience is generally willing to hum the tune.

Moving beyond those defaults is tricky, but not impossible. One of the best methods is to pick one central aspect and build everything around that. The perfect example here would be Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series, which takes place on a supercontinent named Roshar. (If you’re unfamiliar with this series, I reviewed it here.) Roshar is periodically wracked by “highstorms,” storms so powerful and terrible that they have shaped the fauna, flora, and civilizations that have grown up there. In this world, plants retreat into protective cover, animals grow thick shells and anchor themselves agaisnt the wind, and the location of major cities isn’t determined by economic value but rather how much natural cover is found in the surrounding landscape.

The animals, seasons, location of windows, customs and rhythms of life, and even swear words are based around the highstorms. It’s not the only strange thing about Roshar, but it’s the most prominent, most important, most central thing. Once you are introduced to the concept of the highstorm — and you get it very quickly — it’s easy to identify everything related to it. In fact, after a while, it’s what isn’t directly related to weather that becomes strange and alien.

But no matter what — no matter whether you begin with the familiar, or make something alien seem familiar — you still have to show differences between cultures. Even the most monolithic culture has little differences, and often it’s the little things that truly matter.

Let’s just look at my home nation, the United States. It’s often viewed by other nations as being fairly monolithic, at least until they visit. The East Coast, the West Coast, the Deep South, the Midwest, the Rockies — each of them have their own peculiarities that trip up other Americans, much less foreigners. In Europe, you drive for a couple of hours and you find yourself in another nation, where they speak another language. In the United States, you drive for a couple of hours and you find yourself in another land within the same nation, where they speak the same language but use it just differently enough to truly throw you off. After all, what’s more confusing: going into a familiar room and finding it completely refurnished, or going into the same room and seeing everything’s been moved just a little?

It’s easy to forget that the US is pretty huge. In fact, Americans themselves forget it, especially ones who live in cities and don’t have far to go to meet up with friends, get to work, or go shopping. Almost everyone in the US speaks English, but we have so many dialectical differences that just knowing one area won’t prepare you for them all.

Let’s take one from my local area. In most cities, “the metro” is slang for, well, a metropolis. The slang for many police departments is itself Metro. Well, locals here in the DC area (hint: calling it “Washington” makes you stand out as a non-native) already know where I’m going with this. “Metro” around here refers to the public transit system, especially the light rail system. In the context of police, “Metro” even more specifically refers to the Metro Transit Authority’s own police force (yes, our subway has its own police agency; this is because the system crosses three major jurisdictions), while the city’s police force is simply called MPD.

Or let’s take another one. Around here, if we say we’re going to the Mall, we don’t normally mean a shopping mall. If that’s what we mean, we normally name it. (“I’m going over to Tysons Corner today.” “Hey, you want to go to Arnndel Mills?”) Instead, “the Mall” means the National Mall, the central park in the middle of the city bordered by a variety of museums and government buildings, including the Capitol Building, the Supreme Court, and (on the other side of President’s Park) the White House.

Elsewhere, a large sandwich is often called a sub (thanks to the fast food chain of the same name), because of a vague resemblance to a submarine shape; but in other places, it’s called a hogie, a grinder, or a hero sandwich. And of course, you can literally map the US by what people call a carbonated sugary drink.


Sometimes it feels more divisive than politics. Also, they’re “sodas.” SO-DAHS.

But most of my readers are American, so they’re already familiar with the idea that Chicago is not Tuscan. Let’s look at a few small but strange differences between the US and the UK.

Say you have a British visitor in your house, and you live in a climate that’s rather more warm than England. Your guest is having some trouble adjusting, so you offer to turn the A/C down, only to find your guest is looking at you in horror and begging you, pleading with you, to not do such a horrible thing!

Okay, so I’m exaggerating. But this is one of the small differences I mentioned. In Britain, turning the air con “down” doesn’t refer to the temperature, but rather the intensity. Turning it down suggests to your guest that you want to make him or her suffer even more.

Other differences include small disagreements like what a “chip” is (Americans visiting Britain, don’t call them french fries), or what you get handed if you ask for a “rubber” (British visiting America, call it an eraser, you’ll thank me later). Brits, if you’re told a dish has eggplant in it, that doesn’t mean moldy eggs. Americans, if you want to describe someone as angry, don’t use “pissed” unless that person is an angry drunk.

I could go on for hours about other cultural differences (like how in South Korea electric fans are believed to cause suffocation; or how in Russia, bird poop is considered good luck, and the more “luck” the better), but I’m sure you’re getting the idea. Small differences add up when writing about separate cultures. Even the ones with nominally the same culture (the United States) or the same language (the US and the UK).

Showing it is a matter of subtlety. Often, you can showcase it by how a character doesn’t react to something. I was reading an historical novel (The Curse of the Blue Tattoo; I’ll review it eventually, probably after a few more books in the series), where the main character is a young Cockney girl temporarily living in Boston from 1803 to 1804. She meets someone and because she “don’t hear an accent, he must be another Cockney.”

Cultural differences don’t have to be huge to be noticeable to the reader. If you were describing a character visiting a land where it was the law to change the time by one hour twice a year, you’d be describing Daylight Saving Time (or Summer Time in Britain, or Legal Time in Italy . . .). Yet there are other small differences that would seem strange to both us and characters. For example, medieval Europe did not have a standardized calendar. Oh, yes, there’s been an official calendar to record the individual days of the year for a very long time; but different nations counted the numbered years as starting on different days. And, of course, we have the difference between the Roman and Greek Orthodox calendars, which has a large effect on both trade and culture.

The epic fantasy The Belgariad and its sequel The Mallorean, by David Eddings, show subtleties very well. For the most part, the main nations of the West have fairly clear real-world analogs (such as Tolnedra being based on the Romans and Byzantines, and Cherek being very Norse), but Eddings goes beyond large visuals to look at how each culture shapes people. As the books move into stranger lands, or the original lands of the West are given more depth in the prequels Belgarath the Sorcerer and Polgara the Sorceress, you can see how Eddings took that central idea and used subtle changes to put a spin on each and every character. No two characters are alike, even if they come from the same culture, and yet that culture puts an indelible mark on each of them.

Ultimately, the most interesting cultural changes are the ones that aren’t in-your-face alien. The strange differences like whether in China it’s appropriate for a person to admit to not knowing the answer to a question; or that in India recent appointments can take priority over previous engagements (especially with friends versus a stranger). You don’t need outlandish customs to throw both a character and a reader for a loop. Sometimes all you need is a subtle shift . . . like adjusting the clock an hour twice per year.

Though I’m sure that for many of you, it feels a bit less subtle right now.