What is Culture?

If a stranger came up to you and asked about your culture, what would you say? If you don’t have an immediate response, think about this academic (i.e., long) definition of culture, “the behavior, values, beliefs, language, traits, and products shared by and associated with a group of people, which are passed from one generation to the next.”[1] A simpler definition of culture is a “framework that guides and binds your life practices.”[2]

I like to think of culture as a pair of glasses. These glasses influence the way you see the world but they don’t come off. They frame your perspective, impact the way you interact with others, and they were given to you from your parents and possibly your grandparents.

Depending on your cultural background, this may be the first time you have thought about your culture. Congratulations! Thinking about and becoming aware of your own culture is a very important first step in developing cultural awareness and cultural competence. It is often an overlooked and ignored step, but it is important not to rush it.

In my experience, when I ask people to describe their culture, I often see a lot of blank stares. I recognize that the question makes some people feel uncomfortable. Some people are confused. Eventually, a brave soul will say, “I don’t think I have any culture.”

Is this what you are thinking? This is a pretty common response, especially if you are white, male, straight, and/or middle class. It tends to be more difficult for people to see their culture if they are part of the majority culture. It’s like asking a fish to describe water. It’s perfectly okay if you have trouble identifying your culture. But it doesn’t mean you don’t have culture.

To help get you started, I will share five cultural factors that shape the way I see the world: my skin color, social class, gender, sexual orientation, and age. There are many other cultural factors and I challenge you to think beyond the obvious ones I listed. This is only a starting point.

Take a moment and jot down the cultural dimensions or experiences that come to mind. Ask yourself how other people might describe your culture. Take time to reflect and eventually come back to your list. There are no wrong answers. Remember, we are talking about the things that have influenced the way you see the world; those factors that have helped direct and guide your life choices.

In my next post, I will share a list of different dimensions of culture that people have identified over the years. I would love to see your list. Until then, keep asking yourself, what is your culture?

[1] York, S. (2016). Roots and wings. Affirming culture in early childhood programs. St. Paul: Redleaf Press.

[2] Lynch, E.W., & Hanson, M.J. (2011). Developing cross-cultural competence: A guide for working with young children and their families, Fourth Edition. Baltimore, MD: P.H. Brookes.