Elements of Culture

It’s been a humbling week for me, the kind where I’m forced to face how little I know and how often I get things wrong. My least favorite kind of week, but, you know, good for me, I guess. With this heavy on my mind, I feel more foolish than ever coming back here for more discussions of culture, a topic very obviously beyond my expertise. But I’m pretty sure this awareness of my ignorance and my many mistakes is actually the best space to live in while talking about culture. In reaching across cultures, getting things wrong is the name of the game. Disconcerting. Humbling. Humiliating, sometimes. But the rewards are worth it.

So here we go.

We’ve done a deep dive into a few elements of culture. Language. Attitude toward Time. Treatment of Space and Distance. Personal Grooming and Presence. Without dragging this series on for months, I can’t devote that much time to all the elements of culture, but you know the pattern now, so let’s look at the rest together, and you can think through your own assumptions about each and how other cultures may be operating on other values and beliefs.

Gender and Family Roles

How do you think boys should behave? How do you think girls should behave? In what ways are your expectations of boys and girls different? In what ways are they the same? How do you think men should relate to women? How should women relate to men? Are there rules that govern their interactions?

Who is in charge in a family? Who should provide financially? Who should care for children? Who should care for the home? How many people should live together in a family group? At what age are children expected to begin caring for themselves? At what age are they expected to leave the home? Who is responsible for caring for aging family members? What kind of care is expected?

There is a reason some families have adult children or grandparents living in the family home. There is a reason some families have multiple people in the workforce and others only have one. Economics obviously plays a large role in that, but so do cultural values. There’s also a reason that gift shops sell “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy” signs and Lego makes special girly sets called “Friends.” Like it or don’t like it, cultures have expectations about people’s behaviors. We can shift those expectations, but the idea that we’ll take them away completely is ridiculous.


What behaviors are completely abhorrent to you (think murder or slavery or certain sexual behaviors)? What gestures do you find deeply offensive? Are there bodily functions that you consider completely inappropriate in public (i.e. belching, spitting, urinating)? Are there foods you find it offensive (rather than just unpleasant) to eat? Are there habits or vices that would shame you to indulge in? What topics of conversation do you find deeply embarrassing?

Taboos are forbidden activities that are extremely objectionable in a society. They are often religious in nature, but not always. Taboos are so deeply ingrained that once you’ve thought of one, it’s often nearly impossible to imagine someone thinking it was okay. (Who has no problem with slavery? Who is cool with public urination?) But the truth is that there are cultures who don’t share your taboos. If you know me, you know I believe there is truth that transcends culture, so I’m not suggesting it’s fine for some cultures to have slaves, I’m just saying it helps to understand that not everyone feels the instinctive abhorrence you feel.

In American culture, we don’t often think about our taboos and in recent years are even proud of flaunting the old taboos, but that doesn’t mean we have none. Just think of how we shrink from talking about salaries. It’s the most embarrassing of offenses to ask someone how much money they make. That’s private! But why? Do we feel shame about our salaries (too much? Too little?) I suggest it’s because our desire to believe in the equality of everyone is religious in its fervor, and our belief that people’s value comes from economic power is deeply entrenched. Nothing uncovers inequality more quickly than acknowledging a disparity of income, and it’s embarrassing to everyone when that happens. Not all cultures are so invested in the polite charade that we’re all basically in the same economic boat.

Autonomy and Family Ties

Which do you consider more important, the needs of an individual or the needs of a group (family, business team, community)? Do you believe one person should sacrifice themself for the good of all? Do you believe the purpose of a group is to meet the needs of individuals or vice versa? Do you feel that a group has not succeeded unless every individual in it succeeds?

Are you more proud of your personal accomplishments or of the accomplishments of your team or family? Do you feel more valuable for your personal achievements or for your belonging to a certain group? When you decide where to live or what job to take, is that based on the needs of your community or on your own needs?

Who do you consider to be a part of your family? Is there a difference between immediate family and extended family? Do the needs of family members outside of your immediate family feel like a burden? Do you worry about being a burden to them? Do you think it’s wrong to leave family behind to pursue personal goals? Do you think it’s good and right to do so? In a family, whose needs take priority? The kids, the father, the mother, elderly family members?

Status of Age

Does age make a difference in how much respect someone deserves? Who is more valuable to society, children or the elderly? Is growing older a source of pride or a source of shame? When you need help or advice, do you look to those older than you, to your peers, or to those younger than you?

Think about how we talk about age. “Never ask a woman her age?” (Why not? Clearly the assumption is that it is embarrassing to her to be asked. But why?) Once you reach 40 you are “over the hill.” (So it’s all headed down from here?) Look at the number of products labeled as “age-defying.” This way of looking at age as an enemy to be fought is a cultural idea, and it says something about our values.

Attitudes towards Education

What is the purpose of education? To prepare individuals for jobs and economic security? To pass on cultural values and protect society? To spur cultural change by fostering creativity and independent thinking? Who is responsible for education? Parents? Experts? Corporations? The government? What is the best method of education? What is the appropriate age for different kinds of education? How much education is needed? Who should receive the education and at what levels? How do you know when you are succeeding in educating?

We’re going to spend some time on education and culture in the next post, so I’ll leave that one for now, but it’s worth considering that our system of education is based on a culture. In each country, the education system is created and maintained by the dominant culture in that country. The way things are done reflects the values of that culture. This has serious implications for members of minority cultures within the system.

Are you tired of questions yet? We’ve only scratched the surface, and already you can see that your culture affects every aspect of your life. And if that’s so, it’s affecting every aspect of your neighbor’s life, as well. And if their culture is not the same as yours, there is an ocean of things to learn about each other.

Which brings us back to humility.

I’ll swim in this ocean with you, but I have to warn you I’ll be flailing about at times. But for what it’s worth, I’ll let you do the same and I won’t complain if I get splashed. Deal?

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