How to Define Culture

Most folks have a very vague idea of what culture means when moving overseas. The term has become a buzzword, heard and spoken everywhere, repeated ad nauseum in every medium, with little understanding. In vague, general terms it’s what makes “them” different from “us.” It’s language, customs, food, art, music architecture, and lifestyle. And that is all true; these are certainly part and parcel of what we call culture. But there’s more to it than that

There are a number of social sciences that actually define and study culture: anthropology and sociology are the two most commonly known. There are also the very specialized fields of Intercultural Communication, Cultural Psychology, Sociolinguistics and Cultural Anthropology which each deal profoundly with various aspects of culture. Among these sciences and studies there are over 500 definitions of culture. One that is simple and often used is:

Culture is all learned behavior.

Learned behavior consists of everything that would not be considered instinct. For example, all human beings have the natural instinct to find food and eat. However, the way a specific group chooses to do that, what they choose to eat, is culture, not instinct. Animals operate solely on instinct and supposedly have no culture, though that assumption has come into question.

The concept of culture is often initially taught in beginning anthropology and sociology courses using the “cultural iceberg:”

Think of an iceberg in the water. There’s a part of the iceberg you can see above the water line. The part that is above the water, represents all the visible components of culture: art forms, music, foods, food customs, funerary customs, tools and technology, dress, religious customs, objects and artifacts, and a host of others. Under the water is the part you can’t see, which is basically composed of beliefs, values, philosophy, worldview, perceptions and ways of thinking. This part of the iceberg obviously supports the part above the water. Which part of the iceberg is the largest? Obviously, it’s the invisible part and this is exactly what you run up against when you experience so called culture shock, culture bumps, and cultural conflict. A culture bumpis any specific experience in which someone experiences dissonance, discomfort, or a problem due to a cultural difference. The person involved may think that the problem is due to a visual component of culture, but most often it’s what you don’t see or understand that causes the problem, i.e. the invisible part of the iceberg. What’s more, most of our own culture is unconscious and we are not totally aware of our culture’s core beliefs and philosophies because we have internalized these so deeply, and accepted them as reality and truth.

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