((Note: in this I make direct comparisons to Vulcan society, because it presents an interesting opportunity for a purely cultural comparison. Romulans and Vulcans have only been separate populations for ~2,000 years so all the differences between the two societies are cultural. 2,000 years is not enough time for literally anything. Humans crossed the land bridge from Asia into North America at least 10,000 years ago, to give you some context. Of course, Romulans simply existing and doing their thing already disproves much of the central tenants of the Vulcan theocracy and philosophy, but it seems like that just makes the Vulcans dig in to their beliefs further. I reject all notions of biological differences as Federation propaganda. You know what they say: may he who is without headcanon cast the first stone.))
Broadly, Romulans are intensely curious which can manifest from playful mirth to a more sinister mischievousness. However, they tend to consistently shy away from direct confrontation. A primary manifestation of this, is that Romulans push until they get pushed back. They understand the terms and regulations as written, but they’re always curious about where the Hard Line is. It’s almost always much further than what the written rules describe. It’s how they feel out their status and position. Humans of course see this as them being opportunistic and “if you give a Romulan an inch, they’ll take a mile” and maybe this is true too, but usually if you give Romulans even a tiny bit of resistance they back off, antsy about direct confrontation. And I suppose Starfleet does push back hard on the things they actually care about. Of course, now the Romulans know exactly which things Starfleet actually cares about. Which is usually the whole point of the exercise, not merely to stir up trouble.
Troi said herself in “The Neutral Zone” that Romulans are curious, and that they just kind of low-key like humans. They’re fascinated with them, and she says that many analysts believe that it is this fascination which has allowed the Federation-Romulan peace to last as long as it has. And I do see it. In many interactions, Romulans do seem to genuinely like humans, or at the very least feel intrigued by them. I actually think Romulans like humans much more than humans like Romulans. That is part of why they’re always so playfully mischievous with humans.
Of course, it can be difficult to tell when Romulans are doing their usual posturing and testing the boundaries versus when they are actually pursuing a high value target which they’re willing to fight for, which is what makes humans think of them as capricious and unpredictable. But even for high-value targets, Romulans always prefer subtlety, subterfuge, and cunning plans with perhaps a surgical extraction of a small force rather than brute force – covering their tracks so their involvement cannot be proved. And they will always avoid physical confrontation unless they’re backed into a corner. Presumably their Vulcanoid physique would make them very good at physical combat, but it seems they just don’t like it. They’re always careful to maintain plausible deniability in all things. And that’s because…
If wrongdoing is suspected with no proof, the expectation is to gently confront the other party with your suspicions in an indirect manner, such that they have enough room to make an explanation and save face. Even if you both know that you both know what’s going on. Romulans even give humans an out to save face like this, many times. Romulans actually find it perplexing and honestly a bit aggressive when humans don’t take their “out,” and just fess up like “alright you got me!” Humans think they are being honest and coming clean, and surely the Romulans would be happy with that. But Romulans see it as the humans flaunting their deception and wrongs, humiliating them. Romulans do have a bit of a face culture. Not nearly as extreme as Vulcan face culture, but they still have one, and this is the primary manifestation I’ve seen of it.
One of my favorite examples of this was Commander Sirol of the Terix. He knows Picard is looking for the Pegasus, and he knows that Picard knows he is looking for the Pegasus. The Pegasus contains physical proof of the Federation’s violation of the treaty of Algeron. Still, no need to tip his hand so soon, especially with no physical evidence. He tells Picard that they are in the area conducting a scientific survey. Picard responds that he, too, is performing scientific measurements. It is clear that Sirol knows for a fact this is not the case, but nobody directly challenges the pretense.
He gently suggests that perhaps they could “share and compare their data,” to help both scientific surveys along. Picard says sorry, no, he doesn’t think their data would be relevant. Sirol agrees that yes, on second thought they probably wouldn’t have much use for their data either. He “accepts” Picard’s very fake sounding story, and doesn’t challenge it. He did get a bit playful when he suggested sharing data (which he knows full well neither ship has), but no direct challenge. More just to try and catch Picard off guard, see how he will react. When Picard sticks to his story, Sirol lets it stand, and a tense game follows where each tries to continue searching for the Pegasus whilst also pretending to act casual for the other ship. Both parties know that both parties are fully aware of what’s going on, but the performance is important. Especially if nobody finds the Pegasus, it would have been better on both sides to pretend they totally weren’t looking for it.
And when Sirol seals the Enterprise into the asteroid, all like “Oh! Oh dear! Why Picard, now what are you doing in there? Who goes inside of an asteroid? Who does that?? Well now I feel awful, just awful! Let me beam your crew onto the Terix, and I’ll get you all to safety” classic Romulan sass, classic Romulan cunning. He’d send somebody out later to scoop up both the Pegasus and the Enterprise, that’s the unstated threat.
Everybody knows that the Romulans flagrantly flaunt the Treaty of Algeron all the time, by patrolling the Neutral Zone whilst cloaked. That’s the Romulans just being playful again: seeing what they can get away with, seeing if the Federation will get riled up, flaunting the technological advantage which allows them to do this, while always always being careful to cover their tracks. Show up just a bit too early so the Feds *know* you were in the Neutral Zone the whole time, but keep it ambiguous enough to be “oh, no we just got here, because we saw YOU enter the Neutral Zone first!” probably the most classic example of Romulan mischief. Starfleet is well aware, but they also seem to realize that this game is harmless enough so long as it doesn’t escalate any further, so they mostly ignore it unless the Romulans do something blatant.
Another example in my mind is Senator Cretak. She leans often on her professional relationship with Admiral Ross, as he seems to be a very tractable man and often capitulates to her when pressed. I do think it is funny that Ross is under the impression that Cretak is a tractable Romulan and he has her under control, when in every confrontation we see him wrapped around her finger. When it is discovered that her hospital is hosting an entire arsenal on the Bajoran moon, Admiral Ross asks the Bajorans to stand down, as they are frankly “less important to the war effort than the Romulans.” Cretak claims the armaments are only for the defense of the hospital from the Dominion. When she sends three D’deridex class cruisers to the moon, loaded with the materials to complete the construction of the targeting system, she explains that the cruisers are merely delivering much-needed medical supplies and equipment.
The Bajorans do not accept the obvious lie at all, and know that the Romulans would not send three massive warships to deliver medical supplies. But Cretak insists this is all they are doing. Admiral Ross pleads with the Bajorans to just let the Romulans do their thing, it’s just some posturing game to establish dominance or whatever and not a threat, but Bajor has all too recently overthrown the Cardassians after 50 years of occupation and are skittish about any other empires setting up shop so close, so they push back. Upon sensing that this resistance is a hard boundary, Cretak pulls back.
The best evidence I’ve seen that Romulans also do some manner of this posturing with each other to get a feel for boundaries, is Commander Toreth. She is a gruff military woman in command of a ship. She is well liked and respected by her crew, and commands their absolute loyalty. When a Tal Shiar officer gets assigned to her vessel for a “top secret mission,” she isn’t thrilled by what she perceives as those bureaucratic spooks keeping tabs on her.
Immediately Commander Toreth makes her displeasure known to the Tal Shiar officer. She makes it clear that she doesn’t care about freaky little Tal Shiar spooks and their freaky little missions. When essentially all the push-back she gets is “You better listen to me, I’m acting under the authority the Tal Shiar!!!” Commander Toreth is unimpressed, and amused at how toothless this spook is. She is not cowed by the Tal Shiar. Toreth’s crew sides with her over the Tal Shiar. Which Toreth knows they will do, she has complete faith in her crew’s loyalty.
While a proudly passionate and emotional people, Romulans find anger to be a “primitive” emotion, something barbaric and distasteful. They have strong cultural taboos on angry outbursts or losing your temper. This strong social pressure seems to have given them relatively good control over how they express anger (especially in professional situations) – at least as good as humans’ – even though we’re told they experience the feeling of anger more strongly. They do not see anger as a sign of virility or strength at all. Therefore, they express anger mostly as passive-aggression, cutting witticisms, and snide remarks. They are slow to lose their tempers. They rarely respond to insults and won’t take the bait if someone is trying to rile them up. But they do love baiting others. They especially find cultures which believe strongly in “fighting words” and which are quick to anger – I’m looking at you Klingons – they find it hilarious to rile them up by casually making insulting remarks.
There are a few scenes where a Klingon is angrily hurling insults at a Romulan, and the Romulan just seems bored with the whole situation. The Romulans take it all in with a smile, if they even deign to notice at all, until they calmly deliver some cruel remark with a saccharine smile. Then the Klingon FREAKS OUT, which the Romulan finds hilarious. They find it funny that somebody would give out insults if they’re unprepared to take any in return. They also just think it’s funny to see somebody act angry. They have this in common with the Vulcans, it would seem. The only difference is, where Romulans openly revel in it, the Vulcans like to pretend they are not enjoying it; they’re Just Asking Questions, or Being Logical. But Snide Condescension is the favorite emotion of both Vulcans and Romulans. The main scenes like this I think of are when Admiral Jarok is conversing with Worf in The Defector, and when Letant is conversing with Martok in Tears of the Prophets. What were you thinking, Klingons? These guys cut their teeth on Romulus – Shade Capital of the galaxy!
More to the way Romulans are militaristic and yet non-confrontational were (I thought) represented well in Enterprise with the Romulan Drone storyline and the whole subplot of the Romulan psyops/infiltration on Vulcan. I liked how this established the idea of a Romulan infiltration of Vulcan society. It makes complete sense. I’m sure they have some low-level ongoing sleeper cell on Vulcan. And honestly… I’m sure the Vulcans have similar on Romulus.
And the final Romulan cultural observation I’ll write about today is: they seem to have no (or only very loosely defined) gender roles. Their gender parity in the military and government is significantly better than the Federation’s, and certainly better than societies with very rigid gender roles (like Klingons). It makes for an interesting contrast to Vulcan society’s (in some aspects) rigid gender roles, especially in terms of how Vulcans commodify women’s reproduction.
Neither Romulan men or women seem overly concerned with gender-as-a-performance. Don’t get me wrong, they seem to *have* gender, but find performing a gender to be an illogical waste of energy. I like to think they are perplexed by societies, like humans, that do completely arbitrary things (like cut vs grow out hair etc) to signal gender to their in-group. In a galaxy filled with alien societies that coincidentally perform hyper-femininity and hyper-masculinity all the exact same way that 20th century Western Earthling societies do it, I always thought it was refreshing that there’s at least one alien society out there that doesn’t bother. I find this much more interesting than the J’naii, because while the J’naii they don’t have gender roles but they also don’t have sex. Romulans are more interesting to me personally, because they have only very loosely defined gender roles (if any at all), but they still continue to make more Romulans in the traditional way.
One of the primary indicators of gender parity across society is paternal investment in childrearing. Given both Romulans’ high degree of gender parity and that they supposedly feel their emotions much more intensely than humans, I think Romulan men might simply have very intensely strong paternal instincts which lead to high paternal involvement. Especially since (I think all) the Romulan fathers we have seen depicted, do seem to consistently have very strong parental instincts and bonds. Even Romulan fathers that are not good men generally (even war criminals) seem to still have a tender fondness and a strong desire for time and investment in their children’s lives. This would also lead to looser gender roles in their society (if parental instincts were equal or close to equal), and that is possibly a part of why they have such good gender parity.
They also would have inevitably gone through a frontier period during the colonization of Romulus which could have also contributed to them rejecting the traditional gender roles of Vulcan society (an idea that was explored and made more explicit in Star Trek Online).