The cultures we’re exposed to are important in shaping who we are and our behavior. Most people tend to think about their culture at the most general levels, which can cause us to generalize and stereotype or limit our own identity to what’s accepted in one culture. However, with the rise of globalization, people’s cultures are not singular anymore but multilayered. Learn about the three levels of culture and how it can help you better understand yourself and others. (Estimated reading time: 9 minutes)
“The World is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion”– Thomas Paine
“Where are you from?” is a question I’ve been consistently asked. Whether I was a university student in the U.S., an intern in Sweden, or a resident at an expat party in the U.A.E., I never quite knew how to respond. If you feel “different” from the members of your community, you may relate to this sentiment.
My biggest concern about introducing myself from whatever country I was born and raised in is that it encourages the person asking me to unconsciously associate me with their stereotypes of that country. A news piece they heard or an encounter they’ve had with people from the same place will unconsciously be correlated with me.
Their projections are not the result of malicious intent – they’re simply a byproduct of how our minds function. During my podcast interview with cross-cultural expert Pellegrino Riccardi, who was born in the U.K. into an immigrant family from the south of Italy, he described the human brain as lazy when assessing other people.
“The brain doesn’t want to do anything that is not absolutely necessary to survive – and to work with other cultures, when they are really different to yours, requires you to have a non-lazy brain. You have to challenge your assumptions, beliefs, and expectations,” Riccardi shared.
The issue with putting people into neat little boxes based on their country of origin is that none of us have singular identities. With the rapid growth of technology and transportation over the past century, cultural identities have become increasingly complex, varied, and multifaceted. Nationality alone will not capture the wide-ranging nuances that define an individual’s identity.
If you’re the one asking someone about their origins, know that most people who look and act differently than you don’t identify with all the markers they’re born with. While they are a product of their environment, they may not be beholden to their nationality or country of birth for their identity.
Instead of reducing them to a list of boilerplate traits based on their origins, see them as unique people with their own traits, interests, experiences, and dreams. For instance, if someone tells you they are Irish, don’t assume they like small talk, eat potatoes, and are obsessed with the weather. Be open-minded and curious about them without labeling them.
This skill, known as “cross-cultural competence,” is the ability to effectively understand and engage with people from different cultures. You’ll need to establish cordial relationships with people you’re unfamiliar with in both the professional and personal realms throughout your life. Having this sensitivity will serve you well.
Over the years, I’ve become increasingly comfortable communicating my multilayered cultural identity to others. While I do not intend to revolutionize our ways of introducing ourselves, I do want to offer suggestions and frameworks to ensure that we steer clear from nationality-driven identity so that we can cultivate feelings of belonging and solidarity and bridge the gap between our perceived differences.
How culture shapes our identities
Everything we do, from the decisions we make to the choices we avoid, stem from how we see ourselves and choose to engage with the world.
Knowing the various influences that shape your identity will allow you to develop a persona from a place of awareness and insight.
Science has proven that our personality traits are influenced by genetics, but our environments also play an important role. Our surroundings include:
- Our society.
- The family and friends around us.
- Group affiliations.
- Educational institutions.
- The media we consume.
- Our race and ethnicity.
All these collectively form the culture we are exposed to. As social animals, culture becomes the glue that holds us together – the customs, language, values, beliefs, mannerisms, and mores seep into our consciousness whether we realize it or not.
For instance, if you are born in Tokyo to upper-class Japanese Shinto parents, that is who you will become unless you encounter other influences and knowledge that dilute your heritage. If you grew up in Texas to working-class immigrant parents, that is who you will become unless you modify it based on your own unique experiences in life.
The kaleidoscopic influences of culture are why each of the eight billion people on the planet today is unique but also share traits and behaviors specific to the environment in which they grew up.
Many of us prefer not to be reduced to a ‘type’ based on our communities, however, often, we will mold ourselves into the person most likely to be accepted by the group. But, our brain’s plasticity and its ability to change due to experience allows us to shift our preconceived perspectives and carve out a path based on what we learn as individuals.
Our cultures should not define us but become part of who we are. Being controlled by the unwritten roles, norms, and external messages from society can cause us to dilute our uniqueness and get lost in the crowd.
When we become less dependent on the approval of our peers, we become less culture-dependent and more of a culture-shaper. We are willing to color outside the lines in a way that benefits everyone and move away from ethnocentric views that separate us from the rest of the world.
And yet, culture is still a powerful determinant of who we are and who we may become. This behooves us to look at the different levels of culture and choose what we should incorporate into our identities and what we want to do away with.
Why we need to balance our national identity with our global one
Major cities around the world appear to be transforming into clones of one another – restaurants serving a country’s traditional delicacies are now being taken over by big fast food chains, local clothing stores are being replaced with big, commercial brands, and Western pop culture is infiltrating the playlists of youth, whether they live in Mumbai, Paris, or Cairo.
Homogenization of culture is steadily on the rise, and people are justifiably afraid of losing their national identity, values, and traditions. But is resisting the inevitability of globalization the right way for us to use our energy?
In the past, people’s worlds were limited to their local townships, kingdoms, and communities because that’s all they knew. With the advent of modern transportation and the Internet, our worlds have grown exponentially. Now, we can have conversations with people on remote corners of the planet. We have a window that allows us to look outside where we live – there’s no way we can limit ourselves to our borders. We can discover what it’s like to be a sushi maker in Japan, an artisan in France, or a mother in the Congo through the power of technology.
Given this scenario, our identities are bound to blend and influence each other through cultural osmosis. Whether we like it or not, globalization is the direction of the future.
Clinging to the old ways will produce an overly ethnocentric orientation that’s primitive in today’s world. It keeps us disengaged from important, universal affairs such as global warming, the refugee crisis, and the threat of nuclear arms that impact us all.
We want to be wary of an extreme nationalistic sentiment as it can lead to close-mindedness and a fear-based ‘us vs. them’ stance. Wars, riots, discrimination, and inequality spawn from this mindset.
If you consider yourself a patriot of your country, know you can embrace globalization without letting go of your national identity. You don’t have to pick sides – they aren’t as mutually exclusive as most people think.
I suggest imagining that you own two passports – one from your country/countries and one as a ‘world citizen.’ You’ll have dual citizenship once you acknowledge that you are a citizen of planet Earth. You’ll also see that you are the product of different levels of culture.
This approach is needed now more than ever so that we can work together to improve the human condition and the state of our planet.
The three levels of culture
Culture consists of levels and sublevels based on studies done by anthropologists. While these are three general patterns, there are variations within a given culture. However, these broad categories serve as a good starting point in understanding culture and how it affects us.
National cultures can be viewed as beliefs, values, traits, behavioral patterns, and institutions held by the majority of the population within a nation. They are largely stable over time and only change slightly over generations. The influence of national culture is mostly unconscious and takes shape in a person’s childhood.
National culture is most recognized when represented in tangible forms like colors, flags, logos, national anthems, and festivals. It can also take on a more intangible form, like a person’s core values and communication style. In general, these can be used to distinguish one national culture from another.
For instance, an American businessperson traveling to Japan who is driven by the American values of individualism, achievement, freedom, privacy, and work must recalibrate when interacting with their Japanese counterparts. This does not mean they must abandon American values but that a certain level of awareness is required of differing core values like harmony, belonging, group orientation, modesty, and patience. Knowing this will make their interactions and negotiations smoother and more effective.
Within national culture, there is also popular culture, a term used to describe the attitudes and experiences celebrated in mainstream society and is spread through media channels such as television, movies, radio, publishers, and local organizations. Popular culture or “pop” culture might include events like sports, a TV show, a festival, or national holidays.
International culture is not confined to a country, continent, or group. It is a global identity that extends beyond national boundaries and is universal. These traits and patterns have spread through migration, diffusion, colonization, and globalization.
The ease of travel and widespread use of the internet, social media, and mobile phones have enabled us to create and sustain international culture. An example is the creation of international organizations like the United Nations and the World Health Organization that regulate matters that concern global welfare.
Events such as the Olympics, Sporting World Cups, and Expos all speak to the common need for entertainment and exploring human potential. Rites of passage, such as marriage and graduation, surpass national borders.
Subcultures are smaller groups of people who share cultural traits and patterns within the same nation. It differentiates itself from the traditional and standard values of the country it belongs to yet retains some of the founding principles. Even if members of a subculture band together, they still identify with and participate in society.
Subcultures develop their own values, beliefs, and norms, including political, social, cultural, and creative expression. They may have unique meanings, symbols, and behavioral norms formed over time, which have significance to members, and will do their best to keep this uniqueness intact.
They often create social boundaries and only allow those who seem like a good fit into their groups. For instance, a body modification community would only embrace those who have a certain number of piercings, tattoos, or plastic surgery.
Thousands of subcultures exist, each with unique experiences based on a shared identity. The can contribute significantly to the levels of culture that influence a person.
Ethnic groups like African Americans or Hispanic Americans share their own language or dialect, food, clothing styles, and holidays. Subcultures based on particular interests include biker culture, hip-hop, foodies, fitness buffs, and environmentalists. Musical subgroups like K-Pop enthusiasts, Swifties, and Beliebers are also subcultures found around the world.
Our world is a beautiful melting pot of people from all backgrounds. Their origins inform their stories, and when we listen with open minds and hearts, we show our appreciation for what makes them unique. Curiosity and non-judgment will always be the pathway to cultivating love and acceptance.
All my best on your journey,
Questions for you: What is your cultural makeup? Which of the three levels of culture impact your personality and preferences the most?
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