How “Deep” Is Culture?

When I’m speaking or conducting workshops about culture I usually ask, “What is your definition of culture?” Usually, there are many good answers that come forward like “things we learn from our parents,” “music,” “clothing,” and “language.”

A couple of definitions that have become popular these days are “software of the mind” (Hofstede) or “the right way of doing things” (unattributed).  All of these point us in the right direction, but I think culture is much “deeper” than that.

As I am exposed to more and more cultures and think deeply about my own culture I’ve come to the conclusion that culture is much deeper than we often realize. One prominent culture scholar (Trompenaars) puts it this way, “Our own culture is like water to a fish. It sustains us. We live and breathe through it.”

My favorite definition of culture is: “The human-made part of the environment.” That idea includes everything that we do and think. A tree growing outside in your yard is not culture, God made it. But as soon as we trim the tree, use it as the support for a swing, or make something from the wood of the tree, culture is involved because your culture will decide what the swing, chair, or table will look like.

Everything you have done or will do today from the time you wake until you go to sleep is affected by your culture. But like a fish that doesn’t notice the water he is swimming, breathing, and moving in, you have probably given little, if any, thought as to how culture is influencing you today.

So as an experiment, for the rest of today give some conscious thought as to how culture has formed the way you are acting and thinking. And…post some of your thoughts.




2 thoughts on “How “Deep” Is Culture?

  1. Scott M

    The first thought that comes to mind is so simple, but is deeply engrained in those of us from the West. The use of silverware. If we are given a choice, do we use our hand or the silverware. If we are with our friends from a different culture from our own, we may dare to eat with our hands. We also may become comfortable eating with our hands. But when we are alone and no one else is around, will we go for the spoon. I think for most of us the answer is “ABSOLUTELY!” We can learn and understand our host cultures easier than shaking off the internal comfort that our home culture provides us.

  2. Mike Williams Post author

    Excellent example. For me, nearly always a spoon at home. I often use my fingers at a restaurant when there is a spoon available (and expected to be used) just to make myself more accustomed to it. Not too bad as long as I can wash my hands first!


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