Cultural Universals are elements that are present in all known human cultures on Earth. Given their prevalence, they can be used as a kind of foundational checklist while culture-building or designing fictional societies. While your own fictional culture may not have all of these elements (and will likely include many more), the following elements are well worth considering during worldbuilding.
1. Tabooed Language
Curse words, foul language, the names of eldritch gods, and more may all be no-nos to speak aloud during a fancy dinner. Consider if your own fictional language has tabooed words or phrases that should not be uttered in polite company.
2. Proverbs & Metaphors
‘As strong as a gelded troll, and as dim as a candle on Howl’s Eve.’ Proverbs and metaphors are easy elements to include while worldbuilding and can be great tools to convey all manner of world details in a nice and concise vehicle.
3. Rules & Laws
Unless your world is a post-apocalyptic anarchy (we’re not judging), it will likely have some form of order. Rules and laws governing how people should interact are the cornerstone of any functional society. However, keep in mind that not everyone’s perspectives on what is right or wrong is the same and different cultures may have vastly different opinions on the matter.
4. Group Hierarchy
Humans are political animals and any group of two or more will generally establish a social pecking order of some sort. This hierarchy may be formal or informal, there may be well-defined leaders, or things may be more nebulous. Consider how groups and society are structured in your own world.
Are the elders of your world respected? What role does charisma play in the social hierarchy? What are your group leaders called?
For the most part, people like one another. And sometimes, a couple of them will want to form a pair and celebrate their relationship. This is a good thing (for a worldbuilder) because it allows them the chance to examine the courtship, celebration, and general structures and duties of a marriage.
Trade underlies all economies, from the very basic to the vast and expansive. Trade may involve the movement of goods great distances, but it also may involve simple bartering between neighbors. The systems and methods used to facilitate the trade of goods and services is an area rich for worldbuilding. Consider the currency used, trade goods, trade routes, and what happens when trade is interrupted.
It turns out every culture engages in some form of mood-altering substance. This may be caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, or perhaps something slightly harder. Some worldbuilders may wish to avoid this type of subject, while others may want to indulge a bit.
Where do the people of your world go to find or use illicit substances?
How to say hello, the proper way to treat guests, which side the fork is supposed to go on. There are many forms of etiquette for all different varieties of situation. Including etiquette, and what happens when it is not properly observed, can help flush out a fictional culture.
What is the greatest faux-pas one could commit in your world?
9. Redress of Wrongs
When someone does something bad to us, we all want some semblance of justice. We all want some formal or informal system for addressing wrongs. The understanding that slights and harms done to us will be rectified is an important part of forming a culture and/or society. It is up to you, the worldbuilder, to determine how this is accomplished.
10. Beliefs Associated with Death
It’s the great mystery that all of us are heading towards. All cultures have some type of belief about what happens to us when we die and it’s a common worldbuilding element. Death is part of being human and how a culture deals with it and what they believe about it offers a plethora of worldbuilding opportunities.
11. Beliefs Associated with Disease
If the whole village gets sick except for the old lady that lives alone with her cats, it might be time for the lady to start faking a cough. People look for explanations for what is occurring around them, and as disease has such a major impact on us, explanations surrounding it (both real and imaginary) are only natural. Disease offers worldbuilders a chance to consider not only symptoms (potentially magical or fantastic in nature), but also the beliefs a culture has surrounding the cause of the ailment or how best to treat it.
12. Beliefs Associated with the Weather
Often weather events are associated with the gods, or with some failure to behave in the correct manner. A flood may be because a sacrifice was not made. A volcano may erupt because a god has awoken. Beliefs about the weather are a common cultural element, and worldbuilders should think about what role these beliefs may play in their own fictional world.
13. Dream Interpretation
People have been trying to interpret their dreams for millennia. While we currently believe dreams may be a way of reinforcing and consolidating memories, that doesn’t stop worldbuilders from designing worlds in which dreams are memories from another lifetime, portals to another world, or omens of things yet to come.
Many people seek a creative outlet and artistic pursuits (including music and dance discussed below), arise naturally from this. Designing the styles, mediums, and art of fictional worlds may help set the tone of a world.
Worldbuilders often imagine new instruments (horns, drums, and strange new amalgamations are popular) as well as songs. Lyrics can be a particularly easy way to highlight important aspects to a world or culture.
With music comes rhythm and dance. Movement may be freestyle or highly choreographed. They may be performed solo, with a partner, or in a group. There may be popular dances, dances for special occasions, dances that no one likes doing, and more. How does dance fit into your world?
People love to get together and celebrate with food, as evidenced by feasts being a cultural universal. Feasts offer worldbuilders a number of opportunities: etiquette can be explored, social hierarchy examined, food and drink described, and the cause for celebration (or mourning) interrogated.
18. Body Adornment
Jewelry, make-up, face paint, piercings, tattoos, and more all fall under the banner of body adornment. This may be done to increase beauty, as part of a celebration or special occasion, for war, or as a symbol of social standing. Worldbuilders will often use different kinds of body adornment in their own worlds.
Different cultures have different popular hairstyles and these styles may change with the times. Hairstyles tend to be an underappreciated bit of worldbuilding yet as a cultural universal they should probably receive more attention.
20. Games & Sports
Fictional games and sports are extremely common elements in worldbuilding. From Quidditch to Qwent, from holochess to three-dimensional chess, worldbuilders have designed all manner of new games and sports (a lot of them are variations of chess). If you haven’t already, consider what activities your own fictional people use to pass the time and what they play for entertainment.
21. Death Rituals
Mourning the passing of a loved or respected person often comes with many rituals, both formal and informal. How we treat the dead, how we mourn them, and how we remember them is part of what makes us human, and all cultures have their own rituals for how they grieve. Often the worlds we create contain death, so considering how a fictional society, culture, group, or person deals with this can be an important element in worldbuilding.
22. Rites of Passage
It may be an initiation into a club or society, a gauntlet that must be run to come of age, or a celebration that only comes once in a lifetime. Rites of passage are many and varied, but all cultures have their own. Creating fictional rites can be a potent element in any world.
A test determining if someone is ready to become a warrior is a common element in worldbuilding.
23. Childbirth Customs
There are many customs associated with childbirth – gifts, events, beliefs, and more. Consider what traditions your own world has when it comes to childbirth.
As far as inventions go, containers are often overlooked in favor of fire, but the humble container is an idea so basic, yet so critical, that it’s importance can hardly be fathomed. Containers let you store items, preserve items, travel with items, and more. They offer protection, organization, ownership, and just a small chance to fight back against the entropic nature of the chaotic universe. Like a month old tupperware of chinese leftovers stuffed in the back of the fridge, when worldbuilding, don’t ignore containers.
25. The Spear
A long stick with a pointy end has been developed or adopted by every culture in existence. It’s simple and effective. While worldbuilders generally focus on more spectacular weapons for their worlds, the spear (and maybe the rock), are really the only culturally universal weapon.