Culture is the shared language in a community. The holidays celebrated, the religions practiced, the way we communicate, and the food we cook all fall under the umbrella of culture. But knowing a culture on a surface level can lead us to stereotypes and a belief that everyone in a group is alike. One way to avoid this is by learning about the elements of culture. These seven elements of culture will help you understand the heart of every new one you encounter. (Estimated reading time: 10-11 minutes)
“Culture is a way of coping with the world by defining it in detail.”— Malcolm Bradbury
What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the following countries: Japan, USA, India, Italy, Germany, Canada, South Africa, Brazil, Ireland, and Australia?
Typically, people tend to associate certain things with each place. Some examples might be:
- Japan: Sushi, karate.
- USA: Hollywood, cowboys.
- India: Spices and Cricket (the sport).
- Italy: Pasta, La Dolce Vita.
- Germany: Sauerkraut, Oktoberfest.
- Canada: Maple syrup, Caribou.
- South Africa: Diamonds, Nelson Mandela.
- Brazil: Copacabana beach, samba.
- Ireland: St. Patrick’s Day, leprechauns.
- Australia: Koalas, Sydney Opera House.
Even if you haven’t been to these places, you have an impression of their culture in your mind. But did you ever wonder how you developed them?
Humans generally think in terms of the categories we construct from our experiences. This makes it easier to interpret the stimuli coming our way every moment.
We form categories using the information provided by others, from watching TV, reading, social media, or our experiences with people from a particular group or country.
Sometimes we oversimplify a social group and cross the line into stereotypes. It’s often hard to know when we have done this because we become so dependent on stereotypes to make sense of things. It has become our usual way of seeing the world.
Simply knowing cultures on a surface level can lead us to stereotypes because we assume a group’s apparent features are sufficient to define their identity. Consequently, we believe that everyone in the group is alike. The individuality of those within a group blurs together to create a homogenous whole.
It’s easier to see differences in our own communities because we see people close-up. We don’t see members who don’t fit the stereotype as exceptions but as individuals with their own personalities.
We can take the same approach towards those belonging to other cultures if we’re willing to acknowledge the nuances within those cultures. One way to do it is to look at the seven elements of culture. Using this template, we can move away from stereotypes and get to the heart of every culture.
Culture runs deep: Why we misunderstand other cultures
Culture is an integral part of how we live and experience life. These rules, traditions, and social norms are passed down from generation to generation. They preserve the very things that define our identities and give a sense of belonging and comfort.
Culture is the shared language of a community. The holidays celebrated, the religions practiced, the way we communicate, and the food we cook are all elements of culture.
Whether we realize it or not, we’re exposed to language, symbols, beliefs, social institutions, and artifacts that define other cultures daily. When we watch the news, read a book, see a movie, eat at an exotic restaurant, or travel the world, we see glimpses into how other cultures live.
Earlier this week, with the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, we saw her unprecedented 70-year reign come to a close, marking the end of a historical epoch. At the young age of 25, she took on the immense responsibility and duties of the Monarch of the United Kingdom. Crowned in a cathedral, surrounded by liturgy, she participated in the same rite of passage that kings and queens have participated in for centuries.
Often, after the death of a notable figure, people mourn and quickly move on. In her case, an intense, heartfelt outpouring of grief flowed from people of every walk of life – from heads of state to Britons who felt like they had lost someone near and dear. To many, she represented a steady and stable figure that carried their nations through decades of change.
Thousands of mourners flocked to see the Queen’s coffin departing and resting at various points across the United Kingdom. However, some onlookers did not understand all the pomp and long-drawn formalities of honoring the late Queen. After all, monarchies are built on a system of hereditary privilege, which goes against everything the modern age stands for. They are archaic institutions that don’t serve a logical or practical purpose.
What critics don’t understand is the monarchy’s significance: it’s the sacred, mystical, and symbolic thread that connects British people to the past and their heritage. The Crown may be something from a bygone era, but it’s a symbol that evokes emotions like pride, belonging, and meaning for many.
The Queen herself exemplified the essence of Britishness. She displayed grace, restraint, duty, dedication, persistence, and unquestioned loyalty to her throne. She didn’t hop on the bandwagon of celebrity and fame. Instead, she remained a mystery. She balanced this mystique in her public appearances, which she attended with rigor and openness.
Unless you’re familiar with the intricacies of the value system and deep symbolism of the Crown, and its emotional significance to the United Kingdom, it is hard to appreciate the milestone of Queen Elizabeth II’s passing and what it means to people in the UK and around the world.
Understanding the elements of culture would make us more sensitive to world events like this.
How learning about cultural elements can benefit us and the world
In a world where cultures are becoming increasingly diluted by foreign influences, being in touch with their authenticity has become even more critical. We’re quickly becoming a global village with multicultural environments. Consequently, understanding other cultures promotes peaceful coexistence.
Understanding the elements of culture also allows us to learn more about ourselves. By gaining new perspectives about other cultures, you can benefit by:
- Getting out of your comfort zone and enlivening your routine.
- Re-evaluating your biases so that you become less prejudiced and judgmental.
- Learning about new skills, traditions, and values.
- Supporting other communities.
- Becoming more empathetic and culturally sensitive, making you a better communicator.
- Sharing your culture with others and deepening your sense of self.
Getting intimate with one culture can motivate you to learn about others too. The shutters of your perceptual lens open and allow you to see that there is a whole world out there for you to explore and know more about. The term used to describe this perspective is multiculturalism.
Multiculturalism causes us to reflect on what we see as ‘normal’ or ‘abnormal,’ and challenge ourselves to see things in a new light. Like an American watching a Belgian eat French Fries with mayonnaise instead of ketchup, they see their version of this delicacy differs from other places.
Especially in big, multicultural cities, where demographics are projected to show increased diversity due to immigration and international business relationships being on the rise, applying a multicultural mindset and skills is more essential than ever.
The seven elements of culture
It can be hard to picture what a culture looks like without experience. By knowing the essential elements of culture and piecing them together, we can better understand what a group is all about. There are two components of culture: material and non-material.
The material aspects of culture include its physical objects such as clothing, artifacts, utensils, and technology. Non-material cultural elements include beliefs, values, symbols, and language.
These are some of the seven primary elements of culture to consider:
Language is crucial to communication and is at the forefront of any society’s culture. It can be defined as a set of words (including slang and euphemisms), sound patterns, and voice tones that have specific meanings. It’s a medium they use to express their views and opinions. The pronunciation of each word can cause members to speak in a certain way, which foreigners perceive as accents. One of the most effective ways to really get to know people and bond with them is to speak with them in their native tongue (or at least try – they will appreciate the effort).
What is interesting about language is that they often have words that describe emotion, color, and phenomena that others don’t. For example, unlike English, Russian has distinct words to describe two shades of blue: lighter blues (“goluboy”) and darker blues (“siniy”). Germans have a word to describe a specific emotion that does not have an equivalent in English called “Schadenfreude,” which means “pleasure or joy derived from someone else’s suffering or misfortune.”
Norms are the rules, expectations, and guidelines that specify an individual’s behavior within the context of their culture. They keep a person within the boundary of what’s acceptable, shaping behavior and informing them about what is right and wrong.
What you perceive as completely normal in your world could be seen as strange in another culture. For instance, eating with forks and knives is typical dining etiquette in much of the West, but go to South Asia, and they will think you’re weird because you don’t use your hands.
Norms can be divided into two types: folkways and mores.
Folkways are the customary ways of being and habits. They are informal and are of lesser importance but still influence behavior. Examples include the way people stand in line (or queue).
Mores are formal norms defined by laws and rules considered a “must” in a person’s conduct. This includes criminal codes, traffic laws, and immigration requirements. In the press, this could consist of regulations that prevent hate speech and obfuscating the truth. Violation of mores could result in punishment and ostracization.
3. Rituals and ceremonies
Established rituals and ceremonies reflect a culture’s norms and belief systems. Unlike festivals, these events have a commemorative and solemn element to them. They involve a series of actions performed in fixed order based on traditions and customs passed down from one generation to the next.
For example, Veterans Day is an important national ritual in the United States to remember and honor fallen soldiers. Initiation ceremonies marking the transition into adulthood are also celebrated in many cultures. In Bemba of Zambia, girls undergo a “chisungu ” ceremony where they learn dances, songs, and insider information from older women. Sometimes religion is intertwined with rituals – an example is how and where funerals are conducted.
Humans like to simplify their environments, and using symbols is one way they do it. Symbols such as signs, signals, objects, and gestures offer a way to convey recognizable meanings that are understood within a culture. It also guides and directs behavior and communicates the values of those who use it.
People in specific cultures can attach a lot of meaning and emotion to symbols. They can be used to bind a group around a particular belief system or ideology. For example, in several religions, the Swastika was originally a symbol of good luck, the infinity of creation and the revolving sun. But its meaning completely changed in the 20th century when the German Reich adopted it. It became a symbol of fear and hatred associated with Hitler and his hateful rhetoric.
Symbols can also include company logos, traffic signs, uniforms, flags, and emblems. Non-verbal symbols like shaking hands, eye contact, and nodding are also part of a culture’s symbols. A gesture in one culture could be something entirely different in another.
5. Values and beliefs
Values are an essential element of culture that determines what is important and what is seen as truth. They are the ideals, standards, and principles that members of a society hold in high regard and are deeply embedded in their beliefs. This can be seen in their norms, rituals, behavior, and symbols.
It’s important to note that values do not always determine how people behave, rather, they represent a cultural ideal and how they want to come across.
A significant value in a collectivistic culture like Japan is group harmony. The people will do their best to avoid interpersonal conflict and strive to create cooperation. They minimize friction even when disputes and lawsuits arise.
Beliefs may or may not be connected to the religions followed in a culture. An example of non-religious belief is the Scandinavian principles of Hygge. Hygge speaks to the importance of focusing on simple things like spending quality experiences with friends and family, creating a warm and inviting home, and enjoying living in the present moment.
6. Cognitive Elements
The cognitive elements are instructive elements of culture that let members know how to deal with difficulties like natural calamities and conflicts. This knowledge is crucial for survival because people learn skills to help them cope with challenges, especially unexpected ones. Creating shelter for storms, transporting supplies, and managing resources are passed down through generations. For instance, in places like Haiti, prone to hurricanes, locals have ways to prepare before it hits them and know how to rebuild in the aftermath.
Artifacts are material objects that are unique to a particular culture. Simple societies in rural regions usually have fewer objects connected to their needs, such as cooking utensils and basic clothing. Move closer to the city, and artifacts become more sophisticated. Items such as smartphones, ear pods, laptops, and other technological gadgets now define the modern age. Some examples of artifacts specific to particular cultures are chopsticks in East Asia, Matryoshka dolls in Russia (and other European countries), and sombrero hats in Mexico and Spain. The artifacts of culture become ideal souvenirs for travelers wanting to take a piece of the place away with them.
Other elements of culture to consider: Festivals, holidays, architecture, pastimes, food, religion, taboos, sports, music, clothing and fashion, dance, art, social hierarchy, political structures, and work culture.
As we learn about diverse cultures and their elements, it’s worth noting that we are all individuals. Each person is unique and could be influenced by multiple cultures (and subcultures), not just the one they were born into. When we avoid generalizing, we give them the gift of freedom to be themselves and not be limited by cultural molds.
All my best on your journey,
Question for you: What comes to mind when you think of your own culture? Can you describe the elements of culture that define it?
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