What is Culture?

02 Culture

What is Culture?

Recognize How Culture Influences Interactions
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Introduction

Learning about another culture can be an infinite journey. You can’t hope to know everything—as culture is constantly evolving and changing due to the impact of current events, environmental factors, and the people themselves.

When you first arrive in a new location it may be difficult to interact with people due to language barriers or unfamiliar customs, but you can begin learning how to effectively communicate through observing your surroundings, consuming the local media, and asking for help or advice from those around you. Over time and through practice, you will gain a deeper understanding of the host culture and be able to interact more freely and confidently.

Before you can communicate effectively and handle difficult questions while traveling abroad, you have to first understand the concept of culture, the ways in which cultures vary, and the basic precepts and perceptions of U.S. culture.

In order to help you develop that understanding, we’ll start by considering what defines culture, then we’ll explore how understanding your own culture can provide insight into how you are perceived by others, and finally we’ll move through what you need to know about culture.

What is Culture?

Transcript
Video Transcript
Interviewee 1
For many, culture would mean that you belong to a group, an ethnic group, or that you belong to a certain place. But in this globalized world, culture I think is sometimes a synonym of identity. In this modern world, I think it’s more about being connected and it’s more about learning about other cultures so that your background can be enriched and your background can be wider.
Interviewee 2
To me culture is looking at the world from different angles. So, people from different countries look at the same world from different sides. And, I think the more they are exposed to these angles, the better they understand each other.
Interviewee 3
When I think about culture, I like to think about the golden rule and treating people and respecting people the way they want to be treated, but also going further to say that I believe culture is about understanding and appreciating people and their backgrounds.
Interviewee 4
Culture to me is arguably the most crucial part of an identity, because it’s so incredibly linked to a heritage to an upbringing and to an experience as a human. It pertains to every day, every decision that a human makes.
It comes as no surprise that people around the world vary tremendously—in physical appearance, customs, languages, values, and beliefs.
The people in this video are defined at least partially by the elements within their culture that they hold dear. Elements of culture inform individual perspectives, but they also show similarities among groups of people.

Here’s one general definition of culture:

A collection of knowledge, experience, beliefs, values, attitudes, meanings, behaviors, rituals, and religions, of a certain group.

These things all serve to identify culture. Taken together, they act like a uniform of sorts—they’re what individuals “wear” to show where they belong.

In everyday language, there are other ways to define culture. One way is “culture is the way we do things around here,” or our unique way of being.

Culture and Food
French crepes, Polish pierogies, Chinese egg rolls, and a Mexican enchilada
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Culture is Like an Iceberg

With an iceberg you can only see what’s above the waterline, which is a small fraction of its total mass.

Culture operates similarly—you can only see what is on the surface.

However, there is so much more below the surface that you can’t see. Relying on the exterior elements of culture as your guide limits your understanding.

See what’s beneath the surface.
The unseen aspects of culture are beneath the surface. They represent that culture’s values and beliefs.

Values and beliefs are extremely wide ranging and complex and though they are unseen, they greatly affect how people think, act, and feel.

Words appearing above water line
Food
Fashion
Music
Art
Holiday Customs
Words appearing below water line
Social etiquette
Work ethic
Concept of beauty
Notions of modesty
Concept of self
General world view
Iceberg
When communicating with someone from a different cultural background it’s helpful to know which aspects of his or her culture you can see and which are likely hiding beneath the surface. You can use this knowledge to help tailor your responses to difficult questions.

Culture Beneath the Surface

Let’s take things a bit further and observe a conversation. See if you can pick up on the cultural implications of what these two people are saying to each other. It can be easy to take things the wrong way.

Transcript
Video Transcript
Corina
Hello Michael, how was your holiday?
Michael
It was great! Thanks for asking Corina. It’s always good to be with family and friends.
Corina
Oh, that’s nice. You look good, you’ve gained some weight.
Michael
Oh, uh, thanks. It’s hard to avoid my grandmother’s home cooking.
Narrator
What just happened here?

On the surface, that may have seemed like an normal exchange, but it seemed to upset Michael.

Have you experienced something like this yourself?

What Happened?

Let’s revisit the iceberg comparison again to further explore the exchange. In some cases, a conversation taking place between people from different cultures can seem like two icebergs colliding.

Above the surface, it is obvious to see where the exchange took a wrong turn.
Michael is offended by comments on weight/appearance.
Michael and his perception depicted by an iceberg with a small portion above the waterline and much larger submerged portion
This can be perceived as an attack on identity. In his culture, “thin is good.”
Icebergs colliding
For Corina, commenting on someone’s weight is normal and accepted.
Corina and her perception depicted by an iceberg with a small portion above the waterline and much larger submerged portion
These comments speak to an underlying family value, “well fed is healthy.”
Below the surface is where the real cultural clash takes place.

In this example, unseen cultural differences regarding rules of social etiquette and family values, specifically commenting on someone’s weight, have offended Michael.

Michael, an American, considers commenting on someone’s weight gain to be inappropriate. While in Corina's culture, telling someone they have gained weight can actually be a compliment, meaning they look healthy and well-fed.

Dimensions of Culture

In keeping with the seen and unseen cultural aspects of the iceberg, there are many components of culture that are commonly referred to as dimensions. Further exploring the dimensions of culture helps to define what a culture believes and what guides its people—including the cultural norms that affect day-to-day interactions. These dimensions are the foundations of culture, and understanding them will help you navigate conversations and influence how you respond to difficult questions.

Each dimension is defined by two opposing poles and each culture falls at some point along the spectrum between those two poles. If you’re able to map the culture you are encountering across a number of dimensions, you can obtain a more complete picture of that culture and communicate more effectively.

Let’s explore four of the most influential dimensions.

Select each of the following buttons for more information.

PDF icon View a PDF on more Dimensions of Culture.

Practice: Dimensions

Read the statement and then decide where you think the statement falls on the continuum.
“We are so informal in the workplace. We’re comfortable talking with our superiors and even disagreeing with them at times.”
Egalitarianism
Hierarchy
“When it comes to feedback, it is normal to not get a ‘straight answer.’ We tend to avoid harshly criticizing each other’s ideas and may only hint at problems.”
Direct
Indirect
“I usually listen to the advice of my family and close friends when I need to make an important decision.”
Individualism
Collectivism
“Time for me depends on the situation. I’m on time for a meeting with my manager, of course, but if I’m late to dinner with my friends it’s not a problem.”
Monochronic
Polychronic

Culture and Food

Another way to define culture is by looking at how each group solves the tasks of everyday life, such as cooking dinner. For example, many cultures wrap small bits of food in dough and cook them. These become French crêpes, Chinese egg rolls, Polish pierogies, and Mexican enchiladas.
French crepes, Polish pierogies, Chinese egg rolls, and a Mexican enchilada
Egalitarianism
Hierarchy
Egalitarian cultures believe all people are equal and have equal rights and responsibilities. There is an expectation of equal treatment under the law and for equal opportunities to participate.
Countries with strong egalitarianism:
United States of America, Denmark, Finland
How does this play out?
  • Employees are self-directed and are encouraged to take initiative.
  • Information tends to flow up and down.
  • Discussion and debate lead to decision making.
  • First names are used early in interactions.
  • Protocols are more informal and relaxed.
In hierarchical cultures there is an acceptance and expectation that different people have different levels of power and deserve different treatment. This leads to preferential treatment for certain people.
Countries with strong hierarchy:
China, India, Nigeria
How does this play out?
  • Employees await direction from their superiors and stay within behavioral norms.
  • Information tends to flow from the top down.
  • Managers make decisions and expect them to be carried out without too much discussion.
  • Titles and last names are used until the relationship has progressed.
  • Protocols are more formal and deferential.
Now, consider where you might fall on the spectrum. Select each dot to see examples.
Egalitarianism
1
Everyone is absolutely equal and should be treated as such.
2
With a few exceptions, everyone is basically equal.
3
People should be treated fairly but treatment may not be strictly equal.
4
In many cases, people will be treated according to their position and experience.
5
Different people usually deserve different treatment depending on their experience and position.
Hierarchy
Where did you fall?
Individualism
Collectivism
Individualist cultures have an “I” orientation. Individuals see themselves as independent with unique identities and personal goals and desires. Their personal needs come first.
Countries with strong individualism:
United States of America, United Kingdom, Canada
How does this play out?
  • Individuals define themselves by their profession and accomplishments.
  • They make decisions alone.
  • Career choices are individually determined.
  • Most children are encouraged to leave home after high school or university and live independently.
  • Competition to be the best in school, athletics, and work is encouraged.
Collectivist cultures have a “we” orientation. Individuals see themselves as part of a group and the needs of the group come before an individual’s goals and desires.
Countries with strong collectivism:
China, Brazil
How does this play out?
  • Individuals define themselves by the family, group, or tribe they belong to.
  • Decisions are made together or by superiors.
  • Career choices are based on what an individual’s family wants him or her to pursue.
  • Family members tend to live in extended households and children are expected to take care of their aging parents.
  • The ability to cooperate is highly valued.
Now, consider where you might fall on the spectrum. Select each dot to see examples.
Individualism
1
I identify as an individual and make my plans and decisions according to what is best for me.
2
It’s important for me to act on my own interests, but I sometimes consider the needs of my community, work group, or family.
3
I generally balance my identity as an individual with my loyalty to my community.
4
It’s important for me to be valued by my group, but sometimes I do things in my own self-interest.
5
I see myself as a member of a group and they help me make my plans and decisions according to communal interests.
Collectivism
Where did you fall?
Direct
Indirect
Direct cultures convey information explicitly through descriptions and facts. Language is a tool to share information and accomplish tasks. Feedback and debate are encouraged.
Countries with strong direct communication:
United States of America, Germany, Russia
How does this play out?
  • People feel free to express their opinion and to disagree.
  • Both honest and direct feedback is given.
  • There is less effort on “saving face” and more on accomplishing the task.
  • More emphasis is placed on concrete data.
Indirect cultures convey information implicitly through inferences and connections. Language creates meaning and strengthens relationships. Feedback is softened and conflict is avoided.
Countries with strong indirect communication:
Japan, Pakistan
How does this play out?
  • People express their opinion and disagree only with those whom they trust.
  • Constructive feedback is given indirectly and sparingly.
  • There is great concern for “saving face” and maintaining harmony.
  • Context and circumstances greatly influence the conversation.
Now, consider where you might fall on the spectrum. Select each dot to see examples.
Direct
1
I always speak frankly and share my observations even if it creates discomfort for some people.
2
I speak openly and honestly while taking care not to offend or hurt anyone.
3
I adjust my speaking style depending on my audience: I’m more frank with some and more guarded with others.
4
I moderate my comments to avoid creating embarrassment or conflict.
5
I am always careful to minimize my criticism or complaints to maintain harmony and avoid conflict.
Indirect
Where did you fall?
Monochronic
Polychronic
In monochronic cultures, time is precise, fixed, and scarce. People prefer to work in a linear and sequential fashion. “Time is money.”
Monochronic countries:
United States of America, Germany, Japan
How does this play out?
  • Punctuality and timeliness are valued and being late is disrespectful.
  • Others adhere to schedules and appointments regardless of the people involved.
  • Tasks and deadlines often take precedence over relationships.
  • People prefer to do one thing at a time.
In polychronic cultures, time is estimated, fluid, and abundant. Time and tasks may flow in multiple directions simultaneously.
Polychronic countries:
Italy, Saudi Arabia, Ghana
How does this play out?
  • Punctuality is a goal to be attained. Being late may be excused.
  • People adhere to schedules and appointments regardless of who is involved.
  • Attention to a relationship may divert focus from a task.
  • People move easily among many tasks.
Now, consider where you might fall on the spectrum. Select each dot to see examples.
Monochronic
1
I am a very punctual person; I don’t like to be late so I adhere to schedules.
2
I’m mostly on time for personal and professional events, give or take 5 or 10 minutes.
3
I make some effort to be on time because I should and it’s important to others.
4
I’m not that concerned about being on time.
5
My sense of time is very flexible and I’m rarely on time or on schedule.
Polychronic
Where did you fall?

About this Resource

Representing the United States—and Americans—while living and working abroad is an honor and privilege. At the same time, it can be overwhelming and intimidating to answer questions on behalf of a nation and its people, especially considering the diversity of the American experience. Every American living or working abroad needs the skills and confidence to answer difficult questions politely and substantively, while at the same time respecting the many cultural realities of all interpersonal encounters.

This interactive resource, So You’re an American? A Guide to Answering Difficult Questions Abroad, is designed to build skills and confidence in responding to difficult questions about culture and nationality. Specifically, this resource focuses on handling everyday inquiries from curious folks around the globe. Have you ever jumped in a taxi and been confronted with “Why do Americans love their guns so much?” or some such question mired in history, culture, and values? Or, have you been at a local market trying to purchase a gift and been surprised that what should have been a 10 minute encounter has turned into a 45 minute ritual of tea, presentation of goods, and detailed explanations of the craftsman’s process?

So You’re an American? A Guide to Answering Difficult Questions Abroad is an online resource created by the Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute for all Americans living and working abroad who are eager to prepare for the many informal and unofficial questions they will receive while overseas. Throughout this resource, you will explore cross-cultural communication techniques as well as various aspects of culture through self-paced activities, videos, and simulations. Participants will develop confidence in their ability to navigate difficult questions and conversations, including knowing how to disengage appropriately. This resource limits its scope to non-foreign policy questions, as those demand answers from official sources.