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What is Culture?

In Teaching Cross-Culturally, Judith and Sherwood Lingfelter share their knowledge about what teachers can do to become more effective at reaching and teaching people from diverse backgrounds.  Their primary claim is that to be an effective teacher, one must become aware of one's own cultural values, and also understand how those values might cause conflict in other cultures.  Only after one has become clear about their own biases and expectations can they begin their journey toward effectiveness as a teacher.

If culture is so important to reaching and teaching others, what exactly is culture? Culture is an agricultural word that comes from the Latin verb, colere, which means “to tend, guard, cultivate, or till.” In most Western languages, culture commonly refers to one’s cultivation or refinement through formal education. So, in most Western countries, when we say someone is “cultured,” we are usually referring to someone who has an informed love for the music, poetry, wine, museums, and literature. This is culture in the most superficial sense of the word.

Culture, in the broader sense, refers to the taken for granted patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving. Let us unpack that definition a little.

Culture is patterned.  There are patterns, or rituals, of thinking, feeling, and behaving that get repeated over and over again. How close should we stand to others? What should we eat? What should we not eat? Who should we be friends with? Who is not like us? When we greet each other, should we shake hands, hug, fist bump, nod our heads, say something, kiss, or bow?  When we talk to one another, should we maintain eye contact, or avoid it? What about when we are talking to members of the opposite sex? How should we greet them? All these patterns give us glimpses of culture.

Furthermore, those patterns fit into a bigger historical, economic, political, and religious context. We are not a junkyard of history, but really a product of it.  So, when it comes to thinking about culture, one question to ask yourself could be, “what is the nature of the order that is here?” Your answer might reveal some of the patterns of your culture. 

Culture is learned. Our patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving are not inherited genetically, but they are learned.  Human beings are curiously unfinished at birth, and socialization is a part of how we learn culture.

Culture is shared. Culture is not only learned, but it is also shared with other people.  Culture is learned, but it is learned by virtue of you and I being part of a community that shares that learning.  It is a collective phenomenon because it is at least shared with people who live or lived within the same social context.   In that sense, culture is a collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another. 

Another interesting thing that is important to understand about culture is that you may not always see culture, but you will feel the consequences of it if you break one of its rules.  There are informal positive and negative sanctions in every culture, and if you do something that is frowned upon, then you will be punished.  If you do something that is desired, then you will be rewarded.  Culture, then, being a shared phenomenon, works to bring one into line.  It works to make one socially acceptable among a specific group of people.