…the whole people would not have taken for general a good liking there-of if they had not by experience found it very savoring and good for them. — King James I, A Counterblaste to Tobacco, 1604
The serious world-builder, whether hobbyist or budding or seasoned novelist, will find that human beings have some weird, and if we’re completely honest, unhealthy, habits that have been conditioned via culture. One such habit, or cultural practice as I will call it, is that of smoking. Below I have included the banned Kool Cigarettes commercial from 1958(?).
As we can see from the commercial shown above, our cultural attitudes toward smoking have always been (say) problematic. The push against Big Tobacco has produced some rather interesting results in the last twenty-odd years. Nevertheless, smoking has been known to be an unhealthy practice for some time, despite recent research proving so. Why the heck is it so prevalent? Why do people kill themselves smoking?
It would be easy to say that they are addictive. (This is true, and I am not discounting this. If you don’t believe me, consider taking the Surgeon General up on the problems with smoking cigarettes.) However, I would argue that cultural conditioning has led to the smoking culture we’ve had in the United States, and elsewhere. Yes, some smokers argue that they are addictive and taste good. Nevertheless, I would argue that these attitudes toward a smoldering piece of paper and packed tobacco aren’t just chemical responses to the product. Instead, they are also the byproduct of a culture that encourages smoking. America’s capitalist economy sells cigarettes not as agents of death or coffin nails, as they should be. They are sold as refreshing, healthy, cool, all natural, and the like. (For those who want a good laugh, there’s a wonderful episode in Mad Men that covers this topic.)
So, why do humans engage in behaviors that lead to avoidable health issues? This is a good deal more complicated than most of us would like to admit. The old saying, “People are sheep,” couldn’t be more true. However, understanding why people are sheep is complicated, because it requires a conversation on the nature of culture.
LiveScience defines culture as encompassing a “group’s language, religion, cuisine, social habits, music, and arts.” If we take the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition, we find that culture is defined as follows:
The distinctive ideas, customs, social behaviour, products, or way of life of a particular nation, society, people, or period. Hence: a society or group characterized by such customs, etc.
Thus, smoking is a cultural practice within a given group of people. Smoking is not necessarily universal, never has been. Thus, we have to say that it is culturally engrained. Moreover, the products of smoking are the products of a given culture: the pipe, the cigarette, a cheap plastic lighter, etc. Without the push from culture, it is hard to imagine that smoking would have lasted as long as it did. I would also argue that economic forces — i.e., those forces selling cigarettes — encouraged culture to take up smoking. This is a symbiotic relationship here, and one that is hard to break down and understand.
So, why should we care about smoking? Why should we care about dangerous habits engrained using culture?
As serious world-builders, whether as novelists or hobbyists, we must consider the impact culture has on individuals and entire societies. Failure to do so will result in an incomplete understanding of our worlds, our societies, our characters who inhabit and coexist within these things. In other words, we will be missing prime real estate from which we can propel an interesting story or develop a world that is immersive in its richness and depth.
Culture is the driving force behind habits, behind actions and reactions, and, more importantly, it can offer a bit of context to those looking from the outside. Culture needs to be a part of world-building, because without it, we are merely building hollow worlds.
Culture is not monolithic. Cultures, even so-called monolithic cultures, are really fragmented. There are groups within groups within groups that struggle to carve out meaning and purpose. Moreover, culture is always complicated. It is never just one thing that contributes to certain behaviors, as I suggested above. Nevertheless, we cannot discount culture and its importance in people’s lives and the societies they live in and interact with.
Lastly, I want to leave you with one final thought. Cultural change, although it tends to be quite slow for our liking, happens. We are not always beholden to the same cultural norms as our ancestors. Moreover, our posterity are unlikely to accept all of our own cultural norms. As Charles Stross once said in an article in Foreign Policy, culture is built upon a foundation of quicksand, it is rarely stable for long.