What is Culture?

I work for VIPKID, teaching English online to children ages 4-15 from China. When we discuss the question of “What is culture?” with them, the curriculum’s answer is: “Culture is art, food, music, sports, celebrations and language.” This is a very simplified definition of a somewhat complex thing. Once we can list off those basic answers, then we have to ask ourselves things like, “But why are those (art, culture, music, food) so deeply ingrained in us – a nation, neighborhood, family, or religion? What is it about our traditions that makes them so hard to let go of? How is it that others, who don’t know us, can come to define us by our culture?” It’s a lot to process, I know. Usually we even find ourselves mingling in a small variety of cultures as we go throughout our daily or weekly responsibilities making this whole concept all the more confusing. While I clearly don’t have all the answers, hopefully I can shed a little light on the subject, and would love your input as well in this learning journey!

Have you ever found yourself in a group situation where everyone but you seemed to know how to act? For me, that’s about once a month, at least. You’re in good company. When you feel that way, it is probably because you have stepped into a new culture. It may be the Target Dollar Spot shopper culture, a religious culture, a class culture, or a family culture. Just recently I took my son to his first “Music Makers” class for toddlers offered at my husband’s grad school. All the little kids that had been going already seemed to know the songs, how to beat the sticks to the beat, when to dance and spin with the rattles, but Trey just clung to me, looking for some sort of sense and rules in all the chaos. This was a culture he was not familiar or comfortable with. All these rules and behaviors weren’t something that had been explained or practiced before, so he looked and felt out of place. Likewise, when I had my first Christmas with my husband’s family, I kept ruining the fun by forgetting to guess what was in my gifts before opening them. But, with time, practice, and observing others’ examples we all begin to find ways to fit or break the mold of our respective cultures.

According to The Hartman Group in Forbes Magazine, a wonderful read I enjoyed recently, “Through an ethnographic lens, it’s possible to observe how consumers craft unique identities through consumption. This has led us to observe that foods and beverages are bought for reasons far beyond just simple sustenance. Viewed culturally, food and beverage purchases can signal:

  • Who we are
  • Who we want to be
  • How we want others to see us
  • How we see the world”

I seriously love that they studied foodies and the food culture and how we all make food decisions. Sign me up to work for them! Or to be their study subject. The point is, there can even be cultures created entirely based around food! It doesn’t matter what the focus of the culture is, so long as the thing encourages us to consider or express the four points above: who we are, who we want to be, how we want others to see us, and how we see the world. If you don’t think that food can do that for you, then join me in binge-watching “The Final Table” on Netflix. Food is life for those chefs.

Couldn’t the Hartman Group’s same conclusions be said about many other types of culture? Our unique cultures shape our views of, well, everything! Ourselves, others, the entire world! This is in line with Miriam Websters definition of culture – “the beliefs, customs, etc., of a particular society, group, place, or time.” More deeply ingrained in culture than just what we do is how we think. Of course, the two are inseparable, because how we act and what we believe tend to be displays of inner thoughts and feelings.

Let’s take a minute to think about how our ideas and views have been affected, based on the four bullet points above. Remember, the following statements may or may not be fully true or accomplished about me, but it’s what I want to believe or achieve based on different influences of my upbringing. As an American, I believe I am independent to the core; and I want to be someone who changes the world; and for others to see me as someone who chases my dreams; and I have a tendency when traveling to feel untouchable and interesting based on my country of origin alone. As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, I believe we all have a certain relationship with God; and I want to be better; and I want others to feel like I will show up when they need help; and though I often feel warned of the terrors of the world, I see tremendous hope everywhere! Lastly, as a Hancock/Smith turned Boyack now, being perseverant (or hard-headed, more accurately) is in my blood; and I want to be someone who puts family first; and for others to be able to depend on me; and I see the world as a place that, given enough attention to detail, can be beautiful.

Think about your cultures for a minute. How are they influencing you? Do you feel a little choked up with pride at the groups you’ve been born into, or chosen to associate yourself with? Do they encourage you to be a version of you that you find attractive? None of my cultural influencers are without their flaws, but you can probably find some good things like I did to dwell on.

So, why study cultures outside of our own? Why even study our own? As we talk throughout this blog, we have to recognize that we do not just belong to one cul de sac, city or even state. Each of us should also be expected to act as world citizens. As we expand our knowledge of others’ ideas and perspectives of the way the world works and believes, we can make more accurate, educated, and confident decisions on a larger scale. We, and our children, will be able to hold more conversations on the sufferings and successes of people at a world-scale. We will learn to better appreciate literature, to understand the feelings and motives behind art and media, and even to want to look more closely at the people and events that lead to scientific and mathematical breakthroughs. At least, this has been my experience. Hopefully, as you participate in fun activities built to enhance your children’s creativity and academic standing – all while looking at countries and people they may have not heard of – you and your children will feel the same!

Now, as a last point. Culture has a third description that I found enlightening. Or rather, the evolution of its meaning is interesting. Look at what Google had to say about where our word “culture” comes from:


That little paragraph teaches us that “culture” and “cultivating” hold the same root. I mean, this makes sense in science terms, of course. But in our ideas, beliefs, arts and experiences with people should we not also being trying to cultivate new things? To cultivate our “mind, faculties, or manners” as Google says, is just as important as understanding what used to be or is culturally accepted now. We should take the ideas and practices of the past and change them for the better, not just stick blindly to them forever.

So tell me – what has influenced the way you feel about yourself and others around you? How can you/we/anyone create or improve upon existing culture?

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