Understanding Culture 101: A Beginner's Guide to What We Mean When We Say 'Culture'

This question has nagged at me for a while, and for good reason: understanding culture is not straightforward. It is a nuanced word that carries different implications depending on the context. On some level, we all know what culture is, but you may find it quite difficult to describe.

Let me ask you this: What’s the first thing that comes to mind when I say culture?

Culture is often associated with the arts: museums, galleries, theater, and major productions that have become common references in today's society. However, culture encompasses much more than just the arts. The arts are perhaps the most tangible aspect of culture, providing a visual representation of sorts, but most of culture lies beneath the surface, kind of like an iceberg.

So, what is culture?

The Visible Layers of Culture

Let’s break it down: There are visible and invisible layers of culture. I’ll be using the iceberg analogy to illustrate this. The visible layers of culture are easier to spot, and they usually consist of tangible elements. Here are some examples:

  • The national dress of a particular group of people is considered a visible reflection of their culture. However, it's worth noting that not all cultures have a national dress. In the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf countries, men wear a national garment called the Kandura with each country modifying it slightly. Women across South Asian communities wear the Sari, with about 30 different varieties available across the region. Similarly, Kimonos are worn by men and women in certain traditional Japanese occasions.
  • Another tangible and visible layer of culture is food and cuisine. Different cultures have unique cuisines that reflect their history, geography, and traditions. This can include commonly used ingredients, to national dishes, to cooking methods, and even down to how food is served and eaten: Do you use your hands? Do you use bread to scoop up the food? Is it communal, or do you have individual plates? Do you use chopsticks?
  • One of the most visible and tangible aspects of culture is the arts — this includes music, visual art, literature, and more. These forms of expression reflect the beliefs, values, and customs of a group of people. Have you heard of Les Misérables? While it is now commonly known as a movie or a musical, it was originally written by French author Victor Hugo as a historical novel in 1862. At the time, he aimed to criticize the injustices of 19th century France, from the rights of women to the failures of society's institutions.
  • Other examples of visible layers of culture include architecture and homes. Where do people live? How are cities constructed? What types of housing exist? This extends to the smallest details— should shoes be removed at the door or can they be worn inside? When guests come over, are they offered slippers or not? Do you have a separate "salon" for guests or is your living room where you host people?
  • Another visible layer of culture is socials norm and social etiquette. This includes how people greet one another both in body language and closeness, as well as the actual words used to greet one another. Chances are if you are born and raised in a certain culture you were never sat down by your parents and properly taught to greet. You probably just observed how others did it and picked it up along the way. However, when you’re suddenly immersed in a new culture, your normal way of greeting might be perceived as too intrusive, or too impersonal— so you’ll probably adapt to what others are doing around you.
    • Other social norms are etiquette-related, like is it rude to burp in public? What about slurping your food? In Chinese and Japanese cultures loudly slurping your noodles is considered a compliment to the chef, but if you were to do that in Germany it would be considered rude.
  • A less obvious but still visible layer of culture is language; it is the means of communication between a group of people. Beyond just the language group, dialect also comes into play here. For example, is it British English or American English? Do people employ different terminology to show respect, like the ‘vous’ in French? Do people express themselves using a lot of gestures? Italians are notoriously known for using their hands when they express themselves.

All these tangible elements represent the tip of the iceberg. That is why the visible layers of culture are often more easy to identify as they are the outward expressions and physical manifestations of a certain group of people. It is important to note that culture is not a fixed concept, it is constantly evolving and changing over time.

The Invisible Layers of Culture

Now let’s get into what lies beneath the surface: the invisible layers of culture. Arguably these are much harder to pinpoint, as often times we are dealing with abstract ideas. However, these invisible layers also have a more significant impact on shaping the way people think, feel, and behave. Here are some examples:

  • An important invisible layer of culture revolves around family and community. Have you noticed how different cultures discipline children? Is your culture considered individualistic or collectivist? Do elders live with their adult children or are retirement homes the norm? Is there a strong sense of community or is it more acceptable to keep to yourself? It’s important to note that none of these are right or wrong, they’re all just different ways of interacting with and structuring society.
  • Quite often the way we interact with one another and the way communities come together is rooted in certain religious and spiritual beliefs. The religious culture of a group of people falls in both the visible and invisible layers of culture. Think of a place of worship, that is a visible layer of culture— it’s a physical structure manifesting religious traditions. However, the ingrained spiritual beliefs associated to that religion are invisible layers of culture.
  • Sometimes certain customs that are thought to be religious actually come from folklore, yet another invisible layer of culture. Think of the knock on wood or touch wood superstition. Have you ever noticed people say touch wood and then proceed to tap on any wooden object in order to ward off bad luck? Or knock on wood when they share some good news to avoid ‘hasad’ or ‘the evil eye’. In Turkish culture, I noticed friends pinch their right ear and then knock on wood twice while saying ‘mashallah’.
  • Another element that falls under the invisible layers of culture are beliefs about right and wrong. Let’s take the example of sex, how does your culture perceive sex? Is sex before marriage deemed taboo or dishonorable? Or is it a normal practice? What about extra marital sex? Or sex with multiple partners? Each society looks at sex differently and it can often be a sensitive topic. Keep in mind generational gaps also plays an important role here and that just demonstrates how culture is constantly evolving over time.
  • Gender roles is another tricky invisible layer of culture. ****Studies show that children as young as two and three become aware of gender roles. By the age of four or five, most children are firmly entrenched in culturally appropriate gender roles and when children don’t conform to gender roles they can be ridiculed or bullied. Sadly this doesn’t stop at childhood; well into adulthood we conform and hold many gender stereotypes. Men tend to outnumber women in professions related to strength such as law enforcement, military, and politics. On the other hand, women tend to outnumber men in care-related occupations where nurture is valued such as child care, health care, and social work.

The elements I’ve outlined are the bottom hidden part of the iceberg that tend to deal with beliefs, values, customs and ideas. To tie it all back together, the visible aspects of cultures are often rooted in the invisible underlying elements from which they originate.

Cultural Conditioning Lies in our Subconscious

Culture is a way of life and it is passed down from generation to generation through socialization. However, you can belong to a certain culture and not adhere to all the cultural norms. As individuals we have free will to pick and choose what we subscribe to.

Very often though culture influences us on a subconscious level, meaning we are not really aware of it. Sometimes through exposure to different cultures we become aware of our own cultural conditioning and then we can choose to continue with something that was passed down to us or reject it.

It’s fair to say, culture is very complex. It plays a vital role in shaping who we are, how we perceive the world, and how we interact with others. It provides us with a sense of identity, belonging, and purpose, and has a significant impact on our mental and emotional well-being. In saying all this I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface, but hopefully this is a good starting point to analyze the cultures that have impacted you.

Takeaway: When I asked my partner to describe what culture means to him, he referenced this commonly used phrase “it’s the way we do things around here”. And if theres one takeaway from all this, that pretty much sums it up for me.

Plot twist: What happens when you belong to different cultures all at once? Find out in the next Blog Post… Coming Soon 👀