Understanding Culture — Key Features

Culture forms an integral part of all of our lives and can be both enriching and challenging. Yet it is often extremely elusive, with many different interpretations. Here we explain some key features that are particularly important for us as we live and work in diverse communities and engage in international projects or business.

Fundamentals about culture

Culture has been defined in many different ways. In our experience, the following are some key points:

  • We develop cultural patterns through all of our experiences of life;
  • We belong to different social groups and so we develop multiple cultural patterns;
  • Our cultural patterns affect both our behaviour and our interpretations of other people’s behaviour.

Understanding culture and ‘them and us’ distinctions

Core to the concept of culture is the notion of social groups. We are born into certain social groups (e.g. family, nation) and these typically expand in number as we grow from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. As we spend time with members of our social groups (e.g. our families, teachers and students at school, colleagues at work, fellow believers of our faith), watch television and engage with the media, we gradually develop ways of thinking and patterns of behaviour that are widely shared with those with whom we mix. The social psychologist, Professor Shalom Schwartz, calls this experiencing ‘the press of culture’.

These social group memberships give us a sense of belonging – something that is crucial to our mental well-being. However, it also has a downside – it leads us to make ‘them and us’ distinctions. We easily start favouring our own group (known as the ingroup) and may start assuming (often sub-consciously) that members of other groups (known as the outgroup) are not as ‘good’ as ‘us’. In other words, we may regard them as less polite, less capable, less honest, less law-abiding etc. than ‘us’. Such attitudes commonly affect people’s beliefs about resources – members often want to keep scarce resources (e.g. jobs, welfare) for their own groups and to ‘keep others out’ (hence many people’s opposition to immigration). This has been demonstrated very vividly in the 2020-2021 Covid-19 pandemic through the threat of ‘vaccine nationalism’.

The challenge here is that a sense of group belonging forms a vital component of our personal and social identities and hence of our well-being. At the same time, negative evaluations of members of other groups are usually unfounded and any perceived threats are typically exaggerated or non-existent. Similarly, it is often the case that our connections with others are so intertwined that we all sink or swim with each other’s success or failure.

Understanding culture and daily life

The ‘press of culture’ mentioned above not only affects our sense of belonging and ‘them and us’ tendencies, but also our daily life. A simple but helpful way of considering this is ‘the 3 Ps of culture’.

ProductsThe objects and artifacts that are widely owned or used by members of a social group; e.g. implements for eating food (chopsticks/knife and fork) and the style of clothes we wear.
PracticesWays of doing things that are widely accepted and carried out by members of a social group; e.g. ways of greeting people and rituals associated with weddings or funerals.
PrinciplesUnderlying values, perspectives or principles that influence our behaviour and the judgements we make; e.g. our attitudes to hierarchy and our beliefs about care for the environment.

Cultural products are the most visible and noticeable reflections of culture. However, we don’t always know the ‘meaning’ behind them. For example, if we have no religious faith, we may have difficulty interpreting what different forms of dress mean for the individuals concerned.

Products are also interconnected with cultural practices. For example, there are common ways (i.e. practices) for holding and using a knife and fork. If we use them in an unexpected way, others may notice and feel surprised. They may even form a negative opinion of us, especially if they hold traditional etiquette values.

This brings us to the third P of culture — underlying cultural principles. Our behaviour is often influenced by fundamental values, beliefs, and principles of life. For example, we may simply assume that men and women should be treated equally, so if we find members of another group promote gender segregation, we may likely feel that this is ‘wrong’.

This leads us to a key point — how we judge others.

Understanding culture and judgement of others

Our personal experiences of the ‘press of culture’ give rise to expectations, especially of how others will behave. If those expectations are breached in some way, we automatically tend to notice it and this triggers a judgement. Yet our judgements may be ‘unfair’, insofar as the criteria we use may differ. We explore this more fully in our Insight Report ‘Building rapport – the impact of culture’.

For reflection: The diagram below summarises the elements of culture explained in this Insight Report. Key points to reflect on are:

  • What ‘them and us’ distinctions have you noticed in the media or in your own life recently? How ‘fair’ have they been?
  • Think of a recent occasion when someone reacted negatively to something you did or said. Why do you think they reacted as they did? How did you feel?
  • How do these issues affect you at work or in your personal/social life?

To learn more about finding your way through the maze of culture, and how it affects communcation, relations and so on, get in touch with us.

Professor Helen Spencer-Oatey, Director