What is culture?

Over the last 10 years Culture has become one of those ”buzz” words that pops up frequently in our social, professional and political conversations. It is a term used a little too loosely for my taste and sometimes inappropriately to describe certain situations or concepts. Corporate culture, digital culture, western culture, civic culture, drug culture, dominant culture, working-class culture, management culture and cancel culture are just a few examples of the collocations with the word culture.

Often in my seminars, I will kick off the program by asking the participants (adults from various professional and business fields) if they would like to take a shot at defining the concept of culture. Their usual answer is an uncomfortable silence and furrowed brows. Very often we know how to use the word culture but when asked to define it… well it can be awkward! I cringe every time I have to try and define the concept.

Ask any anthropologists or sociologists to define “Culture” you will never get the same definition. The concept is not simple. Pinning down all aspects of culture in a simple easy to understand definition is almost impossible.

If you prompt ChatGPT on culture you will get this:

“Culture refers to the shared beliefs, values, customs, behaviors, and artifacts that characterize a group or society. It encompasses the knowledge, ideas, art, and practices that are passed down from generation to generation within a community and shapes the way people interact with one another and their environment. Culture can be expressed through language, religion, art, music, food, clothing, and other aspects of daily life, and it plays a significant role in shaping people’s identities, worldviews, and social norms. It is important to recognize that culture is dynamic and evolves over time, and that different cultures can coexist and influence one another in complex ways.”

All encompassing and thorough definition.Thank you ChatGPT!

The Dutch sociologists Geert Hofstede and one of the pioneers and “High Priest” of intercultural communication offers this definition:

 “The collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from others.”

Hofstede’s is a little more imaginative and thought provoking; a definition we can relate to in our digital world.

A disciple who worked closely with Mr Hofsetde, Fons Trompenaars defines culture as…

“The shared patterns of behavior and interactions, cognitive constructs, and affective understanding that are learned through a process of socialization. These shared patterns distinguish one group of people from another.”

I find this definition more “esoteric” with words like “cognitive constructs” and “affective understanding”. Why couldn’t he have just used “Experiences” and feelings instead?

The 3 definitions are stimulating, revealing and the first one very encompassing. Many Anthropologists and Sociologists would certainly add onto these definitions and/or take issue with certain aspects of each one.

The concept of Culture includes everything we are and everything we do.

Culture is like a puzzle. It is made up of:

• Beliefs: an acceptance that something exists or is true, especially one without proof. Beliefs often govern what we consider good, right, or fair Beliefs are essential in developing our worldview.

• Values are the things that a culture believes are important, and how concepts of communication, power, time, family… are dealt with in our society.

• Social norms: the perceived informal, mostly unwritten, rules that define acceptable and appropriate actions. within a given group or community, thus guiding human. behavior.

• Shared: culture is co-constructed and is a product of social interaction.

• Learned: through a process of conscious and unconscious learning and interaction with others to internalize cultural traditions or social norms. This is an ongoing process from the cradle to the grave for most human beings because Cultures are dynamic and change over time.

One last definition of culture and one that I like the best is:

“Culture is the way things are done here”

No one is sure who came up with this definition. In all simplicity it refers to the established norms, values, and practices within a particular culture or organization. It is a phrase that is often used to describe the culture of a company, and it refers to the unwritten rules and norms that dictate how people interact with each other and  behave. We all know there is a French and Swedish way of doing things, as there is a Fiat and Mercedes way of doing things.

One final thought “Behavior” is what we do. “Culture” determines how we do it!

So the next time you have a “knee jerk” reaction to a situation think Culture!

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