What is culture?

In intercultural communication (IC) training, culture is one of the first things discussed. Doing so helps participants set into the mindset of thinking about culture, something that we don’t generally do on any given day, especially not without being prompted to.

I didn’t necessarily think I had a ‘real’ culture coming from America many years ago because I didn’t understand American culture beyond the Founding Fathers, its major cultural epochs, politics, & popular culture which is increasingly rebooted films & reality TV.

I was deep in the ‘fishbowl’ then, not realizing I was surrounded by all the cultural ‘water’ that I was immersed in.

I am in a very different place now, both figuratively & literally.

Today, I am immersed in culture all of the time because I have studied it casually since 2008. In 2021 specifically, I studied it professionally to earn my intercultural communication training certification. I have realized that culture impacts just about everything we do.

You have likely heard of the ‘chicken and the egg’ dilemma, as in which came first? Well, within each one of us is a similar question related to culture. What about us is related to culture and what about us is just our personality?

So, whether you know a thing about culture or not, here is some basic information to help you check in with yourself in the hope that maybe you can be one step closer to answering your chicken and egg dilemma question…

How would you define culture?

Here are a few of the ‘standard’ models used to discuss what culture is with a brief explanation of each model. Most IC trainers have a favorite model or two that they prefer or will use often, but this is generally a way to only begin the discussion.

Choose an example and attempt to identify how your culture is the tree, the onion, or whichever you choose. What are the similarities between the object you have chosen and ‘culture’? How might this understanding help you better work across cultures?

The iceberg is perhaps the most common visual representation of culture. When we think of culture we only think about what we can observe with our senses. These are often clearly identifiable things like gender, religion, family, foods, music, clothing, nationality, famous buildings, literature, icons, or art and architecture. Additionally, because of this, we tend to only think of others in simple terms, one-dimensionally. This is whilst at the same time thinking of ourselves and those we know like us as multidimensional beings.

Deeper under the surface of the iceberg are the aspects of culture that we cannot identify with our senses, these aspects are also usually more difficult to adapt or shift. On the other hand, the items noted previously that are above the surface are much easier to adapt to. Much more challenging is changing how we think about certain things, especially when our worldview is strikingly different than our own.

The tree is perhaps my favorite example of culture. Its roots represent the origin and a sense of belonging to various groups. The trunk is the values important to your personal cultural context. Finally, the leaves are the visible culture, including communication and conflict styles.

The sand dune is similar to the tree in how is it used to examine culture, however, it is a bit more abstract for many. Here the topmost layer is related to individuals and smaller communities that can be negotiated. The middle layer or sediment is the facts of the culture. The deeper in the dune we dig, the more compacted and set the culture becomes.

It may be helpful to see these three levels like this: The top level is the ‘can’ level, the middle is the ‘should’ level, and the bottom is ‘have to’. In the specific cultural groups, what ‘can’ members do or possibly get away with, within context, and still remain in the group. What guidelines, behaviors, or traditions ‘should’ members follow to remain and be accepted in the group? Finally, what norms, laws, or prohibitions do members ‘have to’ follow their membership?

The problem here might be that we may have never given much thought to these points so articulating them, even to ourselves, might be a challenge.

An onion is perhaps second to the iceberg in its potential ease in understanding its relationship to culture, even if it isn’t necessarily liked as food (especially raw). People can usually identify with the layered sense of self to those layers of an onion. Often though problems occur when we forget to give this understanding to others, easily believing that others are not as multifaceted as we are. This is our human error, especially when we are under stress.

The last example, but by no means the be-all-end-all of the examples, is eyewear or eyeglasses. The goal of working through these ideas is to understand that there are many interpretations when looking at the same thing and others’ interpretations are not wrong, just different.

“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots.”

Marcus Garvey

Over to you

Are there any other visuals that come to mind? Which ones and why?

Which is your preferred metaphor for culture? Did you have one before coming across this post? Why or why not?

Please let me know in the comments.

Published by livingtheamericandreamineurope

I live in Europe, I am from America.

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