Creating Fantasy Etiquette

Do your characters mind their manners? If so, this post will help you determine what manners they’re minding; if not, this will help you determine just how rude your characters are. Etiquette differs from culture to culture, and this post is for you if you haven’t yet considered what good manners look like in the fictional culture(s) you’ve created!

Greetings & Farewells

I’ve discussed how greetings and farewells may be communicated in terms of language before, and saying the right thing is an aspect of a polite greeting or farewell. Your characters should know (or conspicuously not know) if those above them in station–or those they don’t know well–should be given a fuller greeting than the more abbreviated greeting they may use with their family members or friends. There might even be entirely different greetings for use with different groups of people. Farewells likewise.

But since I have discussed language before, I want to focus here on non-verbal ways of greeting and goodbye-ing.

First, naturally, are first meetings. How you greet someone the first time you meet them (and perhaps even how you say goodbye the first time) will often differ from how you address them after that. If you’ve created a culture in which everyone is seen as a friend–or even a family member–the first time you meet them, either all the time or under particular circumstances (e.g. if they’re a citizen of the same country, if they’re a member of your religion, etc.), perhaps there is no distinction between first and later meetings. Or characters of a high rank may not be required to distinguish their greetings for those of lesser rank. But in cases where there is a distinction, think about what that may be. Do characters shake hands upon first meeting? Do they bow a certain way? Do they press a hand (or both) to their chest, maybe with a particular hand position? Do they spit?

I love the way Frank Herbert draws from the Fremen culture he’s built a custom of spitting as a sign of respect (“wasting” precious water for someone else), and the conflict it creates as this gesture means drastically different things to the Fremen vs. the Atreides in Dune. Some cultures may use kneeling as a greeting, but have different styles of kneel depending on who is addressing whom; though very little detail will likely ever get into my books, I developed a whole kneeling system for the kingdom of The Masked Captain in which the placement of one’s hands, which knee remains raised, and whether or not a sword is involved all have meaning (indicating rank, vowing protection or respect, etc.).

Where everyday greetings differ from first greetings, consider whether they have overlapping symbolism or distinct symbolism of their own. Maybe new acquaintances are met only with a nod of the head, keeping distance between characters, but those who know each other clasp hands to communicate trust and/or closeness in contrast. Maybe trust is communicated through the clasping of bare hands between those just meeting, but friends hug and communicate that same trust by touching their hand to an exposed arm or neck, carrying the same symbolism through.

As with everything, think about what is important to your culture and what they would communicate in their relationships with one another. In cultures where rank matters, greetings will likely reflect that; in cultures where rank isn’t a big deal, it won’t be a big deal in greeting. Where connection is important, touch and/or skin-to-skin contact may be an important element of greeting; where strength is important, maybe it matters how tightly you shake someone’s hand or embrace them; in cultures that value beauty, perhaps greetings are intricate works of art–almost like a dance (or dancing outright!)

The same principles can be applied to farewells. Think about your culture’s values, what is being communicated, and what factors (rank, closeness of relationship, etc.) may lead to variations.

Titles & Address

Titles are another topic I’ve handled from a linguistic angle, but I want to expand on it here just a little bit. There are multiple sorts of titles and means of address that we could get into: titles like “king” and “baron,” titles like “mother” and “uncle,” titles like “your majesty,” etc. These are all covered in that linked post. But there are other ways characters might address one another, with terms of endearment, their job title, or even insults.

Think about how children may be referred to, for example. In the real world we might refer to a child as “kiddo,” “tyke,” “squirt,” etc. Does your culture have any similar terms? As an example of how to apply this, I recently developed that children in Mandoria are referred to as “sprout,” when not called by name, which goes with their emphasis on growing things and the similarities between growing things like trees and people.

This category may also have a great deal of overlap with the previous points on greetings, especially when it comes to gesture. If certain individuals or groups of people are greeted a particular way, that is how they’re greeted/addressed and may also be connected to their title (if, say, you must always bow to the king when addressing him). Address may, however, be more frequent than “greeting” (again, take the “bowing when addressing” example; perhaps you greet the king by kneeling, but each time you address him–perhaps along with his title–you must incline your head in a lesser bow), making it a somewhat different consideration.

Hospitality & Association

Before you can greet or address someone, you must first know whether it is someone whom you should associate with–or even may associate with or must associate with. In a class system, perhaps it’s improper to associate above or below your class; perhaps there are rules as to who may address the other first; or maybe there are limits to the kind of association one may have with another (e.g. a member of an upper class may speak to a member of a lower class, but may never invite them over for tea).

These rules, whether official or simply accepted, may develop based on class, race, gender, etc. Some might even be healthy–e.g. preventing truly inappropriate behavior between unmarried men and women, preventing one class from overbearing on another’s customs, etc.–while others may be less so. They may affect who is allowed to associate with whom as well as who is expected to associate with whom. Perhaps the members of a particular class, organization, etc. are expected to all know each other and engage in hospitality with one another, and not to do so is just as impolite as it would be to associate with someone who is not a member of the expected group.

Think about what guidelines may have arisen in your culture–whether out of explicit values or out of practicality (if members of a particular class have no reason to interact much, perhaps they simply didn’t force it, and now it’s considered strange or outright taboo to break that habit when opportunities for interaction do arise)–and what limits they may create. Are the lines between groups absolute or are certain behaviors accepted while others are not? How does it differ when Group A initiates interaction with Group B vs. the other way around?

Polite Conversation

Not all topics are proper for polite conversation, but which topics those are will depend on your culture. Perhaps a medically-inclined culture speaks quite frankly about bodily functions, while a culture valuing privacy above all might not even acknowledge a burp–or allow one in public at all (more on the etiquette of bodily functions in a moment). Some cultures may think that it’s completely normal to speak of births and deaths, while others may find it disrespectful to the families involved.

This, too, may depend on who is speaking. There may be different standards for different groups, with particular groups expected to speak more “crudely” than others. This may be a double-standard, or it may be a difference in sub-culture between groups (and there may be those who see it from either angle within your culture, leading to conflict).

Polite conversation may even have fewer allowed topics than restricted topics. Maybe acquaintances are only expected to speak of each other’s health and the weather, while friends have a broader pool to choose from. (I may have taken these particular topics from my recent My Fair Lady rewatch.) Again, think of how this may differ based on what group(s) your characters are from and the closeness of their relationship.

Mealtime Etiquette

Mealtime etiquette can range from quite simple (“here are three things you are not allowed to do at the table”) to quite complex (with the position of your dishes comprising a whole language telling your host when you’re finished, whether or not you liked your food, if you’d like more, etc., etc.).

There may be etiquette around who serves the food (whether it’s served all at once or passed around; who does the serving, in the former case; etc.), who eats first (the head of household? The oldest person present? The youngest present? The highest in rank? The most needful?), how much of one’s arm is visible at/on the table (keeping both hands above the table for the sake of proving you mean no ill will; keeping elbows off the table for sanitation; etc.), whether burping is allowed (or frowned upon or encouraged), whether a blessing is said (and how said blessing is addressed, and who says it), etc., etc.

Some of these things will be influenced by social structure (e.g. if authority structure is important, it may be more likely that the head of a household or group says the blessing and gets to eat first), the meaning of a meal (religious meals may be more structured than household meals, for example), the overall values of a culture (cultures valuing charity may prioritize feeding the needy before feeding the more well-off), etc.

If you do want to make table etiquette a language to itself, you’ll need to know what dishes and other accessories (like napkins) are used in a typical place setting–which could potentially comprise half a blog post to itself on the topic of meals as a whole. (Comment below if you’d like to see a post on that topic!)

Etiquette for Bodily Functions

This last category could be pushing the line of proper etiquette in and of itself, but I’ll do my best to remain polite. (Or, of course, you could skip this section and head straight into the conclusion.)

Your culture will likely have etiquette around various bodily functions that may occur in public–sneezing/nose-blowing, passing gas, burping, hiccuping, etc. Some of these things are rather hard to avoid when they come up (e.g. sneezes); your culture may simply accept them for this fact, or may have provisions for making them more polite–excusing oneself after passing gas or burping, others saying “bless you” when one sneezes, etc. These may be based on simple etiquette (“how do we make this offensive thing less offensive out of necessity?”) or superstition (e.g. beginning to say “bless you” under the belief that someone’s spirit–or the Holy Spirit–left them when they sneezed).

There may also be etiquette provisions for things that aren’t exactly public but are also unavoidable–such as the permission Rachel had to stay seated in Genesis 31 due to “the manner of women.” Particularly for cultures that are straightforward about bodily functions, these provisions may be polite ways to accommodate private facts of life when they affect one in a public setting.

There are my tips on creating fictional etiquette. Comment below with the most unique element of your culture’s etiquette–or the element you like best–and/or which category of etiquette you’re most interested to develop next!

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