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I was listening to a video on how to write, and the person giving the lecture said something along the lines of "I'm bored with stories where the setting is supposed to be in the far-flung future, and yet the people in that setting's culture act just they do in our culture today". Now, while I get that there's nothing inherently wrong with worldbuilding cultures that are very close to those of modern-day America, Britain, and other western countries, I would like to try worldbuilding some cultures that are different from what I've lived in, and for that, I'd like a litmus test.

As an example of what I'd like this culture building litmus test to be like, I have an example of a conlang ("constructed language") litmus test from zompist.com:

Conlanging isn’t a weirdathon. You could copy a natlang in every respect and, after all, it would be naturalistic. And contrariwise, putting in every feature you’ve ever heard of— a kitchen sink conlang— is a classic noob move. But yeah, it’s generally less interesting to just redo English or do a neo-Romance language. How close is your languge to the following?

Standard Fantasy Phonology (i.e. English plus kh)

Pronouns: one for each person and number, plus object forms, and separate words for ‘he’ and ‘she’

Nouns have singular and plural only, and maybe case

Adjectives are a separate class, and either don’t decline, or decline like nouns

Verbs conjugate by person and number

Verbs have three tenses: past, present, future, plus maybe a conditional

Modality is expressed with a conjugated auxiliary

Definite and indefinite articles

No gender

SVO

Prepositions

Questions and negatives formed by adding a particle

Decimal number system

If it’s pretty close— again, it’s no sin, but you’re not taking advantage of the breadth and strangeness of natural languages. Review the options given in the Language Construction Kit; even more are in the print books.

So, I'm looking for a checklist like that, but for building cultures rather than languages.

Thanks in advance for any and all help. :)

If there are any ways I need to add further clarity to my query, please let me know.

Edit:

Zompist.com has some culture tests here: https://www.zompist.com/amercult.html

However, I'd like tests that apply more to people's core beliefs and how they behave, whereas, while the American one focused on such things, it also devoted a fair amount of space to what kinds of physical accommodations people from American culture have.

Also, I'd like to clarify, I'm indenting to use what litmus tests I can find to worldbuild several different sorts of cultures, not just future ones.

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    $\begingroup$ The problem you might run into here is that there won't be one checklist that's universally applicable to this problem. If there were, every future culture would look just like that checklist. When (e.g.) the movie Minority Report was made, they turned to futurists who thought through both how technology might change and how that technology would effect culture. I loved the scene of people exiting the subway and, bored stiff, mechanically glancing up to have their iris' scanned. And there's the problem, without a definitive list, this Q might be too opinion-based. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Feb 11, 2023 at 1:23
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    $\begingroup$ Nice question. One of my pet peeves is fiction set in some exotic locale where the plot is about the foreign saviour saying, "Noooo, you can't follow your ways, you've got to have liberal democracy!" and the natives say, "Good point, we'll change our whole society". I've even seen people on this site say that worldbuilding anything other than a liberal democracy is too far (but psychokinetic dragons are sufficiently realistic) $\endgroup$
    – wokopa
    Commented Feb 11, 2023 at 7:21
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    $\begingroup$ For every professional reviewer who's bored of things being too similar to X familiar thing, there will be several non-professional readers who appreciate not having to work as hard to understand the story because you arbitrarily tried to be less like X. And, likely, some number of the reviewers giving lip service to wanting something very different are only punting because they themselves can't think of something more "original" or useful than to critique the originality of things. $\endgroup$
    – Jedediah
    Commented Feb 11, 2023 at 18:04
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    $\begingroup$ Ooo! Nice idea. A check-list will always be incomplete. There is the 'small, antique, silver fruit-knife' ordering of adjectives, which most English-speakers obeyed without knowing it was a rule at all. Can you come at this from the other end? Your protagonist will want to survive, and to protect their loved ones. These are universal-ish. They may be faced with "Soldier, take that hill" or some other imperative that conflicts with these, or some option that improves their lives (music, drugs, crime). These are culture-based. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 12, 2023 at 10:03
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    $\begingroup$ @Jedediah related: Fiction Rule of Thumb $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    Commented Feb 12, 2023 at 16:28

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I'd like to propose a litmus test:

Does the culture's history and technology actually alter how people in your culture behave?

It's not an easy, checklist question to answer. Any culture you build is going to inherit elements from modern day life, or to a specific culture that you'd like to draw from. How you can make it yours is to warp it as things in your history change.

A nice example is "The Culture" (Ian M Banks) - its precursor probably looked like an American, liberal democracy. Then they invented superintelligent AI minds. The AI minds pretty much run things, and make everything happen, but votes, generally for trivial things, go on occasionally. There's a strong interventionist culture, with the same kind of issues we saw with Iraq/Afghanistan.

At the same time, there's a strong push towards cultural stability, particularly by the Minds. This is coupled with a post scarcity society where almost anyone's wildest dreams can be met. We see the implications of these a bunch in the series, a human culture widely concerned that it is irrelevant, whose members start taking wild risks, simply because we're not well set up for lifelong hedonism.

I think the biggest takaway here is about exploring your culture - make historical events have an impact, make technology cause the same kind of upheaval it does in the real world.

A nice worked example: your planet has crazy dust storms, what does this do to the culture? Well, it might add in a cultural hospitality requirement, so you have to give shelter to people. This might stay as a simple thing, it might support a class of traveling entertainers, who it is an honor and obligation to put up for the night.

It might lead to changes in architecture - if you have an obligation to let in anyone you hear, your house might develop enormously thick shutters, or the bedrooms might end up located in the middle. This gives you protection from storms, and from obligations towards travellers.

It might also lead to a political system - culturally, rich people might give symbolic shelter to a large number of people, building villages that resemble company towns. People might work to return the hospitality, and the town might form a power base for a political figure. It'd end up a little like a feudal society, but with obligation to provide shelter flowing down from the top, and probably building materials and labour flowing back up.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the answer. :) I'll see what I can come-up with using this method. :) $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 11, 2023 at 14:49
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https://d-place.org is quite a good reference to check what is and is not normal across cultures. e.g. money is weird, exclusive monogamy is weird.

Reading classics is a good way to experience the foundations of other cultures. The Daodejing is revered by millions, but contains a lot of heresy to an American: do nothing, don't push yourself, don't exceed your station.

The nuclear family is normal in America. I think some people don't even know their first cousins by name? (I could be wrong about that.) In most cultures, at least common grandparent, very often a common great-grandparent is a good enough reason to bond people for life. But that's human cultures, to get really exotic, if we imagine an intelligent insect culture that lay 10,000 eggs, kinship wouldn't matter that much to them as they haven't put much energy into that person. It's worth thinking about how are emotional drives were formed by the particulars of our evolution.

Individualism is strong there, combined with a striving to get on top. This is seen as more important than social harmony. The exception to this is the extreme dedication to, and protectiveness of, the nuclear family. In many other cultures, collectivism is prioritised. In some, individualism is seen as perverse.

America is highly militarised and has been at war for most of its existence. As a result, Americans tend to forget that historically, peace is common and war is rare.

Women in the West can work, get educated, do everything a man can do. That's not a given, globally speaking. Men remain a little more influential and overrepresented in public lives, which is a universal, at aleast according to Donald Brown's list of cultural universals. Again, you might be worldbuilding a matriarchy, or a race with no sexes or three sexes.

In America, the individual is in an adversarial relationship with the state. The state tries to spy on them, harass them for taxes, shoot them/throw them in jail, and they insist on their rights. It's hard for an American to imagine liking/trusting their government in a Singaporean or Luxembourgian way.

Americans, Germans etc. talk about 'innovation' a lot – not something particularly valued in many cultures.

America measures people by a singular quality: money. Sometimes they use the word 'success' or 'successful' for this. They say things like, "What does he matter, he's only a taxi driver!" If you are not rich, you deserve no sympathy, it is seen as blameworthy.

America is not an honour-culture. They don't have a concept of 'my word is my bond', or loyalty, or serving the social order. If you read Hagakure, for example, you get a set of values completely unknown in the modern West. This ties in to their profit-motive; honesty is seen as foolish, lying is seen as admirable if it makes you profit. Donald Trump was accused of not paying taxes and he said, "That makes me smart." People aren't valued for their kindness, which is seen as foolish.

America has a very specific idea of 'freedom' that other cultures don't share. They believe they are very free, in spite of many hallmarks of unfreedom: prisons, poverty, urine-searches in workplaces, lack of political choices, and the state-citizen hostility already mentioned. Other cultures wouldn't care so much about being 'free' in this abstract sense, would care more about actually staying out of jail, having material freedom, etc.

The Amish are a most interesting group in America, completely unAmerican in every way just mentioned: large families, coöperation, contentment (as opposed to ambition), tradition (as opposed to innovation). This could be a good thing to consider for people with OP's problem. Lots of people around the world have lived happy, unambitious lives for generations, loving their families and following their traditions, not trying to be anything more.

(Feel free to edit this if I made mistakes, I know very little about America.)

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the answer! :) (If I were to suggest any edits, they would be that 1) I know of very few, if any, American politicians at all who pay their taxes; and 2) that lacking of political choices and workplace privacy invasion are more of a result of how the majority of us have chosen to use our freedoms over the past hundred years or so, rather than whether we had 'em. 2 centuries back, many more citizens here were entrepreneurs who made their own workplaces and determined what they were like, and effected change in their government, making efforts to insure they were better represented.) $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 11, 2023 at 15:06
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    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure that using a database of behaviours among Hunter Gatherers is a useful guide to the way far future civilisations will behave. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 13, 2023 at 16:54
  • $\begingroup$ I wouldn't say your databases show that money and monogamy are weird. If anything it show that those two things are requirements to get out of stone age... $\endgroup$
    – Negdo
    Commented Mar 20, 2023 at 9:48
  • $\begingroup$ Bronze is what's required to get out of the stone age $\endgroup$
    – wokopa
    Commented Mar 28, 2023 at 19:20
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A really good litmus test might be 'If it makes the reader uncomfortable, even squeamish, it is probably alien enough'.

Readers are comfortable reading about what is familiar to them. They do not like reading things that are unfamiliar to them. It produces 'cognitive dissonance', which results in very real physical trauma. They want settings and plot lines that match their reality.

Arthur C. Clarke, in 'Childhood's End', did just that. His depiction of the alien intelligence was so completely contrary to the 'norm' that most readers suffered some form of cognitive, and thus physical, discomfort in reading it. So much so, that the Americans turned the story line completely on end and made it conform to Western expectations in 'Independence Day' - a much more cognitively non-dissonant story line. Because Westerners are by nature inherently adversarial, so too must all aliens be adversarial and predatory. The Aliens MUST have come to wipe us out, because that is what (Westernized) humans do. The story line of ID matches and reflects our paranoia.

To get a feel for his, consider reading some modern LGBTQ fiction, written by LGBTQ authors, describing the LGBTQ community and reality. It is a completely 'foreign, alien' culture to the mainstream. In the extreme, there is nothing for the mainstream reader to identify with. The norms and values are a close approximation to the difference in cultural orientation of the 'alien culture' the OP is looking for. The LGBTQ community, on the other hand, are identifying with it. They are saying 'this is my world, my reality, in which I am comfortable'. To the non LGBTQ reader, the gut feeling is one of squeamishness, of unfamiliarity, of non-acceptance. The non LGBTQ reader is just not comfortable reading it.

And there is the conundrum. Authors write to be read. They want a wider audience, They want to sell books. Straying too far beyond the comfort level of their audience is disastrous for their ratings. And the size of the audience for science fiction that goes too far astray from Western culture is indeed very limited.

Arthur C. Clarke did NOT write for the American audience, and he was not immersed in American culture. He was a Brit that lived in Sri Lanka. And I might add, in the title page of 'Childhood's End', he wrote - 'The opinions expressed in this story are not necessarily those of the author'.

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  • $\begingroup$ +1 Charles Stross is one author who presents "possible future" societies in a way that is really hard to get across to start with. In Glasshouse he does the trick of presenting a very different society at the start, getting the readers accustomed to it, then introducing the characters into a reconstruction of a standard 20th century American society and showing the characters' understandable reactions of "how could people live like this?" $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 12, 2023 at 3:24
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Read a lot of primary source

There is no test except by being aware of how different things can be, and there is no way to develop that awareness except by exposing yourself to a lot of different ways to do it, and for that you need to read what they wrote themselves and not what is written about them.

Read ancient Chinese and medieval French and really ancient Egyptian and less ancient Indian and anything you can lay your hands on. Any benefits you glean from picking up facts are secondary to building up an awareness of how different things can be.

This awareness will clue you in that what you put in is defaulting to modern culture.

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Here's a cultural litmus test that can help you build unique and varied fictional cultures. If your culture adheres closely to the following, you might consider exploring some of the more unique and diverse aspects of human cultures to create something more engaging and original:

Family structure: Nuclear families with a mother, father, and their children.

Gender roles: Strict binary gender roles, with men dominating public life and women relegated to the domestic sphere.

Marriage and relationships: Monogamous, heterosexual relationships are the norm, with marriage as the ultimate goal.

Governance: A centralized, democratic government based on the principles of representative democracy.

Economy: Capitalist market economy with private ownership of resources and production.

Religion: Monotheistic, organized religion with a clear hierarchy and a central holy text.

Education: Compulsory, state-funded education for children, with an emphasis on literacy and numeracy.

Social stratification: A class-based society with a clear hierarchy and limited social mobility.

Technology: A focus on technological advancement, with innovations generally benefiting the populace.

Military: A professional, standing army, with a strong emphasis on national defense and security.

Art and entertainment: Art and entertainment are largely commercialized, and often serve as a form of escapism.

Cuisine: Based on the staples of modern Western diets, with a focus on meat, grains, and dairy products.

Clothing and fashion: Clothing styles are similar to contemporary Western fashion, with gendered clothing and a focus on aesthetics over practicality.

Communication: Language is the primary form of communication, with writing systems and spoken language similar to those of modern Western cultures.

Architecture and urban planning: Cities are designed for automobile traffic, with grid-based street systems and large, separate areas for residential, commercial, and industrial use.

Morality and ethics: A focus on individualism and personal autonomy, with an emphasis on human rights and the rule of law.

If your culture aligns closely with these points, consider exploring the vast range of possibilities found in human history and anthropology for inspiration. Look at non-Western cultures, indigenous societies, and historical periods for a broader perspective on how societies can function and interact.

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