The definition of culture.

I have been doing training and education in the area of culture, cultural diversity and cultural awareness for many years now. With each training that I conduct, with each group that I meet with, with each point of view that I hear, I learn something new. I learn that there are actual cultural differences, and at the same time, I learn that there are not. Confusing? You bet.

What I have learned the most over the years is that I have a lot to learn. Like many of us, I always thought of culture, at earlier points in my life, as basically what your religion is, what race you are, and whether you are male or female. Boy, was I shortsighted!!!! How was I know that culture is, oh, so much more than that……

I have come to embrace a definition of culture that I came across as a trainer, and I believe best fits my point of view. Culture: represents the vast structure of behaviors, ideas, attitudes, values, habits, beliefs, customs, languages, rituals, ceremonies and practices “peculiar” to a particular group of people. It provides them with a general design for living and patterns for interpreting reality. It determines how we see the world- and the way we see the world is reflected in our behavior. Wade Nobles

Wow. That is SOOOOOO beyond religion and race and gender. Takes some time to absorb and make sense of. But, it DOES make sense. Let’s look at it a piece at a time.

First, the structure of behaviors, ideas, etc; particular to a group of people. This makes sense to me. For my purposes, when I was being raised as Catholic growing up, being Catholic meant going to church, repenting my sins, receiving communion, and fearing God’s wrath. Growing up in the country, meant that we had to drive everywhere to get somewhere; meant that we saw wild animals in our yard at times; meant that we couldn’t hear traffic on the road. Growing up with two parents, meant I came to view and expect different aspects of parenthood from my father as my mother; meant that I had two parents around when I needed them. Growing up with a Native American heritage, although we did not traditionally observe any rituals, meant that I was tuned into the earth, the sky, the importance of caring for living things. Being college educated helped me to view the world a certain way, to make friends, to learn about the world, to leave home and survive it. All part of my personal experience, therefore, all meant to be aspects of my culture and cultural experience.

Now, the second part of the definition. Provides us with a general design for living, patterns for interpreting reality. How true is this???? All that I say, do, think, believe, even learn, occurs through my “cultural lens” if you will. How I see the world, is directly influenced by how I have been brought up into the world right up until today; every experience, every moment that I have already lived, brings me to now. So yes, that includes the biggies like religion and race and gender, but it also includes where I was raised, my family dynamic, what our food traditions were, whether we spent time with extended family, whether I went to private or public school. All of these cultural experiences influence how I view the world, therefore, how I also interact with the world.

Now, I didn’t grow up with one particular ethnic background that got perpetuated through the kind of foods we would eat, or the traditions that we would observe, or even our manner of dress. Our ethnicity in our lineage is pretty diverse, everything from Scottish to Irish to German to English to Native American; I embrace and appreciate all of those diverse cultures that make up my culture.

The more I learn about individual cultures, the more that learn that even though there are some similarities, among those similarities there are stark differences as well. What do I mean by this? If someone were to tell me that all Catholics observe not eating meat on Fridays, I could assume that all Catholics, all good Catholics anyway, should do that. Learning about commonalities among persons of the same culture can create the habit of generalizing about groups of people. When I conduct training on lesbian and gay identity issues for adolescents, many times those in my groups will ask me to tell them how different ethnic and religious groups view gay identity. I can’t do that, I can’t just put a label on someone that perpetuates a generalization.

This is a tough balance however. Because I am not suggesting that we should not all have our cultural observations and traditions; at the same time, we need to respect the individuality and differences within that culture. In addition, we need to recognize the similarities between different cultures and cultural experiences.

Sanityfound is so right, when she writes about blogging as a way to break down barriers, and to be able to traverse the cultural landscape of this world. What an opportunity that we have before us here, in the blogosphere…….to reach across divides and create unity.

Maybe peace on earth is possible after all!


4 thoughts on “The definition of culture.

  1. Wow, I really like the direction you took this and how you put it!

    I am filled with such hope for this world, finding so many like minded people that destroy the barriers of culture and preconceived ideas really gives me inspiration and the biggest smile on my face!

    I’m going to link back to this post on mine 🙂 Auds

  2. It really is so much about similarities and differences at the same time; the challenge in our fast paced world seems to be that we want to either focus on how different we all are, or we want to clump a bunch of people into one category. Getting to know humans one beautiful being at a time is so much more pleasurable and exciting……. thanks for linking me and for reading and commenting! Vanessa

  3. So true, approach people as a blank canvas I say and allow them to colour it in for you rather than you painting your own picture and missing out on all the beautiful bits!

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