People of the same culture share a group identity that is fostered by social patterns unique to the group. Culture encompasses for example values, beliefs, symbols, norms, and patterns of behavior. It has a far-reaching impact on our everyday actions, on how we talk and think, what we wear, what we believe, how we sit at the table, and how we behave among other people. But what is the importance of culture in our society? And which components constitute our conception of culture?
Components of culture
- Patterns of behavior
What defines culture?
All cultures are characterized by constant change. As a dynamic phenomenon, cultures are under constant change and they must adapt to environmental changes. This is one of the universal features of a culture. After globalization, the world became more interconnected and today most societies consist of ethnically diverse populations. This has given rise to conflicts associated with ethnicity, religion, and ethical beliefs which are all central concepts in cultures. More than ever before, culture is no longer fixed but rather in constant motion. At a time when cultures adapt and become more fluid, a need has been identified to protect and preserve the past. There are organizations such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) whose objectives include conserving and protecting cultural and natural heritage along with the promotion of international cooperation, peace, and security.
To answer the question about the importance of culture, one has to consider its role in people’s everyday lives. Because culture affects how people behave and interact with each other, it helps you build relationships with others when you understand other cultures and perspectives. It’s also good to understand how much in common we have with other people even if at first glance their cultures might seem completely different. We are all humans and have similar needs, hopes, fears, and things that make us happy. It doesn’t mean, however, that our cultural differences don’t matter at all. A better strategy is to acknowledge that differences exist and to fight against discrimination. The world is becoming more and more diverse as different languages, religions, economic and cultural groups blend together. We need to appreciate and understand different cultures and establish relationships with people from other backgrounds. This is the only
way to build successful communities, improve our living conditions, and solve problems.
If we take a closer look at the characteristics of culture, we can identify five basic traits that define the concept of culture.
Five characteristics of culture
- Based on symbols
Culture is learned
Culture is learned because it’s not biological or ingrained in our DNA. Children don’t inherit culture from their parents. Instead, they learn it and much of this learning occurs subconsciously without us paying any attention to it. We learn our culture not only from our families but also from institutions, other people, and the media. This process of learning is called enculturation. All humans share the same biological needs, for example, food, water, sleep, shelter, and sex, but the way we choose to fulfill those needs varies across cultures.
Culture is shared because we share our culture with other members of our group. We know how to interact with these other members and we can predict their behavior based on our knowledge and expectations. The shared nature of culture doesn’t mean, however, that cultures are homogenous.
Culture is integrated
Because the various parts of a culture are interconnected, culture is also integrated. All components of culture are connected to one another and to gain a comprehensive understanding of a culture, one must learn about these different components.
Culture is dynamic
Culture is dynamic because cultures interact with each other. Cultures share ideas and symbols and they adapt to changes in the environment. Since cultures are also integrated, it means that if one component of a culture changes, it will affect all the other components, too, forcing the entire system to adapt.
Culture is based on symbols
Symbols are an integral part of every culture and they vary across different cultures. Cultures not only use symbols but they are also based on them. Symbols get their meaning when people in the same culture agree on how they should be used. Language is the most obvious example of the use of symbols within a culture but other things such as art, clothing, and money can also be defined as symbols.
It should also be pointed out that not all cultural adaptation is positive. Not all cultural practices are adaptive, and there are many examples of cultural adaptation that have been detrimental such as fast food, pollution, and climate change. But due to their dynamic nature, cultures have the ability to adapt and find solutions to these problems.
How does geography affect culture?
What influences our cultures then? One of the most profound of these factors is geography. The development of a culture is largely dependent on its geographical location. For example, locations that are ideal for hunting influence that culture by encouraging people to teach their descendants to hunt, tell hunting stories, and organize ceremonies that celebrate hunting skills. A factor such as hunting can thus become a defining characteristic of that culture. Another good example is the Japanese culture which relies heavily on the attribute of water. The fact that Japan is an island surrounded by water has influenced its culture from its creation myth to natural resources such as fish and growing of rice. Even more so, Japan as an island has historically been limited because of its geography, and this has given rise to art forms such as haiku poems and bonsai trees which are characterized by their limitations. Geography affects cultures from the number of languages spoken in a given area to the clothes people wear, their political ideas, and even religions. For example, on the island of Guinea, people speak more than 800 languages. This is because New Guinea is mountainous and it’s difficult for people from one area to come into contact with people from other areas. These different groups, therefore, learned to keep to themselves and developed their own languages. Culture also has its impact on the clothes that people wear, and this has historically been determined by geography, too. People in the Arctic whose culture relies on hunting whales and seals wear several layers of warm clothes, usually manufactured from animal skin. In contrast, tribes in the rainforests wear very little clothing and their economies are centered around plant life. In terms of government and religion, the ancient Greeks, for example, developed a political culture centered around city-states because their geography was mountainous and it was thus difficult for large kingdoms to arise. The Mesopotamian and Egyptian religions, on the other hand, differed in the fact that Mesopotamian gods were considered less kind than the Egyptian gods. This is believed to be the result of unpredictable floods in the Mesopotamian rivers and rather consistent and predictable floods in the Nile.
How does culture affect business?
When looking at modern cultures, we can see the many effects that cultures have, for example, on business. During a business meeting where people from different cultures are communicating with one another, cultural differences have to be taken into account. There is more than merely a language barrier that needs to be overcome. These differences can concern people’s sensitivity to time, the way of communicating, risk-taking, decision-making, and thinking of others, all of which need to be addressed. Cultural differences can often impact the success or failure of multicultural business negotiations. When segmenting target groups for a product or service, businesses have to spend time on examining the cultural expectations and values of different groups. Culture influences people’s tastes and preferences, and the same strategies will not work for all audiences. Americans, for example, have very different expectations from advertising and marketing than Asian consumers. Business owners must account for differences throughout the product’s life cycle, from its design to marketing and beyond.
Culture affects our every facet of life. Most societies these days have become multicultural as more and more people migrate across countries and continents. We live around, socialize and work with people from different cultural backgrounds and different parts of the world. While their values and beliefs might be different from ours, we should accept these differences and broaden our own views in order to attain harmony in these culturally diverse environments. We should acknowledge the importance of culture in communication and in contributing to our identity and sense of belonging as part of a social group. Culture can be seen as a uniting force that is part of our daily lives and an integral part of our being, defining the way we treat other people and ourselves.
- Caplan, L. (2018): “What Factors Influence Culture? What are the Characteristics of Culture?” eNotes. https://www.enotes.com/homework-help/what-factors-influence-culture-98429
- Community Tool Box (2018): “Understanding Culture and Diversity in Building Communities.” The University of Kansas. https://ctb.ku.edu/en/table-of-contents/culture/cultural-competence/culture-and-diversity/main
- eNotes (2015): “How Does Geography Affect Culture?” https://www.enotes.com/homework-help/how-does-geography-affect-culture-474205
- Nowaczyk, J., (2018): “The Five Basic Characteristics of Cultures.” Study.com https://study.com/academy/lesson/the-five-basic-characteristics-of-cultures.html
- OpinionFront (2018): “Why is Culture Important and How Does it Influence People?” https://opinionfront.com/why-is-culture-important
- Oxford Dictionaries (2019): “Definition of Culture.” Oxford University Press. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/culture
- Zimmermann, K. A. (2012): “What is Culture.” Live Science. https://www.livescience.com/21478-what-is-culture-definition-of-culture.html